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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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