Creative Technology Consultants
Random header image... Refresh for more!

When does ‘Skepticism’ become dogma?

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: