Heretical Science Skepticism

Know Who to Ask About ESP

Never ask a man if sexism exists.
Never ask a white person if racism exists.
Never ask Scott McGreal over at Psychology Today if there is a scientific taboo against ESP.
Ask four-time president of the Parapsychology Association, Dean Radin:

Heretical Science Skepticism

Pseudoscience, Pseudo-skepticism and Rejection Bias

Everyone has heard of pseudoscience— unscientific ideas masquerading in the guise of science. But its corrolary is less well known. Pseudo-skepticism is also unscientific ideas masquerading in the guise of science. Pseudo-skeptics are also known as debunkers but I prefer the former term as it rightly notes that pseudoscience and pseudo-skepticism are two sides of the same coin. One can roughly be summed up as unfounded acceptance; the other, unfounded rejection.
Just as negative and positive polarity share a common source of magnetism, these two mindsets also have a common attitudinal base. They are both hasty thinking in support of one’s current beliefs. They both halt deliberation at the comfortable conclusion. They are both averse to thorough consideration of uncomfortable possibilities.
Given its relative obscurity, pseudo-skepticism requires further examination. Skeptic’s latin roots skeptic are:

Late Latin scepticus  thoughtful, inquiring (in plural Scepticī the Skeptics) < Greek skeptikós, equivalent to sképt (esthai) to consider, examine (akin to skopeîn  to look; see -scope) + -ikos -ic

As with pseudoscientists, pseudo-skeptics tend against thoughtful consideration and towards certainty.
To make the analogy of ‘leaving no stone unturned’ in search of truth, there are stones we like to turn over (perhaps they are lovely or lightweight) and stones we avoid turning over (maybe they are covered in slime or are too hard to lift). Both pseudoscientists and pseudo-skeptics exhibit the same human frailty: they fail to turn over every stone. Pseudo-skeptics tend to deny the possibility that they might be exhibiting the same frailty that they readily accuse others of (in psychology this is known as projection). In fact, they might even deny the possibility of the very existence of pseudo-skepticism. It would be just as silly to believe that there is only positive polarity in magnetism as to believe there is only pseudo-science and not pseudo-skepticism.

How To Identify a Pseudo-Skeptic has assembled a chart comparing True vs. Pseudo Skeptics (site offline, credit to wayback machine for preservation). Here are a couple of examples of the pseudo-skeptical mindset from their site:

“Does not question anything from established non-religious institutions, but takes whatever they say on faith and demands that others do the same.
Does not ask questions to try to understand new things, but judges them by whether they fit into orthodoxy.”

Pseudo-Skeptic Case Study: James Randy

James Randy makes a fair example of the attitude of ‘failing to turn over every stone’ of the pseudo-skeptic. In a National Geographic show about crop circles 2 National Geographic: Is It Real? Season 1, Episode 1 , Randy declared (to counter the possibility that crop circles might be made by UFOs), “if you were someone in a UFO and you wanted to leave us a message, wouldn’t you go to the lawn of the White House and make a crop circle?”
An assertion so easily countered demonstrates that Randy is favoring his comfort zone over true inquiry. How does Randy know that aliens haven’t contacted the White House? Does he think the White House would surely have told him of such a visit? Of course, whether or not aliens have contacted the White House is moot. Randy’s point is aliens wouldn’t communicate that way. How does he know how aliens might choose to communicate with us… is he an alien? Would you expect a baboon to successfully deduce how a higher intelligence might choose to communicate with baboons? Perhaps advanced civilizations tread carefully with primitives, preferring unintimidating ways of slowly hinting at their presence, realizing that gradual acceptance over generations is the optimal way to introduce a new planet in to the interstellar community.
These are not logical stretches, they are fairly obvious objections to Randy’s assertion. To not see the weak ground of his own claims indicates a hastily drawn conclusion. Randy is a classic pseudo-skeptic. His indignant posturing is a telltale sign of projection, which in turn is denial. He is that which he vehemently accuses others of.

Rejection Bias

One area in science relevant to this conversation is confirmation bias, or the “tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs”. Just as magnetism requires distinct terms for each state of polarity— positive and negative— so too, we need separate terms to distinguish the polarities of bias: towards and away from. Rejection bias, therefore, is the tendency of people to reject information that does not match their beliefs.
Pseudo-skeptics would do well to see their commonalities with pseudoscientists. It would give them a sense of compassion for the mindset, as they would see in themselves how easily comfort can distort inquiry. They would also see a clear path towards improving their own mindset by noticing when they are falling in that trap, that they may avoid it.


1 skeptic
2 National Geographic: Is It Real? Season 1, Episode 1 
Heretical Science Skepticism

Heretical Science

Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson’s lecture on heretical science. He pokes holes in popular skeptic arguments against telepathy, whether water can have a memory (homeopathy), cold fusion and intelligent design. 1 hour, time well spent.
Available on the University of Cambridge web site.
I loved the name of the talk so much, I added that as a new category to my site; gotta go back and tag my past posts!


Rupert Sheldrake, Dogs and Owners, and Skeptics

Simon Thorpe is the Deputy Director of the Brain and Cognitive Research Center in Toulouse France. Below is a video talk from him about paranormal phenomena, where he in particular discusses Rupert Sheldrake’s study into whether dogs know when their owners are coming home.


The Inverse Correlation Between Knowledge and Confidence

“It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

“It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations.”

—Nikola Tesla (1915)

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

— W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)

“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

— Bertrand Russell,
Mortals and Others 1: American Essays (1931-35)

“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

― Charles Bukowski (circa 1960)
Heretical Science Positive Thinking Skepticism

On Bias and Hyperbole

Bertrand Russell, in his 1918 Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (a free eBook), noted that a person who is inclined to believe in mysticism becomes favorable to any arguments supporting such beliefs:

When the intensity of [mystic] emotional conviction subsides, a man who is in the habit of reasoning will search for logical grounds in favour of the belief which he finds in himself. But since the belief already exists, he will be very hospitable to any ground that suggests itself.

Positive Thinking Skepticism

A Scientific Basis for New Age Bullshit

If you’ve spent any time around New Agers, you’ve probably heard something like:

You get more of whatever you think about.

Bullshit, right?
We have no problem taking credit for all the good in our lives (my job, my house… my hard work!); we are less inclined to consider any causal relationship between our thoughts and our problems. Is it fair for us to take all the credit for all our successes and no credit for any of our failures? Or at least most of them? While some of the more woo aspects of New Age (e.g. manifesting) have no explanatory model based in science, basic brain functioning lends a degree of credence to the notion that our thoughts increase what shows up in our lives.
The reticular activating system (RAS): it’s the part of the brain that is responsible for parsing the fire hose of sensory data coming at us, filtering out what is relevant, bringing it to our attention, and disregarding the rest. From John Assaraf & Murray Smith’s The Answer (pg. 59):

 The RAS is the scientific term for a network of nerve pathways at the base of your brain that connects the spinal cord, cerebellum, and cerebrum and acts as a filter for all the sensory input your brain draws from your external world. (Reticulum, from the Latin for “little net,” simply means a netlike structure.) Anything that you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell passes through the spy network, which then relays the signal or message on to the appropriate part of your brain for processing.
Your reticular formation stands guard at the doorway of your mind, sorting through the torrent of incoming information and searching for those specific bits that best match those information patterns already established in your brain. Your reticular formation picks up all the sensory input from your environment and, if it’s important to you, sends a signal to your conscious brain to alert you that something important is going on. And it does this at a speed eight hundred times faster than your conscious brain cells operate.

It is the RAS that enables us to hear our name called from across the room in a bustling party. It enables a mom to wake at the slightest whimper of her baby from two rooms over yet sleep through storms and traffic noises. It is why once we buy a new car we start seeing that car everywhere. Those cars were always there, but now they are relevant, and so we notice them.
We task the RAS— instructing it on what to bring to our attention—  through our beliefs, goals, biases, expectations, hopes, fears, suspicions, annoyances, concerns. Our outlook instructs it to have us notice anything that confirms that outlook. Our beliefs instruct our RAS to bring those relevant items to our attention. This fact can lead to some seemingly spooky experiences; it reverses the old aphorism to, “I’ll see it when I believe it”. And it is supported by research from Harvard Medical School attention researchers Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe, who found that 83% of participating radiologists failed to notice a postage size image of a man in a gorilla suit superimposed on a lung scan because it did not match what they expected to find.
As I said in a previous post, fixating on a problem leaves no mental cycles left for the solution. Instructing the RAS that X is relevant has the RAS fixate on it. We need to belay that order.
So how do I stop telling my RAS that X is relevant? By changing my habitual thoughts. For instance, if I habitually think, “nobody ever helps me,” I will notice all the times nobody ever helps me, thereby reflecting and reinforcing that belief. Granted, that thought comes tacked on to an emotion— sadness, anger— and the emotion needs to get resolved. Until it is resolved, I’ll have a hard time changing the mental habit.

Affirmations and their relationship to existing negative thoughts is an area in which New Agers need to tread carefully— using methods like affirmations to change thought patterns might subtlely shame people for having a negative feeling that must be explored (sometimes with therapy) before it can truly be changed. Negative feelings aren’t bad, they are letting you know something is wrong and needs to change. If you are trying out affirmations, and they make you feel worse, consider seeking therapy to more closely examine those stuck feelings. If you feel shame for being stuck on negative thoughts, advocate for yourself. This may involve communicating that you aren’t for having negative thoughts and it is important for you to get to the bottom of them. It may also involve walking away from well-meaning people who aren’t trained in handling deep-seated emotions.

If I replace a habitual, debilitative thought with a more facilitative one, like, “people are glad to help me.” This will shift the focus of the RAS, producing seemingly spooky outcomes. I will start noticing those times that people actually help me that I may not have noticed before. I may discover that I’ve been turning down offers for help without realizing it, or I’ve been posturing myself in a way that has people less inclined to offer to help. I’ll find ways to get the help I want, like just asking for help.
It’s common to believe that we only have certain thoughts because they are true; the reverse notion is socially misunderstood, even ridiculed. The habitual recitation of thoughts inclines us to notice them more, as well as posturing us in a way that favors more of that same outcome, thereby making any fleeting truth persist. You get more of what you think about, and it is directly related to the act of thinking about it.
 You will look for —and find— confirmation of whatever you choose to think so choose useful thoughts! 


Stars Have No Minds?

An article by Matthew Francis over at Ars Techica contains one idea so seemingly self-evident as to be boringly uncontroversial: “stars have no minds”.

Science has given us scientific method, a terrific protocol to ferret out fact from fiction when describing our physical universe. Problems arise, however, when scientists throw around statements that scientific method has not proven. If you are a scientist, one might conclude that anything you say has been proven by science… that would be wrong on their part, and an abuse of your position.
I am not here to assert that stars have minds. But even though it seems reasonable to conclude that they don’t, nobody really knows, and scientific method seems ill-equipped to answer that question.
Obvious statements should be easy to prove, yes? Except that it’s impossible to prove or disprove whether something has a mind until we define what is a mind, and while there may be broad scientific consensus on what a brain is, a mind is a different matter.
If we assume that a brain is prerequisite to have a mind then the matter is settled, yet scientific method does not allow for assumptions in evidence of proof. Sure, no one has ever seen a mind without a brain, but as Carl Sagan said so well, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.
When unprovable statements are made under the guise of science, it is at best a failure to honor scientific method. At worst it is intellectual bullying: asserting belief as fact, stifling inquiry. Religious folk don’t have sole claim to righteousness– it can take many forms, and “I’m scientific” is one. Be intellectually honest, honor scientific method: know when you are discussing unproven topics and simply say “I don’t know”.


Carl Sagan vs. Skepticism

A great quote by Carl Sagan:

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Works for God, UFOs, ghosts, etc. Seems ironic because skeptics are fans of him, yet by taking this quote to heart, skeptics would have to give up their posture that they think they know.

Quote of the Day Skepticism

Blasphemy vs Heresy

Terry Jones:

“Blasphemy is the undermining of a spiritual belief system.
Heresy is the undermining of the bureaucracy that has grown around a spiritual belief system.”