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On Skepticism: A Reply to Francois
2006.02.21 (Tue) 22:59
Some people don't seem to understand skeptics.
The usual complaint is that skeptics are too closed minded, and that they spend their time trying above all else to disprove the supernatural. While we're sure that there are some skeptics who fall into this category, it certainly isn't indicative of all skeptics. Yes, it's true that many skeptics will tell you that they don't believe in the supernatural (us included), but that's not because of some groundless predisposition to disbelieve which then colors all of our work. Rather, it's based on careful examination of the evidence leading to an educated conclusion. The certainty of the skeptic is simply the certainty of applied science and rigorous methodologies, along with a recognition of the history of scientific and decidely unscientific claims; it is neither the whimsical certainty of the "true believer," nor the unflinching and invulnerable certainty of those who like to argue for the sake of arguing.
However, some people (as we discovered) would argue the entirely opposite position — that skeptics are actually too accommodating of the supernatural, and that they are simply wasting their time by even allowing for the possibility that paranormal events are real. In this brand of criticism, it is asserted that nothing is to be gained by testing paranormal claims — it's the equivalent of repeatedly testing the efficacy of gravity over and over and over again, even though the outcome is assured. Why then, the argument goes, would a skeptic expend so much time and effort on useless tests of the supernatural? What's the point? What's the benefit? This is the approach that Francois Tremblay of Goosing the Antithesis has taken, and like the opposite extreme presented above, we simply do not agree.
In our linking post to the latest Carnival of the Godless, we referenced another post at Goosing the Antithesis, this week's Carnival host, that addressed a statement from James Randi. Randi says:
Yes, I'm a materialist. I'm willing to be shown wrong, but that has not happened — yet. And I admit that the reason I'm unable to accept the claims of psychic, occult, and/or supernatural wonders is because I'm Iocked into a world-view that demands evidence rather than blind faith, a view that insists upon the replication of all experiments — particularly those that appear to show violations of a rational world — and a view which requires open examination of the methods used to carry out those experiments.
While we agreed wholeheartedly with Randi on this, the author of the post, Francois, did not:
Well, a few months ago I would have agreed completely, but now Randi's skeptical views somewhat annoy me. I don't think it's possible to prove that the supernatural exists, even in principle. I have yet to see any skeptic prove that the possibility remains. And yet they keep looking...
Isn't the skeptic's quixotic quest rather like those studies that keep cropping up to try to prove or disprove that prayer has a medical effect ? What is the point to these millions of dollars wasted ? Let's devote our energy to better things, people...
We addressed Francois' statements by wondering aloud why he thought skepticism was a waste of time. To us, the entire point of skepticism is to counter the bullshit that is infecting — or, in some cases, smothering — the world at an alarming rate. From our perspective, much of the mainstream media, along with certain universities and some medical sources, seems to be portraying absolute bunk as if it was scientifically verified fact. We feel that, as skeptics, it is our job to give people the information that they need to properly assess these claims, and to us, that is the benefit that skepticism provides. We really didn't get into this in our initial response as we were basing our musings only on the brief comments provided initially by Francois. That initial reply is repeated here:
Sorry, but we really have no idea what Francois is talking about here. What quest is he referring to as silly and useless? Randi isn't on a quest to prove that the paranormal exists — truly such a quest would be an awful lot like tilting at windmills. Instead, Randi (along with many other good skeptics) stands ready and willing to have someone prove via the scientific method that their specific claim of the paranormal exists. There's a big difference. If it were the former, Randi would be acting much like Dr. Venkman's initial perception of his colleagues in Ghostbusters — he'd be meeting and greeting every freak in the world who claimed to have a paranormal experience. Truly, that would be a waste of his time. If the latter — which is the reality of the situation — Randi's door is simply open to such claims, and when he is approached, he listens with an open mind, and designs scientific tests to verify the claims.
Further, the "possibility" always remains to prove the existence of the supernatural, inasmuch as anything is theoretically conceivable. Skeptics aren't, however, "looking" for evidence to support this possibility. They're testing those who claim such phenomena to see if their claims hold up. Just one instance in which a paranormal claim was supported by methodical, verifiable testing would, in fact, prove that the claimed phenomenon exists at least in this instance; which would, in fact, prove that "supernatural" phenomena in general are possible, regardless of whether any specific cases are true or false. The fact that not a single one of these phenomena has been successfully verified simply goes a long way toward supporting the hypothesis that none of them exist. Skeptics remain open (despite what credulous detractors assert) to further testing, but — as with any scientific theory — the preponderance of evidence currently available lends credence to a solid theory: in this case, the nonexistence of paranormal phenomena.
So, unless we're missing Francois' point, we have to say that he just doesn't seem to be getting it.
At the end, we invited Francois to fill us in on the thought process behind his statements, and he took us up on that offer. Based on some of his comments regarding "prudent predation," we suspected at first that he might be talking about credulous fools getting what they deserved. That is, the assertion that someone who believes in homeopathy so much that he eschews proper medical treatment for his cancer, and then dies as a result, has made their own bed, and it's not the skeptics' problem. Instead, Francois went in a different direction — one which we actually agree with even less. In short, he seems to lean heavily on a definition of "a skeptic" that we don't believe is at all accurate. He also utilizes somewhat vacuous semantic arguments to assert the impossibility of the supernatural, and presents what, to us, is a highly contradictory statement on whether skepticism is worthwhile or not.
We'll go through some of Francois' response here. One of his first statements is as follows:
[The folks at the Two Percent Company] trip all over themselves, however, when they say:
Further, the "possibility" always remains to prove the existence of the supernatural, inasmuch as anything is theoretically conceivable.
There seems to be an obsession amongst a lot of people in confusing possibility and conceivability. I hear the same addle-brained argument used against the argument from the meaninglessness of religious language (and we all have Theodore Drange to thank for that). "I can still imagine it, so it means something !".
However, Francois has completely failed to grasp what we are actually saying. We aren't saying that because we can imagine the paranormal, it might be real. We're saying that it's possible to test paranormal claims using strict scientific controls. There's a very clear difference between these two statements — in fact, they are two completely separate thoughts — and we're not sure why Francois doesn't recognize that.
That said, if Francois feels that it isn't possible to test paranormal claims using the scientific method, then for now, suffice it to say that we do not agree. We'll examine this idea in more depth below.
Francois goes on to say:
And no skeptic is going to be able to demonstrate the possibility of something that is meaningless ! Can't be done.
This may sound a little harsh, but we have no idea what the hell Francois is talking about here. The fact that any paranormal claim is meaningless is an assertion based solely on his underlying belief that it cannot exist. However, he appears to have no basis for that underlying belief itself, other than the fact that these phenomena are labelled as "supernatural." He has simply used word games to substantiate an unsubstantiated assertion, and he has based his entire argument on this principle.
Frankly, we agree that the "paranormal" or "supernatural" doesn't exist, but we hold that belief based on the incredible lack of evidence to support such claims from innumerable tests, both formal and informal, conducted over the years. Francois seems to hold that belief due to semantic arguments: supernatural ergo not natural ergo not real ergo meaningless; or, in plain English, if it's called "supernatural" then it can't be part of the natural world and hence it can't exist, period. That argument may be nice on paper, but it fails to address reality. The reason why the supernatural has been labelled as such is only because we humans have not observed it in the natural world. It's an artificial — literally man-made — label, not an immutable classification. As soon as something is scientifically verified to exist, it ceases to be "supernatural" and becomes "natural." At various points in history, atoms, germs, DNA and a host of other things unobservable without the aid of technology were, quite frankly, classified as "supernatural" — by humans. And at later points in history, each of these was re-classified, again by humans, as "natural." Did the reality of the situation somehow change, or did our understanding of it change? We are reasonably confident that it's the latter.
As much as we might agree with Francois' assertions that supernatural phenomena do not exist (up to a point), we feel that we must acknowledge that the non-existence of any and every paranormal claim is not a conclusively established fact. As a result, we do not dismiss out of hand any claim labelled as supernatural. Put simply, we must acknowledge that there could be an underlying natural cause behind something that, at a particular moment in time, seems — to us mere humans — to be supernatural.
(Before we get a slew of ridiculous challenges, we'll qualify that last paragraph: we do, of course, quickly and confidently dismiss those claims which bear a striking resemblance to claims that have already been falsified. Rehashing the same arguments over and over again is tiresome, even though it sometimes must be done.)
Setting all that aside, what is it that makes Francois think that skeptics are trying to demonstrate the possibility of the paranormal? Frankly, he seems to be missing the point entirely, if that's what he believes. Do we assert that claims of the paranormal can be tested? Absolutely. But there our assertion ends.
As we've said more times than we can count, sure: it's "possible" that mediums are real. It's also possible that small gnomes live in our asses. However, the likelihood of either of these hypotheses is so remote as to make no odds. As a result, we treat them both, quite appropriately, as if they are factually false.
That said, if someone was making headlines by saying that they had scientific proof of the existence of ass gnomes, and if that person approached us to test their claim, you'd better believe that we would do so. However, we wouldn't be doing so in order to prove their claim (or the veracity of the existence of ass gnomes); we'd be doing so in order to counter their bullshit in the public forum. The fact remains, though, that in order to conduct the test correctly, we must acknowledge the possibility (no matter how remote or even infinitesimal) that their claim is true. If we don't acknowledge that possibility, then we cannot properly construct or conduct a test of their claims. There's a world of difference between the statement we just made, and the one that Francois made, and we hope that the difference is clear.
I'm sure that skeptics have an inter-subjective idea of what it means to "test claims of the paranormal" or "test claims of the supernatural". That's all well and fine, but like all inter-subjective constructs, it is a shared belief which relates to nothing in the reality we all acknowledge. You cannot test something that has no connection to our material senses and instruments (never mind that it cannot exist in the first place).
Again, Francois' arguments seem to be based on word games. Not only do skeptics "have an idea" of what it means to test claims of the paranormal, such tests are actually constructed and carried out all the time. Really, his refusal to acknowledge this simple fact is fairly remarkable. Since these "impossible" tests have in reality been carried out, we aren't sure how he can continue to make such a claim. Someone here does seem to be ignoring reality — but it isn't us.
In addition, how can Francois backup his assertion that paranormal claims have no connection to our material senses and instruments? That is patently false. It is quite clear that any connection to our material observations would depend on the specific claim itself. For instance, take the dragon in Carl Sagan's garage:
"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage."
Suppose...I seriously make such an assertion to you....
"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
"Good idea, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?
If someone insistently offers qualifications that remove the possibility of materially observing or testing their claims, of course we can't test them. We're not saying that we could — or should. This is, in fact, where a lot of skeptics concede the potential existence of God (we, however, are not among them).
However, if someone offers a claim that clearly suggests a material, physical observation or experiment that could confirm or refute the claim, why should we not test it? If someone claims to be able to reliably report the color of any silk handkerchief obscured from her view by a leaden obstacle, in what way can't that be measured? We would have no problem designing and conducting a test in which this claim of the paranormal is measured, and we're sure that anyone reading this could also construct such a test. So where's the confusion?
We agree that the odds of the paranormal existing — of this person reliably identifying the color of the handkerchief via "psychic" means — are so tiny that it makes no real difference. However, it does not follow that the specific claims of paranormal bullshit artists are not testable. In fact, most such claims are clearly testable, and we don't understand how anyone can claim differently. Really, it's a testament to how little imagination the majority of these bullshit artists possess.
From here, Francois' response seems to derail further:
Even in mundane cases of fraud, the inter-subjective construct does not apply. You can even prove that someone is using cold reading, but you still haven't disproven the claim that he is getting "messages from the deceased" - since it has no meaning to begin with !
Basically, he has taken our statement that it is possible to test claims of the paranormal, and somehow morphed it into a claim that we can disprove the existence of the paranormal. However, that is quite definitively not what we said, nor what we believe. In fact, we've dedicated an entire post to that very subject. It's called "Only God Can Prove a Negative, and There Is No God." Check it out.
As demonstrated clearly in that earlier post, we agree that it is not possible to disprove the paranormal (for the reasons stated therein). However, it is absolutely possible to test and disprove (or prove) specific paranormal claims. For example, if a person claims to be able to diagnose illnesses by just looking at someone via special powers (let's say spirit communication), we can construct a test to verify that claim. Simply put, if the test is properly designed, and if the subject is able to diagnose illnesses by staring at someone across a room in a manner statistically more accurate than a control subject, then the claim of special diagnostic abilities is supported, and possibly verified, by our test. Would this mean that spirit communication is real? No, it would mean that something is going on to give this person more information than they should have via the known, natural channels. By continuing to test the subject, perhaps we would find other explanations. Some of these may be well-known natural explanations — perhaps they are trained in diagnostic medicine, and the illnesses detected had some telltale visual cues. Then again, we could find a "supernatural" explanation — perhaps it is spirit communication, or perhaps it's X-Ray Eyes. Only through repeated testing could we home in on the answer. The point is, if one of the "supernatural" explanations is indicated and shown to be true, then it would cease to be "supernatural" and henceforth be a "natural" explanation, provided it could be properly defined and understood. That's why Francois' semantic arguments hold so little water with us.
Francois' restatement of his initial assertion, then, truly confuses us, as he hasn't at all made his case:
I reiterate what I said - skepticism is a waste of time and judgment.
Not only don't we agree with this statement, we don't even think that Francois himself agrees with it. Why? Because he stated at the top of his own post:
One problem was that they thought I was saying James Randi is wasting his time. I don't think Randi is wasting his time with the Million Dollar Challenge, since it is meant as an education and PR move, not as testing of paranormal claims per se. I can imagine a cynic like me setting up such a Challenge, for the same reasons. It is a brillant idea.
So, how could something be a brilliant and educational move, and yet still be a quixotic waste of time? To us, the educational value is the benefit. Yes, we keep an open mind to paranormal claims (to the extent necessary to properly test and research such claims), but we certainly aren't skeptics for the purpose of proving such claims to be real. We are skeptics because we feel that educating people about the absurdity of these claims is well worth the effort. What we don't understand is how someone can recognize that benefit, and still think that the effort is a waste of time.
Of course we should all maintain a healthy doubt towards possibilities. I'm always discovering new possibilities and acknowledging I was wrong (most recently on the whole government issue, a couple months ago), so I do have such healthy doubt. The only difference is that I do not waste time on things that have no possibility.
Don't get us wrong — we certainly understand what Francois is saying here. As we said, we treat silly claims the same as we treat claims that are patently false. We don't go around believing in "the possibility" of mediums any more than we believe in our dearly beloved ass gnomes. They are both silly ideas. However, that doesn't mean that educating people about how silly they are is a waste of time, and it doesn't mean that countering phony science is not worthwhile.
Since Francois seems to clearly understand the educational value of skepticism, we won't go into that here. It is enough to say that we've personally come across more than a few people who have benefitted from seeing our arguments countering bullshit from people like Gary Schwartz and Allison DuBois. There is such a prevalence of unsubstantiated crap out there, masquerading as science and being thrown at the general population (via the mainstream media), that we feel compelled to try to counter it.
In short, Francois' arguments seem to be based largely on a flawed view of skepticism. Many, if not most, skeptics do what they do in order to educate people, not in order to try to "prove the possibility of the paranormal." We don't understand how he can acknowledge the educational value of skepticism, but still call it a waste of time. Education is the value, and countering bullshit always counts.
Like most things in life, skepticism isn't about one of the two extremes that we presented at the beginning of this post. Rather, it falls somewhere in the middle. While it's important to keep an open-enough mind to the possibility that something could happen that isn't immediately explainable, it is also important to acknowledge that the evidence gathered over hundreds of years clearly shows that the existence of the supernatural ranges from dubious at best, to downright bullshit. While performing this balancing act — what Carl Sagan calls the "Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder" — it's important to remember that the true benefit doesn't lie in disproving the claim, but rather in educating others in the proper application of the scientific method, and showing them why the flawed claims of scientific validation that are so carelessly thrown about by the media (as well as certain academics and medical professionals) are simply incorrect. We're not in the game in order to prove that Allison DuBois is full of shit, we're in it to help the world understand why she's full of shit. To us, that's remarkably worthy of our time.
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[ Filed under: % Bullshit ]
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Francois Tremblay, 2006.02.22 (Wed) 00:22 [Link] »
Fan-man, 2006.02.22 (Wed) 09:04 [Link] »
Derek Scruggs, 2006.02.22 (Wed) 12:35 [Link] »
Francois Tremblay, 2006.02.22 (Wed) 17:02 [Link] »
Tom from the Two Percent Company, 2006.02.22 (Wed) 17:07 [Link] »
Francois Tremblay, 2006.02.22 (Wed) 17:11 [Link] »
Francois Tremblay, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 00:36 [Link] »
Tom from the Two Percent Company, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 10:42 [Link] »
JY, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 14:03 [Link] »
Tom from the Two Percent Company, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 14:17 [Link] »
Tanooki Joe, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 15:42 [Link] »
Francois Tremblay, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 16:18 [Link] »
IAMB, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 18:03 [Link] »
The Two Percent Company, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 22:59 [Link] »
The Two Percent Company, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 23:24 [Link] »
The Two Percent Company, 2006.02.23 (Thu) 23:26 [Link] »
The Two Percent Company, 2006.02.24 (Fri) 11:49 [Link] »
Rockstar Ryan, 2007.02.01 (Thu) 13:43 [Link] »
The Two Percent Company, 2007.02.01 (Thu) 14:13 [Link] »
Tom Foss, 2007.02.01 (Thu) 15:45 [Link] »
Jeff from the Two Percent Company, 2007.02.01 (Thu) 15:53 [Link] »
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