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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Some Errors in His Hardcore Skepticism

I recently read a book entitled Skeptic by Micheal Shermer. It's a collection of his essays that were published in Scientific American. Shermer is not a scientist, but his essays do serve as a kind of ideological comfort food for a certain type of materialistic mindset. In this book Shermer takes a jaundiced view towards all claims of paranormal phenomena. But the book is not a powerful debunking of the paranormal. The reason is simple: Shermer almost always follows the approach of simply ignoring all of the better evidence for the paranormal. He's like some writer trying to prove that the New York Yankees have never produced good hitters, and who tries to prove it by pretty much only discussing Yankee hitters who hit under .250.

I'll give some examples. On page 99 Shermer delves into the subject of mediums. He accuses medium John Edward of cheating, saying, “It's a trick.” But he provides nothing to substantiate this claim, other than speculation. He fails to mention that Edward was tested by scientist Gary Schwartz, using controlled conditions. Schwartz did not find cheating, but found impressive paranormal-seeming results (the paper is here). And what about other mediums in history who achieved very impressive results under scientific investigation? These include Daniel Dunglas Home (who passed scientific tests of paranormal ability conducted by the world-class scientist William Crookes), Leonora Piper (who passed with flying colors long investigations by psychologist William James and his colleagues), and Indridi Indridason (who produced spectacular paranormal effects in a controlled laboratory setting, while being investigated by some of Iceland's top scientists, as discussed here). We hear no word of these in Shermer's book.

Shermer twice mentions near-death experiences, but does absolutely nothing to debunk them. He fails to mention any specific case of near-death experience. He make no mention of the phenomena of veridical near-death experiences, cases like the Pam Reynolds case, when a person who should have been absolutely unconscious reported correctly details of his or her operation, while reportedly floating out of the body. Shermer does give us on page 106 this weird logic-mangling non-sequitur:

The December 2001 issue of Lancet published a Dutch study in which of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death, 12 percent reported near-death experiences, where they had an out-of-body experience and saw a light at the end of a tunnel. Some even described speaking to dead relatives....These studies are only the latest to deliver blows against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body.

So when you float out of your body that's evidence against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body? No, it's evidence for such a belief.

Shermer's book makes occasional mention of UFO's, although Shermer fails to mention any of the more spectacular cases, and fails to discuss any of the better evidence for UFO's. On page 54 he makes the very weird calculation (without any justification) that superstring theory is seven times more probable than UFO's. This makes no sense, because we have very abundant observational evidence for paranormal sky phenomena such as UFO's, but no evidence at all for superstring theory.

Shermer's claim to be a skeptic is very doubtful. The skeptics of ancient Greece were those who were skeptical about all claims of knowledge, and cynical about all claims of knowledge authority. But Shermer is gullible when it comes to groundless ornate speculations such as superstring theory, probably just because such speculations are popular among some scientists. On page 22 Shermer reveals himself to be a true devotee. Using the term “shaman” to kind of mean “high priest,” Shermer says: “We show deference to our leaders, pay respect to our elders, and follow the dictates of our shamans; since this is the Age of Science, it is scientism's shamans who command our veneration.” Veneration? Would any real skeptic ever gush in such a fawning way, acting in such a worshipful way towards a human authority? 
In discussing ESP (extra-sensory perception), Shermer absolutely owed his readers a full discussion of the evidence gathered under controlled lab conditions by Professor Joseph Rhine at Duke University. As I discuss here, this is “smoking gun” evidence for ESP. But here (on page 103) is all that Shermer has to say about Rhine's research: “In the twentieth century, psi periodically found its way into serious academic research programs, from Joseph Rhine's Duke University experiments in the 1920's to Daryl Bem's Cornell University research in the 1990's.” That's all. He fails to even mention that Rhine's experiments were successful. They were, in fact, a most spectacular success, repeatedly showing extremely dramatic evidence for ESP, such as results with a chance probability of only 1 in 10 trillion (see below for a more specific discussion).

Shermer does mention later ganzfeld ESP experiments in the late twentieth century that also showed dramatic evidence for ESP – but he merely cites some arch-skeptic who criticized them, and Shermer never mentions the numerical results of the experiments. Again, Shermer keeps his readers in the dark, hiding from them one of the best examples of evidence for the paranormal. The results were that in a long series of ESP experiments conducted by quite a few scientists over years, in which the expected success rate was 25%, the subjects scored with an accuracy of about 32%, something virtually impossible to occur by chance.

Shermer does give us (on page 104) some lame armchair reasoning against ESP: “Until psi proponents can explain how thoughts generated by neurons in the sender's brain can pass through the skull and into the brain of the receiver, skepticism is the appropriate response, as it was for evolution sans natural selection, and continental drift without plate tectonics.” This is fallacious reasoning for three reasons.

First, evidence for ESP is evidence that the human mind is something larger than neurons, so we don't have to explain ESP using the assumption that the mind is only the product of neurons. Second, it is wrong to claim that we should be skeptical about things that are observed but not explained. For thousands of years, humans observed plagues before understanding they were caused by microbes; and for thousands of years humans observed earthquakes before they understood they are caused by plate tectonics. Humans should absolutely not have been skeptical about plagues and earthquakes before they understood what caused them. Third, it is particularly ridiculous to say that we should have been skeptical about continental drift before discovering plate tectonics (discovered in the twentieth century), because continental drift (which has occurred throughout history) has always been the correct explanation for why Africa and South America fit together.

The rule Shermer is suggesting – one of “you can't believe in something until you understand the cause” is a fallacious one not actually followed by scientists, who believe in the Big Bang despite having no explanation for it. Equally wrong is the principle that Shermer states on page 53 (in a chapter entitled “Baloney Detection”), in which he claims that we can detect baloney or nonsense by asking: “Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomenon, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?” Shermer claims the second of these two is “unacceptable in science,” but that claim is itself pure baloney.

There is no reason why anyone criticizing an existing explanation must be forced to give his own explanation that is better. It is, in fact, a perfectly sound and fair technique to argue that a proposed or popular explanation for something is wrong, and that we simply do not know what the explanation is. It is, for example, completely fair for a defense attorney to discredit a district attorney's claim that the defense attorney's client is guilty of murder, without offering an alternate suspect; and it would be quite absurd to argue “you can't discredit my claim that your client is guilty of murder unless you show who committed the murder.” To give another example, if I criticize a physics “theory of everything,” it is absurd to say that I am not entitled to do that unless I advance my own physics “theory of everything” as an alternative.

On page 258 of his book, Shermer gives us a glaring misstatement. He says:

Either people can read other people's minds (or ESP cards) or they can't. Science has unequivocally demonstrated that they can't.

To the contrary, professor Joseph Rhine provided conclusive evidence for ESP using ESP cards, such as the test with Hubert Pearce in which he scored 27 standard deviations above the expected chance result, getting 3746 successes out of 10,300 trials, in controlled laboratory tests in which the expected chance result was only 2575 successes. The chance of that is less than 1 in a 10 trillion. His colleague Pratt got similar results with the same subject. See here for details. In another test discussed here, a contemporary of Rhine's (Riess, a skeptical CUNY professor) did a remote test in which the subject scored a 73% accuracy rate while guessing 1850 cards. The chance of that has been estimated as 1 in 10 to the 700th power. What Shermer has told us here about ESP is the exact opposite of the truth.

The same misinformation is provided by another Scientific American columnist, John Horgan. Ignoring a previous account he has given us of a laboratory experiment getting a 75% hit rate on an ESP experiment in which the expected hit rate is only 20%, Horgan informs us on page 104 of his book Rational Mysticism that “psi has never been convincingly demonstrated in the laboratory.” This is absolutely false, for the reasons given above.

Shermer's closed mind on the paranormal is shown in a recent Scientific American column, where he claims that “not even in principle” can the paranormal be used to explain “hitherto unsolved mysteries.” Consider how absurd such a principle is: it is the principle that things we don't understand (the paranormal) can never explain things we don't understand (unsolved mysteries). By stating that we cannot even “in principle” use the paranormal, Shermer has made it clear that no observations can ever persuade him of something paranormal. Apparently he will not believe in the paranormal even if a city-sized spaceship appears over his head. There is a phrase to describe this type of “no evidence could ever persuade me” attitude: bullheaded entrenched intransigence. It's a very unscientific attitude, since being scientific means (among other things) being always open to new evidence that might overturn previous assumptions. So why are Shermer's essays being published in a magazine called Scientific American


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