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)