Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi
Original broadcast: October 19, 1993
Description via PBS.org:
Can psychics predict the future? Many people seem to think so. Others argue that, in most cases, so-called psychic experiences are really misinterpretations of events. In this episode of NOVA, magician and confirmed skeptic James Randi challenges viewers to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of psychic phenomena.
Randi argues that successful psychics depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe that what they see is the result of psychic powers. The program highlights some of the methods and processes he uses to examine psychics’ claims. Using his own expertise in creating deception and illusion, Randi challenges specific psychics’ claims by duplicating their performances and “feats,” or by applying scientific methods. His goal is to eliminate all possible alternative explanations for the psychic phenomena. He also looks for evidence that they are not merely coincidental. His arguments can motivate your class to discuss the differences between psychic performances and legitimate cases of unexplained phenomena.
Deepak Chopra apparently has no love for organized skepticism. This is not surprising and his particular brand of spiritual pseudoscience has been a favorite target of skeptical analysis. He is also not the only one who has decided to fight back against the skeptics – if you cannot defend yourself against legitimate criticism, then shoot the messenger.
In a recent article Chopra renews his attack against what he calls “militant skepticism.” This is a blatant attempt, of course, to portray skeptics as extremist and on the fringe, a strategy that has been used against “militant atheists.” Chopra also uses his article to conflate skepticism with atheism, almost as if he is completely unaware of the internal discourse that has been taking place for decades within the skeptical movement.
The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.
This is an interesting bit of historical revisionism, although I think it probably just reflects Chopra’s complete unfamiliarity with his subject matter. The modern skeptical movement predates Dawkins by decades. We have had a clear philosophy and scope long before Dawkins appeared on the scene.
Dawkins is a highly respected figure among skeptics because of his powerful writing, his popularizing of science, and his unflinching criticism of pseudoscience. Most skeptics are atheists, and we also respect his defending science from the intrusion of religion and spirituality.
Where many skeptics, myself included, disagree with Dawkins is precisely in treating “the God hypothesis” as if it were only a scientific question. I say “only” because certainly it is possible to treat any supernatural hypothesis as if it were in the realm of methodological naturalism, and there is general agreement among skeptics when approached in this way the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no credible evidence to support the conclusion that any god exists, or that the laws of the material universe need to be extended to account for any alleged supernatural phenomena. If you frame God as a scientific hypothesis, it can be scientifically refuted. Looked at another way, the psychocultural hypothesis is a far better and more parsimonious explanation for belief in God than the actual existence of such a being.
The big “but” is that not everyone believes in God as a scientific fact. Some people choose to have faith in an unfalsifiable god, one that resides outside the realm of science. Once someone’s faith has retreated outside the realm of science, then science is no longer the tool by which one should address such faith. Logic and philosophy are now more appropriate, but you cannot say, by definition, that an unfalsifiable God can be scientifically proven to not exist.
- Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses (theness.com)
- Shermer and Harris pwn Chopra at Caltech (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Richard Dawkins en México – Live Stream Nov 9th (secularnewsdaily.com)
- Is Science Broken?|Steven Novella|Neurologica (theness.com)
- Scientific Skeptic (evangablog.wordpress.com)
- Richard Dawkins en México – Live Stream Nov 9th (richarddawkins.net)
- Shermer and Harris pwn Chopra at Caltech (uglicoyote.wordpress.com)
Defend the Woo
1 – Learn a bunch of scientific terms. You don’t have to know what they mean–it kinda helps if you don’t–just know what they are. When engaged in a debate, fling them around without remorse. Hopefully this will confuse or intimidate your opponent into submission. Good examples are “variables,” “controlled environment,” “toxicity,” “quantum,” “double blind placebo study.”
2 – Mention a bunch of unrelated phenomenon and act as if there is a correlation between them and the subject in question.
Post hoc is your friend, and correlation always equals causation.
3 – Graphs. Lots of graphs.
4 – Appeal to a scientific conspiracy while maintaining that you in fact love and understand science.
“My detailed knowledge, and love of science has made me recognize that all science is prejudiced, full of bias, and corrupted by special interest.”
5 – Is your hypothesis or positive claim lacking evidence? No worries, you can always pull the “not enough testing has been done” card. It isn’t your fault–science just hasn’t gotten around to discovering what you (the informed, internet-savvy investigator that you are) already know.
6 – Appeal to your own valor and rugged individualism.
You’re not going to let some troublesome “scientists” with “laboratories” and “peer-review” do your thinking for you. You are more than capable of “doing your own research.” Who the hell is anyone to tell you that you cannot probe data with the best of them? You think for yourself, after all. And you have a wireless internet connection.
Why do some people believe in pseudoscience?
It’s a question that I’m sure that many skeptics have asked when they encounter someone who believes in something that has been discredited for years (sometime centuries).
Doing a little bit of research into the subject, as well as a bit of thinking, I’ve come up with quite a few reasons why some people actually believe in pseudoscience.
11. It goes along with their beliefs.
Due to either religious or personal beliefs (or a combination of both) some people will believe in the pseudoscientific explanation for something, rather than the scientific explanation for something, if the pseudoscientific explanation goes along with their beliefs. Sometimes this will even go so far as to out right reject and ignore the scientific explanation, so long as the pseudoscientific explanation goes along with their beliefs, and the scientific explanation does not.
Examples of this would be people who have strong biblical beliefs rejecting the theory of evolution in place of intelligent design because intelligent design goes along with the creation story, or people who reject modern medicine in place of alternative medicine or believe in claims that vaccines cause autism because they believe pharmaceutical companies are evil, or people who believe that GMO foods are bad for you because they believe that organic foods are better for you and that GMO foods aren’t tested or regulated.
10. Real science can be difficult to understand.
I have to admit, there are some things in science that are just difficult to understand, and unless you already have a decent amount of knowledge about a certain scientific field, you probably aren’t going to understand whats going on if someone is discussing something about that scientific field.
Pseudoscience on the other hand is usually much easier to understand than real science, and because pseudoscience tends to be much easier to understand than real science, it can attract some people who have become frustrated with real science and their inability to understand it.
9. It sounds more awesome.
Besides being difficult to understand, science can also be boring to some people.
Because some people find the real scientific explanations to certain things to be boring and uninteresting, some people will go over to the pseudoscientific explanations, because it sounds a lot more exciting.
An example of this would be the explanation by ancient astronaut theorists that the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed by aliens using their advanced technology for reasons unknown. Sounds a lot more exciting than the actual scientific explanation in that it was a giant monument and tomb constructed over a 20 year period by thousands of people for some egotistical Pharaoh.
8. It sounds more logical.
For some people that don’t have a good understanding of both how science and logic works, a pseudoscientific explanation can actually sound a lot more logical than an actual scientific and/or logical explanation for certain things.
Lets take crop circles for example. Some people believe that crop circles are made by aliens as a way to send us a message. To some people this sounds more logical than the actual explanation of a bunch of pranksters getting together and creating these geometric shapes in wheat fields using rope and 2x4s.
7. It makes them feel smart.
Because real science can be hard to understand, it can make certain people feel dumb when they try to understand it and just can’t. On the other hand because many things in pseudoscience are easy for most people to understand, and because of the false assumption that it is real science, it can make people feel smart when they understand it.
Because of the fact that they can understand it (and because they feel that it makes them look smart because they understand it) they might be more inclined to believe in it.
The pragmatic fallacy is committed when one argues that something is true because it works and where ‘works’ means something like “I’m satisfied with it,” “I feel better,” “I find it beneficial, meaningful, or significant,” or “It explains things for me.” For example, many people claim that astrology works, acupuncture works, chiropractic works, homeopathy works, numerology works, palmistry works, therapeutic touch works. What ‘works’ means here is vague and ambiguous. At the least, it means that one perceives some practical benefit in believing that it is true, despite the fact that the utility of a belief is independent of its truth-value.
The pragmatic fallacy is common in “alternative” health claims and is often based on post hoc reasoning. For example, one has a sore back, wears the new magnetic or takionic belt, finds relief soon afterwards, and declares that the magic belt caused the pain to go away. How does one know this? Because it works! There is also some equivocation going on in the alternative health claims that fall under the heading of “energy medicine,” such as acupuncture and therapeutic touch. The evidence pointed to often uses ‘works’ in the sense of ‘the customer is satisfied’ or ‘the patient improves,’ but the conclusion drawn is that ‘chi was unblocked’ or ‘energy was transferred.’
There is a common retort to the skeptic who points out that customer satisfaction is irrelevant to whether the device, medicine, or therapy in question really is a significant causal factor in some outcome. Who cares why it works as long as it works? You can argue about the theory as to why it works, but you can’t argue about the customer satisfaction or the fact that measurable improvements can be made. That’s all that matters.
It isn’t all that matters. Testimonials are not a substitute for scientific studies, which are done to make sure that we are not deceiving ourselves about what appears to be true. It is especially necessary to . . .
- Integrated Medicine (illuminutti.com)
- The Unsinkable Rubber Duck Of Alternative Medicine (acneeinstein.com)
- The fallacy of the middle ground (ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com)
- The Curious Case of Correlation ≠ Causation (sensitivecontext.com)
- Logical Fallacies (gpissues.wordpress.com)
Science is great, one of the best processes humans have come up with. It has everything to do with how we live long, productive, healthy lives. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all method of how to solve every problem.
I am unabashedly a fan of science. I wholeheartedly recommend it. But lately I’ve been feeling a bit uneasy when science cheerleaders pronounce, “Science will solve everything!,” i.e., just apply science and all will be fixed. Because, SCIENCE! YAAAAYY.
I may get myself into trouble with this post, but as an advocate of science, I still say there is more to thinking and knowing than the scientific method. People who advocate fanatical reliance on science—where all competing methods of gaining knowledge are illegitimate—are practicing scientism.
Just Throw Science At It
The “just apply science” plan is an overly simplistic solution that not everyone will automatically buy into. There are other, also valid ways of evaluating problems. All the world’s problems cannot be solved by throwing science at it. At least not now (probably never).
Lately, this position has been disputed. There is an ongoing debate in the science/skeptical community regarding philosophy. Is it dead? Does science need it? How does it inform us (if at all)? Can we discuss morals via a scientific basis? You will see heated exchanges about these questions crop up in publications, blogs and in conference discussions. You will also see science placed above the fields of the humanities. Should it be? It’s worth thinking about. So I have been. I assume I’ll be thinking it through for a while because it’s weighty stuff. But, at some point, you have to stop collecting data and taking notes and finally write things down.
For a start, scientism has utility problems. If we need to justify everything with empirical evidence, and then justify that evidence with evidence, and so on, not only do we get bogged down in minutiae, we end up in a scientistic loop which we can’t resolve. There must be a point where we accept a premise as a given – that reality is real, that we aren’t being fooled by a devious creator. See this Peter S. Williams video.
“…it is tempting to infer that all phenomena―including human actions and interaction―can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.”
- There is more to thinking and knowing than the scientific method (venitism.blogspot.com)
In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:
…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.
He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations.
There is a lot going on in our brains that we’re not aware of. Subconscious brain mechanisms are like a gigantic committee. Everything from your DNA to your past experiences to your political leanings to your emotions is given a vote, and only the result is passed on to your conscious awareness. If all the raw input to the committee were accessible to consciousness, it would be too much information and would hopelessly impair our ability to act. For the mind to function, mental sensations have to override contradictory evidence to create certainty and motivation.
The brain tries to make our experiences meaningful by tricks like re-ordering the temporal sequence of events. When the batter swings, he thinks he is seeing the ball and then reacting; but he initiates his swing before he could possibly be consciously aware of the ball’s trajectory.
Our minds are not truly individual and independent.
- A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (sciencebasedmedicine.org)
- Energy Medicine – Noise-Based Pseudoscience (illuminutti.com)
- A closer look at vitamin injections (illuminutti.com)
- Will Humans Ever Understand Consciousness? Scientists and Philosophers Debate (livescience.com)
- You Are Not Your Brain (wikkorg.wordpress.com)
- The mind is caused by the brain. What is epiphenomenalism? (clearphilosophy.wordpress.com)
- Will We Ever Understand Consciousness? (zen-haven.com)
- The Mind vs. Brain Debate (What is Consciousness?) (philosophers-stone.co.uk)
- Think brain scans can reveal our innermost thoughts? Think again (guardian.co.uk)
- Science-Based Medicine Ebooks, Volumes 7-12 Now Available (randi.org)
Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice in which extremely dilute amounts of certain natural substances are used to treat various ailments.
Although homeopathic medicines are sold in health food stores and at high-end groceries, homeopathy is largely considered quackery. No scientific evidence supports its use; the theory of how homeopathy could work is beyond the realm of known physics; and governments worldwide are increasingly denying insurance payments to cover homeopathic treatment.
How homeopathy works
Homeopathy is based on rigorous dilutions and mixing, called successions. The dilution level is printed on the bottle of medicine. A typical homeopathic dilution is 30X, where the X represents 10. So, one part toxin (such as the aforementioned poison ivy) is mixed with 10 parts water or alcohol. The mix is shaken; one part of this mix is added to 10 parts of water or alcohol again; and the whole process is repeated 30 times.
The final dilution is one molecule of medicine in 10 to the 30th power (1030) of molecules of solution — or 1 in a million trillion trillion. At this dilution level you’d need to drink 8,000 gallons of water to get one molecule of the medicine — physically possible but implausible.
Other homeopathic solutions are 30C, which represents 100 to the 30th power (10030). There’s not enough water in the solar system to accommodate this dilution.
Hahnemann didn’t realize this because he developed his theory before the concept in chemistry of the mole and Avogadro constant, which defines the number of particles in any given amount of a substance. So, Hahnemann and his followers could do the mechanical actions of dilution, but unbeknownst to them, they were diluting the medicine right out of the solution.
Does homeopathy work?
Homeopathic practitioners today understand the concept of Avogadro constant. They attribute homeopathy’s healing powers to “water memory” — the concept that water has the ability to remember of shape of the medicine it once contained. There are, however, at least three problems with this stance.
First, this concept of water memory is beyond the realm of known physics. Water is not known to maintain an ordered alignment of molecules for much longer than a picosecond.
Second, if water can remember the shape of what’s in it, then all water has the potential to be homeopathic. Tap water, with its traces of natural substances sloshing about in pipes known to cause cancer and other diseases, would be therapeutic against these diseases.
Third, explanations of how it could work aside, there are no high-quality scientific studies to show that homeopathy is any more effective than a placebo. In testing homeopathy, two trends have emerged: Homeopathy is best at “curing” things that would soon pass anyway, such as colds, but would be dangerous for the treatment of serious ailments, such as diabetes; and the larger and more thorough the scientific study, the more homeopathy resembles a placebo.
Dangers of homeopathy
Don’t assume homeopathy, unregulated by the FDA, is safe. In some cases, the homeopathic medicine does contain traceable amounts of . . .
- What is Homeopathy? (livescience.com)
- Diluting the scientific method: Ars looks at homeopathy (again) (arstechnica.com)
- Homeopathy Dilliuted. (theportableatheist.wordpress.com)
- Can Homeopathy Be Both a Useless Placebo and Dangerous at the Same Time? (prn.fm)
- Homeopathy Under Attack in California (anh-usa.org)
- Homeopathy: It’s a mad mad mad NHS (doubtfulnews.com)
by Steven Novella via Skepticblog
Six years ago I was asked to participate in a group debate over the legitimacy of homeopathy at the University of CT (there were six speakers, three on each side). This year I was asked to participate in another homeopathy debate at UCONN, but this time one-on-one with Andre Saine ND from the Canadian Academy of Homeopathy taking the pro-homeopathy side. (I will provide a link when the video is posted online.)
While the basic facts of homeopathy have not changed in the past six years, the details and some of the specific arguments of the homeopaths have evolved, so it was good to get updated on what they are saying today. In this post I will discuss some overall patterns in the logic used to defend homeopathy and then discuss the debate over plausibility. In tomorrow’s post I will then discuss the clinical evidence, with some final overall analysis.
Believers and Skeptics
As with the last debate, the audience this time was packed with homeopaths and homeopathy proponents. When I was introduced as the president of the New England Skeptical Society, in fact, laughter erupted from the audience. But that’s alright – I like a challenge. It did not surprise me that the audience, and my opponent, were unfamiliar with basic skeptical principles. Andre, in fact, used the word “skeptic” as a pejorative throughout his presentation.
The difference in our two positions, in fact, can be summarized as follows: Andre Saine accepts a very low standard of scientific evidence (at least with homeopathy, but probably generally given that he is a naturopath), whereas I, skeptics, and the scientific community generally require a more rigorous standard.
The basic pattern of Andre’s talk was to quote from one of my articles on homeopathy declaring some negative statement about homeopathy, and then to counter that statement with a reference to scientific evidence. The problem is, his references were to low-grade preliminary evidence, and never to solid reproducible evidence.
That is one functional difference between skeptics and believers – the threshold at which they consider scientific evidence to be credible and compelling (there are many reasons behind that difference, but that is the end result).
I was asked what level of evidence I would find convincing, and that’s an easy question to answer because skeptics spend a great deal of time exploring that very question. In fact, I have discussed this in the context of many things, not just homeopathy.
For any scientific claim (regardless of plausibility) scientific evidence is considered well-established when it simultaneously (that’s critical) fulfills the following four criteria:
- Methodologically rigorous, properly blinded, and sufficiently powered studies that adequately define and control for the variables of interest (confirmed by surviving peer-review and post-publication analysis).
- Positive results that are statistically significant.
- A reasonable signal to noise ratio (clinically significant for medical studies, or generally well within our ability to confidently detect).
- Independently reproducible. No matter who repeats the experiment, the effect is reliably detected.
This pattern of compelling evidence does not exist for ESP, acupuncture, any form of energy medicine, cold fusion or free energy claims, nor homeopathy. You may get one or two of those things, but never all four together. You do hear many excuses (special pleading) for why such evidence does not exist, but never the evidence itself.
The reason for this is simple – when you set the threshold any lower, you end up prematurely accepting claims that turn out not to be true.
The less plausible, the more outrageous and unconventional a scientific claim, the more nitpicky and uncompromising we should be in applying the standards above. This follows a Bayesian logic – you are not beginning with a blank slate, as if we have no prior knowledge, but rather are starting with existing well-established science and then extending that knowledge further.
To clarify – if a new claim seems implausible it does not mean that it is a-priori not true. It simply means that the threshold of evidence required to conclude that it is probably true is higher.
Scottish philosopher David Hume sort of captured this idea over two centuries ago when he wrote:
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.
I like to think of it this way: The evidence for any new claim that contradicts prior established scientific conclusions must be at least as robust as the prior evidence it would overturn. You can also ask the question – what is more likely, that the relevant scientific facts are wrong, or that the new claim is wrong?
What is more likely, that much of what we think we know about physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, and medicine is wrong, or that the claims of homeopathy are wrong? I think this is an easy one.
- Debating Homeopathy Part I (skepticblog.org)
- Keeping Up the Pressure (illuminutti.com)
- Teaching Chemistry With Homeopathy (randi.org)
- Keeping Up the Pressure (randi.org)
- Debating Homeopathy Part I (theness.com)
- Debating Homeopathy Part II (theness.com)
- What is Homeopathy? (nomadicvet.wordpress.com)
- Evidence Thresholds (sciencebasedmedicine.org)
- HumanistLife : Homeopathy – Faith or Science (humanistlife.org.uk)
Homeopathy is the second most used medical system in the world, after real medicine. It is legal, and in fact enjoys privileged status in the US and many other industrialized nations. Most people, however, do not really understand what it is, or the fact that years of research and hundreds of studies show conclusively that it does not work – for anything.
Homeopathy is an example of 100% pure unadulterated pseudoscience. Its underlying principles are not only unscientific, they are as close to impossible as you can get in science, meaning that vast amounts of physics, chemistry, and biology would have to be rewritten if homeopathy were true.
Proponents abuse the scientific evidence, and propose one absurd pseudoexplanation after another to desperately justify their magic potions.
This is all likely very familiar to most skeptics, prompting some to criticize the apparent obsession of some segments of the skeptical community with homeopathy. This misses a very important point, however. The purpose of the skeptical literature is not just to educate and entertain the already skeptical, but to influence the broader culture.
For this purpose we need to keep up the pressure, we need to keep countering homeopaths whenever they emerge to offer a new distortion of science and evidence. This is part of what we do as activists – it is only scientific skeptics who are pushing back against this dangerous nonsense.
I can tell you from personal experience that mainstream physicians and scientists largely do not know and do not care about homeopathy. At best they are “shruggies” who think it is harmless, and at worst they are confused enough to actually support it (Dr. Oz comes to mind, but perhaps he is not the best example).
Science journalists are mixed, some get it, and some don’t. I was recently involved with a documentary on homeopathy by an honest documentarian who was just trying to understand homeopathy (in other words, not a propaganda piece by proponents). Unfortunately she simply came to the exact wrong conclusion about homoepathy, convinced by anecdotal evidence. She was not prepared to understand how so many people could be wrong, how easy it is for people to be fooled, and how difficult it is to get reliable and unbiased results from scientific study. In other words – she was not a skeptic (not sufficiently skilled in critical thinking and understanding the difference between science and pseudoscience). The film is not out yet, so I have yet to see the final result, but I know it’s not going to be good.
There is a bright side, however – skeptics constantly pushing back against the nonsense, and we are making some headway. The more the public understands about homeopathy, the more it is marginalized.
MORE . . .
- Keeping Up the Pressure (randi.org)
- The Trouble with Pseudoscience – It Can Be a Catastrophe (illuminutti.com)
- Homeopathy Again Strikes Out In Style (randi.org)
- Politics Trumping Science at the NHS (theness.com)
- Dr. Oz’s journey to the Dark Side is now more than complete: It’s homeopathy time! [Respectful Insolence] (scienceblogs.com)
- Has Dr. Oz Jumped the Shark? (sciencebasedpharmacy.wordpress.com)