In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism

Note: This is the third installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu

In the two previous installments, we have explored a large number of skeptical principles and exposed the various deceptive ways that Winston Wu has falsely characterized them. Confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Models that make fewer evidence-free assumptions should be preferred to models that are overly complex because they are more likely. The burden of evidence rests on the person advancing the position that is less likely with respect to the background information. Anecdotal evidence, although useful for generating hypotheses for future research, is not scientific evidence as it lacks independent support, is subject to cognitive biases and maybe be non-representative due to cherry-picking. Human memory is fallible and there are hundreds of people who have been falsely convicted on eyewitness testimony alone. Scientific skepticism is not about the automatic dismissal of supernatural claims. Rather, it is based on the fact that supernatural claims usually have little to no evidence supporting them, and plenty of evidence against them.

In this third installment, we will investigate how Wu misunderstands five additional skeptical principles and stances. Just because something currently lacks a scientific explanation does not mean that it is unexplainable or that supernatural “explanations” automatically win even though they lack evidence. Wu also equivocates between “beliefs” in the general sense of having opinions or accepting positions with the specific sense of holding evidence-free positions about the world. Scientific skepticism is about using accumulated scientific knowledge and rational arguments to investigate claims. It is not the same as philosophical skepticism or cynicism. Contrary to Wu, pointing out that some people’s beliefs are irrational or that they have a primitive form of thinking is not a personal attack, but an intellectually honest assessment of reality.

Misunderstood principle #11: Unexplained versus unexplainable

There are a lot of things that we currently cannot explain. Throughout history, there have been even more things that humans thought were very mysterious: the sun, the stars, the seasons, human health and disease, the history of life and so on. Yet scientists and researchers investigated these phenomena and came up with scientific explanations that were corroborated by observable evidence. Mystery gave away to knowledge and that which was thought to be unexplainable in principle evaporated. There are countless of examples were alleged supernatural “explanations” have been replaced by evidence-based scientific explanations. There are no historical examples where evidence-based scientific explanations have been replaced by supernatural “explanations”. In the historical competition between science and supernatural beliefs, science has won every time. Thus, when we are faced with an unexplained phenomena, we should bet on science.

How does Wu approach this principle? He does not. Instead, he ignores the validity of this principle and links to a book by Ian Stevenson with 20 alleged cases of reincarnation. How good is the evidence? As it turns out, it is worse than circumstantial and essentially non-existent. It is based on a supposed correlation between birthmarks of children and the locations of wounds on the supposed past life (Carroll, 2013):

The best evidence for reincarnation, he thought, are the number of “cases of subjects who have birthmarks or birth defects that seem to derive from previous lives. These marks and defects correspond closely in size and location to wounds (occasionally other marks) on the deceased person whose life the child later claims to remember.”

In other words, the evidence is just the stories of children, with data dredging of birthmarks. Unsurprisingly, these stories come from geographical areas where Hinduism and Buddhism have a strong cultural stance. That means that the belief in reincarnation is inculcated into most children at a very young age. There were also other issues, such as dishonest interpreters, interviewer bias, confirmation bias and other methodological problems.

In the end, Wu has not refuted this core skeptical principle.

Misunderstood principle #12: Belief

“Belief” is a tricky concept that comes with at least two separate meanings. It can simply mean having a conviction or the acceptance of a position, regardless of what this conviction or position is based on. For instance, someone can say they “believe” in democracy or “believe” in eating meatballs or Christmas. On this definition of “belief”, everyone has them, both skeptics and denialists. Belief can also mean the uncritical acceptance of a flawed position without evidence. For instance, someone can “believe” in ghosts. A consistent scientific skeptic aims to reduce the number of such beliefs (according to the second definition) to an absolute minimum. In other words, the skeptical principle here is about limiting the acceptance of flawed or evidence-free position.

Wu falsely characterizes this as “skeptics do not have beliefs” and tries to counter this by the following argument:

We all do things and say things based on assumptions we have, which are formed in part based on beliefs. These assumptions are sometimes in the line of beliefs because they are not always based on hard evidence, but our world views, predisposition, and natural tendencies.

It is certainly case that worldview and ideology can affect positions skeptics holds. After all, skeptics are humans. However, this says nothing about the principle of reducing the acceptance of flawed or evidence-free claims. Sure, assumptions are sometimes needed in science, but they are limited, testable and constrained by the evidence.

Wu ends this section with the following bizarre and ironic statement:

Rather, I think that skeptics are using this “I don’t have beliefs” argument to excuse themselves from having to defend their views, while shifting the burden to believers and paranormalists.

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the burden of evidence. It is always on the proponent of the supernatural when he or she makes unlikely paranormal claims about the world. Furthermore, there are plenty of skeptical material on the Internet that shows that scientific skeptics often have no problem with defending their position.

Misunderstood principle #13: Scientific skepticism

Wu continues his fallacies of equivocation, this time attempting to striking at the very concept of scientific skepticism. He cites various dictionaries and websites, such as Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary and Wikipedia, and uses that to argue for the faulty conclusion that scientific skepticism is about being “unsure” or always “suspending judgement”. The central flaw in this approach is that the definitions he is citing is about Philosophical skepticism, not scientific skepticism. Philosophical skepticism ranges from the position that knowledge is not possible to never making any kind of knowledge judgement. This is not what scientific skepticism is about. Steven Novella, a neurologist that has been involved in skeptical movements for many years, describes scientific skepticism like this (Novella, 2008):

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

Once we understand the definition of scientific skepticism, the equivocation made by Wu dissipates.

Misunderstood principle #14: Irrationally

When discussing issues like the existence of the a paranormal or other skeptical topics, it is essential to distinguish between person and position. Criticizing a position or accurately describing irrational positions as just that is not a personal attack. It is an attack against positions. A lot of proponents of pseudoscience make a large emotional investment into their irrational beliefs, and thus act very defensively when criticized. This often makes critical discussions about pseudoscience with denialists very difficult or sometimes impossible. Holding the skeptical principle of not confusing person and position is vital.

Wu has not yet grasped this point clearly, instead he implicitly equivocates the two when he writes that skeptics thinks that “[b]elievers in the paranormal are thinking in primitive, irrational and childish ways” as a headline, then writes the following further down in the section:

Furthermore, people who hold paranormal or other non-empirical beliefs may simply be expressing a cultural, personal or spiritual view, and nothing more. This does not mean they are less intelligent, more irrational or childish than non-believers of the paranormal.

Notice the bait-and-switch? The section headline was about how the ideas and reasoning of proponents of pseudoscience are primitive and irrational. The above paragraph switches to the claim that believers are “less intelligent”, “more irrational” and “childish”.

Calling a person “less intelligent” is indeed a personal attack, but that is not what it is all about. If a position is irrational, it contradicts the laws of logic, make flawed assumptions or is not supported by evidence. If thinking is primitive, it means that it is simplistic and does not take into account additional factors that are of vital importance. Neither of these are personal attacks. It is also very ironic to get accused of performing personal attacks as a scientific skeptic when denialists and other proponents of pseudoscience often accuse skeptics of being pharma shills or bought by the government.

Misunderstood principle #15: The scope and influence of pseudoscience

Wu thinks that pseudoscience is not that big of a deal. He claims that skeptics are not on the defense against a rising tide of irrationality. Although the precise change in irrationality over time can be debated, it is abundantly clear that irrational superstition is widespread and rational science is under attack. Here is just a couple of examples:

Creationism: Gallup polls since the early 1980s show that the belief in creationism is virtually unchanged for around 30 years (Gallup, 2014). In 1982, 44% of respondents said they believed that Jahve created humans in their present form. In 2014, the corresponding figure was 42%, having been as high as 47% and as low as 40% in between. Throughout the latest decades, the National Center for Science Education have been fighting dozens and dozens of anti-evolution bills promoting the teaching of creationism in schools across the United States.

Alternative medicine: according to data from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM, 2014), people spent almost 35 billion dollars on ineffective treatments that do not work and close to 40% of adults had used some form of alternative medicine during 2007.

Anti-immigration extremism irrational xenophobia is on the rise in Europe during the last decade or so. Even in Sweden, a bastion of diversity and tolerance, a recently election gave an extreme anti-immigration party as much as 13% support from the voter base. In other Nordic countries, anti-immigration parties have been given minister positions in the government.

There are plenty of evidence that the tide of irrationality is still going strong. Thus, scientific skepticism is sorely needed.

This concludes the first half of this investigative article series and the last of general arguments against the paranormal. In the next half of this series, we will examine the claims made by Wu about specific forms of pseudoscience, such as psychic powers, psi, alternative medicine, intercessory prayer, near-death experiences, spiritual experiences, UFOs and creationism.

Reference

Carroll, Robert T. (2013). Ian Stevenson (1918-2007). The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Accessed: 2014-12-24.

Gallup. (2014). Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design. Accessed: 2014-12-24.

Novella, Stephen. (2008). Skeptic – The Name Thing Again. Skepticblog. Accessed: 2014-12-24.

NCCAM. (2014). Statistics on Complementary and Alternative Medicine National Health Interview Survey . Accessed: 2014-12-24.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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