Brilliant scientists are open-minded about paranormal stuff. So what?

On Twitter, JREF President DJ Grothe made me aware of a blog post written by John Horgan at Scientific American entitled “Brilliant Scientists Are Open-Minded about Paranormal Stuff, So Why Not You?”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a few problems with that article. The title alone set my skeptic senses tingling. The “Brilliant scientists…” bit smacked of an appeal to authority, and the “open-minded” part immediately got Tim Minchin singing in my head.

Once I started reading the article, it didn’t fail to disappoint on the logical fallacies front. Straight away it mentions that Alan Turing believed in telepathy, and goes on to state that Carl Jung was a proponent of synchronicity (coincidences). I’ve already written about this, but it’s worth repeating: having an excellent scientific mind does not make you immune to irrational beliefs. In science, ideas are judged on their own merits, not by the individual who proposes them. For example, the double Nobel prize winning scientist Linus Pauling believed that taking copious amounts of Vitamin C (overwise known as megadosing) could ward off colds and even be used as a cancer therapy. But today, modern medicine does not recommend such a use of Vitamin C. Why? Because it was tested and found not to work.

That’s an absolutely key part of science: the ability to test. The “paranormal” on the other hand, is by it’s very nature not testable. If it was, it wouldn’t be paranormal, it would just be normal. We would be able to test it as a part of science. I’m very much of the opinion that declaring something to be “outside of the limits of science”, as Freeman Dyson does, is nothing but a cop out, reminiscent of the creationist cry of “God did it”. The article also quotes Brian Josephson:

Yes, I think telepathy exists, and I think quantum physics will help us understand its basic properties.

This is another example of the fact that having a Nobel prize doesn’t stop you from getting science wrong, as Josephson has done here. In short, you need to demonstrate something before you can start explaining it. Calling on quantum physics to explain telepathy is a pointless endeavour if you can’t demonstrate telepathy in the first place!

The Paranormal

Saying “it’s paranormal” explains nothing

So, onto “open-mindedness”. A particular problem I have with the article is that Horgan says the following about psychologist William James:

I love James, who throughout his career achieved a rare balance between skepticism and open-mindedness.

I find the idea that skepticism and open-mindedness are contradictory  to be rather bizarre. It seems as if Horgan is making the classic mistake of confusing skepticism with cynicism. To be skeptical of something is to question it. If your questions are answered and you accept what is being presented, your are still skeptical! On the other hand, being open-minded should not mean that you just blindly swallow everything anyone says. When it comes to the paranormal, I am open minded. I’m open minded to good quality, repeatable, peer-reviewed evidence.

Hogan finishes with a position which I always rather irritating:

Unlike the boring, foregone conclusion of the Higgs boson, the discovery of telepathy or telekinesis would blow centuries of accumulated scientific dogma sky high. What could be more thrilling!

For a start, I’m pretty sure the discovery of the Higgs boson was never a “foregone conclusion” and it certainly wasn’t boring (not to me anyway), but it’s the wishful thinking that really annoys me. In science, you have to have a precedence to do something. You wouldn’t say “I dreamed that jelly beans cure cancer, so I’m going to set up a multi-million dollar trial to see if they do”. In the case of the Higgs boson, the mathematics behind it provided a very elegant hypothesis which was tested at CERN. Things like telekinesis are tested, but are repeatedly found to fail such tests. Whether or not it would be thrilling if such phenomena exists is irrelevant. It would be thrilling for me if an enormous diamond was buried under my house, but that doesn’t mean I’m planning to have my house leveled and a diamond mind built now does it?

So, in conclusion: yes, brilliant scientists believe in the paranormal. Yes, you should be open minded about it. Are either of these facts enough for you to believe in the paranormal? I would say no.

Flag controversy on the first day of the Olympic games

Day one of the London 2012 Olympics. A chance for the UK to show itself off to the world. All eyes watching. You’d hope that for the games these three words would be the mantra of everyone involved:

Don’t screw up.

So, what happens on the first day? In the women’s football, North Korea play Columbia at Hampden Park, Glasgow. The North Korean players are shown one by one on the big screen, complete with the full name of the country, Korea DPR (Democratic People’s Republic). There is just one embarrassing, glaringly obvious problem. There is a flag on the screen. The flag of SOUTH Korea.

korea wrong flag

Hampden Park shows the wrong flag of Korea at the Olympics

This is a big deal. The two Koreas went to war in 1950, and to this day North and South Korea are divided between communist and capitalist ideals. To confuse the two flags is just really stupid, as you can see they look nothing like each other.

Flag of North Korea

Flag of North Korea

Flag of South Korea

Flag of South Korea

If this sort of blunder is going to happen on the very first day, I worry for the rest of the Olmypics.

Wisdom of Chopra is looking for a designer!

wisdom of chopraIt’s been just over a month since I launched and my word has it been nuts! About six weeks ago I was told that I was going to be made redundant from my previous web development job, and for some reason I thought to myself “right then, I’ll make a website this weekend!”. Naturally, I went on Twitter looking for inspiration, and came across a tweet suggesting that the words of one Deepak Chopra were indistinguishable from a selection of profound words randomly thrown together (I think it was the New Humanist account, but I’m not sure). Having had experience with making rather crude random sentence generators I thought I could fairly easily make a website which took the words of Chopra and stuck them together. After just two nights of hard graft, was born.

I really wasn’t expecting much from it, but I am still amazed by the response it has generated. In that initial weekend, it got over 20,000 hits! It has been fairly extensively and positively blogged about (including by PZ Myers, so he’s not all bad! 😉 ) and even ended up being used on the SGU podcast! I extended the site, adding a quiz to see if people could tell the difference between real Deepak Chopra quotes and those generated by the website. I think my proudest moment in this whole episode was trying the quiz out on an Indian ex-colleague who has actually read some of Chopra’s books, he only managed three out of seven before angrily giving up! As I write this, there have so far been 28,578 responses to the quiz, of which 19,131 have been correct. That means that just 66.92% of the responses have been correct. If any statisticians are reading this, could you tell me if that is significant or not?

To take it to the next level, I really need a web designer to take a look at Could you take the website and make it look really good? Although I’m quite good at programming (I got another web dev job pretty much straight away in case you are wondering) my design skills are rather lacking. I can’t offer that much in the way of pay (well, maybe something), but you’ll certainly be credited on the site and it will look good on your CV. So, if you are a web designer at any level, please get in touch!

Leeds Skeptics debate “Dealing with controversy”

Leeds Skeptics caused some controversy recently when they booked Steve Moxon to give a talk entitled “Why aren’t there more woman in the boardroom?”. Moxon has, to put it kindly, a chequered history. He first came to light as a Home Office whistleblower who revealed that immigration checks were being waived, but more recently he’s been kicked out of UKIP for comments regarding the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik. More to the point, he’s written a book about gender roles (which I’m not going to link to), which I am informed cherry-picks a study by Dr Gijsbert Stoet, who happened to be at the debate. Some people complained about the talk, and after some consideration by Leeds Skeptics the talk was cancelled.

The talk was replaced with an open debate called “How should Skeptics Deal with controversy?”. I went along, so I thought I’d give it a write up.

David Icke

Should David Icke speak at skeptic events?

The first question to be asked was “what sort of speakers are acceptable at skeptic events?”. I put forward my position, which is that speakers who want to lecture to skeptics should themselves be skeptics, or at least be sympathetic to the skeptic cause, for example someone who uses the scientific method to arrive at their conclusions. It was suggested that speakers who deliver the standard “skeptic fare” such as “homeopathy doesn’t work” or “it wasn’t aliens” can be dull and just preaching to the converted, and to be interesting speakers should be presenting evidence which is controversial but well researched. However, it was pointed out that although people who can do that do exist (such as David Nutt or Elizabeth Pisani) they are like gold dust. The overlap on the Venn diagram between “controversial speaker” and “speakers who back up their claims with good evidence” is vanishingly small!

So, in order to be interesting and challenging, should Skeptics in the Pub groups invite non-skeptic speakers, as Leeds have done in the past with the Zeitgesit Movement and We are Change? The case was argued for this position, and while I can sympathise with it, I certainly don’t agree. I’ve been to talks by non-skeptics, and found them incredibly frustrating. Everyone bites their tongue for pretty much the entire talk, thinking “when will this nonsense end?”, and the speaker gets eviscerated by the angry skeptic mob in the Q and A. I don’t think this is fair on anyone. It’s not fair on the audience who are expecting an interesting and informative talk, and it’s not fair on the speakers themselves who are invited to talk in good faith, only to be ripped to bits afterwards. I don’t see who benefits from inviting non-skeptics to talk at skeptic events.

After that, the debate moved onto the question of “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?”. My answer was a strong and unequivocal “no”. Skepticism by it’s very nature is based on questioning. If someone puts up a barrier saying “you cannot question this” I find that to be an affront to skepticism. Also, I find that some people confuse the idea of questioning something with a desire to challenge and reject it. For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist. So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist. I think we need to bear this in mind when asking tough questions, and skeptics should not feel like there are any questions that cannot be asked.

Following that, there was the issue of offensiveness. Should a speaker not appear because they have views that some find offensive? The consensus of the room was “no”, with the usual statements of “you do not have the right to not be offended” being brought out. Although I don’t consider a speaker’s potential offensiveness to be a problem, I argued that you have to look beyond offensiveness and into hurtfulness. I gave the example of the Ricky Gervais “monggate” controversy. A while ago, comedian Ricky Gervais started using the word “mong” on his twitter account, claiming that it was no longer used as a derogatory term for people with Downs syndrome. Why he thought that I have no idea, but in my experience people with Downs syndrome DO get referred to by that term, and by continuously using it, Ricky Gervais could only add to the acceptability of that word, and that in turn is hurtful. So if Steve Moxon did turn up and try and spread the idea that women are inferior to men, someone could take that and use it to enforce their prejudices. The hypothetical I gave during the debate was the idea of a company director taking Moxon’s views as fact and saying “Right, we have new evidence that women are inferior to men, therefore I’m going to make it my policy to only employ men”. It’s a hypothetical situation, but it shows why I have a problem with the propagation of baseless, hurtful notions, irregardless of their offensiveness.

It was also suggested that if Moxon was invited, then Leeds Skeptics should have also invited a prominent speaker with an opposing view to challenge him. The problem I had with this idea is that it would entirely change the nature of the event, from a talk/lecture to a debate. If that was going to happen, this would have to be very clearly advertised! The point was also made that for a debate, the people involved have to be open to opposing ideas and be able to change their views based on the evidence presented to them, something it was believed that Steve Moxon would not be capable of. At the end of the day, I think the consensus of the room was that cancelling Steve Moxon’s talk was the right decision, and I agreed with it.

Overall, I thought the debate was very positive, thoughtful and civilised. It made a very nice change from Internet debate, which always decent into name calling and accusations of “trolling”. I had a very good time, and I’d like to thank Leeds Skeptics for putting the event on. Cheers!

All set for Ignite Liverpool 10

Ignite LiverpoolTomorrow night sees the return of Ignite to Leaf on Bold Street, Liverpool. All the speakers get 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about anything they want. I’m talking about my experiences of being a skeptic (don’t worry, it’s going to be positive!) and there is also someone talking about the paranormal, so things could get very interesting! The evening starts at 6pm and it’s free. If you can’t make it, a live stream of the talks is available from the Ignite Liverpool website. Hope to see you there!