Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: The Skeptic's Guide to the Parnormal

Since the magazines I wrote reviews for have both closed recently (to my dismay, since I appreciated the writing opportunities, the free books, and the quality reading material), I'm going to do the occasional book review here with, of course, a less formal style than I use in publication.

My first target: The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal by Lynne Kelly

Having wanted to read it for some time and having an avid interest in all things unusual, I was eager to see Kelly's point of view on questions I'd pondered for some time. I was, unfortunately, seriously disappointed.

In part, I think, my disappointment arose from my perhaps irrational expectation of a high level of scholarship from anything labeled The Skeptic's Guide. I read skeptic material often and am usually quite impressed but experience the occasional disappointment, as was the case with my reaction to Alexander Nussbaum's article on the views of Orthodox Jews in Skeptic: The Magazine. Again, this is probably linked to my irrationally high expectations regarding skeptic material or in the case of the Nussbaum article, my irrational high expectations regarding Michael Shermer, whom I deeply respect despite differences in our views.

The scholarship and argumentation in Kelly's book, however, was so shoddy that I begin to wonder if the title "skeptic" is used now solely as a selling point rather than as a sign of commitment to intellectual rigor.

First, Kelly seemed to pick the easiest targets, the obvious frauds and silly conspiracy theories that so readily present themselves, while ignoring some of the more difficult questions. It's easy to identify the sources of strange noises that disturb us in the night. It's harder to explain the admittedly anecdotal evidence presented by multiple people witnessing the same phenomena at different times, such as the repeated reports of the sounds of gunfire at Gettysburg.

I, personally, have been discombobulated by reports from friends of the skeptic and atheist bent who have reported seeing things they could not explain while fully awake and completely sober. More disturbing still is when they have reported seeing things that have been independently reported to me by other people. One friend's home was allegedly "haunted" by a man who would reportedly walk up the back stairs and disappear. I ignored the story, one commonly heard in my hometown of New Orleans, until an atheist friend reported seeing the man and was so obviously disturbed by it.

Second, Kelly often fell victim to a host of logical fallacies that seriously weakened her authority in my humble opinion. For instance, it was common for Kelly to point out that some person or other must have been a fraud because he/she sold or attempted to sell an "alien abduction" story to some newspaper. The problem with this is not solely it's evocation of the appeal to motive fallacy but also the fact that it conflicts with my training and experience as a journalist.

Most people are, unfortunately, more familiar with the practices of tabloid journalism than with the real thing. Having heard so frequently of the large sums handed over by the Enquirer or Daily World News, people begin to think that it's common practice for journalists to pay for a good story. That is not the case. Reputable journalists simply don't pay regardless of the value of the information. This isn't because we think someone will necessarily lie to us for cash, but because it is unethical by the standards of journalism. A lot of journalists can tell you stories of the very true information or much desired interview that was offered to them for "the right price" which they declined based on ethical considerations.

Third, Kelly made a bit to much use of shoddy evidence and questionable assertions.

The government can't keep a conspiracy, she insisted, because so many people would know about it somone would be bound to leak it. Unfortunately, that has many errors, including the fact that top secret information is accessible to only a few and the fact that the military specifically (which is implicated in the so-called "alien conspiracy")is extraordinarily good at keeping secrets. In fact, when the Army broke the Soviet code in the 1940's, even the president was not informed! The public was kept in the dark about this secret code breaking project for decades, even though the information gained showed that some high-ranking government officials may have been spying for the Soviets. Scan the reams of declassified information released through Freedom of Information Act requests and you'll find a variety of very BIG secrets kept by our government for decades.

This guy who was reported missing for five days then showed up with an abduction story? Well, he failed a lie detector test. Anyone who remotely merits the title of skeptic would know that lie detector tests are pseudoscientific hogwash. A variety of physiological and psychological problems can cause false results. That's why lie detector tests are not admissible in courts of law and why they're piss-poor evidence to use in any argument.

Even though I agreed with many if not all of Kelly's conclusions, I couldn't ignore the poor argumentation and evidence she used to come to those conclusions. I'm hoping someone out there takes the hard questions of the paranormal seriously enough to do some real scholarship on the matter. I'm also hoping that the proposensity for seeking easy explanations (hallucination, mistaken assumptions, and fraud)will give way to a consideration of the possibility that people are seeing something very real that may not be what they think it is and may have a very natural explanation.

(I'd like to tip my hat to skeptic and former paranormal researcher, Rob,for his argument that "ghosts" may be quantum intrusions. An interesting idea, indeed, and one well worth examining.)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Evidence: Contradiction

How, oh how, do we cope with information that contradicts theory, faith, paradigm, worldview? How do we cope with what is ultimately cognitive dissonance of some sort?

We'll ignore the emotional component for now. It is, I would think, quite obvious that we can feel enraged, depressed, threatened, etc. by the assertion of an idea or fact that calls our fundamental assumptions into question.

What I wish to examine here is our capacity to find triumph in the resolution of the contradiction. Perhaps this will lead to some understanding as to why some will readily ignore contradictory information and others will abandon belief at the first sign of contradiction. You know whom I'm talking about... the people we love to attack for the ability to maintain prior beliefs despite contradictory evidence or those who bend to every wind that blows, changing their views at the faintest hint of contradiction. (The accusations we make against this "sort" of person seems more and more to me as merely an assertion that those we are attacking are as human as we cannot admit we are.)

I present two stories from science. In both, contradictory information challenged a paradigm. In one, preserving theory led to a great discovery. In another, abandoning theory led to revolution.

You must imagine a time when there were only seven known planets. The seventh, Uranus, was believed to be the outer limit of our solar system. Unfortunately, Uranus was behaving a bit oddly. It's strange orbit contradicted the laws of Kepler and Newton. Yet, no one seriously considered the possibility that the laws of classical physics were wrong; at least, no one comes to mind.

Some astronomers attempted to explain the perturbations of Uranus' orbit mathematically, assuming the validity of classical physics, and declared that there must be an eigth planet. Some other astronomers thought they were a bit off and refused to take them seriously.

In 1821, Alexis Bouvard became the first to hypothesize that some extra body was disturbing Uranus' orbit. In 1843, Bouvard would be joined by John Couch Adams, who calculated the hypothetical orbit of a then hypothetical eighth planet. In 1846, Urbain le Verrier independently arrived at the same conclusion that Adams had before him. For 25 years, three astronomers argued that there was an eighth planet and provided the calculations to demonstrate it, but were ignored by the mainstream scientific community.

Finally, in 1846, John Herschel jumped on the bandwagon and convinced James Challis to look for the eight planet. Challis reluctantly agreed. Meanwhile, Le Verrier had convinced Johann Gottfried Galle to search. A student at the Berlin Observatory, Heinrich D'Arrest, suggested comparing a recently drawn chart of the sky with the current sky and Neptune was discovered. It was September 23, 1846.

It took 25 years before anyone took Bouvard, Adams, and Le Verrier seriously enough to even look! The point: Bouvard, Adams, and Le Verrier held to the validity of classical physics in the presence of contradictory evidence, insisted that there MUST be an eighth planet, and they were right!

The second story is more well known, so I'll keep it brief. At the end of the nineteenth century, the scientific community had declared that it was very close to understanding and explaining EVERYTHING! Newton's laws and Maxwell's equations had boxed the universe in quite nicely, thank you very much. What more was there to know?

In the 1890's, science encountered contradictory information in the form of "the ultraviolet catastrophe." A graph of black body radiation contradicted the predictions of Newton and Maxwell! In fact, it contradicted the long-held theory (demonstrated by experiment) that light travelled as a wave. Black body radiation could only be explained by light traveling as particles.

In 1900, Max Planck made this very point and a revolution was born. As the twentieth century wore on, physicist after physicist would question the applicability of classical physics to the very small, the very large, and the very fast. From their work, quantum and Einsteinian physics were born.

So, we have two stories from science with two different reactions to contradictory information. In one, astronomers refusing to abandon Kepler and Newton found a planet. In another, physicists abandoning not only Newton and Maxwell, but the whole of classical physics, transformed science as we know it forever.

In both cases, many in their fields refused to take them seriously. In fact, the early works of quantum and Einsteinian physics sparked tremendous controversy. (So much so that Einstein's Nobel Prize was granted for his far less important work on the electrostatic effect rather than for his world-changing theory of special relativity.) In the cases of Max Planck and Albert Einstein, they themselves rued the revolutionary implications of their work.

It is so innately human to attempt to preserve what we hold dear in the face of contradiction. It is also innately human to embrace the new when the old no longer serves our purposes. Deciding when and how to resolve contradiction by preservation or abandonment of prior beliefs is extraordinarily difficult, even for the best of us. Even the greatest minds in the history of science mourned for the world they had to leave behind despite the tremendous beauty and impact of the worlds they created.

Is it any wonder that we mere humans so often err in preserving something best abandoned or in abandoning or rejecting something that would serve us far better that what we hold dear? Is it any wonder that we don't have the foggiest idea when to hold on and when to let go?

Is attacking a person's response to "contradictory evidence" so easy only because we fail to see how similar their responses are to our own? Are we that afraid of being human?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Evidence: Lots of Questions

Off memetics for a while. I've been focusing a bit too much, I think, on a subject that will only be part of a chapter on how different groups can manipulate science because of a priori assumptions external to science. The following post is, however, influenced in part by my thoughts on memetics and its popularity.

Lately, I've been having fleeting thoughts about the nature of evidence, since one "theme" of the book will be the different ways of "knowing" the world (common sense, philosophy, science, religion, etc.) and how they interact with modern debates.

In the next few posts, I'll lists some of the questions that I'm hoping to "answer" to some extent. (I haven't quite gotten to that level of arrogance that will permit me to believe that I will answer millenia-old questions.) I'd love to have your feedback.

BIG QUESTION NUMBER 1: What does the "absence of evidence" mean beyond the dictionary definitions?

Much is made of the absence of evidence for supernatural beliefs, BUT do we humans really abandon any "faith" or "theory"- secular or religious - when faced with an absence of evidence?

What do I mean? Evolutionary theory crashes into an absence of evidence when we try to explain the Cambrian Explosion, the apparent arrival of most of the major phyla in a very brief period of time, geologically speaking. The absence of evidence for precursors to most of the species arriving at this time is explained away.

Fossilization, after all, is an extraordinarily rare event, even more rare for soft-bodied species. We presume that the Cambrian Explosion represents not the sudden emergence of thousands of species, but the evolution of the shell so that more species are being fossilized than before. This is a highly reasonable explanation of the absence of evidence based on what we know about fossilization and one I tend to prefer. However, there really is NO EVIDENCE for the thousands of soft-bodied species that would have existed prior to the Cambrian Explosion if this explanation is correct.

Intelligent design proponents use this to attack evolution. Absence of evidence, G-d tinkering with the program, and all that. Most of "us" science-loving types, even the religious ones, say the I.D. criticism is hogwash. Although we don't have the evidence, we "know" why we don't have it or wouldn't.

So, what does absence of evidence mean in the end? When and how do we know when to abandon ship and when to accept a reasonable explanation for the absence of evidence?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Memes and Apple Pie

Reason offered this "apple pie meme" in defense of memetics:

For example, I might give you a recipie for apple pie. (Which we will call the "apple pie meme.")

You might try that recipie and you might like it and pass it along. (Selecting for the apple pie meme.)

Or you may dislike it and not use it again. (Selecting against the apple pie meme.)

You may find that one of the ingredients is expensive or hard to find and replace it with a less expensive or more widely available ingredient. (Mutation of the apple pie meme.)

You might find this modified recipie more appealing because of its taste, lower cost, or both and choose to pass it on to more people. (Selection for the mutated apple pie meme.)

Let's take this step for step. I'll keep the "meme" language as much as possible for clarity's sake.
STEP ONE: For example, I might give you a recipie for apple pie. (Which we will call the "apple pie meme.")

Seems simple, BUT this step is a lot more complex than it seems, especially since we'll probably encounter more than one "meme."
For instance, why are you giving me the recipe? Possibilities: family tradition; you're my spouse and you really hate my apple pie recipe; you want me to make apple pie like your mom did; you know I like apple pie; I asked for it... A lot of memes there! Like the relationship meme, the tradition meme, the friendship meme, etc.
Why would I accept the recipe? Family tradition? I like apple pie? I don't want to hurt your feelings? You're my spouse and I want to make you happy? Lots of memes there too!

STEP TWO: You might try that recipie and you might like it and pass it along. (Selecting for the apple pie meme.) Or you may dislike it and not use it again. (Selecting against the apple pie meme.)

Am I passing it along simply because I like it or because of many of the other reasons previously listed? Am I going to use it in the first place? If I don't use it again, is it because I don't like it or are other factors at play? Maybe I don't like it but I use it again because my spouse does.
I might get offended by the implications about my baking skills and throw it away without trying it. If I do throw it away, I'm not necessarily rejecting the apple pie meme. I might be selecting for the "my spouse needs to untie the apron strings and stop thinking I need to be like his Mommy" meme.

STEP THREE: You may find that one of the ingredients is expensive or hard to find and replace it with a less expensive or more widely available ingredient. (Mutation of the apple pie meme.)

In which cases, we're not just talking about mutation of the apple pie meme. We're involving the frugality meme, the convenience meme, etc. Then, of course, there are the memes for dietary restrictions, food preferences, etc.

STEP FOUR: You might find this modified recipie more appealing because of its taste, lower cost, or both and choose to pass it on to more people. (Selection for the mutated apple pie meme.)

First, I might not pass on the mutation. If I altered the recipe in consideration of my personal medical/dietary issues, I might still pass on the original, nonmutated meme. Then, there are the many reasons I might pass it on, discussed earlier, and the considerations of who I pass it on to and how. Do I post it on my blog? Send it out with my holiday cards? Include it in the cookbook I'm writing? Mention it on my talk show? Give it to my daughter when she gets married? Give it to a friend who mentions wanting an apple pie recipe? Give it to someone who makes really bad apple pie? Lots more memes here!

This is the short list. We'd also have to consider how the situation in which you receive the recipe affects your ability to recall it accurately, how the recipe interacts with positive and/or negative memories associated with apple pie, how medical conditions might affect your ability to taste pie, how your understanding of baking terminology affects your ability to produce an apple pie that is consistent with the recipe, etc.

Do you see the problem? Memetics provides a highly simplified, generalized "explanation" of very complex phenomena which is really no explanation at all. Even the spread of a recipe for apple pie becomes far more complex at each step than memetics allows.

UPDATE: After reading Dan's comment on the comparison between genetics and memetics, I'd like to clarify a point. Amongst many reasons I point out in a comment to this post, here's another that is relevant to the "apple pie meme" and the examples I gave in deconstructing it.
Genes are selected for or against based on their "merits" as it were, adaptability or maladaptability. A gene is not selected for or against based on the merits of a non-related gene.
I discussed the apple pie recipe being discarded because (in the imaginary world where the imaginary Melinda is married to an imaginary man) my spouse compared my recipe negatively to his mother's. I rejected the recipe not on consideration of its merits, but based on information irrrelevant to the merits of the recipe. Perhaps I may have preferred the recipe to my own, but I didn't even consider it. I didn't even have to look at the recipe, just trash it based on my relationship with my imaginary spouse.
In genetics, this would be like nature selecting against blue eyes because environmental factors make long legs more beneficial.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Where the Heck Have I Been?

Yeah, I know. Sorry.

Read Cult of Melinda for a brief update. I'll try to be back when I can.