Wednesday, 18 November 2015

"Psychologizing is both counterproductive and unfair." So are sweeping generalisations.

A Response to Michael Prescott's blog post of 16th November

There is very little in the sphere of the paranormal that irritates me more than those that create the illusion of some kind of "Skeptic .Vs Believer" divide. As I've often pointed out, most skeptics are not in the business of dismissing the paranormal out of hand, I would typify someone who does this as a cynic rather than a skeptic. Believers, an unhelpful label perhaps, should see a skeptical approach as a useful tool in examining paranormal claims, and many do. I know quite a few "skeptical believers" read this blog, enough to know that the term is NOT an oxymoron. Its a fitting title for a person who examines paranormal claims by first considering rational explanations often using the scientific method, but ultimately concludes, that even if the data they are currently examining is not evidence, the same does exist somewhere.

These believers often consider skeptics allies, in that, eliminating false data, hoaxes and misattribution clears the path for data that can't be rationalised. Debunking is not just useful but crucial if real evidence is to be found.

That's why blog posts like this from author Michael Prescott make me spitting angry. He is going to tell you what skeptics think, and you better listen. Here' s Michael's introduction:
"Normally I'm reluctant to engage in psychologizing. It's impolite to presume knowledge of other people's subconscious minds and to infer motivations that are supposedly hidden even from the persons under consideration. Besides, psychologizing is a double-edged sword; the people we're analyzing can always come back with none-too-flattering assertions about our own subconscious motivations. As a debating tactic, a way of scoring points, psychologizing is both counterproductive and unfair."
I agree. He then proceeds to ignore his own protestations and do it anyway.

"I've observed Skeptics in many forums over many years. (Note the capital S, denoting militant debunkers, a nomenclature proposed by Roger Knights. I'm not talking about casual scoffers or people who are genuinely undecided.) My impression is that Skeptics, in general, are characterized by an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance."

 Firstly Michael is not a psychologist. From the information I can find about him he majored in Film Studies at  Wesleyan University. How does this qualify him to discuss psychology, even informally? Cognitive dissonance is an extremely complex mechanism, Michael's helpful Wikipedia definition barely does this justice. Nor does it inspire confidence that he has an especially good understanding of it.

So Michael has decided that he going to psycho-analyse skeptics and their justification in rejecting the "evidence" from psi-phenomena. See the problem here immediately? "Skeptics" are an extremely wide ranging group of people, with wide ranging beliefs and positions on all sorts of subjects, including Psi.  I know many self declared skeptics who see validity in Psi-research. For a professional psychologist to assign a significant relationship between scientific skepticism and a higher than ordinary susceptibility or aversion to the effects of cognitive dissonance would take years of study to establish. Michael bases his conclusion on the back of a few internet discussions and a rude biologist (foreshadowing).

Perhaps he is right, and these individuals DID display a higher than average cognitive dissonance, to then apply this to all, or even most skeptics is a ludicrous stretch. And its all based on an assumption anyway. Actually a series of them!

"When such a Skeptic is presented with evidence of the paranormal, he finds it deeply upsetting. (assumption)  He does not see it as a mildly annoying paradox or a funny, quirky story suitable for cocktail party conversation (assumption). He feels that it is an existential threat — a threat to the integrity of his ego, and therefore to his sense of self.(assumption) They are supersensitive to the discomfort, stress, and — yes — pain of having their worldview challenged (assumption)."

He then descends into blatant paranoia and a laughable conspiracy theory.

"This is why Skeptics are stridently hostile to parapsychology research(maybe skeptics are hostile to research with poor methodology? Is Chris French hostile to parapsychology research? That's odd, he conducts it. I think Michael has "hostility" confused with "blindly accepting flawed results" ).

They cheer when a parapsychology lab closes. (I don't know any skeptics that "cheer" when any form of lab closes, I haven't read any articles or blogs that do so, that said there may well be some who do. What Michael needs to do is cite an example here. Of course he doesn't bother. Remember too, there were also Christians who celebrated when Christopher Hitchens died. Should one assume that all Christians felt this way? Of course not, because we know such generalisations are facile.)

They insist that parapsychology papers be excluded from peer-reviewed journals, on principle (whoa whoa whoa. Since when do skeptics control what goes into a peer reviewed journal? Again maybe Psi research does not go into to journals because it isn't robust enough. The irony here is journals do publish Psi research on occasion. A recent paper by Darhyl Bem was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A replication of the study upon which the paper was based, which showed null results with improved methodology by SKEPTIC and para-psychologist Chris French was rejected by the same paper. How does that fit your conspiracy narrative Michael?
There's actually a much more simple explanation why peer reviewed journals are wary of psi-research.  In the 1970s, Israelli born serial spoon-botherer Uri Geller was tested by Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ at the Stanford Research Institute. the results of these series of tests were published in none other than Nature. The problem was, the methodology Targ and Putoff employed was woeful, and promptly tore to pieces. The result was a critical drubbing for Nature and Targ and Putoff's careers in tatters. If you want to read more about this incident its covered in "The Truth About Uri Geller" by James Randi.
They agitate to have parapsychology, as a field, ousted from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (where is the proof of this! Again I can no trace of a campaign by skeptics to do this anywhere on the net. The only mention of "agitation" appears in pro Psi blogs such as this. Its a conspiracy theory nothing more. This is just paranoia. This isn't a mindset that is unique to Michael either, other Psi supporters have hinted at a conspiracy against psi. In 2014 Frontiers In Human Neuroscience published an opinion piece centred around a petition signed by 100 signatories to end the taboo around Psi. The problem is at no point did they gives examples of this taboo. It then goes on to suggest that only a few scientists actually consider Psi a taboo! By definition its not a taboo then. You can read more about that here. (see Michael, sources.)."
"If parapsychology is a scam, why not expose it by making it as public as possible?" (Again, no evidence of this. No links to any skeptic making this claim. I don't think Psi research is a scam)
As you can see Michael is telling us time after time: what skleptics think. Where is any evidence for this?

Well he does give a second hand account of a Lewis Wolpert being rude and dismissive to one of Psi's most controversial figures, Rupert Sheldrake. I've actually never heard of Wolpert perhaps because he is prominently a biologist and my area of interest is in physics. I've also not actually seen any evidence that he has ever declared himself a skeptic.
"A clear example of this psychology was on display in a public debate between Rupert Sheldrake and Lewis Wolpert..... (as told by Sheldrake) Well, I noticed that when the parrot film was showing, Lewis wasn't looking at it! That film was shown on television and in [an] early stage of our investigations, he did the same then. They asked a sceptic to commentate. Lewis appeared on the screen and he said, Telepathy is just junk; there is no evidence whatsoever for any personal, animal or thing being telepathic. The filmmakers were surprised that he hadn't actually asked to see the evidence before he commented on it, and I think, this is rather like the Cardinal Bellarmine and people not wanting to look through Galileo's Telescope. I think we have a level here of just not wanting to know, which is not real science. I'm sorry to have to say it, Lewis."( so Wolpert didn't watch Sheldrake's psychic parrot video which Rupert laughingly compares to Galileo's telescope! Should he have watched it before commenting on it? Most definitely. Yes. Was he rude for not watching it? Yes. Did he do this because he fears a video of a psychic parrot will shatter his worldview? I can't possibly say, but I'd find it more disturbing if he watched it then pulled out of the debate.)
Prescott then goes on to assert that this is due to Wolpert's aversion to cognitive dissonance, which he can't possibly know, but even if he is correct to extrapolate this behaviour to ALL SKEPTICS or even many is ludicrous. Wolpert may also be averse to cous-cous, are all skeptics? The behaviour of one individual, or ten even can't be used to assess the qualities a whole sub-set of humanity!

Prescott continues:

"Because any evidence for psi or life after death is so disturbing to him, the Skeptic tends to avoid it whenever possible. But if he cannot avoid it, then he must find a way to neutralize it. The need is urgent, which is why the first available explanation consistent with his preconceptions is eagerly seized upon. This is also why Skeptics are "debunkers" at heart; their impulse is not to engage with the evidence but to dismiss it as quickly as possible."
Evidence for Psi isn't disturbing to me for one fundamental reason: I haven't seen any evidence. Michael complains that evidence that isn't avoided is neutralized. I'd suggest if it can be neutralized, it wasn't evidence it the first place. And if the first arrived at consistent argument is sufficient to neutralize the claim then of course its seized on. What Michael is complaining about is akin to a child found to fast in a game of hide and seek insisting that the peer who found him continue looking anyway because his victory was too swift.

Michael refers to this as the "fallacy of a glancing blow" which can be summed up with a simple image.

Michael is right on his final point to some extent. Some skeptics do dismiss things out of hand but these aren't the debunkers (personally I wouldn't even label them as skeptics, they are cynics, I make the distinction on this post), debunkers take things a part, examine them, search for rational explanations, mistakes made, assumptions made, that's how you debunk. You read, you research, you investigate. A lot of skeptics hate to be call a debunker. I'm quite proud of it. I made this point to a friend once who called me a debunker.

"I would have been able to debunk it if it wasn't bunk to begin with."

This applies here. If the evidence for Psi was robust, it couldn't be neutralised or debunked. The fault doesn't lie at the feet of the skeptic, its in the hands of the researcher. Michael doesn't seem to know that if Psi is accepted as legitimate non-fringe science one day, it will be subject to vicious peer review. If the research falls down at this stage will he call these reviewers "debunkers"? Will he accuse those who fail to replicate the results of conspiracy?

Because its peer review that skeptics are approximating when they "debunk" Psi-claims.

All the talk of avoidance and denial is particularly ironic in Michaels post. Know what the number one method of participants in a debate avoiding the objections of their opponent is? Poisoning the well, attacking a source and their justification for holding an opinion.... Like for instance saying "Skeptics' opinions about Psi are invalid because they are afraid of it changing their worldview".

When Michael makes the following claim:
"Skeptics are not good at introspection. They are largely unacquainted with their own psychology and thus blind to their biases. They may even flatter themselves with the belief that they are uniquely unbiased. Biases are for other people, not them. "
More sweeping generalisation, followed by a claim that has to make me wonder "does Michael even know what a skeptic is?" As a skeptic I'm painfully aware of my own bias, but I'm also aware that is what the scientific method is for. To remove bias. I'm always acutely aware of the words of Richard Feynman when I look at a claim paranormal or otherwise:

Like I said earlier, I myself don't accept psi as a phenomena because I simply don't see any convincing empirical evidence. I've been pointed to a lot of psi-research and I've found the majority of it falls down some where in the methodology, or the lack of successful replication. I am deeply offended when its implied that I in some way fear Psi changing my world view. Its a cheap way to defend one's beliefs to say those that don't share them are afraid.

Have I made my mind up about Psi? Not necessarily. But it isn't getting a pass for just being at the serious end of the paranormal spectrum, and attracting researchers with legitimate scientific backgrounds. Even Sheldrake, often dismissed as crank, is a fearsomely intelligent man performing legitimate but, I my opinion, fundamentally flawed research. Nor should Psi believers assume that well presented papers grant immediate legitimacy. That only comes through full submittal to the scientific method, including replication and peer review.

Part of the reason Psi-research is fringe science is due to its struggle to generate funding from independent backers, if the field was producing replicable results with solid methodology. Again here we have a case were if "believers" in Psi and researchers actually stopped and listened to what horrible, nasty skeptics, had to say to them rather than responding with vitriol, and trying to dismiss their objections, they could actually improve their methodology and perhaps produce robust, empirical evidence of Psi, thus gaining more funding!

As for Michael, I'm sorry he's had some bad online experiences with people identifying as "skeptics." Perhaps unsurprisingly so have I. Take what happened to me when a popular science page on Facebook shared one of my last posts: "Physics .Vs Phantom." The aim of the post was to critically assess whether the laws of physics support the existence of the classical ghosts as such it seemed posting the piece under this rhetorical question. Which elicited the following response:


Just "No"

Certainly this is the conclusion I came to but I could've saved myself a lot of effort just by typing no and walking away, assured in my conclusion. So why didn't I?

Because I'm a skeptic. Above all else. I'm not interested in sneeringly dismissing claims, I want to assess them. I'm not looking for evidence for a predetermined conclusion that I've already reached. Sure, occasionally when I look at a claim I'm pretty sure what I'll find, but I look and assess anyway.

Because doing anything else simply doesn't help anyone. Bad skepticism is as futile as unquestioning belief.

In fact blanket dismissals such as Joe's play right into the hands of some believers, who use responses such as this to muddy the waters and blur the line between skeptic and cynic. It's a tactic I run against frequently, present a reasoned assessment of a claim only to have a believer poison the well, claiming that all skeptics just dismiss the paranormal out of hand, even though that's clearly not what has happened.
Responses like this also serve to alienate and anger other believers, creating an up hill battle for those the apply skepticism to simply inform believers how we operate. Some of the most heated discussions I've had on the subject of the paranormal regarding the definition of "skeptic."

I think Joe is the kind of person that Michael is addressing.


Doesn't matter if he identifies as one, he simply isn't meeting the criteria required to claim that title. He's a cynic pure and simple. And an arse. And probably a troll who enjoys ripping on the work of others.


Michael, if you happen to read this, I will take a look at whatever you feel is the gold standard of Psi research. One paper. Simply because I don't have time to do more, scientific papers take a long time to read, and require further research. What I want avoid is what happened the last time I discussed psi, I was inundated with articles from multiple  people. So its one paper, not an article about a paper or an opinion piece.

I'm offering this in good faith and hope you can see your opinion of skeptics in general is skewed and based on misunderstanding... and I think... quite a bit of anger.

This believer vs skeptic nonsense is old hat and unhelpful.

Over to you Michael.