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

Penn & Teller's Bullsh*t!

For those that don't know: Penn & Teller are one of the world's most famous magic acts. They are also card-carrying Randi-acolytes and have a debunking show called Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!. Here's an early (2003) episode on near-death experiences (warning: NSFW language):

Glad that's all cleared up. Although perhaps psychology professor Barry Beyerstein (who, sadly, died suddenly in 2007 aged 60) could have used more precise wording. Sure, "neuroscientists are thoroughly convinced that near-death experiences are things that happen when normal brain function is disrupted and the brain is shutting down." There certainly are neuroscientists out there who believe that to be the case, so technically he's correct. But then, there's guys like Dr Peter Fenwick who don't believe that to be the case (and more recently, Dr Mario Beauregard), so we could also say just as clearly that "neuroscientists are unconvinced that near-death experiences are simply things that happen when normal brain function is disrupted and the brain is shutting down." Perhaps Beyerstein's wording could have something to do with him being a founding member of CSICOP...nah, surely not.

But Barry Beyerstein has nothing on Penn, who is so sure that he's figured out the "real life explanation" for NDEs that he's ready to "dance and shout taunting phrases at 'truthseekers' like Raymond [Moody]." It's simple really: "cut off the blood to the brain and nearly 18% of us have an NDE."

Except the blood flow to the brain theory was one of the earliest explanations put forward for NDEs, but it didn't hold water. For one, NDEs have been known to happen in situations where blood flow continued (e.g. in falls from heights and near-accident situations) - which does not prove in any way that NDEs are a glimpse of the afterlife...but it does make Penn look not only ignorant, but obnoxious to boot. In fact, in Irreducible Mind - which goes through all the current 'explanations' suggested to explain NDEs - we read that the one study frequently cited for the bloodflow theory is...

...that of Whinnery (1997), who compared NDEs to what he called the "dreamlets" occurring in brief periods of unconsciousness induced in fighter pilots by rapid acceleration in a centrifuge (this reduces blood flow, and therefore delivery of oxygen, to the brain). He claimed that some features common to NDEs are also found in these hypoxic episodes, including tunnel vision, bright lights, brief fragmented visual images, a sense of floating, pleasurable sensations, and, rarely, a sense of leaving the body. The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.

The most refreshing part of the video is in fact the NDErs themselves - they make clear that they can understand people's skepticism, and encourage it, but that their experience convinced them personally. And yet Penn still knows more than they do, saying "why wouldn't our brains freak out a little when injured or dying... Why is that so hard to understand for these people?" In case Penn isn't aware of other NDE research apart from that of James Whinnery, that "why" would probably be answered by (a) the 'hyper-realness' of the experience reported by NDErs, (b) oft-reported cases of evidential OBEs, (d) the fact that people perceive the same set of archetypal elements, despite different inciting crises, and (d) other odd elements such as the life review, where people report reliving their complete lives over again, in 3D panoramas, and yet happening in the blink of an eye.

Personally, I'm still not convinced that NDEs offer proof of an afterlife. But likewise I am yet to see any orthodox theory that can explain it (as yet). As such, the experience (and experiencer) deserves a lot less ridicule, and a whole lot more honest study. . Now I know that Penn & Teller are entertainers, and Bullsh*t! has it's particular flavour of ridicule and humour which can be a fun ride (though not particularly my flavour of funny), so I'm not saying this to be stuffy or defensive. I'm just saying it to point out that Penn & Teller...errr....bullshit. They glossed over the more interesting facets of the phenomenon, they set up easy targets rather than talking to the hard-nosed scientists investigating NDEs, and they promoted a bogus explanation. Skepticism fail...I guess that's what happens when they go looking for "proof of whatever their particular myth believes."

Having said that, I whole-heartedly endorse Penn's final comments on not fixating on death and what may be beyond, but on living life. Ironically enough, his closing comments are almost word-for-word the 'message' that NDErs 'bring back' - that you should live your life well, honestly, thinking of others, and questing for knowledge. Sometimes the divide between 'skeptics' and 'believers' isn't as great as some might like to imagine...

CSI(COP) on the Rebound

Once upon a time, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was the big dog of the modern skeptical movement. But in recent years, the rebranded 'Committee for Skeptical Inquiry' (CSI) seems to have struggled to remain a vital force in skepticism, eclipsed by internet favourites such as The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, and the James Randi Educational Foundation (though the organization's magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has remained its flagship).

Perhaps in a bid to put its name back on the skeptical marquee, this month CSI announced the election of 16 new 'Fellows'. The line-up features a who's who of modern Internet skepticism, including James 'The Amazing' Randi (welcoming him back into the fold after a long absence due to legal issues), Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait, Steven 'Skeptic's Guide' Novella, Chris 'UK Skeptic' French, and Seth 'SETI' Shostak (joining fellow SETI scientist Jill Tarter, finalising SETI's embrace of the Dark Side), as well as notable scientists including Robert T. Carroll and Kenneth Miller. It's a list that makes a lot of sense - plenty of personable people able to reach big audiences. The question for me is: will these people end up besmirching their (mostly) decent reputations by linking themselves to an organization noted for it's pseudo-skeptical, vitriolic approach to 'defending' established science? Or will they lead CSI(COP) to a kinder, gentler approach to skeptical activism that transforms the organization into something much better than it started as?

I suspect the former...it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks. And, unfortunately for the newly elected Fellows, there's an old saying about lying down with dogs...

Global Warming Burns Randi

Oh, it must be Christmas. As I mentioned in Wednesday's news briefs, James Randi has come under fire from all quarters this week, after posting his thoughts about global warming to his blog:

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us, in that they are strongly influenced by the need to be accepted, to kowtow to peer opinion, and to "belong" in the scientific community. Why do I find this "unfortunate"? Because the media and the hoi polloi increasingly depend upon and accept ideas or principles that are proclaimed loudly enough by academics who are often more driven by "politically correct" survival principles than by those given them by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. (Granted, it's reassuring that they're listening to academics at all -- but how to tell the competent from the incompetent?) Religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.

...It's easy enough to believe that drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes are signs of a coming catastrophe from global warming, but these are normal variations of any climate that we -- and other forms of life -- have survived. Earth has undergone many serious changes in climate, from the Ice Ages to periods of heavily increased plant growth from their high levels of CO2, yet the biosphere has survived. We're adaptable, stubborn, and persistent -- and we have what other life forms don't have: we can manipulate our environment. Show me an Inuit who can survive in his habitat without warm clothing... Humans will continue to infest Earth because we're smart.

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

Given that Randi's skeptical peers and scientific admirers have spent the last couple of months attacking 'Global Warming Deniers', Randi found himself in the unlikely spot of being attacked for his 'pseudo-scientific' opinion piece. Blog posts decrying Randi's statement appeared quickly on Pharyngula, The Quackometer, Cosmic Variance, Greg Laden's Blog and Respectful Insolence. Even more vicious were the comments threads (lead, as it would be expected, by more than 500 Pharyngula comments) in which it was suggested that Randi was suffering from dementia and so on (although you'd have to say there may have been some karmic retribution for Randi in the meanness of it all...with friends like those, who needs 'woo-woo' enemies!) And, in a wonderful bit of timing, Randi managed to post his piece on the same day that a fund-raising drive for the James Randi Educational Foundation kicked into gear. Oops.

The back-pedaling was swift

The Real Peril of Skepticism

A couple of weeks ago, Deepak Chopra wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle titled "The Perils of Skepticism". It certainly touched a nerve with many self-identified skeptics, and with good reason: Chopra's article fails to point out that skepticism is a wonderful and necessary tool, used by all great scientists. And, apart from carelessly confusing skepticism with the debunkery practiced by modern skeptical personalities, he also wants to define that latter group as being boring, useless people. This is simply not the case: James Randi for all his flaws, has also done some good things (and is certainly entertaining), and Carl Sagan was one of the most important science-educators of the 20th century - to name just two self-identified 'skeptics' who have contributed good things.

No, the real peril of skepticism lies in people thinking that just invoking the word grants authority; believing that someone who is known as a 'skeptic' has an opinion which can be trusted. So, when Phil Plait says that the 1947 Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting "is now understood to have most likely been a fireball breaking up", we should perhaps ask him whether - as an astronomer - he really believes that any fireballs breaking up have ever traveled pretty much horizontally for almost three minutes. Or, when modern skeptics dismiss the mediumship of Leonora Piper by invoking the 'authoritative debunking' of the case by Martin Gardner, we might ask how authoritative it could be when Gardner gets numerous 'facts' completely and utterly wrong. And, when James Randi posts in a 2008 Swift newsletter that "[Dean] Radin’s latest distraction – parapsychologists are fond of abandoning lines of investigation when they prove fruitless – is 'presentiment'", we should definitely ponder what sort of authority Randi is on the matter, considering Radin has been researching (and publishing) on presentiment since the 1990s.

The danger in skepticism is simply when people think of it as a movement, with certain dogmas and authority figures. Skepticism is a tool. And we should apply it to anyone's claims, whether they are Deepak Chopra or James Randi.

Sheldrake vs Randi: The Letters

A couple of weeks ago I noted a minor brouhaha developing between James Randi and Rupert Sheldrake: in a randi.org post titled "Bull**** Artist?", one of Randi's underlings described a "rawtha angry letter" written by Sheldrake to The Skeptic. At the time I asked Rupert Sheldrake if I could publish the letter (given that he's one of the least "angry" individuals you're likely to meet), but after conferring with Chris French (prominent UK skeptic, scientist, and editor of The Skeptic), Rupert suggested that we just wait for Chris to publish his letter (and Randi's reply) on the website of The Skeptic.

Chris French has now published the letters as promised. As I expected, Rupert Sheldrake's letter is not "angry" in tone ("disagreeing" does not equal "angry"). What he does do is question Chris French's "reverential" interview questions when talking to James Randi, with no challenging of his qualifications or approach to skepticism:

Randi is often rude and offensive. Unfortunately many of his fellow sceptics let him get away with it, and treat him with adulation. His presence on the cover of the new-look Skeptic together with Chris French’s uncritical interview helps to build up this iconic status. Randi may have done a useful job in exposing fraudulent showmen, but he has no scientific credentials, and has made fraudulent claims himself. (For one example, see http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversi....)

One of Sheldrake's more incisive points is that Randi "awarded" him a 'Pigasus Award' in 2007 for his research into telephone telepathy, saying "this man’s delusions increase as time goes by, and he comes up with sillier ideas every year." The point to note being that Chris French has worked with Sheldrake on that very same research.

Randi's response is odd. It goes on at length about Sheldrake misquoting him (referring to a brochure handed out during a workshop at The Amazing Meeting, when Sheldrake doesn't seem to attribute the quote to him apart from a minor link (which is probably justifiable given that Randi handed out the brochure at a workshop he was hosting). He then explains how Sheldrake misrepresented his lack of research into animal ESP, failing to mention that he has previously apologized for his lack of research ("it was rash and improper of me to do so") after being advised to present his evidence by the JREF Scientific Advisory Board. He follows that up by saying that Sheldrake's accusation that he (Randi) hadn't watched the tape of his canine telepathy research was "not true", going on to say that "A colleague of mine in Europe told me that he’d seen the tape record." WTF?

Sometimes I think Randi counts on his readers just taking his word for things, rather than actually reading background information (borne out by the comments to this story in which a number seem to think that Sheldrake didn't account for long-distance hearing in his experiments). Also see my comment below pointing out specific examples.

Bad Astronomer Quits JREF Presidency

Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait announced today that he is stepping down from his role as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) in order to pursue a television opportunity. As of January 1, 2010, the new head of the JREF will be former professional magician and (current) skeptic D. J. Grothe (perhaps best known for his Point of Inquiry podcast).

This was a very difficult decision for me. But I’m leaving the Presidency so I can concentrate on some future TV projects I’ve been developing. This has been a dream of mine for more than a decade, and something I’ve worked on very hard, so it’s an opportunity I simply could not pass up. With that in mind, I discussed this with Randi and the other members of the JREF Board of Directors, and we all agreed it was for the best. Not to rationalize this too much, but if this does work out it means I’ll be able to promote skepticism, science, and critical thinking to a much larger audience. This will ultimately benefit the JREF itself, too.

I’m really happy D. J. accepted the role of President in my stead. He is a beloved member of the skeptical community. His podcast, Point of Inquiry, is among the best in the business. He is a thoughtful, intellectual, interesting, and warm person, and will be an outstanding example of leadership when he takes the JREF reins. With D. J. involved, the future of the JREF is stronger than ever.

The Bad Astronomer will remain an advisor to the JREF in an "informal capacity". For more information, see this JREF press release.

Who is the Bull**** Artist?

The timeline as best I can guess at it: The summer issue of The Skeptic featured an interview with skeptical supremo James Randi. Rupert Sheldrake wrote a letter critiquing the interview (or perhaps more specifically, what Randi said), for inclusion in the next issue of The Skeptic. Chris French, editor of the magazine, sent Sheldrake's letter to Randi for a 'right of reply'. Randi shared the letter with his underlings, and in order to track down a reference document pertinent to his reply (or under that pretension), one of those underlings - Brandon Thorp - posted a message to the blog of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), titled "Bull**** Artist?:

A rawtha angry letter by Rupert Sheldrake will appear in the next issue of Skeptic, in response to Chris French's ("reverential") interview of James Randi in the summer issue.

The letter has its points -- for example, when it accuses Randi of occasional grumpiness (It's true! He can be grumpy!) -- but the bulk of the thing is an attack upon Randi's character and qualifications.

Mostly, Sheldrake seems discomfited by a document passed out by Randi, Andrew Mayne, and Michael Shermer at The Amaz!ng Meeting 3, entitled "Communicating Skepticism To The Public." We have no copies of this document. Perhaps you can help us.

Does the document say, as Sheldrake claims, that it's "easy" to become a media skeptic? And what about this: "Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you're an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you're not."

Did Randi really write that? If so, nobody at the JREF, and nobody we've been able contact, has any recollection of it. And if Randi did write these words, in what context did they appear? We'd really like to know. If you were at TAM3 and still have a copy of the document, please tell us.

Firstly, a minor point: I'm quite sure that it's not the US-based Skeptic magazine, but The Skeptic that Thorp is referring to. The interesting parts though are (a) the title of the post, (b) the "rawtha angry" description, of a letter no readers have read, and (c) the skepticism that such a document exists.

Firstly, the document does exist, as a number of skeptics have since pointed out. Strange that Sheldrake had to inform the JREF about one of their own documents. Interestingly, since then, the tone of commenters has changed from "Sheldrake should be able to pull this document from the Akashic Records", to "he's quoted it out of context." Certainly, the latter question is an important one - from the surrounding text it is clear there is some humour involved, but it does then seem to blend seamlessly into directions on how skeptics can bogusly claim to be experts. So I can see both sides to this one, at least on the page I've read.

As for the "rawtha angry" comment, this surprised me as Rupert Sheldrake is usually unflappable when it comes to debating points. I contacted Rupert about the content of the letter, and he confirmed to me that "it wasn't angry in tone" (keep in mind that my article about the Million Dollar Challenge was labeled by Randi as a tirade). I did ask if I could share the letter with TDG readers, but Chris French has asked that it remain unpublished until the next issue of The Skeptic is released in a few weeks, at which time he will make "the letter and Randi's response public as soon as possible given the interest that this has generated".

The final point worth mentioning is the inflammatory title of the piece. When called on this aspect by other skeptics, Thorp responded:

The title has several possible meanings. The phrase “bull**** expert” could mean “an expert in bull****” or it could mean “a false expert,” depending on whether the expletive is meant as a noun or an adjective. I thought it was clever: depending on whether the document existed or not, either Rupert Sheldrake was a “bull*** (n) expert” or we had published a document about “bull**** (a) experts.”

A fine explanation. Except the title of the blog post was "Bull**** Artist?", not "Bull**** Expert?". Try as I might, I can't shoehorn the former into Thorp's explanation. So I'm wondering exactly who the "Bull**** Artist" is in this case...

Update 9/12/09: The letters by Sheldrake and Randi are now available on the website of The Skeptic.

Previously on TDG:

Skeptical Inquirer 34:1

The January/February 2010 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is now available, and as per usual there are a number of articles from the latest release available online:

Full details at the SI website, as well as articles from previous releases.

Skeptiko: Sheldrake v French

The last two instalments of the Skeptiko podcast are well worth checking out: they feature British skeptic Dr Chris French and well-known 'maverick scientist' Dr Rupert Sheldrake discussing various aspects of parapsychology and skeptical thinking. Both French and Sheldrake are excellent to listen to, offering calm and rational insights into what they do, and their thoughts on psi and skepticism.

In Sheldrake's podcast there's also an interesting point made about how psi and skeptical experimenters may never be able to reach a conclusion because of the differing takes on the approach required for 'success':

Now when Chris French and I discussed this experiment before they did it, you know, I said - we said to each other what we’d probably say, and I said, “Okay, Chris, well, if it gives non-significant results I’m probably going to say that you know, this extreme skeptical leaning on everybody involved in the way that treats them as if they’re under suspicion of cheating all the time is going to inhibit the effect.”

And I said, “What are you going to say if there’s a positive effect?” And he said, “I’m going to say that the controls weren’t rigorous enough, and we’ll have to do it with even more rigorous control.” Chris and I, both of us in advance realized that whatever the result, you know, neither of us was going to say okay, the phenomena or it doesn’t exist. His idea of more rigorous controls would you know, involve stepping up the degree of suspicion with which everyone else is - everyone involved is treated. And then you know, you could probably reach a level where the phenomenon would go away. This just isn’t a feasible way of doing research.

Both podcasts are excellent, I recommend a listen if you have time.

James Randi Fighting Cancer

A recent story at SFWeekly.com has broken the news that James 'The Amazing' Randi is fighting intestinal cancer:

Randi has debunked more than 100 psychics and faith healers in a quest to rid the world of hucksters. It also makes him the subject of scorn among purveyors of the paranormal, true believers who say Randi has made himself rich, pulling in nearly $200,000 a year from his foundation, at the expense of others' careers.

Now, however, Randi's work may be in jeopardy. His foundation has been hemorrhaging money, and Randi, who has spent his career challenging the notion of an afterlife, now faces his own mortality. He has intestinal cancer and may not have long to live. He has been a commanding presence for four decades, but it's unclear who could fill his role as the face of the skeptic community.

The article says doctors are giving him a 50/50 prognosis for the next five years. Not that it means much, but my best wishes go out to the old geezer in his battle against the big C, regardless of my criticisms of some of his actions and the merits of the JREF.

The full article is worth a read, there are comments from Uri Geller about his long battle with Randi, and also plenty of material from the recent Amazing Meeting which gives you the feeling there's a bit of cult vibe with the skeptical minions and the white-bearded father figure who shepherds them.