Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Skepticism
by Rochus Boerner
The progress of science depends on a finely tuned balance between open-mindedness and skepticism. Be too open minded, and you'll accept wrong claims. Be too skeptical, and you'll reject genuine new discoveries. Proper skepticism must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Unfortunately, much of what comes out of the "skeptical" community these days is not proper skepticism, but all-out, fundamentalist disbelief. Such skepticism can be called pseudo-skepticism, pathological skepticism or bogus skepticism.
Here are the warning signs of bogus skepticism.
1. The Skeptic has reached her skeptical opinion not after careful research and examination of the claim, but simply based on media reports and other forms of second-hand knowledge.
Example : Pathological cold fusion skeptic Robert L. Park revealed in his March 1st 2002 What's New column that Science was going to publish an article on Sonofusion, and that even though he had not seen the paper, talked to the researchers or conducted any personal research in the area, he already knew that the Sonofusion discovery would turn out to be "a repeat of the cold fusion fiasco". Park used every bit of influence he had in a behind-the-scenes attempt to kill the paper. Luckily, the Science editor didn't cave and decided to publish.
2. Making uncontrolled criticisms. A criticism is uncontrolled if the same criticism could equally be applied to accepted science.
For example, Park makes such a criticism in his book Voodoo Science (p.199). In the context of a discussion of an obviously pseudoscientific Good Morning America report on anomalous phenomena (debunkery by association: as if TV shows were the principal outlet for reporting the results of psi research!), Park writes:
|Why, you may wonder, all this business of random machines? Jahn has studied random number generators, water fountains in which the subject tries to urge drops to greater heights, all sorts of machines. But it is not clear that any of these machines are truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed that there are no truly random machines. It may be, therefore, that the lack of randomness only begins to show up after many trials. Besides, if the mind can influence inanimate objects, why not simply measure the static force the mind can exert? Modern ultramicrobalances can routinely measure a force of much less than a billionth of an ounce. Why not just use your psychokinetic powers to deflect a microbalance? It's sensitive, simple, even quantitative, with no need for any dubious statistical analysis.
Where does Park's assessment that effects that are only indirectly detected, by statistical analysis, are suspect, leave conventional science? Deprived of one of its most powerful tools of analysis. The cherished 1992 COBE discovery of minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation would have to be thrown out, since it was entirely statistical in nature, and therefore by Park's argument, 'dubious'. The most celebrated discoveries of particle physics, such as the 1995 discovery of the top quark, or the results of neutrino detection experiments, or the synthesis of superheavy, extremely short-lived elements, would have to be thrown out, since they, too, are indirect and statistical in nature. Modern medicine would have to be invalidated as well because it relies on statistical analysis (of double- blind trials) to prove the efficacy of drugs.
For comparison: the American Institute of Physics's Bulletin of Physics News, #216, March 3, 1995 gives the odds against chance for the top quark discovery as a million to one. A 1987 meta-analysis performed by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of RNG (random number generator) experiments between 1959 and 1987 , on the other hand, shows the existence of an anomalous deviation from chance with odds against chance exceeding one trillion to one (see Radin, The Conscious Universe, p. 140).
Park's argument is the quintessential uncontrolled criticism: accepted scientific methods that constitute the backbone of modern science suddenly become questionable when they are used on phenomena that don't fit his ideological predilections.
3. The Pseudoskeptical Catch-22: "unconventional claims have to be proved before they can be investigated!" This way, of course, they will never be investigated or proved.
Parapsychology has been significantly hampered by this pseudoskeptical attitude. Pseudoskeptics complain that effect sizes are not bigger; but at the same time, they scream bloody murder if any grant-making agency even so much considers doing something about it. Radin writes in The Conscious Universe :
The tactics of the extreme skeptics have been more than merely annoying. The professional skeptic's aggressive public labeling of parapsychology as a "pseudoscience", implying fraud or incompetence on the part of the researchers, has been instrumental in preventing this research from taking place at all.
A similar situation exists in the new energy field. Pseudoskeptics like Robert L. Park are not content just dismissing things like cold fusion; they put massive pressure on policy makers and government to obstruct efforts to prove them wrong. Park's successful lobbying of the US patent office to withdraw Randall Mill's Black Light patent (which had already been approved!) comes to mind as an example.
4. Evidence of refutal is anecdotal or otherwise scientifically worthless. Pseudoskeptics tend to accept conventional "explanations" for unconventional phenomena very easily, no matter how weak, contrived or far-fetched. A good historical example is the rejection of the crop circle phenomenon.
Doug Bower and David Chorley claimed in 1991 that they had created all of the British crop circles since 1978 (all 2000 of them). This was an extraordinary claim of the highest order. Two old men claimed that for over a decade, they have been creating geometrical designs in crops whose complexity defies easy geometrical construction, but they were never able to demonstrate that they can do what they claim they could do. Any true skeptic would have rejected Bower's and Chorley 's claim, since "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Yet, the organized skeptics endorsed the claims enthusiastically and denounced the whole crop circle phenomenon a proven hoax.
5. The Skeptic rejects a discovery or invention merely because it has been believed for a long time that such a thing as the claimed discovery or invention is impossible.
This is the sole basis for the pseudoskeptical claim that, for example, a perpetuum mobile of the second kind is impossible. Park, for example, writes the following ignorant tirade in his 9/24/1999 What's New Column:
PERPETUUM MOBILE : BETTING AGAINST THE LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS.
Most free energy scams invoke outlandish new physics: cold fusion, hydrinos, zero-point energy, gravity shields, antimatter. But there are also throwbacks to the 19th Century that directly challenge the laws of thermodynamics. Physics Today carried a full-page ad for Entropy Systems, Inc. describing a heat engine that runs off ambient heat. It's hardly a new idea. Two years ago Better World Technologies was touting the "Fisher engine" that violated the Second Law (WN 18 Jul 97). But it wasn't new then either--it was the "zero motor," invented by John Gamgee in 1880. It didn't work then either, but Gamgee sold it to the U.S. Navy anyway.
Park's sole argument appears to be that We Have Always Believed The Second Law Is Correct, So It Has To Be. Physicists who actually investigate this question without preconceived notions of what is possible or impossible have reached very different conclusions. D.P. Sheehan, A.R. Putnam and J.H. Wrighty of the University of San Diego write in a recent paper titled A Solid-State Maxwell Demon :
Over the last ten years, an unprecedented number of challenges have been leveled against the absolute status of the second law of thermodynamics. During this period, roughly 40 papers have appeared in the general literature, representing more than a dozen distinct challenges; the publication rate is increasing. Recently, for the first time, a major scientific press has commissioned a monograph on the subject and a first international conference has been convened to examine these challenges. (..)
The genealogy of the Maxwell demon thus split into those that relied on sentient processes (e.g., intelligent active measurement, calculation, or microscopic manipulation), and those that did not. The former line has largely died out owing to advances in information theory, but the latter survived and now poses the most serious threat to the absolute status of the second law.
Future historians of science may well put the second "law" in the same category as "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible". An expression of contemporary scientific prejudice and lack of technological sophistication, not an eternal law of nature.
6. The Skeptic claims that the claimed effect contradicts the "laws of nature" (and therefore has to be wrong, since the Skeptic and the scientific community he presumes to represent have of course already complete knowledge of the laws of nature).
For example, in a personal note published on James Randi's Website, Robert Park makes the following statement about the "Motionless Electromagnetic Generator", a claimed free energy device:
I've been following the MEG claim since Patent 6,362,718 was issued in the spring (What's New 4 Apr 02). The claim, of course, is preposterous. It is a clear violation of the conservation of energy.
But Park is only demolishing a straw man. The first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of a closed system is conserved. But the inventors of the MEG claim that their device takes energy from the zero-point field of the vacuum, thereby conserving the energy of the total system (which in this case would be the MEG and the surrounding vacuum). Whether it can actually do that is an open question. But the existence of the Casimir force proves that in principle such extraction of energy from the vacuum is possible (even though the energy gained from the Casimir force between two plates is negligible).
Therefore, one cannot dismiss claims for free energy devices such as the MEG on a priori grounds of energy conservation. Since Park is a physicists, he could not possibly be unaware of this. By stating that the claimed invention contradicts the law of energy conservation, he intentionally misrepresents the claims of the MEG inventors. They do not claim to have found a way around the first law; they merely claim to have accessed a source of energy not previously accessible to human technology.
7. The Skeptic believes in scientific mob rule. "In Science, the Majority Consensus is Always Right".
The unfortunate reality is that there is a complex sociology of science. Scientific truth is frequently not determined by right or wrong, but by ego, prestige, authority of claimants, conflicts of interests and economic agendas. Scientists who propose research that threatens the viability of basic theories on which authorities in the field have built their careers, and governments and corporations have bet lots of money will find themselves out of a job very soon. The list of great scientists who became scientific outcasts after they published research that contradicts establishment dogma is long, and includes such names as Peter Duesberg, Brian Josephson, Jacques Benveniste, and of course Professors Pons and Fleischmann