Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Martin Gardner And The Degradation of Skepticism [Anthony McCarthy]

Martin Gardner the author of puzzles and polemical attacks on anything he deemed to be too strange to be allowed, died the other day. He was 95. I wasn’t much of a fan of his work. While I have nothing at all against people who like puzzles, I’ve got to admit, I never thought they were more than a waste of time. I don’t think I ever learned anything from doing a puzzle that I couldn’t have found more quickly by using a dictionary or reference work. Puzzle information tends to be of an extremely elementary nature. Randomly opening up a good dictionary or encyclopedia and reading what you find was one of my favorite childhood leisure activities, one I’d recommend. World Book, the Americana and various editions of the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary were the ones I practiced this form of educational bibliomancy with.

I’ve also never found puzzles remotely useful for learning anything about math or logic. While some people might find them useful for that, it just didn’t take with me at all.

As to his anti-paranormal activity, I think it’s of mixed usefulness. Exposing outright frauds that actually bilk people and talk them into dangerous activities, and inactivities, are a valuable contribution. Of course, beyond question. Beyond that, it quickly turns into a mean-spirited exercise in derision and coercion and mockery of people with totally innocuous beliefs and practices. I think that Gardner crossed that line, though not generally as often or always as far as his pals in things like the old CSICOP.

I don’t believe in astrology but don’t have any problem with people who do, as long as they’re not causing any harm or making national policy on the basis of what they believe they have discerned with it. Some, few, are cheated by unscrupulous people using what they say is astrology. Though far, far fewer than are routinely cheated, harmed and even killed by insurance companies. [Not to mention petro-geology and weapons science.] Astrology is almost entirely innocuous in the wider population. If it’s a waste of the time of the people who do believe in it, that is for them to decide just as it is for the people who spend money and time on puzzle books. I always figure that what people do with their own lives only becomes other peoples’ business when they impinge on other people.

While he was somewhat cagey on the subject, from what I’ve read Gardner wasn’t exactly honest about his views on Psi (ESP)*.

I know that saying so will mark me as having violated one of today’s strongest taboos among the intelligencia but the meta analysis of controlled experiments on the subject by Jessica Utts and analyzed by Dean Radin produce far stronger evidence that there are unexplained effects in the experiments than huge swaths of conventional psychology which are routinely cited and taught in universities, with little controversy. The controlled experiments are, generally, of a far, far higher quality in methodology and execution than much of conventional psychology, the phenomena tested, often far less outlandishly complex and the claims of what was found far more in keeping with the actual experiments. But, thanks to Gardner and his pals, it is taboo to even admit you’ve read the literature on the subject with anything like objectivity. And it can be professional suicide to even whisper that you are interested in the subject. I think Gardner must have known this was the case but wouldn’t go on record with it for a number of reasons. I don’t think it would be possible to honesty look at the situation and conclude otherwise.

The position of the psi-busters in the general culture is a curious thing. Even articles published in their magazines have admitted that after decades of organized opposition to all things paranormal, more people seem to openly believe in them than ever before. On that alone, you’d think that they would rethink their methods and the scope of their activity. Why throw more work into a failed effort to browbeat the general culture into conformity with their views? After decades of failure, that’s the definition of irrationality. You’d think they’d abandon that and go after phony faith healers and the such.

Their primary success has been, exactly, in enforcing a taboo on all expression of interest in even the most chaste and controlled experimentation into well documented effects among the would be educated population. The casual charges of fraud that come from the old CSICOPs – not actually discovered evidence of fraud among reputable researchers but the most outlandish and extravagantly concocted charges that the researchers are either idiots or cheats – would shut down every single lab in every single branch of science, were those standards applied to them. Psychology would never survive it, not with their present practices and standards.

One of Gardner’s associates was the late Carl Sagan who, among other things, at least once lamented the occasionally encountered skepticism that held the achievements of the space program were simulations and a fraud. I don’t know if he or anyone else ever made a connection between that skepticism and the kind of skepticism that his associates championed. I don’t recall Sagan lamenting the frat boy pack level meanness and even cruelty of a lot of his close associates in that effort. The entirely unscientific James Randi, chief among them. Maybe if they had practiced a higher level of skepticism they could have done something to raise its practice in the general culture. Today “skepticism” as commonly practiced is of as low a quality of intellectual endeavor as there is. Skepticism has definitely been damaged by organized “skepticism”. The skepticism about the science of climate change and other impending disasters is in the same species as much of it.

Sagan, apparently, was enough of a scientist to admit that there were documented effects, he made a list of three* that he deemed sufficiently well documented to be respectable to have an interest in.
1. The ability of people to affect random numbers generators.
2. That people under sensory depravation could send and receive information.
3. That young children sometimes report accurate information about previous lives.

I’ll point out that I’m extremely skeptical of the third one, myself. My hoping that reincarnation isn’t true, perhaps, being a motivating factor in my skepticism of it.

And this is Carl Sagan, early and famous member of CSICOP and one of the great heroes of organized “skepticism”. Obviously he, himself, had to admit that these phenomena had produced his kind of “extraordinary evidence”.

That Sagan didn’t destroy his reputation among his friends or the general public by admitting that these phenomena are credibly established to that extent, is an interesting phenomenon in itself. As is the reason of why, so many years after he said it. that saying exactly the same thing will get anyone else ridiculed into the margins by his biggest fans.

Skepticism without honesty is not skepticism, it is merely being contrary. And that’s at its best. At worst, in the animal house atmosphere of “skepticism” it is a nasty form of enforced conformity. I’ve never liked that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s good for the culture. It’s certainly not intellectually honest. I’m more impressed by the skepticism of the late Marcello Truzzi, who was thrown out of CSICOP for wanting to take a more scientific and scholarly approach to skepticism. That kind of skepticism is not as flashy and it’s more intellectually challenging than the pop-skepticism that is all the rage among middle brow sci-jocks, but it’s certainly more honest. Honesty is supposed to be the goal of the effort, isn’t it?

So, knowing what this will do to whatever reputation I might have, but being compelled to be honest about it, this is dedicated to my Wiccan, Pagan, astrology believing, ghost seeing, etc. friends. Long may you follow your own inclinations, so long as it harms none. And you vote progressive.

* Note: Gardner wasn’t always a model of honesty in his skepticism. He was quite able to make false statements, as have many of the other big names in “skepticism”. For example:

The fact that most skeptics do not conduct counter-studies to prove their claims is not well known. For example, in 1983 the well known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote the following:
How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology's perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.

As Honorton points out, "Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptics' experiments and see what you find." In addition, there is no "larger group of skeptics." There are perhaps 10 to 15 skeptics who have accounted for the vast bulk of the published criticisms....

I did check it. I was unable to find the asserted “replications”. I did find accusations made against researchers with no evidence that the accusations were founded in reality.

At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinon, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them: and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. Carl Sagan: The Demon Haunted World

Also Note: By some odd coincidence, I happened to listen to this lecture by Dean Radin last week while transplanting seedlings.

Spooky, huh?

UPDATE: It has been pointed out that the pop and professional “skeptics” are often very bad at knowing the first thing about even their own side. A hunch in sync with their predigested party line always suffices.

As in the e-mail I just got accusing me of promoting “ religious superstition” with this post, slandering the great Gardner in the process. Maybe the callow “skeptic” should bother to read his alleged hero. Here’s something Martin Gardner wrote in 1983 (as quoted in the Field Guide to Skepticism, linked to in the post).

As for empirical tests of the power of God to answer prayer, I am among those theists who, in the spirit of Jesus’ remark that only the faithless look for signs, consider such tests both futile and blasphemous..... Let us not tempt God.

Perhaps Gardner’s entire career as a “debunker” of psi was due to his religious feelings on the topic, similar to the non-religious ones I admitted to feeling about reincarnation. So, as Radin points out, his co-debunkers would have to discount anything he said about it as tainted. Or to be guilty of a double standard and hypocrisy.

I don’t have any religious objection to reincarnation, just the ones I noted in the comments.