Tag Archives: Richard Feynman

Open Up Your Mind and Let Your Brain Shut Off

Sharon_hill_80pxBy via The Huffington Post

People tell me I should be more open-minded.

There is a clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”.

This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s well worth remembering as a rule of thumb.

Because I peruse paranormal-themed sites and various “water-cooler” forums on the web, I frequently see ideas thrown out there that would qualify as amazing and paradigm-shifting. So, what do I think about this latest crazy thing, people ask?

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The Starchild skull.

Here’s a recent example. With all the recent speculation about “alien” remains, someone on Facebook mentioned Lloyd Pye who contends (for almost 15 years now) that a curiously-shaped skull he has is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promotes the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings.

The plausibility of this idea is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be stupid. Thus, to consider such an idea takes me about a minute before I realize that would be unreasonable. It’s an imaginative idea, just like mermaids and remote viewing and time travelers. But in order to accept it, I’d have to discard too much (e.g., my brain and society’s accumulated knowledge). The evidence clearly suggests another more down-to-earth explanation. Since the skull DNA tested as human, and we know that certain genetic conditions can cause the enlargement of the skull in just this way, I’m going to accept the obvious and not some far-fetched story just for kicks.

Calling skeptics closed-minded because we discard wacky ideas is a common ploy. It’s often used as a personal insult because the skeptic has rejected a baseless idea that the promoters fancy. When you don’t have evidence to support your idea, observe that the proponent resorts to derogatory tactics.

But all ideas are not equal. Not all ideas are worthy of consideration.

“But all ideas are not equal. Not all ideas are worthy of consideration.”

It’s not about actually being open-minded towards new ideas. Instead, the proponent is accusing the skeptic of being stubborn, undemocratic and unfair. They see it as the skeptical person, being overly rational, ignoring a possibly worthwhile option to be considered. But all ideas are not equal. Not all ideas are worthy of consideration.

Let’s take another example: energy healing. I should be open-minded, reiki practitioners say, and try these forms of energy medicine where healing energy gets channeled or manipulated for better health. If someone offers these treatments to me and I just say “OK! Sounds good!” (and hand over my money) is that actually being open-minded? No. It’s swallowing what I’m being fed without a thought. The same would apply to . . .

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Energy Medicine – Noise-Based Pseudoscience

by via Science-Based Medicine

energyhealingSo-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is largely philosophy-based medicine rather than science based. There are a few core concepts that are endlessly recycled in various forms, but it is mythology and culture, not grounded in the rigorous methods of science that allow us to tell the difference between our satisfying fantasies and hard reality. Sometimes proponents of such philosophies try to cloak their beliefs in the appearance of science, resulting in what we simply call pseudoscience.

Harriet Hall coined an excellent term to refer to such pseudoscience –” Tooth Fairy science.” In her metaphor, pseudoscientists sometimes act like scientists by describing the details and statistics of their claimed phenomenon (such as examining all the details of the Tooth Fairy phenomenon) without ever testing the reality of the phenomenon itself. The fundamental concept at the core of their belief is never challenged, or only superficially so, and they proceed prematurely from their faulty premise.

Another term that I find extremely apt is “Cargo Cult science,” a term coined by Richard Feynman. This is a reference to the cargo cults of New Guinea – the pre-industrial tribes were observed building straw mock-ups of control towers, planes, and runways in hopes that the planes they observed flying over head would deliver their cargo to them. In other words – the cargo cults mimicked the superficial appearance of an aviation infrastructure but had none of the real essence or function (because of lack of understanding). This is a perfect analogy to much of what passes for science within the world of CAM.

reiki-hand_200pxNot that we need another analogy, but I have often described such pseudoscience as being lost in the noise. In any endeavor to detect something there is the issue of the signal to noise ratio.  Often the core challenge of scientific research is pulling the signal out from the background noise, or (more to the point) deciding if there is a signal in the noise, or if the information represents pure noise. In this analogy “noise” refers to any randomness in the data or interference from effects other than the alleged signal of interest. What I find is that pseudoscientific investigations of tooth fairy phenomena are completely lost in the noise of data, seeing whatever phantom “signals” support their philosophy. Elaborate but entirely illusory constructs are often crafted (or retrofitted to) these phantom signals.

Energy medicine is a perfect example of cargo-cult, Tooth Fairy, noise-based pseudoscience.

Energy medicine began its life as a philosophy-based notion, and is still philosophy-based, but many of its modern practitioners are desperate for the respectability that science has to offer. Some have therefore erected a pseudoscientific facade for this pre-scientific superstition.

One example I was recently asked to investigate is the Heartmath institute., which promotes an energy-medicine based claim that the heart sends out “energy” waves that regulate the body, including the brain.

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Uri Geller

via The Skeptic’s Dictionary – Skepdic.com

“If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he’s doing it the hard way.”James Randi

“Because a good magician can do something shouldn’t make you right away jump to the conclusion that it’s a real phenomenon.” —Richard Feynman

“Geller is at his ingenious best in laboratories where he is being observed by scientists who believe he has extraordinary ESP ability and think—without justification—that they have ruled out every possibility of fraud.” —Milbourne Christopher

geller

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Uri Geller is most famous for his claim to be able to bend spoons and keys with his mind. An international star in the psychic circuit, Geller is a Hungarian/Austrian who was born in Israel and lives in England. He claims he’s had visions for many years and may get his powers from extraterrestrials. He calls himself a psychic and has sued several people for millions of dollars for saying otherwise. His psychic powers were not sufficient to reveal to him, however, that he would lose all the lawsuits against his critics. His arch critic has been James “The Amazing” Randi, who has written a book and numerous articles aimed at demonstrating that Geller is a fraud, that he has no psychic powers, and that what Geller does amounts to no more than the parlor tricks of a conjurer.

Geller has been performing for many years. The first time I saw him was in 1973 when he appeared on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. He was supposed to demonstrate his ability to bend spoons with his thoughts and identify hidden objects, but he failed to even try. He squirmed around and said something about how his power can’t be turned on and off, and that he didn’t feel strong right then. Randi had worked with Carson’s producer to change the spoons and metal items Geller planned to use, as there was a suspicion that Geller likes to work (i.e., soften) his metals before his demonstrations, as would any careful conjurer.

View Geller’s Tonight Show lack of performance (courtesy of James Randi):


(video source)

I have always been fascinated and puzzled by the attraction of Uri Geller. I suppose this is because nearly every one of our household spoons is bent and what I would like to see is someone who can straighten them, with his mind or with anything for that matter. Likewise with stopped watches. I have several of those and I would love for someone to use his powers, psychic or otherwise, to make them start running again. Of course, even I can get my stopped watches to run again for a short while by shaking or tapping them, but a permanent fix would be appreciated. There is something mysterious, however, about a person who has built a career out of breaking things.

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