Archive for the ‘Pseudo-science’ Category

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There is no taboo on studying psychic phenomena, just boredom

October 20, 2013

Regular commenter (and blogger) @lettersquash left a great comment here yesterday. I want to write a quick post picking up an important point from it. It concerns the repeated yammering from parapsychologists and psychic researchers (not to mention cancer quacks) that mainstream science has a taboo against studying psychic phenomena. Lettersquash notes that Rupert Sheldrake, for example,

rails against the taboo against studying psychic phenomena, although people have been studying it for centuries (and finding nothing).

The ‘taboo’ is boredom, the boredom some of us feel when someone tells us enthusiastically their house is haunted or they saw a spaceship land on their lawn last night or they know their dog can understand everything they’re saying….

The whole rant is excellent and well worth reading and responding to. I will post a few quick thoughts on this topic here…..

It seems to me that far from having a taboo about spiritual or psychic phenomena, scientists and serious researchers have been especially accommodating of such ideas. If people were not so emotionally invested in these ideas (and I include scientists here) there is no way that science would have wasted so much time and energy on them. Yet regardless of how many times such claims are demolished by properly conducted research, and such ideas are shown to be utterly useless by the laws of physics, nutbags like Rupert Sheldrake or Dean Radin continue to insist that it’s merely because of a taboo that these ideas have not entered mainstream science. No. It’s because these presumptious nitwits have published their poorly researched failures too quickly and are too egotistical or too greedy to back down.

The history of science is littered with failed hypotheses and disproven theories. Even very popular and plausible ones were swiftly dispatched pretty much as soon as it became clear that they were implausible. The theory that gravity was due to the existence of an “ether” through which the planets moved was dropped as soon as Newton figured out the math for measuring the exact velocity of planets at all points of their (elliptical) orbits. He was shocked to find that it they moved exactly according to his theoretical calculations which deliberately ignored the effects of the resistance he expected to find. (Like air resistance, it was supposed that ether would also cause a slight drag.) Had ether been equated with the Holy Ghost, or — a more relevant example — been supposed to be the medium through which we can communicate with the dead, we would probably still be forced to speak of it respectfully in hushed tones and fund research into why science “can’t explain” how it allows planets to move through it without resistance.

It’s an insult to science and to scientists to claim this taboo exists. Science itself is the process by which evidence is evaluated for its reliability and usefulness. Scientific method is entirely concerned with this, and scientific knowledge can be said to consist of those things which are so well established that it no longer makes any sense to test it. It’s not that difficult to realize that this valuable knowledge has implications — namely that we don’t need to waste time on investigating clearly implausible ideas.

If there is a taboo it’s against treating religious ideas exactly the same as other ideas and dismissing them when they have been clearly shown to be useless.

Of course, it’s fine if people want to go on gathering data and carrying out experiments (though why not try conducting them properly for once???). Maybe one day you’ll hit the jackpot. ESP will be proven to exist and we will be able to read minds with exactly the same accuracy as if we were guessing; homeopathy will be proven and we’ll be able to heal people just as effectively as a placebo; psychics will legitimately be able to help police find missing children with exactly the same success rate as random chance…. And a Golden Age will ensue….

UPDATE 17 June 2014

I wasn’t joking in the comments below when I warned of a $20 fine for any commenter linking to a paranormal claim that has already been thoroughly debunked. Unfortunately, one commenter below posted this link

http://www.williamjames.com/Intro/CONTENTS.htm

to a book containing a veritable encyclopedia of idiotic charlatans and woos, (Uri Geller, for example) and a long list of fraudulent and debunked woo practices (Kirlian photography, for example). Many of these topics are no longer worthy of consideration, beyond serving as rather mundane cases studies of well documented fraud, delusion, and ignorance. 

For this act, I hereby fine commenter Roman Voronjanski $20 to be paid to Doctors Without Borders. As an act of clemency, however, a fitting donation has been paid by this website on behalf of the offender. Please do not offend again. Next time I won’t pay it, and you will be placed on moderation until you do.

spende
Confirmation notice – €20 donation (click to enlarge if you can read German)

Posted by Yakaru

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Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 2: Delusions of Dogma

October 27, 2012

If you haven’t read Part One, please do that first, because you’ll get a summing up of the whole thing in the first few paragraphs and you might decide Sheldrake has made such a mess of it that it’s not even worth bothering to read on!

Rupert Sheldrake, as we saw in Part One, claims that modern science is based on ten dogmas. Further, he claims these dogmas force scientists to exclude all evidence for spiritual phenomena regardless of merit. But before diving back into the list where we left off in Part One, I want to point out two more disastrous flaws in Sheldrake’s argument.

One is that it’s not just spiritual ideas that science has discarded over the last few centuries. A massive number of hypotheses that would perfectly fit into what Sheldrake sees as science’s “mechanistic dogma” have also been discarded. Why? Because they didn’t work. But why does Sheldrake think these mechanistic theories were discarded, if the only standard for proof he sees operating is adherence to a mechanistic dogma?

Obviously, if he will allow that strict and fair rules of evidence were applied to mechanistic theories, then why would these suddenly be suspended on ideological grounds for spiritual ideas? Such behavior would leave a very clear paper trail, wouldn’t it, Dr Sheldrake. Where is it, and why didn’t you discuss that in this lecture?

A second problem — even more immediate — is that he has failed to discuss real life scenarios where scientific “dogma” was seriously challenged. How do scientists react in such a case? Consider the neurtrino incident. The sequence of events is recounted here in a few newspaper headlines:

According to Sheldrake, the reporting scientists would simply be ignored or openly chastised for daring to question the dogma. Or the anomaly would have been ignored by the discoverers themselves, either through dogmatic blindness or fear of God, as Sheldrake argues below. But that’s not what happened, and Sheldrake does not discuss this incident.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 1: Dogma & Denial

October 21, 2012

Rupert Sheldrake recently published a book called The Science Delusion. It was accompanied by a public lecture tour of the same name, and this two part series of posts is based on one of these lectures.

As will be argued below, Sheldrake’s understanding of science is itself delusory. He grossly misrepresents the nature of modern science, and commits the very same errors he has accused science of making: defining things into and out of reality, dismissing evidence out of hand, and failing to question his own assumptions.

Sheldrake simply blanks out hundreds of years of the history of science, and completely ignores entire fields of scientific inquiry. Repeatedly, he presents the whole of modern science as if it is a minor and rather primitive branch of speculative philosophy, run by a cabal of cynical, incompetent and power-hungry priests.

He asserts that modern science is based on ten dogmas, all of which originated at a particular juncture in history several hundred years ago, and which have been blindly maintained ever since, without regard for evidence.

What his argument requires him to do, then, is to show that these dogmas:

a) really exist in modern science;
b) hinder scientific progress or skew research; and
c) show that his alternative would serve scientific advancement.

As will become clear below, he does the following instead:

a) fails to correctly identify the assumptions that science really uses;
b) ignores all research and all progress in all the sciences; and
c) simply demands the right to tinker philosophically with the theoretical foundations of science, without regard for evidence.

This post is based on an hour-long public lecture (which he won’t allow anyone to embed) in which Sheldrake presents the main arguments of his book.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Blogging “The Power”: A critique of Rhonda Byrne – Part 5: Masuro Emoto

May 13, 2012

The in depth look at Rhonda Byrne’s Secret follow up, The Power continues….

The brain, Rhonda Byrne tells us, is 80% water. In Ms Byrne’s case this is extremely easy to believe.

She continues:

Researchers in Japan, Russia, Europe, and the United States have discovered that when water is exposed to positive words and feelings such as love and gratitude, the energy level of the water not only increases, but the structure of the water changes, making it perfectly harmonious.

The higher the positive feeling, the more beautiful and harmonious the water becomes. When water is exposed to negative emotions, such as hate, the energy level of the water decreases, and chaotic changes occur, negatively affecting the structure of the water.

So, if water is affected by our thoughts and emotions, we can turn our brains into big slush puddles of positivity, just by controlling our thoughts. We can use this positively magnetized pot of gruel to attract equally positively magnetized objects and events to ourselves, through the “scientifically proven” Law of Attraction!!!

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at some of the fascinating “research” that Byrne is referring to. (I’ve dealt in previous posts with Byrne’s failure to realize that magnets attract their opposite pole, and the narcissistic stupidity of trying to attribute “positive” and “negative” charges to events and objects; and the stubborn refusal of human flesh to behave like a magnet, whether positive or negative.)

… 

One of Byrne’s heroes, Masuro Emoto, is probably already known to her readers, as he was featured in the smash hit pseudo-science-fiction movie What the Bleep. Emoto’s work certainly demonstrates the extraordinary power of classical pseudo-scientific method:

1. Rig up an experiment to produce the effects you desire

2. Carefully record the results

3. Run with them to the PR department as quickly as possible

Emoto’s experiments were simple and elegant: he put water in scientific looking vials and taped words to the outside, or played music, or prayed. He froze the water and photographed the crystals that formed with a powerful microscope. Without fail, the photographs reflected his hypothesis: the vials that had words like “love” taped to them formed nice crystals; those with words like “hate” or “scamming shit-weasel” taped to them produced ugly ones.

 “Love” 

 “You make me sick”

As chemist Stephen Lower points out, ice crystals form differently according to the rate of freezing and other conditions. Furthermore, the different crystal formations don’t mean that the water’s chemical structure is changed as Byrne claims. It just means that the water formed different shaped crystals.

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Bruce Lipton PhD: Quack, ignoramus

April 13, 2012

People googling “Bruce Lipton quack” often get referred to this blog, as that phrase was briefly mentioned in a comment on one post or another. I always got a twinge of guilt that I hadn’t written about him yet, so here goes…

Bruce Lipton, PhD has made a name for himself as a more science-savvy version of Deepak Chopra. But Unlike Chopra, seems to have largely escaped the attention of the skeptic community. He peppers his talks with technical terms from biochemistry, hoping that no one with the relevant training will pay any close attention and call him to account. I have no relevant training, so I will deal with a fairly straight forward talk, and consider its merits.

This two minute video talk is probably a good place to start. No need to watch it. I’ve already sat through the whole two minutes of it and transcribed a few of his barely articulate and ungrammatical sentences.

 Cancer quack Bruce Lipton PhD with face-lifted cancer quack Louise Hay

… 

Lipton tells us that the earth is going through its sixth mass extinction, which scientists say is caused by human behavior. Lipton agrees. But that’s where any agreement between Bruce Lipton PhD and modern science finishes. Lipton finds a rather curious origin for the whole thing:

Much of this human behavior is in fact related to a concept that we arose in this garden as a total result of accident, when in fact this is the complete opposite from the…the…I mean…we were, we were….it was purpose and design through the entire process.

I’d like to play dumb here and say that he couldn’t possibly be referring to evolution, because that doesn’t propose that life arose by accident or chance. But I can’t play dumb. I know he means evolution, because Creationists talk like this all the time. Now, I can understand why the average member of the public hears the words “random mutation and natural selection”, and focuses on the easiest word — random. It takes a bit of background reading to clear up the confusion: genetic mutations are only “random” within some clearly defined parameters; and beyond that, natural selection is not random, (which is why the word selection appears rather prominently in the term).

But Bruce Lipton isn’t an average member of the public. He has a PhD in developmental biology! Why is he ignorant of the most basic concepts of his own field?

Read the rest of this entry ?

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A Lesson in Paranormal Cheating with Dean Radin

January 3, 2011

In a discussion on Salty Droid’s blog a commenter was arguing that science refuses to recognize the evidence for psi (psychic phenomena) because of a taboo. By way of evidence he offered a link to a video of a lecture by well known psi researcher, Dean Radin.

The lecture is titled Science and the Taboo of Psi.

Despite what any reasonable person would expect of a lecture with a title like that, Radin in fact does not attempt to argue that there is a taboo against psi in science.

Instead he simply asserts there is a taboo, and then interprets everything as if that assertion were true. He also dismisses all criticism of psi research as being merely the result of the taboo.

Just to make it clear, Radin also does not present a shred of evidence for psi in this lecture either, (though he talks about the subject a lot).

More importantly, Radin’s documentation sucks. His refusal to properly reference his sources (name, title, journal, date) causes problems for his argument which only become clear when you check the sources yourself. When you do this, it becomes clear that Radin is being less than accurate and less than honest with the information he provides his audience. As will be shown, this is not a matter of interpretation of evidence, (let alone alone a taboo). It’s a simple matter of shoddy scholarship being used to mask the most idiotic abuse of data that I’ve seen since last time I read anything from this goose.

I will uncover enough of this to make it clear what Radin is up to, before quitting in disgust a mere seven minutes into the lecture. Am I being unfair? Read first, then argue your case in the comments if you wish.

Dean Radin begins the lecture with a first-person account of a woman who reports awaking mysteriously one night with a feeling of terror. Later she learns that her son was shot dead at the exact moment she awoke, and believes she was experiencing his fear and pain at the moment of his death.

This incident, Radin says, was

published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Okay, that sounds more substantial than an anecdote in the Reader’s Digest or something, but Radin offers nothing more in the way of verification of the basic facts of the account. (He mentions later as an aside that “it’s a true story”, but that’s it.)

Radin also doesn’t tell us the title of the paper or the publication date, although the authors’ names do briefly flash on the screen behind him: Moulton & Kosslyn. The case was originally published, he continues, in a book from 1981 by one Louisa Rhine. Again, no title. Why the shoddy referencing? This is supposed to be a serious lecture of an academic standard, but he’s not doing the basics.

And surely any serious psi researcher would want to get as many of the facts confirmed as possible, but not Radin. He moves straight into considering the ways in which different people are likely to respond.

He “suspects” that a high percentage of academics would label it “superstitious nonsense”. But he also suspects that if you ask them privately, a percentage of those will say that there might be something in it after all.

And that is the sum total of his argument to establish the existence of a “taboo in science against psi”, the central theme of his lecture.

Satisfied that he has made his case, Radin moves on to explaining why this taboo is bad.

Firstly, the taboo leads to

distorted reporting of psi research.

He looks at a Boston Globe article about an fMRI study which “does not support ESP”. The first distortion, he says, is a statement that this was the first such study. Not true, says Radin: there have been four other studies published in reputable journals, and what’s more, they all confirm ESP. He correctly points out that the article does not mention these.

Of course Radin does not mention them either. Why not just list them on the screen behind him like any academic routinely would?

The next distortion, Radin explains, is that one of the 16 trials in the study did actually support ESP and the researchers ignored it. They seem to have written it off as a chance hit. Now, it seems reasonable enough to me to assign one hit out of sixteen to random chance, but Radin insists that if the researchers will do it for one, they would also do it if all 16 out of 16 were hits. In other words, instead of trying to argue that one in 16 was not a chance hit, Radin argues that the researchers would ignore a 100% positive result anyway.

The authors really don’t have any chance at all. Radin accuses them of deception in a pre-emptive strike, despite them having done nothing wrong at all.

….And anyway, the Boston Globe is not exactly a scientific journal, is it? Why on earth would anyone choose it as a representative organ of the scientific community? Why not go back to the original paper the article was reporting on?

Why not, indeed! A bit of googling reveals why Radin did not provide the details of the paper. The paper in question is by two authors whose names sound strangely familiar: Moulton & Kosslyn.

Of course, they were the authors who “published” the opening story about the the grieving mother. And instead of citing the journal as if it lends credence to the story, Radin should have made it clear that the authors were not citing it as a credible account of an actual occurrence.

In fact the authors used that story as an example of why researchers should treat anecdotal accounts with caution: they may seem subjectively compelling, but are too vague to adequately exclude the other possible explanations which the authors list in detail.

So that’s why his referencing is such a dog’s dinner. The first time he used the paper, he cited only the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. That sounds much more impressive than than the 1981 book it originally came from, which is titled (as far as I can tell) The Invisible Picture: A Study of Psychic Experiences. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason at all to mention the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in connection with that story. In fact it is deceptive and misleading to do so.

Then he uses the same paper again, this time without mentioning the authors or the journal, and using the Boston Globe instead as a proxy. And now, Moulton & Kosslyn’s work is no longer an authoritative paper from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience rather it has become an example of “distorted reporting” of psychic phenomenon. (Radin, of course does not even acknowledge, let alone address, any of the serious problems with psi research with the authors identify.)

Distorted reporting indeed, Mr Radin.

All this chicanery would have been exposed immediately had Radin followed the simple, normal procedures for academic referencing.

“Conservative, narrow-minded scientists” are not enemies of psi — they’re too busy flying around in spaceships, cloning, mapping the Neanderthal genome, and working out ways to prolong the lives of useless idiots like Dean Radin. Rather, the field of psi research is being hampered by the failure of researchers themselves to adhere to the simplest nuts and bolts of academic practice.

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