Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

Klass Act?

Billy Cox - writer of the Devoid column/blog that often covers stories on the UFO beat - has posted an interesting anecdote about his own experience with well-known UFO skeptic Phil Klass:

Klass was a prolific writer who dismissed the Walton controversy as confabulation in his 1983 book UFOs: The Public Deceived. De Void was just beginning this forlorn and dreary journey back then. No reason for a newbie to doubt him. Except for, well, maybe this one case in Klass’ book concerning three people who suffered acute UFO radiation burns in Texas in 1980. Klass’ take on what became known as the Cash-Landrum incident stopped me cold. Because I’d actually done my homework on that one. And that’s when I got that first queasy feeling that the American press was routinely quoting a man who had a pathological disregard for truth.

It's a good cautionary tale about giving too much authority to leading skeptical voices. It caught my eye because it echoed my own experience with Martin Gardner's 'debunking' of medium Leonora Piper - a story which I was very familiar with, and which thus allowed me to see how loose Gardner was with the facts in achieving his goal.

Replicating Psi

LiveScience is featuring an article on the unsuccessful replication of Daryl Bem's controversial precognition experiment by skeptics Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stuart Ritchie, after their paper was posted on the open-access journal PLoS ONE:

Bad news for Miss Cleo and other alleged clairvoyants: A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real.

Skeptics may scoff at the finding as obvious, but the research is important because it refutes a study published in a psychological journal last year that claimed to find evidence of extrasensory perception. That research, conducted by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, triggered outrage in the psychological community when the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology announced in 2010 that the paper had been accepted for publication. Psychologists immediately leapt on Bem's statistics and methods, finding reasons how he may have come up with the unbelievable results.

But the real key to a strong scientific finding is reproducibility. If no other researchers can replicate a particular result, it's not likely that the result is real. So University of Edinburgh psychologist Stuart Ritchie and colleagues decided to mimic one of Bem's experiments almost exactly to see if they would also find evidence of psychic powers.

The results were clear. "We found nothing," Ritchie said.

The LiveScience report also quotes Daryl Bem as saying, in his official response to the negative replication, that this one failed study does not automatically invalidate his positive results - and that some attention should be paid to the alleged 'experimenter effect', where skeptical researchers get negative psi results, and neutral/pro-psi researchers get positive findings:

In a response to be published alongside Ritchie and his colleagues' research in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, Bem wrote that it was still "premature to conclude anything about the replicability" of his experiment. It takes multiple replication failures to definitively refute a study, he said.

Bem also suggested that because Ritchie, Wiseman and French are skeptical of psychic abilities, they might have unwittingly influenced their participants not to display any clairvoyance. (The computer-based design of the study, however, is supposed to help prevent researchers from biasing their participants.)

"This does not mean that psi[psychic phenomena] results are unverifiable by independent investigators, but that we must begin regarding the experimenter as a variable in the experiments that should be included in the research designs," Bem wrote.

Now, I think it may be a stretch for Bem to invoke the 'experimenter effect' explanation - unless we stretch it to some sort of telepathic or psychokinetic influence - as Bem himself set up the study protocol specifically to run via a computer in order to minimize the experimenter interaction.) And if we do that, I'm not sure how you could ever really study psi in a standard scientific manner. On the flipside, as I've noted previously, skeptics need to be careful of writing Bem's 'experimenter effect' concern off as 'special pleading', given that arch-skeptic (and lead author on the negative replication paper) Richard Wiseman himself has previously published papers discussing this possibility.

What I was amazed by though was what the LiveScience article *left out* from Bem's response...and also what Wiseman, French and Ritchie have thus far failed to share in every mention I've seen regarding their negative replication. According to Bem:

Randi's Partner Pleads Guilty

James Randi's domestic partner, David Pena (formerly 'Jose Alvarez'), today pleaded guilty to passport fraud in a Florida courtroom. In doing so, Pena's attorney Susan Dmitrovsky outlined her client's "compelling reason" for committing the crime:

She said that when Pena was an art student in New York City he took on a new identity so he didn't have to go back to Venezuela and continue to face "horrific persecution" as a gay man. He resolved not to go back to Venezuela after someone had put a gun to his head in a bar, Dmitrovsky said outside of court.

Pena believed he was taking on the name, date of birth and Social Security number of a dead man, his attorney said.

"It was done strictly for survival," Dmitrovsky said. "It was a deep secret that he's glad is now out in the open."

When Hurley asked Pena about his residency status, the artist responded, "Right now, I'm illegal basically." The judge warned Pena that after his sentencing, it was a certainty that immigration authorities would launch deportation proceedings.

...Pena stole the identity a year before he began traveling with Randi in the magician's crusade to expose mystics, faith healers and psychics as frauds. Randi testified at an October court hearing to Pena's true identity, acknowledging he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago.

...Randi attended Wednesday's court hearing, but Dmitrovsky said that neither he nor Pena are talking to reporters about the case until after Pena's sentencing.

Beyond the risk of deportation, Pena could also be facing up to 10 years in federal prison at his sentencing on May 17.

An Honest Liar

"An Honest Liar" is a documentary work-in-progress about the life and work of James 'The Amazing' Randi. Looks excellent:

An Honest Liar will chronicle how a curious child rose to the ranks of showman and then advanced to renowned demystifier of paranormal claims. We will hear firsthand about his celebrated debunking of the spoon-bending Uri Geller and his many visits to the Tonight Show where he exposed the faith-healing Peter Popoff. The film will bring to life such schemes as “Project Alpha”, where two magicians posing as psychics fooled a scientific study on paranormal powers and the famous “Carlos Hoax” in which Randi unleashed a fake mystic upon the people of Australia.

Interspersed with episodes from his past, the film will go behind-the-scenes while Randi prepares for another grand scale debunking. With the precision of a seasoned magician, Randi will research, plan, and assemble an Ocean’s Eleven-type team for a carefully orchestrated exposure of a fraudulent religious organization.

Featuring such experts as Penn and Teller, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye and Adam Savage, among others, An Honest Liar will explore skepticism, illusion, and the psychology behind belief. The result; an engaging, enlightening and comic experience that, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, will leave you asking, “how did they do that?”

Grailers will know that I've made it a bit of a hobby to occasionally prick the ballooning mythos surrounding the exploits of the Amazing one, but I also find him, as a cult figure (oh the irony), a fascinating character. Looking forward to seeing this documentary in full.

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The Carlos Hoax...Hoax?

Okay, I know this is getting a little tiresome, but here's another one of my 'clarifications' regarding the whole Amazing Randi mythos. While reading what is overall an interesting article about deliberate skeptical hoaxes at the Doubtful Newsblog, I noticed that Randi's infamous "Carlos Hoax" is described with these words:

With the “Carlos hoax”, Randi recruited a performance artist who played the part of a channeler communicating with a 2,000 year old spirit. The act was to show how uncritical the media were about such claims. Carlos continued the act that enthralled audiences. The press never questioned the authenticity or verified his claims. This exploit demonstrated how easy it was to manufacture a story whole cloth, dupe the public, and manipulate the gullible media, who just ate it all up. [my emphasis]

James Randi himself has said that the Carlos hoax - which he organised in 1988 at the request of the Australian version of 60 Minutes - "proved that the media can be willingly seduced so long as they are convinced that surrender to bunk will increase ratings, circulation, and general satisfaction of the consumer". Here he is discussing the infamous stunt on Youtube:

In the video above, Randi notes that "the major lesson to be learned from this hoax was that it was the media, not we, who actually created and nurtured the Carlox entity… He became a character who was accepted as a genuine though transitory phenomena." But was this really the case? The footage excerpts from 60 Minutes seem to show the media questioning Carlos' authenticity. For instance, the famous 'water-throwing' incident on the Today program occurred at the end of a rather hostile interview by hosts George Negus and Liz Hayes, when Negus asked "why did you come in this morning, apart from for a little more publicity?" As José Alvarez and his 'manager' stormed off, Negus simply states "I think we've proved our point", followed by Liz Hayes saying "I think it speaks for itself."

A contemporary report by the Australian Skeptics agrees with this. In an article for The Skeptic, Tim Mendham points out a fact that seems to have become comprehensively-ignored in the modern mythos that has grown up around the Carlos Hoax: "None of the media coverage was credulous; all disbelieved that Alvarez was genuine". In fact, according to Mendham – writing shortly after the Carlos events – "to a certain extent the whole hoax backfired":

As an exercise to prove that the local media were somewhat lax in doing research and effective checking of claims, proved its point, but on the other hand the media were extremely cynical (if not sceptical) of Alvarez' claims, and he received no sympathetic coverage at all. The Today program's hosts, Negus and Elizabeth Hayes, were particularly scathing.

Indeed, given the attitude of the Australian media toward Alvarez, it seems more than likely that the lack of background checks wasn't because they were gullible, or wanted to spoil a good story, but because they were already convinced he was not genuine and were happy to attack him in person on their shows (though I don't think any of us would suggest that media aren't sometimes too lax in checking sources).

Mendham's original report runs counter to most recent skeptical representations of the events that I can find - rather than "scathing", the Australian press are now said to have never questioned Carlos' authenticity. For instance, according to Skeptic's Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll (writing in Skeptical Inquirer) the media "took it for granted they were who they said they were and did what they said they did."

But what about all that uncritical radio and newspaper coverage? Mendham again:

John Tingle's radio coverage consisted solely of an interview with Skeptics president, Barry Williams - he even refused to say where Alvarez would be performing and the Daily Mirror story simply factually reported the waterthrowing incident.

In his YouTube account, Randi also explains that the Carlos scam was enabled by "a rather cute gimmick: Carlos could stop his pulse by a simple means that got by the most astute observers, except from one member of the Australian skeptics, who easily solved it. But none of the media paid any attention to him, of course. The story was far too good to die!" But did "none of the media" really pay any attention? Mendham again:

Terry Willesee, after screening Alvarez' first appearance on Sydney TV with a satellite interview, followed this up with an interview with Skeptics national committee member, Harry Edwards, who explained how Alvarez' number one trick, stopping his pulse while being 'possessed', was achieved.

In fact, not only did the Terry Willesee show run a skeptical explanation of the heart-stopping stunt, but also one of their researchers actually rang Randi regarding José Alvarez/Carlos. Randi's reaction, rather than to admit the hoax, or to give cautionary advice about this particular individual, was this: "I managed to avoid answering the question of that researcher, who came away with the impression that I’d said I never heard of him." So when a media channel actually checked with the world's most prominent skeptic on this topic, he basically scammed them himself – and yet went on to bemoan how the Australian media didn't include skeptics' opinions on the matter...

So maybe it's more about depriving the fire of oxygen, and the best method for dealing with the Carlos affair was to ignore it altogether? Some in the Australian media did exactly that. Mike Carlton, morning commentator on 2GB radio, said he had not been fooled, and had simply put his press-kit in the "round filing tray" (the rubbish bin). Kevin Sadlier of The Sun said he did the same. Strangely though, Randi took these journalists to task for *not* covering the Carlos tour. "If so many persons in the media knew that the public were being lied to, why did they insist upon allowing them to fall for such fakery? Could it be that it was not in their interest to offend the public’s preferred tastes?". But when the media *did* cover Carlos, and according to Mendham in a unanimously skeptical fashion, Randi trumpeted the fact that "Any kind of publicity will attract an audience". Damned if you, damned if you don't!

But not according to Barry Williams', then-President of the Australian Skeptics:

Certainly, 60 Minutes proved its point that a charlatan can gain free media publicity by the perpetration of stunts. I am however dubious of the truth of the old axiom “Any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right”. The media may well have a duty to protect the public from false claims, and I believe that the great majority of the reasonable public would have been protected by the clearly skeptical manner in which most of the media covered Carlos.

So what of the gullible Australian public? They were apparently so taken with Carlos, that when the program A Current Affair featured a confrontation between George Negus and Jose Alvarez/Carlos, according to Negus it was the first time that audience phone reaction had favoured him (anybody familiar with either ACA's audience, or the Australian public's general opinion of Negus, will understand how telling *that* fact is).

But didn't Carlos' have a vast following in Australia? According to the 60 Minutes report, the Opera House hall "was packed", showing interviews with the those who had come because "they saw it on TV". But according to Mendham:

Australian Skeptics came, as we had seen it on TV too. The hall was by no means full. Our estimate put the audience at about 250-300, as opposed to the 60 Minutes' 400-500; the Drama Theatre holds a maximum of 550. A large percentage of the audience were sceptical (if not Skeptical), with an even larger proportion thus unconvinced after the session was over. We subsequently learned of many who, having intended to attend, had been turned off by the poor performance Alvarez had given on TV.

…Other TV programs replayed interviews with those at the seminar who had not been convinced by Alvarez/Carlos (including the author of this report). This was in response to the 60 Minutes coverage, which only showed believers and failed to interview any of the known Skeptics.

…Following the revelation on 60 Minutes that the whole affair had been a huge (and expensive estimates ranged from $50,000 to $200,000) set-up, there was an immediate response from the media. In fact, there was probably greater coverage for the hoax than for poor old Carlos.

This coverage for the hoax itself, rather than 'Carlos', was ultimately the best result of this project. In the end, the Carlos Hoax *was* successful - at least, as a publicity tool. Despite the mediocre results, a certain mythos has developed around the stunt itself, so much so that the general perception of it now is that it showed what dupes the public and media can be. And given the seemingly blind acceptance of this hoax as being a raging success, in a very meta way, it has...

And while we're talking meta, then we can't go past the fact that José Alvarez himself turned out to be a hoax. In late 2011, Randi's life-partner was arrested for identity theft - federal authorities accusing him of stealing a New York man's name, date of birth and Social Security number to obtain a U.S. passport first issued to him in 1987...right before he traveled with Randi to Australia to perpetrate the 'Carlos Hoax'. Which may itself end up being a better example that any of us can be fooled, and for a long time...

Sh*t That Skeptics Say

Nice to see some skeptics can poke a bit of fun at themselves (NSFW language):

Though I think they forgot the old psychic line "they should have seen that coming"...

Alan Moore on Science and Imagination

Alan Moore was recently interviewed by New Humanist magazine while backstage at the "Nine Lessons for Godless People" show, and the video has been posted on YouTube (see below). It's a wonderfully typical chat with the renowned story-teller, with Moore quickly pointing out that, in the context of some of the ideas in cosmology these days that rationalists find credible, "my worship of a 2nd century sock-puppet snake god seems entirely reasonable."

What I did want to share though was his response to the question "Is there a conflict between what can and can't be proven by science", as it echoes my thoughts almost exactly (though he's far more eloquent on the topic than I could hope to be):

I would prefer a two-state solution. My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of 'two lives'. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we've developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real - they're just real in different ways. The concept of a world of ideas, yes it's intangible, it can't be repeated in a laboratory, but pretty much the evidence for it is all around us. In that, every detail of our clothing, our mindsets, of the buildings and the streets and cities that surround us - that started life as an idea in someone's head.

Terence McKenna mentioned something along similar lines once, though his point was going in a different direction: "We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do." I think that the word 'reality' has come to be intimately connected to a definition of "what is measurable", when it should perhaps be more connected to something along the lines of "things that can create change in the world".

Anyhow, enough of my 2 cent philosophizing: here's Mr Moore:

And for those (like me) that have been perplexed about Alan Moore's presence at a number of 'rationalist' events (including Randi's conference a couple of years back), he's not shy in mentioning dogmatism amongst certain scientists as well:

Rationalism is under siege, by all of these witless…Fundamentalist Christians… that tends to unfortunately, to drive scientists - who are obviously concerned by those possibilities - into an almost religious position themselves…. the problem with religions is that generally, they develop dogmas, which are limitations to thought, and are never a good thing.

I can't help but wonder how Alan Moore would be treated at these events if he was just an ordinary Joe off the street, saying the exact same words...

Randi's Million Dollar Challenge: Not Science

I've mentioned this topic more than a few times, so here's some clarity on the subject from the horse's mouth, so to speak. D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), discusses the 'Million Dollar Challenge' in this interview with renowned magician and JREF advisor Jamy Ian Swiss, who makes these points about the requirements and goals of the challenge:

No matter what you make the probability...coincidences happen. Events that are one in a million happen to eight people a day in New York city. So what we've traditionally tried to do in the million dollar challenge is to make it definitive; to make the demands really significant enough that if you pass there's a good chance you're a psychic, or it was a really amazing coincidence that happened.

And of course we never say that the million dollar challenge is scientific research. It's not. It's a test that's designed to scientific protocols, but we're not doing science because we don't have enough trials, we're not doing studies. And so it's quite possible that if and when someone passed the test and took the million, we're not stamping them officially psychic at that point. We're saying that day, they passed the test, and it's for others to determine what the significance of that is, what that really means. Which would actually demand repeated studies.

But one of the things that we really want to do in the regular Million Dollar Challenge is to lower the requirements in the preliminary stages. We actually want to test people, and we actually want people to get through the test and to engage in the process, because we want to use the process of the Million Dollar Challenge to put forward and promote everything we do at the JREF.

It's not science, it's a promotional tool - are we clear on that now? Because though I've seen that caveat thrown around by the JREF and its supporters whenever the 'one-off' nature of the test is raised, it doesn't tend to show up at other times. For instance, most recently, in the 'Psychic Sally' controversy, British skeptic Simon Singh suggested that Sally Morgan could settle the matter by demonstrating "her powers in a scientific experiment" - which was simply the preliminary test for the Million Dollar Challenge (with higher-than-usual inflated odds, I might add). And if Sally had passed that test, what then?

I would have said "Great, there's another test waiting for you". And it would have shaken my current belief, which is that psychic phenomena don't exist. I wouldn't have done a complete about turn immediately, but I'd be halfway there.

I'd add that I'm not endorsing Sally Morgan here - I'm simply addressing the mis-characterisation of the Million Dollar Challenge as science. And as I've mentioned previously, there are fairly serious moral issues in lowering the bar for such a test.

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Shades of (Derren) Brown

I've often been a bit amused by Derren Brown's upstanding reputation in the skeptical movement, given that he sometimes seems to step over the line somewhat in representing his own performances. In the past few weeks I've noticed this issue starting to get more play in various circles, so thought it might be worth sharing the links. The first is this interesting criticism of Brown's recent "The Experiments" television feature (embedded below) by two social psychologists:

We would like to dispute in the strongest possible terms the theoretical underpinnings and proposed implications from Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’ – The Gameshow – aired on Channel 4 on 28/10/11...

...Why is all this important? Does it really matter to anyone other than social psychologists that outdated theory is portrayed as factual on prime-time television? The point is that an understanding of crowd psychology has important consequences for society. Regarding crowds as anti-social entities acting without identity or reason can legitimate their violent repression by security forces, prevent intragroup helping in emergencies, and facilitate the dismissal of popular protest as irrational by those in positions of power.

Along with the criticism of psychologists, Derren Brown's shtick also seems to be starting to concern some skeptics, as evidenced in this thread at the JREF forum. Perhaps reacting to these online whispers, last month Brown posted a new blog entry titled "To claim or not to claim", which he wrote to "clarify a few points regarding my own work for anyone in any doubt". Nevertheless, I still came across yet another article yesterday which is fairly comprehensive on the issues at hand:

On one side, through his activities blogs and writing, Brown promotes scepticism: he challenges mediums and spiritualists, just as Houdini did; he promotes a scientific approach; he embraces Dawkins and writes about his own lapsed Christian beliefs. He encourages the asking of questions and disapproves of blind belief.

On the other hand, the Derren Brown that countless TV viewers and theatre audiences encounter does not simply create mystifying effects, his explicatory rhetoric in performance is steeped in a belief; not in a god or an afterlife but in a fuzzy set of behavioural dynamics that we non-experts call ‘psychology’. Something which, we may need to remember; just because it is an ‘ology’, doesn’t make it any more scientific than ‘astr’, ‘graph’ or ‘crani’.

Brown often explains his ability to predict words or behaviours, to duplicate drawings or influence people to act in certain ways, as achieved through a mastery of the understanding and exploitation of ‘psychological techniques’.

I must here state my own belief that, though some of his effects may have a loose psychological component, these explanations, as you might expect of any conjurer, are mainly bogus; misdirecting attention from his real methodology.

The truth is, no matter how hard you studied psychology, no matter how expert you became in understanding human motivations and frailties you still could not possibly repeat Brown’s effects without the use of age-old conjuring smoke and mirrors.

For myself, I just like the guy. He's an excellent magician, but an even better artist (in more ways than one), and he brings the trickster mentality back into an area that sorely needs it. It's just a shame that he then plops himself down into the uber-rationalist camp with James Randi etc when he could be having a lot of fun just running rampant with the rest of us...

The Philosophy of South Park

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon, have often been lionised by the 'New Atheist' movement for their lambasting of aspects of Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, Islam, alien abduction theories and other beliefs. But their personal views have a little more subtlety than most people would probably assume, given the tone of their various productions, and their disdain is not so much for religion on its own but for unthinking belief and forceful proselytising. In a recent interview with Esquire, Stone and Parker took time to criticise Richard Dawkins and his minions, and many of the South Park duo's thoughts on beliefs - and in particular, the need for story-telling and rituals - resonated pretty strongly with me. Some highlights from the interview:

[T]he truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade's most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly ... temperate. They say it themselves: "There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground." Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.

On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.

"The boys were in the middle saying, 'This is f**ked up,' " said Parker. "Any side who thinks they're totally right is f**ked up. That's the heart of every show."

...Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

"He's such a dick," said Stone. "You read his book and you're like, 'Yeah, I agree with that. But it's the most dicky way to put it... I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I'm a self-described atheist."

...You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there's some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.

..."I'm concerned about people being happy," said Stone. "With religion I was always like, Does it matter if it's true if it makes you happy?"

"As storytellers for fifteen years, we started looking at religions for their stories," Parker said..."[T]here's something about dressing up and playing the part. To me, that's religion. You can write down how to make the perfect cup of coffee. But to make it really good, you have to play something fictional, you have to dress up, you have to think, This is the most important thing."

You can also listen to Stone and Parker explaining their feelings about Richard Dawkins and 'whiny' atheism in this audio interview from earlier in the year (warning: plenty of NSFW language):

By the way, at the end of the interview they mention that they'd love to see a book on atheism by Penn Jillette. Turns out they got their wish.