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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Skeptic's Book Is Thick with Weaponized Psychobabble

The new book Belief by psychologist James Alcock has the subtitle What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling. A more accurate subtitle capturing the nature of the book would be Why Your Mind Is Real Messed Up If You Believe Any of the Many Things I Don't Want You to Believe In. A few skeptics will try to deeply research the evidence for beliefs they criticize you for believing in. No such approach is taken by Alcock, who seems to show only a slight knowledge of the evidence for beliefs and alleged paranormal phenomena he criticizes. Alcock devotes very much of his time to dreaming up speculative psychological reasons why people might believe things because of flaws in their minds or brains. You can call this type of approach weaponized psychology.

Let me give some examples of how Alcock fails to do his homework and tell his reader about things he should have informed them about.

On page 273 he discusses dowsing, the practice of trying to locate water by using human clairvoyance, aided by a dowsing rod. Alcott mentions only one study, a study by Hyman with a negative finding. He fails to tell us that the person in question was a hard-core skeptic with no credentials in physical science, and that his study (a book not a peer-reviewed paper) was written in 1959. The biggest study on dowsing was a 10-year study involving more than 2000 drillings. In his extremely detailed and lengthy paper, the physics professor Betz stated, “Now, however, extensive field studies...have shown that a few carefully selected dowsers are certainly able to detect faults, fissures and fractures with relative alacrity and surprising accuracy in areas with, say, crystalline or limestone bedrock.” A press release on the study notes the following:

An overall success rate of 96 percent was achieved in 691 drillings in Sri Lanka. Based on geological experience in that area, a success rate of 30-50 percent would be expected from conventional techniques alone.

As discussed here, the chance probability of such an outcome was less than <0.000000000001. 

On page 358 Alcock tells us “there is no persuasive evidence that acupuncture works.” But a New York Times article asserts otherwise, saying the following: 

A new study of acupuncture — the most rigorous and detailed analysis of the treatment to date — found that it can ease migraines and arthritis and other forms of chronic pain. The findings provide strong scientific support for an age-old therapy used by an estimated three million Americans each year.


In the post, a methodologist at the very prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York says, "We think there’s firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain.”

In pages 407 to 437 Alcock examines religious belief, and tries to explain it purely as result of glitches or weaknesses in the mind or brain. He makes no mention of any evidence basis why someone would believe in a higher power. Such a treatment is defective in light of the extremely substantial reasons why a person might believe in a higher power. These include the following:

  1. the sudden origin of the universe, completely unexplained by modern science;
  2. the unexplained origin of life, an “organization explosion” scientists have been unable to explain or duplicate;
  3. the incredible degree of fine-tuning, organization, and precision in biological organisms, which is not well-explained by current Darwinian theory, which still fails to explain the initial stages of any complex biological innovation;
  4. the extremely large degree of fine-tuning in the universe's fundamental constants and laws, widely discussed by physicists, and fantastically unlikely to have occurred by chance in any random universe.

We hear not one word about such things from Alcock, who talks for 37 pages as if the only reason why someone might believe in a higher power is because of mind glitches that Alcock has dreamed up. A full discussion of the four reasons above would take up fifty times more space than Alcock's speculations on psychological reasons for religious belief.

On page 442 Alcock gives us a list of thing that include extrasensory perception, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, and near-death experiences, and tells us that “there is no persuasive evidence that such phenomena exist.” This is not at all correct. There is very good laboratory evidence for ESP; the sighting of apparitions is a well-documented empirical reality; and even most skeptics admit that near-death experiences take place. There is very good evidence for both out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.

On page 445 Alcock misrepresents the classic work Phantasms of the Living by Gurney, Myers, and Podmore by saying that it is a volume of people who “reported having had a hallucination.” This massive 1400 page book (which can be read online) lists hundreds of normal people who reported anomalous sightings of human forms, very many that can be called apparition sightings. The witnesses did not describe their sightings as hallucinations. Meticulously checked by a team of investigators looking for verification of details, the volume is very substantial evidence for apparition sightings.

Alcock's explanation for apparition sightings on page 495 is vacuous: that “our perceptions are affected by expectation and suggestibility.” There is no known tendency for humans to have visual hallucinations based on expectations. Tens of millions of Democrats fully expected Hillary Clinton to win the election on November 8, 2016, and not one of them hallucinated that Hillary Clinton won on that night. A study found that 64% of people having apparition sightings reported seeing them “during mundane or normal times in their lives,” not in some haunted house when expectation or suggestibility might have been a factor.

On page 446 and 447 Alcock discusses the ESP research of Joseph Rhine, who over many years obtained massive laboratory evidence for extrasensory perception. For example, as discussed here, Rhine did 10,300 card guessing trials with Hubert Pearce, who scored an enormous 27 standard deviations above the expected chance result (particle physicists regard a result as a discovery if it scores only five standard deviations above chance). We hear no numerical details of Rhine's research from Alcock, nor do we hear from him about any numerical details of any non-negative experimental research relevant to the topics he discusses. On page 447 Alcock makes this extremely laughable statement:

It is actually fallacious to equate departures from chance with paranormal influence. Statistical analysis can only determine that there has been a departure from chance expectation, which means that such an outcome is unlikely (but not impossibly so) to occur by chance alone.

This is extremely absurd. Using such reasoning, if you shuffled a pack of cards 10 times, and then asked someone to guess the sequence of 52 cards, and the person did so with 100 percent accuracy, we should not assume this was paranormal – because it would not be impossible for someone to make 52 consecutive guesses correctly which each had a probability of 1 in 52. You could use such reasoning to disqualify almost every single thing a scientist claims is true, including virtually all facts of chemistry, physics and biology. For example, if we followed such a rule, we should not believe that ice forms when water freezes, because there is always 1 chance in a trillion quadrillion quintillion that every time we have seen ice, we have merely hallucinated.

Unfortunately by announcing such a most ridiculous standard (that we should ignore departures from chance when judging the paranormal unless they are impossibilities), Alcock discredits and impeaches all of his judgments on all belief topics discussed in his book, on the grounds that he does not have a reasonable standard for being persuaded whenever he says something like “there is no convincing evidence for such a thing.”

On page 447 Alcock claims this about Joseph Rhine: “Subsequent analysis revealed flaws and biases in his experimentation to the extent that parapsychologists do not refer to his data when arguing for the reality of the paranormal.” This is false, and Alcock makes no substantive discussion of any such flaws. The experimental research of Joseph Rhine stands up very well as extremely convincing evidence for ESP, and his research is typically cited by parapsychologists when arguing for the reality of the paranormal. We may note that the vast majority of skeptics claiming there were “flaws and biases” in such research never tell us what such alleged flaws and biases they are talking about, because their complaint would be shown to be lacking in substance if they presented it in detail.

Alcock then spends several pages (pages 448 to 451) giving us misstatement after misstatement about parapsychology research. He claims that experiments of psychic phenomena are not replicable. This is false. There have been innumerable replications of successful experiments for ESP, both before and after Rhine. Long after Rhine the ganzfeld sensory deprivation experiments on ESP were extremely successful time after time in showing results far above chance, in which subjects tested would get results of around 30 percent or 32 percent in which the expected chance result was only 25 percent.

Many thousands of books have presented evidence of the paranormal. Alcock shows no good evidence of having seriously studied any research or testimony on the paranormal other than skeptical and negative works. Nowhere in his book does Alcock give any good evidence that he actually read and carefully studied any book or major research paper on any paranormal topic or any belief topic he discusses, except for skeptical and negative works. Alcock's book is the type of book a person might write if his research rule was “gather only negative information.”

On page 488 Alcock discusses the reincarnation research of Ian Stevenson, a University of Virginia psychiatrist who spent decades piling up evidence of children who seemed to remember a past life. Alcock mentions not a single one of the many compelling cases Stevenson documented, and discusses his research (and that of his successor Jim Tucker) in such a skimpy and mangled way that no reader of his book would think such research had any substance. Read up on their research and you'll get an entirely different picture. In a type of case Stevenson carefully documented many times, a child would recall many details of being in a previous life a particular person living many miles away, and a subsequent investigation would show that there previously lived exactly such a person who the child should have been unaware of. In very many cases the child had birthmarks matching the death wounds of such a person. We don't hear about any such cases in Alcock's book.

He also mentions the reincarnation research of Helen Wambach, conveniently failing to mention the statistical analysis she did after doing “past lives regressions” of 700+ people. She found that such people gave details of food, clothing and utensils far better than in popular history books, and that the percentage of people reporting a past life in the lower class, middle class or upper class matched that of historical periods in which a past life was reported.

On page 485 Alcock discusses psychokinesis, claiming “there is no persuasive evidence that psychokinesis actually exists.” He fails to discuss any laboratory evidence for mind-over-matter. But a meta-analysis of research on mind-over-matter in dice throwing experiments found that “the experimental effect size is independently replicable, significantly positive, and not explainable as an artifact of selective reporting or differences in methodological
quality.” The meta-analysis found that the mind-over-matter effect in dice throwing experiments was a massive 19 standard deviations above chance. In particle physics, something is considered a discovery if it is a mere five standard deviations above chance.

The US government spent millions of dollars funding research on the paranormal phenomenon of remote viewing, with the research being funded for many years. There were many astonishing successes, some of which you can read about here. Alcock makes no mention of any such research, other than mentioning in passing in one paragraph “remote viewing studies” without mentioning who did such studies or what the results were.

When discussing precognition, which he lists under “illusory experience,” Alcock seems to have no knowledge of the topic other than having heard about Lincoln's dream that seemed to foretell his death. Almost everyone discussing this topic mentions the recent research of Cornell University professor Daryl Bem, which Alcock fails to mention. The research was published in a peer-reviewed scientific publication, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The widely discussed paper was entitled, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.” Despite repeated claims by skeptics that these results have not been replicated, they have actually been well-replicated, as Bem has shown in a meta-analysis of similar experiments. His meta-analysis was published in the paper “Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events."

Bem's meta-analysis discussed 90 experiments from 33 laboratories in 14 different countries. The analysis reported an overall effect of p=1.2 X 10-10. Roughly speaking, this means the results had a probability of about 1 in 10 billion. This is a very impressive result, showing statistical significance millions of times stronger than what is shown in typical papers reported by mainstream media. A typical paper that gets covered by the press will have an effect of only about p=.01 or p=.05. A meta-analysis on precognition and presentiment found that “The statistical results for a class of forced-choice studies is associated with odds against chance of about 1024; for a class of free-response studies, odds about 1020; for psychophysiological-based studies, odds about 1017; and for implicit decision studies, odds about 1010.

Alcock discusses mediums without mentioning any of the famous mediums such as Leonora Piper, Daniel Dunglas Home and Indridi Indridason who underwent extensive study by scientists or skeptics, and who fared very well under such scrutiny, with paranormal effects being produced under controlled conditions. He tries to explain medium successes by the vacuous explanation of “cold reading,” which is little more than the idea of lucky guesses. He fails to mention the activity of the Windbridge Research group, which has published peer-reviewed papers testing mediums under controlled conditions, finding significant scientific evidence of “anomalous information reception.”

Discussing near-death experiences without showing any sign of having deeply researched the topic, Alcock claims, “There is simply no reasonable evidence that NDEs are anything other than the product of a distressed brain.” This is not at all true. There is plenty of such evidence. One piece of evidence is that near-death experiences very often occur during cardiac arrest, when the brain has shut down, as it does a does a few seconds after the heart stops beating. Such cases cannot possibly be the “the product of a distressed brain” because they occur when the brain has shut down and flatlined, and brain waves have stopped.

Another very powerful evidence reason why near-death experiences cannot be explained as brain activity is they often involve cases of people reporting the details of their operations or the details of physician's attempts to revive their hearts, during a time when their hearts had stopped and they should have been completely unconscious. Many such cases of “veridical near-death experiences” are described here.  The most famous one (a topic to be addressed by any serious treatment of this topic) is the case of Pam Reynolds. Alcock conveniently fails to mention all such cases.


Alcock's explanation for near-death experiences on page 478 is that they are a “reverie in a disordered brain.” When I search for a definition of “reverie” I get this from Google: “a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream.” Does it make any sense to suppose that people engage in pleasant daydreams when they are experiencing heart attacks, cardiac arrest, or other catastrophic events such as downing that put them on the brink of death? Certainly not. And a brain cannot have a “reverie” when it is shut down because a heart has stopped. The same reason rules out all other explanations Alcock suggests for near-death experiences, including his suggestion that they may be caused by ketamine. The brain has no stash of ketamine that it might release when someone nears death, and ketamine is not given to people as a treatment for heart attacks.

Alcock almost always give skimpy, distorted or inaccurate treatments of the evidence reasons people hold beliefs in the paranormal and the religious. He fills up a large portion of his book with excursions in weaponized psychology. After discussing some belief, he usually gives psychobabble speculations attempting to suggest that people hold that belief because of glitches or imperfections in their mind, brain or senses. Since Alcock never discusses in any detail any of the better evidence for any belief topic or paranormal topic he deals with, his readers may say, “Oh, that's why people believe such things.” This is like someone arguing against the Big Bang theory, failing to inform his readers of the two main reasons why such a theory is believed (the red-shift of galaxies and the cosmic background radiation), and then presenting pseudo-scientific psychobabble to explain why people believe in the Big Bang.

There is a general reason why such psychobabble speculations are fruitless. It is that they can be used with equal force against someone who believes something, and someone who does not believe such a thing. For any given political belief or religious belief or belief in the paranormal, you can create a list of psychological reasons why a person might hold such a belief, as well as an equally substantive list of psychological reasons why someone might not hold such a belief. Therefore all such speculations are futile from the standpoint of supporting or discrediting a belief. Speculation about belief motives is not even a scientific undertaking, because such speculations can neither be confirmed nor falsified. There are always ten possible reasons why someone might believe something not generally acknowledged, and there's no way to determine the reasons for a belief (something that can't be determined by just asking people why they believe something).

In the Soviet Union psychiatrists would attempt to convince people they had a mental illness whenever they deviated from Marxist orthodoxy. So if a person in 1975 Russia thought that he wasn't actually living in a worker's paradise, or that perhaps society needed to be reformed through democratic action, the psychiatrists would claim he had a mental illness. Writers today who practice weaponized psychology to try to enforce the rigid orthodoxy of materialism are like psychiatrists of the Soviet Union who used weaponized psychiatry to enforce the rigid orthodoxy of Marxism.

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