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When does ‘Skepticism’ become dogma?

by Richard Elen on 18 Sep, 2010

in Science & Technology

Medium Eva Carriere, photographed in 1912

For some considerable time, I’ve been a staunch follower of those, like Richard Dawkins, who oppose established religions and favour an evidence-based approach to our understanding of the world. Indeed, I think religion has caused more death, pain and suffering in the world than almost anything else and we would all be much better off without religious privilege.

I am actually more concerned with opposition to religion than I am with atheism. As far as I’m concerned, of course there isn’t any ‘evidence’ for God; thus God is hardly amenable to the scientific method and is purely a matter of personal belief. And tempting though it might be to think otherwise, my view is that people should be free to believe whatever they like as long as it doesn’t restrict my ability to do the same. Having studied a little occultism in my time, I know that beliefs are very powerful things.

They are very powerful, too, in areas that are more amenable to scientific enquiry, such as in the case of homœopathy. I am quite certain in my own mind that homœopathy is to be deprecated, and that “there’s nothing in it” in physical terms. The idea that water can contain the “memory” of specific substances, but not all the other substances that have passed through it at one time or another since the dawn of time (and still contain that even when the water is removed) seems ridiculous to me on a physical level.

On what we might call a “magical” level, however, it’s fine because belief systems are very powerful indeed and should not be underestimated. The scientific name for this particular magic, in the case of homœopathy, is “the placebo effect”, and it can literally work wonders. The fact is, however, that there really is nothing else to it, and for the National Health Service in the UK to spend money on placebos when it could spend it on medications that have been proved to have an objective effect, I find absurd. It is also absurd that vast amounts of money can be made by various companies selling “homœopathic” remedies that have nothing in them. (The real challenge as far as I am concerned is how do we harness the undeniable power of the placebo effect without being dishonest and unethical. However, this is not the purpose of this article.)

I am wholeheartedly behind the “skeptics”, therefore, when they pile in on topics like homœopathy, snake-oil “alternative” or “complementary” remedies of one kind or another and other examples of heinous woo, like “bomb detectors” based on dowsing (poorly-understood dowsing, not properly implemented at that, though I doubt that made any difference) that appear to quite literally kill people.

I’m in the audio field and nothing annoys me more than tales of special rocks or wooden coathangers that, when placed on top of audio components or in your listening room respectively, will allegedly make them sound better. I do not believe that electrons must pass through a cable in one direction only, or that they have to be “flushed out” from time to time by applying DC to them. Nor that speaker cables need to rest on ceramic pylons. In particular, I believe that digital audio does you no harm and even if it did, “applied kinesiology” would not tell you anything about it.  And so on.

I am also firmly on the side of science when it comes to anthropogenic global warming. Indeed, there really isn’t an opposing view on this of any merit in the scientific community, and not because anyone is discouraged from looking or any of those other ‘denialist’ accusations, but because alternative theories just don’t have the evidence behind them. This is an example of one of those topics (like creationism) where balanced coverage ought to reflect the scientific consensus, and opposing arguments not simply be given equal time. Equal time is not balance: it represents bias towards the view deprecated by those best-placed to know, as I have noted elsewhere.

“Alternative medicine” is important, because you are messing with people’s lives. I have lost more than one friend because they were persuaded to take woo remedies instead of getting proper treatment. The aforementioned “applied kinesiology” when used to “detect” allergies, for example, might be deadly. As far as I am concerned, there’s a name for “alternative” or “complementary” medicine that works: it’s called “medicine”. And you find out if it works via clinical trials, systematic reviews of results published in peer-reviewed journals and the rest of the panoply of the scientific method as applied to medications. Homœopathy generally fails on these tests, for example, and its occasional successes seem to rely more on “bedside manner” and other placebo-related effects than anything else. Yes, I am aware that “big pharma” pulls tricks on what appears in the journals and so on, but I am also aware that “big alternative pharma” is at least as duplicitous (and big) and two wrongs don’t make a right.

However, I get rather more uneasy when “skepticism” approaches science’s boundary areas. (I am really not sure what the argument is for calling it “skepticism”, by the way: as far as I am concerned it’s simply a US preferred spelling that’s – as often is the case – closer to its classical origin than the way we spell it in Britain. I find the answer given in this article rather weak.)

Parapsychology is a particular case in point. Over the years I have largely overcome my initial dislike of James Randi’s assumptions that unknown things are automatically the result of fakery because he and his associates (see the James Randi Educational Foundation site) are so on the money about so many things, and excellent at exposing the charlatans who are out to make a dishonest buck. But today the attitude there, and in many other skeptic environments, seems to me to be that the paranormal is a con and thus any proper scientific study of it is equally at best not worthwhile and at worst a con too. I am sure a great deal of “popular” parapsychology indeed is. But all of it? Proper “scientific” parapsychology? I tend to think not. You could say exactly the same about psychology, for example, not to mention other “softer” sciences like economics. But few people do.

As far as I am concerned, parapsychology is a real and valid area of scientific research. I am lucky enough to be acquainted with two people with PhDs in the field, and although they came to rather different conclusions about it (and I believe do not get on with each other), their work and my own study of publications in the field over some years suggest to me that it really is worth proper research. I am also aware that there have been dubious pieces of work in the field over the past century – as there have been in a great many areas of scientific discovery – and the odd bad apple is not a good reason to denigrate an entire field.

The big problem in parapsychology, it seems to me, is that while, over a century ago when the paranormal first began to be studied scientifically, the big question was, “Do psychic powers and/or phenomena actually exist?”, the answer today, as it was then, is, “We simply don’t know”. That must be a rather depressing conclusion for parapsychologists: that their field hasn’t got anywhere since the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882.

Susan Blackmore (whom I recall, hopefully correctly, as being responsible for the above observation) is no longer working in the field (today she works in consciousness studies), but her account of her experiences in parapsychology, In Search of the Light, is definitely worth a read.

I would be very surprised if she was of the opinion that the paranormal was a scam and that everyone working in the field was to be vilified and treated as a charlatan. As far as I recall, her last word on the answer to the Big Question of parapsychology was indeed “We don’t know” – despite the fact that she encountered her own share of dubious research during the time she was involved. Parapsychology research inevitably involves a lot of statistics, and occasionally people fiddle the numbers. I seem to recall that the odd astronomer and medical researcher has been known to do this too, however the result has not been to deprecate astronomy or medical research. Instead you simply tackle the perpetrators, who are in a tiny minority.

Thus I find it annoying, to say the least, when “skeptics” take the position that we know the paranormal doesn’t exist and that it’s all charlatanism. It’s simply not the case: we do not know that. It isn’t even that there’s no evidence of psychic phenomena: it’s that the evidence is inconclusive. That is not the same as saying it doesn’t exist. There is perhaps an argument for looking at what is most likely to move the field forward from the current situation of what might appear to the lay observer to be an impasse, but I am sure parapsychologists have plenty of ideas in that subject.

There are other areas, and people working on the fringes of science who have not been treated particularly well, and, I think, undeservedly. It’s been suggested that Dr Rupert Sheldrake was dishonestly treated in the making of Richard Dawkins’ series Enemies of Reason. Lynne McTaggart, author of The Field and The Intention Experiment, who may be known to many people via the film What the Bleep… has been taken to task by Ben Goldacre as a result of what she claims was an error by someone else , followed by unwarranted criticism.

Now, I have a lot of time for Ben Goldacre. I put up video of his excellent presentation at last year’s OpenTech conference and I’ve sent him funds to support his Bad Science web site. I think that by and large he does a wonderful job. But he does seem to me to have overstepped the mark here. Equally I also have issues with interpretations of modern science – of quantum mechanics in particular, such as those of Fritjof Capra or those in What the Bleep… – that go beyond those of most reputable scientists in the field. But… I’ve never liked the Copenhagen Interpretation and prefer the Transactional Interpretation of Cramer, which is hardly mainstream, so who am I to talk.

Science has dramatically increased our knowledge of how the Universe works and without it we would be in a state worse than the Dark Ages (it’s also got us into some big trouble, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It’s one of the tools to help us demolish superstition and especially, in my view, the dangerous, destructive, evil and deadly superstition of religion.

But science does not have all the answers and never will, because there is always more to discover. In addition, science moves forward by new hypotheses being presented, and tested by experiment, that give us answers that fit the facts better than what we previously thought. The last thing it needs is to not look at something because an a priori judgement (ie one that doesn’t involve doing any actual science) asserts that said ‘something’ doesn’t exist.

Just because you can use fakery to make something appear to exist (such as a psychic ability), it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. You could use fakery to appear to send an audio message from here to the other side of town, but that doesn’t mean that telephones are impossible. It doesn’t even make them less likely. And don’t give me any of that Occam’s Razor stuff.

Occam’s Razor in essence suggests that the the hypothesis embodying the fewest new assumptions is most likely to be the correct one. To most people, the idea of telepathy, particularly in association with telephone calls, is rather familiar, so the idea that you might guess correctly who is calling you on the phone via telepathy is not an unlikely hypothesis at all (let’s not get into whether it’s telepathy or clairvoyance now, thank you). That it is regarded as unlikely to be thought possible by scientists might result from the fact that they know more about how things work than the lay-person, and thus have a better idea (public opinion is so wrong on so much science); but it could equally mean that they don’t regard it very highly because it’s not currently favoured as an explanation. In which case, how are you going to find out if it ought to be favoured if you don’t look, and say instead (without having looked) that it must be something else? There is something circular here.

The hypothesis we consider to be the most reasonable may depend on what we know, but that really isn’t sufficient. To re-wire a previous analogy: if, during the 19th century, I told you I could transmit a sound message instantaneously from here to the other side of town, would the idea that I might be using a new, currently unheard-of invention called the telephone be the hypothesis embodying the fewest new assumptions? I don’t think so. It would, however, have been the correct one.

It seems to me that in parapsychology, as in other “fringe” areas, you need to prove things a lot harder than you would in more conventional fields, and this Occam’s Razor thing is the reason. If ordinary scientific standards of proof held for parapsychology, there would be no question that it exists. However because the claims made are extraordinary, the proof must be extraordinarily rigorous too. I am not entirely sure that this attitude is justified, especially when it seems as if special efforts are made to ensure it stays that way. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Extraordinary to whom? To people who have already made up their minds. If the evidence is inconclusive (which I believe to be the case in parapsychology) rather than non-existent, then what’s required is better, more rigorous experimentation, not no experiments at all.

There’s an interesting discussion between Dr Sheldrake and Dr Richard Wiseman which mentions this topic on the Skeptiko website. And again, interestingly, Dr Sheldrake appears to encounter a rather unhelpful attitude to open investigation from Dr Wiseman, the latter again being someone I normally have a great deal of time for. It really pisses me off when people I regard highly seem to me to “let the side down” in this way (Dawkins, Goldacre, Wiseman, I mean you).

We really need to be careful about this stuff. We do need to be open to new ideas and not entertain a fixed, inflexible view of the way the Universe works: that way lies scientism, a perversion of science into dogma that is as far from the scientific method as is religion. We need to be searching for the truth, not trying to score a point (I hate it in politicians: I hate it in scientists). We need to avoid setting arbitrarily high hurdles for proof just because we don’t like what is attempting to be proved: the reasoning behind such apparent evidential prejudice has to be sound and transparent.

Here’s Sheldrake on “Skepticism“:

“Healthy skepticism plays an important part in science, and stimulates research and critical thinking. Healthy skeptics are open-minded and interested in evidence. By contrast, dogmatic skeptics are committed to the belief that “paranormal” phenomena are impossible, or at least so improbable as to merit no serious attention. Hence any evidence for such phenomena must be illusory.”

Now don’t get me wrong: most of the time I’m with the “skeptics” – even if they can’t spell. But what I would not like to see is for the word “skeptic” become synonymous with what McTaggart calls “Bullyboy Science“. Instead I would advise true “sceptics” to do their best to avoid dogma and keep an open mind.

An interesting response to the apparent overenthusiasm in the skeptic camp is the establishment of the web site Skeptical Investigation, which attempts to redress the balance somewhat. It has five sections covering “investigating Skeptics”, “Controversies”, “Open-minded Research”, “Scientific Objectivity” and “Resources”. I by no means go along with everything on the site, but it is very much worthy of study. Approach it with an open mind, wontcha.

Further reading:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Ruffles September 19, 2010 at 11:41

A very interesting piece. I’ve posted a link from the SPR’s Facebook page.

Ruth Walker October 15, 2010 at 23:39

Science never said it had all the answers. Science merely accepts things for which there is evidence and changes what is accepted as more evidence is found.

I never got the impression that James Randi thought all the folks who applied for his challenge knew what they claimed was fake; some are surprised they failed the tests. He has tested claims for so many years that I think he is right to assume none do unless it’s proven different.

Small children with “invisible friends” believe they are real too. Do you also think we should believe there is a possiblity they are real, rather than knowing they are not? Can’t you just imagine a parent telling a child who previously had such a companion but no longer does that there may have really been somebody there (because we can’t prove otherwise)?

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