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Science and the paranormal

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on November 23, 2008

A few days ago I wrote an entry titled “Sacred Geometry-Sacred Nonsense?” in which I replied to an entry about sacred geometry posted at the blog “Beyond the Blog”. Me and that blog’s author, Anthony, had a nice discussion in the comments section of that entry of mine. Now Anthony has a new entry titled “The Science Gene” and I have, yet again, some issues with what Anthony has to say. On my previous entry I was told that I did not get the meaning of what he was saying, so I will read this carefully to make sure that this acuse cannot be thrown my way this time.

In his latest entry Anthony is talking about the paranormal and scientists. He says:

When it comes to this modern breed, I immediately fall into the same category as anyone else who is prepared to give the paranormal a chance.

I never expected any different. The general scientific acceptance of curiosity may work for most areas of life and the universe, but regarding the paranormal, there is a form of mental block. Simply considering the subject is enough to be discounted.

Now the term paranormal is a wide umbrella that encompasses lots of things from homeopathy and acupuncture to psychics, ESP, remote viewing, astral projections, psychic surgery etc etc. Some of these fields, especially the medical related ones such as homeopathy and acupuncture have been studied deeply by the modern science types. I am not sure if Anthony includes skeptics in the “modern breed” category. Organizations such as the James Randi Educational Foundation have been spending lots ant lots of time testing every kind of imaginable supernatural/paranormal claim. In fact Randi’s million dollar challenge remains unclaimed decades after it was instituted.

What group does Anthony think he falls under? It seems that the implication is the “ignored with a wave of the hand” group. In fact many proponents of the paranormal usually throw that sort of argument around. Oh, the scientist are too arrogant that they don’t even look into our claims, they just discount them out of hand. But is that true? Let’s look at this carefully. As I mentioned plenty of studies have been done by scientist on many paranormal/supernatural claims (and yes acupuncture with it’s chi and ying and yang nonsense is totally paranormal and so is homeopathy with its law of attraction/similarities and the dilution nonsense). Psychic abilities also have been tested extensively by the JREF.

But let’s stay on track here. By definition the paranormal/supernatural are beyond natural, they are out of this natural world. Science, also by definition, is concerned with natural explanations and does not, cannot, get involved with stuff that is supposed to be outside of nature. How do you test something when it is defined as being untestable by the tools of science? How do you test psychic abilities if psychics will rationalize (usually after the fact, after having failed miserably) that their powers wane and go away under test conditions? How do you test something which is supposed to work all the time, except when it is being tested under a controlled environment?

So can we blame scientists EVEN IF they did completely ignore supernatural explanations? It is not fair to blame them for not doing something which they cannot do right? Science test hypotheses, but the hypothesis itself has to be testable. If you define things so that they fall beyond the natural, beyond the testable then you cannot experiment with them, you cannot study them properly speaking. Some paranormal claims are of this nature 100% (GOD) whereas others are not completely this way. Therefore some are more suitable for scientific testing and some are less, depending how they are defined by their proponents.

Which takes me back to my original question, which group does Anthony feel like he’s being included with? The group that has been tested but has not been shown to work? Or the group that by it’s very own definition cannot be approached scientifically? Now if you belong to the first one, is it really a surprise that after study after study failing to even hint that such things work, scientist would say enough, I will not test the same idea anymore? Is it really unreasonable at this point to say that anyone who comes to me with the very same argument, without a new hypothesis, without new data, without some preliminary test, will not get anymore of my time? I don’t think so.

And if Anthony thinks he’s being lumped into the second group, well then in that case he’d be disqualifying himself from scientific review and the blame should not be thrown the scientist way.

Could it be down to a simple inability in them to comprehend the subject? Certainly it appears so.

That is unfair to say the least. In fact I submit that skeptics and scientists understand more of the various paranormal subjects than more people that blindly believe in them. We understand how psychics are supposed to perform their tricks. We understand how homeopathy and acupuncture are supposed to work miracles. We know how healing prayer is supposed to work. We do. But we are not convinced. If there is an inability, it is one to believe extraordinary claims based on very flimsy evidence. Yes, I confess to that inability.

Behaviour is said to be down to nature or nurture. The former is due to our genes, whilst the latter is said to be to do with our upbringing, etc. Yet I’ve recently begun writing about a third factor in this equation.

Culture could play an important part.

We exist in culture. We are labeled through our culture. Our knowledge is very much a part of our culture. Hence, culture plays an important part in our behaviour.

Now this is more of a technical gripe. Culture does play an important part, that he’s right about. But culture is not a third element. Culture is included in nurture and upbringing. I just wanted to point that out. Not a biggie but it helps to straighten everything that needs straightening I think.

But could it be that changes in culture lead, over several generations, to changes in the behavioural elements of our genetic structure?

That’s an interesting question to entertain I think, but I find it very hard to accept that some behavioral trait that is not genetic in any sense can somehow be transferred to the genes. Very very doubtful to say the least. Do we have any geneticist that read this blog that could shed some light on this area? I am in no position to say conclusively either way, but I lean towards no right now. Anthony offers another possibility:

We talk of change through the ‘meme’, but I’m suggesting here that it could be a real genetic influence, and not just a concept. In effect, what we are is not enshrined in genetic stone, but fluid. We change as our culture directs.

As with evolution generally, the culturally fittest ideas could well survive to be conditioned into the person. Hence behaviour – the cultural prevalence of the religious or scientific impulse, for instance – can be programmed into the person.

How would this programming happen? What is the mechanism being proposed? And don’t give me a supernatural explanation please.

Does this give a hint of a reason for science’s intransigence when it comes to the paranormal? I don’t know. But it should be discussed, for it suggests that the ‘natural’ bias against the paranormal is not ‘natural’ at all, but the result of a form of cultural brainwashing

Nope! Actually this possible conclusion that Anthony offers is based on a very very weak speculation (behavior that is not genetic in nature can be programed into the genes) and when the foundation is week the whole building will collapse. I understand that Anthony is not claiming that this is in fact what is happening. Nevertheless, he is offering a possible explanation about the science gene, programed via countelss cultural scientific brainwashing over the generations , which makes scientists ignore the paranormal. Very neat philosophically, but way to speculative scientifically.

So where do we go from here? Someone who thinks this hypothesis has any merit should first start with the claim about the “cultural programing” and establish that this claim is probable. When that is established, then they need to get to work on this “science gene” and identify a possible gene candidate, I guess by running genetic profiles of scientist and looking for common genes and what have you. Then, you need to devise a test to figure out if said science gene does affect attitudes towards the supernatural. That is in a nutshell the proper way of approaching this. Remember, just thinking up a hypothesis is not enough even if it seems to make sense. We could sit around discussing ideas all day long and nothing would come out of it unless we actually did the work to test them.

Indeed, it suggests that, in terms of behaviour, nothing is ‘natural’ at all. Rather, we are fluid receptors of change and ideals produced by an over-culture of our collective behaviour and ideas.

Baloney! Fight or flight is not cultural under any sense. It’s much more primitive than any human culture. Generalizations like this are very dangerous. Whenever one say nothing, or everything, they are open to all sorts of criticism as I hope I just showed here. This statement I completely disagree with.

I think I’ve figured out the differences between Anthony and I. It seems to me that it comes down to possibility and probability. It seems Anthony considers many possibilities but does not take into account the probability. What he has just described in his entry is possible, sure, but very very improbable. And scientist and skeptics look at both possibilities (hypotheses) and probabilities (experimental results) and when the probabilities remain very very low we just stop wasting time with the possibility and unless new eveidence is presented to raise the probability it makes no sense to go back over and over  to the possibility. That  is not a fault in my eyes. It is a virtue. Am I making any sense?

Religion vs Superstition – Mande Barung Revisited

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on October 30, 2008

Michael Egnor has managed to write his most incoherent blog entry ever, and that’s saying something.  I was actually impressed with how many errors and misconceptions he could cram into each sentence. Writing for the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, Egnor also reinforces the point I have been making recently that the Intelligent Design movement is not just anti-evolution but anti-science, and their primary strategy is to paint any scientific conclusion they find objectionable as “materialist ideology.”

This time Egnor is playing off the recent Baylor University survey on religious beliefs, and true to form he gets it completely wrong. He begins:

“Skeptical” atheist Steven Novella has a blog post on “Mande Barung,” an Indian version of the Himalayan Yeti and the North American Bigfoot. Novella ruminates on the credulity of one Dipu Marak, a local passionate believer in the shy mythical creature. Debunking Yeti sightings is low-hanging fruit for skeptics like Novella, whose skepticism knows no limits — except for his own materialist ideology, about which he is credulous to the bone. One wonders why atheist “skeptics” need to explain to their readership — presumably compliant atheist skeptics all — that Yeti probably don’t exist.

I see that now he has taken to using “skeptical” in scare quotes. Clearly Egnor does not understand the first thing about skeptical philosophy. First, he seems to equate it with being an “atheist”. He does not bother to define “atheist”, which is not a small point, especially since I am on record as describing myself as an agnostic. (The atheist vs agnostic discussion is for another post.) This is also important because he is pushing the “materialist ideology” theme – and the whole point of agnosticism is anti-ideology.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “NEUROLOGICA”

You Don’t See Dead People. And Neither Do Your Kids.

Posted in Rational Moms by Skepdude on October 6, 2008

My two-year old daughter, Sally, loves ghosts. Last Halloween, she received the book Sheep Trick or Treat and since then we’ve read it many, many times. Sally points to the ghosts throughout the book and says, “Ooooooooooo” in her best scary voice. This leads to her ghost imitation where she walks around the house with a blanket on her head. Sally decided way back in June that she wants to be a ghost this Halloween. To my daughter, as well as rational people everywhere, ghosts are fictional, frivolous things. We can say this because the existence of ghosts, or any kind of paranormal activity for that matter, has never been credibly documented or recorded using true scientific methods.

In searching online for a ghost costume that will fit Sally better than a sheet (and let me tell you, it’s hard finding a ghost costume that doesn’t make her look like a Klan member), I happened upon a blog for parents of psychic kids. This site promotes “intuitive parenting for intuitive kids.” The posts are from parents who believe their son or daughter sees ghosts (mostly deceased relatives) or has an invisible friend.

Readers of this blog write with glee about how sensitive and perceptive their kids are. Billy communicates with Grandma! Cindy sees angels! Joey talks to an invisible friend! (Note their use of the word invisible rather than imaginary. As a child, my sister had two imaginary friends. We never thought she had a “gift,” we thought she had a screw loose.) The parents are desperate for advice on how to nurture the psychic ability in their “very special” children. It’s sad when adults think they possess psychic abilities, but it’s really sad when they project these ideas onto little kids. Some of the children referenced in posts are only two or three years old.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “RATIONAL MOMS”

More On Near Death Experiences

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on September 22, 2008

There has been a great deal of discussion about the planned study of near death experiences (NDEs) since I wrote about the study on Friday. I focused my attention primarily on the neurological and scientific issues, but other issues were raised with regard to this study.

GM Woerlee wrote an extensive piece on this topic focusing also on the medical aspects of what happens during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). His primary point is that CPR generates enough blood flow to the brain in order to explain the experiences that survivors report. He also emphasizes that this research into NDEs has been done enough to arrive at the reliable conclusion that it is the experience of an anoxic brain and tha this further research is unecessary.

This, of course, raises the question of the usefulness of this proposed study – to place signs near the ceilings in ERs and ICUs and then see if people with NDEs could read the signs, meaning they were actually outside their bodies and not just feeling as if they were. I agree with the argument that this is a questionable use of finite research funds. There are certainly more pressing medical questions with a greater probability of a practical outcome. Public interest and the ideology of individual researchers – not good medicine – is driving this research.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “NEUROLOGICA”

Afflicted with angels

Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on September 21, 2008

Maybe we need to start smuggling seditious rationalist literature into America, because look at the state of our fellow citizens’ minds:

More than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives, according to a new poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion. In a poll of 1700 respondents, 55% answered affirmatively to the statement, “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.” The responses defied standard class and denominational assumptions about religious belief; the majority held up regardless of denomination, region or education — though the figure was a little lower (37%) among respondents earning more than $150,000 a year.

It’s a weird little article in the interpretation department, too. It keeps saying these numbers indicate something more than belief, and are experiential, whatever that means. It sounds like they are trying to imply that this is something more substantial than just a goofy delusion.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “PHARYNGULA”

Psychics Harrass Father Of Disappeared Claremont Girl

Posted in Podblack Cat by Skepdude on August 31, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “PODBLACK CAT”

Yes, I’m still at Dragon*Con, actually missing Phil Plait’s speech all about his new book. Just got back from manning the table at the other hotel, for Skepticality.

Since I’ve seen enough of Plait around the conference already (even observed him giving Michael Stackpole a copy of his ’still got a few edits’ new book!) – meh. I’ll ask Richard Saunders for the rundown, as he’s attending. I need a coffee more.

Especially after reading this. I used to work in the same town where the serial killer operated – many thanks to Andy D for the tip – From The Western Australian Newspaper:

The father of Claremont serial killer victim Sarah Spiers has described how he fell into chronic depression because of harassment by clairvoyants who demanded money to help find his daughter.

Don Spiers detailed his harrowing experience yesterday as police continued to field phone calls from the public after the release on Thursday of security footage of another victim, Jane Rimmer, speaking to an unidentified man moments before she disappeared.

Mr Spiers, who has long been reluctant to speak to the media, was candid yesterday about his emotional and mental trauma.

He said up to 400 psychics and clairvoyants from across the world had contacted him since Sarah disappeared on January 27, 1996.

He said they were offering false information and “looking to make a name for themselves or get money”.

He had been so desperate to find his daughter in the first six months after she disappeared that he had listened to the “shysters” and often followed their instructions.

“They hounded me to death,” Mr Spiers said.

“I’d be getting it every day. It was just an onslaught.

“They were sending me to certain locations, just running me around. They were telling me all sorts of things. They’d give me cryptic clues.

“They had my emotions on a rollercoaster. You’d be full of hope and you’d be out (searching) and there’d be nothing and then you’d go down (in emotion) again.

“I can’t understand why anyone would do this to someone in my situation. Why would they want to make it worse for me?

“They probably all wanted to be recognised as being high-profile clairvoyants. They are shysters, there’s no question about it.”

He said the relentless approaches from clairvoyants and the false hope they created had led him to have a breakdown late in 1996, when he found himself sitting in an armchair at his home ripping chunks of hair from his scalp.

…As he struggled with depression, he continued to fend off clairvoyants and psychics and was even abused over the phone by members of the public. “We had phone calls from people saying we are the perpetrators or saying that we deserve it,” he said.

If people wish to know more about the case, I highly recommend the book ‘Devil’s Garden: The Claremont Serial Killings’, which features an excellent interview that emphasises the media and the police force stance, refusing to engage psychics in the cases.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “PODBLACK CAT”

Negative Energy Research

Posted in New Age, paranormal, Skeptico by Skepdude on August 22, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “SKEPTICO”

Beware of skeptics – we wield amazing powers!

From last week’s Skeptics’ Circle and Hyphoid Logic I found this story from the St. Petersburg Times, reporting on our awesome ability to wield negative energy:

Virginia Levy walked into the library downtown to prove she was psychic. A group of doubters called the Tampa Bay Skeptics questioned the claims of people like her and had set up a challenge. Levy came to meet it. There sat a row of boxes. Could she guess which contained crystals? She was given seven chances. Seven times she failed. It wasn’t inability that did her in, she said recently, the bitterness still evident in her voice. It was the bespectacled host of the project, Gary Posner, an unbeliever who she said patronized her, creating an atmosphere filled with negative energy. She purposely chose the wrong box each time, she said, then left in a huff. [My bold.]

She also explained exactly how we do it:

“What they’re doing is using the laws of attraction,” Levy said. “They’re actually using the same powers that psychics use, except in reverse.”

Of course – we’re using The Secret. It all makes sense now.

There have been numerous claims by psychics and parapsychologists, that skeptics’ negative energy causes psi experiments to fail, but as far as I know, there has been no actual research on this subject.  This is an “anomaly” that I believe urgently needs rectifying.  So, I hereby propose a new avenue for psi research – testing skeptics’ ability to wield negative energy.

The Protocol

Here’s an idea of how it would work. We start with some standard psi tests – talking to the dead, remote viewing, Ganzfeld-type judging of target pictures (Zener cards are so 1950s), Rupert Sheldrake’s staring experiments – you name it. These tests are performed in a room in front of a one way mirror. Behind the mirror, either there is a skeptic watching the experiment or there isn’t, but double-blind controls insure none of the experimenters or subjects know which. The objective is to determine whether or not the skeptic’s presence (and therefore negative energy) influences the results of the experiment.

If the test is successful, we would move to Phase 2.  This could include answering the following additional questions:

  1. Does the skeptic still negatively influence the test if he is behind the mirror but not observing the test (he’s reading a book, say, or listening to his iPod)?
  2. Does the skeptic still negatively influence the test if he watches the experiment on a closed circuit TV on a different floor in the building?  What about is he’s across town?  Or in another city?  Does the effect stay constant regardless of the distance?
  3. What if the skeptic and his negative energy is shielded in some way – for example, inside a Faraday cage?
  4. Does the skeptic still negatively influence the test if he watches it later on a videotape? In other words, does watching the experiment on tape retroactively alter the success of the test?  (Some have claimed psi works this way.  Seriously.)
  5. What if two tests are made and taped, and only one is viewed at random by the skeptic? Will the experimenters able to predict which tape is randomly selected in the future based on the psychic’s test results in the present?
  6. If multiple psychics are performing the same test at the same time, will their combined psychic abilities overwhelm the skeptic’s negative energy?

All important questions and the answers could be groundbreaking. And if successful, it could be a legitimate way for skeptics to apply for Randi’s million, or at least receive some payment from psi researchers for taking part in their experiments.

Sheldrake, Schwartz – I’m available.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “SKEPTICO

Monsters, Ghosts and Gods: Why We Believe

Posted in LiveScience by Skepdude on August 19, 2008

Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever. What’s harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the pockets of their purveyors.

The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can’t help it.

“Many people quite simply just want to believe,” said Brian Cronk, a professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University. “The human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre explanations.”

A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “LIVESCIENCE”.

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