Note: This is the sixth and final 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.
Previously, we have examined the many problems in the thirty-part online text “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” by Winston Wu. Concepts that have been explored are deceptive methods used by alleged psychics, flawed experiments that purport to show evidence of paranormal abilities, the statistical ignorance of a belief in prophetic dreams, the problems with alternative medicine and the skeptical relevance of principles such as Occam’s Razor and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
In this sixth and final installment, we will take a closer look at the purported evidence for aliens and UFOs, common creationist misunderstandings of evolution as well as Wu’s claims about The James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.
Misunderstood principle #26: Innateness
Wu starts by misrepresenting the mainstream scientific position on why people have paranormal beliefs. Instead of discussing the myriad of different contributing factors that actual research has uncovered, he merely presents a single one (“Paranormal beliefs are childish fantasies for dealing with a cold uncaring world.”) and does a poor job at explaining the idea. Wu completely ignores research on cultural, social and cognitive psychology.
His major argument in this section is that the deity of Christianity must be true because he thinks a belief in such a deity is innate. But there are hundreds of beliefs that are innate (operationalized as being often held by children) and completely wrong, such as intuition-based physics about astronomy, magnetism, vision, weather, measurement, space and so on:
– Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
– The sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west every day.
– The sun is always directly south at 12:00 noon.
– The tip of a shadow always moves along an east-west line.
– We experience seasons because of the earth’s changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).
– The earth is the center of the solar system. (The planets, sun and moon revolve around the earth.)
– The moon can only be seen during the night.
– The only “natural” motion is for an object to be at rest.
– If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
– A rigid solid cannot be compressed or stretched.
– Only animate objects can exert a force. Thus, if an object is at rest on a table, no forces are acting upon it.
– Force is a property of an object. An object has force and when it runs out of force it stops moving.
– The motion of an object is always in the direction of the net force applied to the object.
These are obviously not true simply because children hold them as “innate beliefs”.
Misunderstood principle #27: Anecdotal evidence (again)
In the section covering UFOs and aliens, Wu does not actually provide any arguments. At all. Instead, he links to four videos Youtube. Two of them are meetings between UFO believers and the two others are “documentaries” made by UFO believers. No scientific research presented whatsoever.
Misunderstood principle #28: Evolution
The 29th section of his text is an obvious straw man that claims that skeptics believe that evolution explains the origin of life and that therefore, a creator deity is not needed. In reality, evolution explains the origin of the diversity of life, but not the origin of life (abiogenesis) itself. This would have been obvious to Wu if he even bothered to read an introductory text on the subject or even check the Index to Creationist Claims (or any other Talk.Origins content).
Wu goes on to say that “Evolution has only been proven at the micro level, not the macro level” by which he probably means that only microevolution (evolutionary changes below the species level) but not macroevolution (evolutionary changes above the species level) has been observed. A simple check with the Index to Creationist Claims disproves this claim: there are many cases of observed speciations that have been observed in the lab and the wild and hundreds and hundreds of transitional fossils. In particular, there are plenty of hominin transitional fossils between humans and earlier apes, such as Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus etc. The irony is that different creationist groups themselves cannot tell these transitional fossils apart, some calling a given fossil “fully human” and others calling it “fully ape”. Finally, even if we had no fossils we could be very sure of evolution due to DNA evidence, the same kind of evidence used to convict criminals and do paternity testing.
Wu thinks that humans cannot possibly have evolved since we cannot survive in the wild. Apparently, he is entirely unaware of societies that live in the wild in the present day. He also claims that the oldest human fossil is about 200 000 years, but fails to realize that an obvious counterexample is Homo habilis, which lived between 1.5 and 3 million years ago. Maybe Wu means modern humans, but that is just evidence that modern humans evolved during that period. There are many earlier, human-like fossils.
Wu also references the nonsense movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”, which has been refuted in detail by the National Center for Science Education at Expelled Exposed.
Finally, Wu appeals to the “origin of life is mathematically impossible”, failing to realize that modern science does not claim that the basic building blocks of life formed by chance, but through chemical processes. Index to Creationist Claims made the following objections:
1. The calculation of odds assumes that the protein molecule formed by chance. However, biochemistry is not chance, making the calculated odds meaningless. Biochemistry produces complex products, and the products themselves interact in complex ways. For example, complex organic molecules are observed to form in the conditions that exist in space, and it is possible that they played a role in the formation of the first life (Spotts 2001).
2. The calculation of odds assumes that the protein molecule must take one certain form. However, there are innumerable possible proteins that promote biological activity. Any calculation of odds must take into account all possible molecules (not just proteins) that might function to promote life.
3. The calculation of odds assumes the creation of life in its present form. The first life would have been very much simpler.
4. The calculation of odds ignores the fact that innumerable trials would have been occurring simultaneously.
In sum, Wu references tired old creationist junk that has been refuted thousands of times before.
Misunderstood principle #29: Burden of Evidence (again)
In this section, Wu discusses the claim that it is the theist, rather than atheist, that has the burden of evidence with regards to the existence of a creator deity. This, of course, is completely irrelevant since one can be skeptical to supernatural claims even if such a creator deity exists: scientific skepticism and atheism are not equivalent positions. One can be an atheist and believe in all sorts of supernaturalist entities, and be skeptical to UFOs while believing in a creator deity.
But the general conclusion we drew in the first installment of this series, is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that the burden of evidence is on the person making the positive claim and not on the skeptic.
Wu repeats some common misconceptions, such as “you cannot prove a negative” and “atheism always mean the belief that no gods exists”, but it is a trivial exercise to demonstrate that an empty bag of potato crisps does not contain the full-size version of the Statue of Liberty and there are many kinds of atheists.
Misunderstood principle #30: The James Randi Million Dollar Challenge
Wu takes special issue with illusionist and skeptic James Randi. Randi has offered a million dollars for someone to prove under adequate controls and precaution that supernatural powers exists.
His major objections to Randi is that “is extremely selective in who he tests, preferring to only test famous names” and “there are many applicants who received no response after applying”. The remaining parts of this last section are mere character assassinations of Randi, accusing him of having an “axe to grind”, doing it for “a publicity stunt for his career”, being “not that honest”, that “he has used plenty of deceptive and dishonest tactics in the past” and Wu even compares Randi to “Darth Vader”.
Although the Million Dollar Challenge is no longer active in the same way it was in the past, there were a lot of people who refused to follow the application procedure (and were thus probably not responded to) or tried to manipulate the test in various ways (in which case their participation was terminated).