Neutrality and the wood ape report

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It’s very difficult to be truly neutral. In most situations, you can only get somewhere by taking a side and exploring it. Last week’s hubbub regarding the Wood Ape report that I posted on Doubtful News was illustrative of a number of different issues that arise when attempting to learn more about and assess an extraordinary claim.

My approach to the report, which you can read here, is one of interest and openness. To me, having seen probably hundreds of poorly done “reports” by amateur paranormal investigators (ARIGs) and obvious and ridiculous hoaxes, this one was not of those types. If we expect claims to be supported, and we ask for higher quality, then my view is we should not dismiss out of hand the product when we get it.

It was clear that this approach annoyed several Bigfoot Skeptics (for lack of a better term) – namely ones who follow Doubtful News who were disappointed in the lack of strong tone – and a few people from the former JREF forum (now International Skeptics) who have known me as a one who will dig into the nonsense such as that of Melba Ketchum (an OBVIOUS and embarrassingly awful presentation of pseudoscience).

Several people misunderstood my approach. I have gained much information and understanding by not being hostile or dismissive to those on the metaphorical “other side of the fence”. I’m not out to debunk Sasquatch. I wish to understand what people are experiencing and why they conclude this creature is real. Some commenters do not share that goal and thus had a problem with the post and perhaps my cordialness towards Brian Brown, host of the Bigfoot Show podcast and a NAWAC researcher who co-authored the report.

I feel that there is something to be explained in this Area X (Oklahoma) event. What is happening? Is it an elaborate hoax on the investigators from people launching rocks at the cabin in Area X? Is the land owner pursuing a monetary agenda? Are the participants promoting a scenario that will be turned into a profit making venture such as tourism, TV show or a movie? Is this a case of poltergeist activity perceived by the researchers? There are pretty much limitless possibilities to apply.

Asking “what’s going on here?” is not limiting the view, it is aiming the inquiry at the large topic. Language of neutrality is difficult. No matter how I try, there still will be some bend in the framework I use. I may have framed it in a way that suggested belief or led credence to the group or belief; it was not the intent to advocate for the existence of wood apes.

What has come out of this exposure?

I expected pushback but not Such opinions were asinine, unsupported, and conspiratorial – very UNskeptical indeed. But I concede that the framing of the piece may have been in such a way as to feel like a betrayal to those who thought I was more concrete in my nonbelief than I really am. So, I can understand if the harsh comments were a result of feeling that I was promoting the claim. Please consider that examining the claim is NOT promotion of the claim. I did not say it was any sort of proof or even good evidence.

The exposure did result in some people suggesting that there were potential shenanigans going on. But yet didn’t provide evidence for this. To assume that the reality was not as published means I would be accusing the researchers of exaggeration, deception, and, at the extreme, fraud. If they are f***ing with me than I will likely find out eventually and say so, thus putting them far back from whatever ground they could gain. I have no reason to suspect they are doing that. While I’ve lost faith in humans many times, I’m not ready to assume people who have previously been honorable are deliberately suddenly and drastically dishonest. It does not follow. (You can observe my interaction with Brian Brown on this episode of the Bigfoot Show).

I did contact Brian again to address the suggestions that there is something unscrupulous going on.

Is there money involved?

“We are a 501(c)3 and we operate using the funds we generate from member dues and any donations from interested outsiders. We do have a button on our website and a page dedicated to generating those donations, but that’s about it. We don’t make very many explicit appeals for donations from interested outsiders. Also, we have nothing to sell. No “product.” There has been discussion within the group of staging crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns for specific things (like more thermal cameras, for example) and we have toyed with the idea of things like t-shirt sales, but we haven’t pursued those things to date and I’m personally wary of doing anything that makes it appear as though we’re trying to profit from our work. 100% of our income (the vast majority of which is from member dues) goes into furthering our research. This year, for example, we purchased new communication equipment. Also, things like the tremendous amount of small lithium-ion batteries we chew through in a summer.”

So, their donations or support goes back into the research efforts.

What is the potential you are being hoaxed?

“We pay the owners a relatively small amount annually to be on their property for such extended periods (it’s not uncommon in Oklahoma for property owners to receive modest lease payments from hunters and such). We also contribute to the upkeep of the structures as there is a fair amount of wear and tear from all those people staying there over months at a time. However, we are most often not accompanied by the owners. They are only present over a few times of the year and a handful of weekends during the summer months. Is there a motive to hoax? I suppose the only answer to that is to weigh the effort that would be necessary against the benefit of doing so. It just doesn’t make any sense from that perspective.”

One commenter mentioned that locals heard the gunshots so it’s not a “remote” area. However, another, non-NAWAC, skeptical researcher assured me that it is remote and that hoaxing just does not make sense. Brian did not know of any residents within several miles since they have explored the area thoroughly in the 15 or so years they have been active there.

“Of course, this is Oklahoma we’re talking about and there are lots of guns and people who enjoy using them. While we rarely hear gunshots from others, it’s happened. Lots of people shoot guns around there.”

There were allegations made that Brian is in marketing and so, should not be trusted. (Poisoning the well attempt?) He responds:

“I’m in marketing, yep. Without making any attempt to try and raise anyone’s opinion of marketers in general, all I can say is I use my abilities to ensure the group is as well-presented to the public as possible. The NAWAC is filled with serious people trying to do serious things in a field littered with those it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s a daunting “branding” challenge, to be sure. Am I promoting the existence of the animal? Yes, 100%. I know they’re real and I know their habitat is threatened and I’d very much like to see them recognized and protected. Also, I take the mission of our group seriously, especially the part about education.”

So, yes, Brian does have an agenda to show they are real. That is the largest flaw in the foundation of the report, but it does not prevent the researchers from pursuing the falsification of the events in this particular location. If they are being harassed by people or other animals, they will attempt to show that so as to not be seen a promoting a false claim which would be embarrassing and at odds with their goals. The report, he notes, was meant to not be sensational. It’s well known that it’s very hard to be taken seriously in a field loaded with jokers.

On the podcast The Bigfoot Show, they did mention the idea of a fictional movie about Bigfoot. It’s not a stretch to make this dramatic wood ape attack scenario into a movie reminiscent of The Legend of Boggy Creek. So, in the back of my head, and knowing the viability of viral marketing, I could entertain the possibility that this is a setup for such a project.

Brian says:

“On the BFS we have discussed doing, essentially, a video version of the show (though that idea is pretty much dead at this time). […] At no time was the idea of bringing cameras to [Area] X considered by me (though Herriott may have suggested it on the show) nor would I ever involve the group like that. In fact, the NAWAC routinely turns down appeals by television producers (Finding Bigfoot in particular about 50 times — their producers apparently don’t talk to one another much).”

This didn’t exactly answer my question about this being part of a media scheme. So, I leave all possibilities open.

As I said before, but not everyone accepts, I’ve no dog in this fight, I just want to know what’s going on. I’m on the skeptic side of the fence but it does not mean I can peer over to the other side to see what’s brewing. Being in the center means on some days I make one side unhappy and on the other day I make the other side unhappy. So be it.

Response to comments these past few days

I’ve been getting some feedback from two specific topics in the past few days. One, the NAWAC study on wood ape activity and, second, from a few UFO proponents who seem to have become obsessed with commenting on the site and wonder why their comments don’t appear.

Well, there are a few factors at play here. Since I’m not going to answer all the requests individually (I’m already overwhelmed with stuff to do AND traveling at the moment), I hope this blanket response will suffice.

I would like the UFO people to stop pushing their unsupported views on me via email and comments. If your comment is not appearing, there is a good reason, and the DN comment thread is not for you. I’ve heard your argument but my website is not a suitable platform for a debate on it.

It is a different sense in which I regard the Bigfoot/wood ape concept. Many of you have expressed dismay at my positive, possibly endorsing, tone in the NAWAC piece. Comments have included alternative anecdotes, speculation, ad hominems, and outright dismissals, sometimes at me, mostly at the researchers. Contributing your informed opinion is welcome but I’m not going to change the post. Please recognize the difference between asking “What is going on here?” and endorsing the claim. There seems quite adequate evidence that something is going on. However, what that could be is wide-ranging; I will not speculate. I do not have an invested belief. I am exploring the idea. By accusing me of being gullible, you have greatly misunderstood and underestimated me. If it turns out to be an elaborate ruse, that’s a sound answer I will accept. But I do not see the evidence for that at the present time. If you have such evidence, beyond speculation and accusations, document it. I hope that attention to Area X will help uncover the answer.

Thank you for contributing your opinions. I read them and take them into account. My current stand is fairly neutral. I want to hear most sides (I’ll draw the line at delusional bullies and denialists skeptics). And if I choose not to dismiss but to entertain an event or claim for some inquiry, I will. I appreciate your visit to Doubtful News.

A Paranormal National disaster: Book review

pn nationI had such high hopes for Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot, by Marc E. Fitch (2013). I found it in an academic library, it was hefty, and the topics covered were ripe for exploring: paranormal culture in America, tourism, television, popularity.

Alas, it turned out to be a bloated, credulous, rambling mess. This was a book that screamed for better research, a fact checker, a skeptical approach, and a good editor.

There are certainly many bits of good info in this book. Fitch, from his bio, writes fiction and works in the mental health field. But he clearly does not understand how science works or the value of a skeptical approach. He has obviously extended far beyond his realm of knowledge here. And, unfortunately went on and on about 150 pages too long.

His inspiration for the work, he notes, was Discovery Channel’s show The Haunting. This was a popular “reenactment” style paranormal television show of the kind that grew from 1998 onwards (the other two styles being “documentary style” and “reality-based”). At first, Fitch’s stance on paranormal reality was not revealed. His premise is that there has been renewed public interest in the paranormal at times of massive social change and uses examples such as the Salem witch craze, the rise of Spiritualism, the flap of flying saucers and Satanic Panic as connected to sweeping social change and scientific advances. He suggests all can be seen through the lens of social dissonance in reaction to science development. While he does remark that various factors came into play in these landmark cultural events, it seems that he stresses the importance of science in the equation. Oddly, he remarks that “proving” the paranormal would be “a moral and ethical bomb”. What “paranormal”? Ghosts? Alien visitation? Bigfoot? Religion? He’s lumped it all together in a premise that is not coherent. It’s all downhill from there.

While science gets mild cynical treatment, skeptics are represented as a straw man and outright mocked. First, he gives a pass to the well-known outrageous psychic, Eusapia Palladino. He calls her a “trickster” (and lauds Hansen’s book the Trickster and the Paranormal as one of the “best” books ever written on the paranormal, so he is invested in this concept) who presented a “great challenge to science”. Science is stuck within limits and boundaries of understanding so she did not fit into their framework. Not quite… 

Fitch is not well-versed on the problems of perception (he states that the explanation of Venus as a UFO is “ridiculous”), or how science works to limit subjectivity and the ability to be fooled. Revealingly, he describes science as a matter of faith in the existing paradigm, like a religion. Nope. Wrong.

Once he characterized the “skeptic” as the “lonely nerd” sitting by him or herself at the lunchroom table, “a bit of a downer”, I began to see him arrogant and ignorant, with an agenda. [Ironically, Fitch will no doubt think of me as a downer since I’m not giving praise for this book. You can judge whether that is fair or not.]

Besides the formatting problems that make this book a chore to read at times – it’s highly repetitive with concepts and phrasing reused even in the same paragraph, has extreme amounts of quotes which makes sections feel like a high school term paper, and with rambling philosophical portions interspersed with personal anecdotes – there are two huge flaws with the work that make it unsuitable: it is poorly sourced and obvious mistakes abound.

Poorly sourced

pn america

Get this instead

My first thought, since this book was from 2013, was that it would draw deeply from Bader, et al’s Paranormal America (January, 2011). This source has become a definitive work with regards to modern paranormal belief in the U.S. and was based on sound research and field work. Fitch does not acknowledge it at all. It’s as if he hadn’t known of it and tried to invent his own wheel without proper planning and tools. He does use a Gallop poll from 2011 so he should have known of Paranormal America’s release. This oversight raised a giant question on the soundness of the work. 

In two examples of misplaced trust in sources, first, his questionable conclusions about the War of the Worlds panic tale is taken from about.com. It’s been disputed whether there was mass panic over this radio broadcast. I disagree it should have been presented this way.

Second, he cites Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror novel twice in reference to the idea that this famous haunting was related to a Native American burial ground. He states that burial grounds were regarded as sacred by European settlers and cites a blog about Native American paranormal belief as a source explaining that Native Americans are more powerful in their burial and sacred places because they have merged their essence with the land. That is, their soul became one with the land and the land is unhappy when desecrated. Where are the solid references on folklore or archeology? None. He didn’t look past the fictional account. He didn’t go to available primary sources in these fields. From what I’d heard, Hans Holzer was the originator of this concept. He’s not mentioned either.

Huge blunders

On page 15, Fitch names celebrity psychic John Edward as “John Edwards” multiple times. Such a mistake stands out to me as a lack of simple fact-checking. It gets worse.

Fitch states the “earliest paranormal-based nonfiction program was Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” in 1980. This is just plain wrong! It was In Search of… in 1976. Maybe he should have checked my list of Paranormal TV shows. In Search of… was far more influential on a generation than Clarke’s show, giving American kids like me their first taste of the mysterious Loch Ness Monster and the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot. In Search of… is not even mentioned here! That egregious error was bad enough to want me to chuck the book out the window and conclude the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but then… he does something inconceivable. He compares UFO researcher Stanton Friedman to internationally influential scientist and communicator Carl Sagan. I slog through three pages of drivel such as “[Both were] men on a mission to change humanity for the better”, and how both were visionaries, urging us to embrace science. This is unforgivably absurd. I’ve tasted quite enough to know this meal is not worth finishing.

Yet, there was at least one more huge blunder I noticed as I scanned the rest of the text to the end. Fitch says that a surprise red panda fossil in Tennessee was revealed (“notably first reported”) by Cryptomundo “a site dedicated to the research and discovery of mysterious and unknown species”. He expands on this apparently momentous find referencing Huffington Post. (What this has to do with the paranormal, I can’t explain.) I don’t recall this event so I look it up – something the author might have reasonably done. It turns out that Loren Coleman of Cryptomundo was visiting the Tennessee fossil site in 2010 when he heard from the paleontologists that there was an as yet unpublicized find of a red panda skull. However, the animal, Pristinailurus bristoli, was known from the site prior to 2004 when it was named . So, while this 2010 skull was a neat find, it was not a new species discovered nor was it as remarkable as Fitch made it out to be. Lazy, misrepresented stuff like this kills credibility. 

By page 220 (of 368, not including notes and index), I stopped reading carefully, skipping the rehash of several topics which appeared over again and more rambling speculation about the state of today’s paranormal horizon. It was not worth my time. He’d lost me at Stanton Friedman. But you can’t say I didn’t give it a chance. I wanted it to be good. It simply wasn’t. Lesson: Even if the premise for the work is good, you had better be prepared to throughly research it. Or else, it’s a dud.

Nurture science appreciation – teach the controversy

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology,” said Carl Sagan, a person who inspired many to appreciate science and learning about nature.

Even though that quote is decades old, it applies now more than ever and continues to be pithy as each day goes by.

Today’s school science classes are still exercises in memorization and not much fun for most kids. Most students will not become scientists nor remember the processes, facts and formulas. But science is everywhere, affecting us daily. It is crucial that citizens grasp why it’s needed and valued for society. The average non-scientists likely sees no direct connection to science in their daily lives. Do we really need an educated society to know the specifics of scientific fields or do we REALLY need a population generally supportive of science as a way of knowing. I’d argue the latter which is why I would prefer classes in science appreciation. I interviewed Dr. Andrew Read from Pennsylvania State University (PSU) a little while back on his science appreciation class for freshman non-scientists called “Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy”. Dr. Read is able to draw his students’ interest by focusing on what they care about or what resonates with them in their everyday lives. Because science really is part of our everyday lives.

Making science immediately relevant to the life of any individual student might seem difficult in a chemistry or physics class. I propose that the most attention grabbing topics in these fields are the controversial ones, the mysteries, the things kids will encounter on TV, in movies and all over the Internet. Use popular examples to illustrate the value of good science.

Matthew P. Wiesner, in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, explores the small community of modern geocentrists. These are people who think that the Earth does not move but that the ENTIRE UNIVERSE revolves around us according to the Bible. To borrow the framework of a popular quote about evil and religion, “…for smart people to believe really silly things, that takes religion.” Geocentrists don’t do bad science, they do anti-science. What a great topic to explore from many angles (even if you avoid the religious angle). Geocentrists, like other pseudoscientists, are motivated by their own agenda, they must resort to conspiracies that have no evidence to support the claims, and they do funny math or no math at all. Regardless, they insist that what they have is REVOLUTIONARY! How their swiss cheese theory is better than the existing well-established explanation about how nature works is glossed over. Such an example can serve as a model for an array of pseudoscientific subjects showing students what red flags to watch for.

Wiesner holds, as I do, that ignoring nonsense claims doesn’t make them go away but allows them to spread further. Someone needs to put up a checkpoint. Why not use pseudoscientific claims, those made by self-described experts playing pretend science, in the classroom? Use these examples as illustrations. It’s fun.

I’ll be talking about this topic next month at a conference at Northern Arizona University called The Skeptical Classroom, providing examples in the natural sciences that educators can use to connect to their non-science students and show them how critical thinking is relevant TO THEM. By actively addressing claims that kids may hold, and forcing them to take a hard look at why they probably are bogus, will, if nothing else, plant the seed. It will get them thinking and engaged in a skeptical process.

Teaching earth and space science in high school? Ask students why aliens might or might not have visited earth. Ask them to assess astrology versus astronomy. If the moon has an effect on tides, does it affect human behavior as well?

Chemistry? PLEASE examine homeopathy and handily demolish its entire premise, hopefully sparing kids and perhaps their family members from wasting money on sugar pills.

Biology? Figure out if Bigfoot or lake monsters make sense. Attempt to identify what is represented in the picture of the strange carcass that washed up on the beach that everyone is calling a “chupacabra”.

Physics? How could this free energy machine actually work? Can we model out how paranormal entities can affect the environment – where does the energy come from to throw a lamp, how are the local EM fields manipulated, can something we see go through a wall?

Got younger kids? What is there favorite monster and do they think it’s real? Does it behave like humans or other animals?

Get students thinking about things that matter to them in a new way. They will love it and will learn a whole new appreciation for the value of science and practical skepticism. They will appreciate that it helps them to not be fooled. The early we can instill this, the better.

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You were OK until the part on acupuncture: Book review

undercoverPhilThe Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies and Delusions
by M. Philips

I’m just going to do a quick review on this book which started out promising, lost me in the middle, and ended on an up note. You may be able to pull something valuable out of it, as I did, or you may end up soured and give up.

The beginning is a walk through how we are all hostages of our beliefs. This book, states the author, is about the obstacles and hazards we face on the road to an accurate view of the world. When Philips first talks about “skeptics”, this is the first “Hmm…” moment, and I was confused. He does not have the same definition of “skeptic” as I do. He considers them general doubters. I consider skeptics as seekers – after the best evidence. Throughout the book, however, Philips does stress the reliability of evidence and why it’s imperative that it be solid and reliable before we can rely upon conclusions. We have to work pretty hard to overcome our natural tendencies to be mistaken in how we gain our knowledge.

He introduces the concept of “knowledge machines”. I didn’t like this, it felt like an incorrect analogy, too mechanical. It is referenced throughout.

The book does not flow, heading into descriptions of post-modernism (it seems like “skeptics” in his sense are considered po-mo, contrasted with rationalists), taking a diversion into Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of intuition, talking about doctors and base rates of conditions – a worthy discussion but not explained well enough for me to grasp the big picture. There are good portions about memory and perception. Unfortunately, that is marred by a glaring misspelling of the phenomenon of pareidolia as “periodolia”.

There is a great concept the author relates about hearing bad science – it’s like listening to music out of tune. So, this book sounded like a week old garage band as the author describes how acupuncture is a sound treatment, a shame scientists were so slow to accept it. This surprising take goes against the rest of the book’s call for sound evidence! The justification for acceptance of acupuncture is hollow and, for me, just kills credibility. After this point, I really can’t bring myself to be interested in the sections that follow, about behavioralism and economics, which run on too long about subjects that don’t plug in well to the premise of the book.

There are certainly gems within that I wrote down and hope to use again, such as his description of post-modernism as a “litany of epistemic pessimism,” and the ending which declares that debunkers risk a lot – they are heroes.

It really is too bad the entire book was not solid.

Trouble bubbles between paranormalists and skeptics

Yesterday, paranormal advocates and skeptical paranormal researchers clashed over an old but complex issue. Former television Ghost Hunter, Amy Bruni, posted on Facebook that she wished skeptics would go do something more productive than “constantly bash” what they (paranormalists) do. She thinks the skeptic “cause” is to take on people with harmless beliefs different from their own.

I admit I reacted badly to her call to “take a little look at yourself”  – it was inaccurate and poorly worded because she was on the defensive, reacting out of emotion. Then, she did clarify somewhat to tone down the harshness but her view was still off the mark.

There were very many threads of thought that could be spun off this kerfuffle, but I will make just two points as a self-identified practical skeptic who has studied paranormal topics for decades.

First, I have every right to call out any questionable claim that is being presented as fact. I’ve written about this topic before. A few years back, I was on good terms with some paranormally-inclined people until I pointed out problems with their positions. Then I was told to get off my high horse and go back to my cubicle or my “lonely room.” Speaking for myself, but assuming that others like me agree, my intent was not to be mean, I was digging for accuracy. I really want to know, not just believe because it’s comforting or fun. Rarely am I called out on what I say about the science or facts. Instead, “skeptic” is used as a slur and I’m told to shut up or go away. Proponents of fringe ideas are annoyed by skeptical probing: we ask for specifics, question assumptions, and are keenly aware of the lack of good quality evidence for their pet beliefs. Skeptics make believers feel uncomfortable. Well, pushing boundaries into the discomfort zone is how we learn. It can go both ways.

Second, there is no endeavor that should be given a pass from critical thought and commentary, especially those that are at odds with well-established existing knowledge. Skeptics are told that, if we are so keen on advancing science, instead of harassing ghost hunters, Bigfooters and UFO chasers, we should work on curing cancer, developing renewable energy, and cleaning up the environment. Well, many of us DO such work every day – my daily job is in environmental regulation. There is no justification for the “why don’t you go do something more productive” ploy. There will always be the argument for why X is more important than Y. There will always be another X, it’s subjective. Everyone has their own interests or causes they feel passionately about. Knowledge and expertise is personal and we can pursue what we like. The exact same argument applies to paranormalists so it’s not prudent to ever use it.

Finally, there are a few interesting parallels between serious skeptical advocates and serious paranormalists:

  1. We love these subjects, we want to find out more.
  2. We want to help people.
  3. We think our task is important to society, not frivolous.
  4. We don’t like rude, know-it-all jerks.
  5. Our values in these areas are an integral part of who we are, how we define ourselves.

There is common ground. We rarely meet upon it.

Skeptics interested in paranormal topics might attempt to be more open to listening and understanding those who have had anomalous experiences. Those who espouse extraordinary claims would do well to up their evidence quality and get a grasp on what skepticism really is and why it’s important. Things might get interesting then. Imagine a situation where we could air our grievances without contempt and have a productive discussion. I’d like to be part of that conversation.

For more on the troubled relationship and communication fails between skeptics and paranormalists, check out my pieces from Sound Sciencey:

Why we have no use for a disembodied intellect – a book review

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50 mythsA review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013) by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

I was excited to find the familiar name of Russell Blackford in a book in my local Pennsylvania library. I had to check it out. It turned out to be delightfully enlightening.

The 50 myths about atheism are grouped into themes. “What is atheism?” is addressed at beginning and end. How broad or narrow is the term? Is it absence of belief or denial of all theistic effects in the world? Is it akin to Marxism, Satanism, is it political, or just another religion? That last question, “Is atheism a religion?” requires asking the underlying question “what is a religion?”. This gets complicated.

Using my own life experience, I could attempt to answer some of these but philosophers answer it better. I found this book so useful as a reference to addressing these frequently asked questions, I must purchase it.

I understand why religionists would believe these myths and reject the philosophy of nonbelief. Atheism threatens the values association with religion. Believing such myths, such as “atheism robs life of meaning and purpose,” is a way to reinforce the believer’s own belief. I get it, I just find it untenable. This philosophical treatment highlights the complexity of human social interactions and issues. There may be no one “right” answer.

Popular opinion is rooted in confusion, ignorance, pride, and tradition. Myths reveal people’s fear within themselves. Aiming these value judgements at atheists externalizes these fears to a group. There are endless examples of society doing this with other groups as well.

This book is fair to religion in general. Yet in addressing several myths, the authors take on popular religious apologists. One in particular, Dinesh D’Souza, comes out looking like the self-righteous fathead that he is. Rational discussion reveals how ignorant and wrong their anti-freethought rhetoric is.

The section on why atheism arose contained excellent information. The authors collect thoughts from various references, noting the following factors: rise in alternative philosophy, the growth in secular theories of ethics, the success of science and rise in natural understanding of world, the increase in investigation into Biblical texts, the questioning of tradition, religions conceptions and the subsequent decline in literal belief in doctrines, an emphasis on logic and analytic investigations, the effect of wars and the feeling of abandonment by God, the advent of mass communication and rise of urbanization all mixed together to draw people towards an atheistic outlook.

My particular interest was the role science played in this shift. The last chapter includes the discussion of science versus religion and the dwindling human need to invoke a disembodied intellect as a cause. Humans grasped the fruitfulness of a naturalistic approach of science and a fruitlessness in invoking supernatural hypotheses. This clearly suggests “we live in a world without miraculous agents and powers.” It was not the intent for science to undermine religion, but the process is what it is. Maybe someday that will change, note the authors, but we’ve gone so far down the methodological naturalism path, it’s not realistic to think it will. “We live a world very different from what the world religions once seemed to describe.” Thanks, Science!

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Are science and religion compatible? The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no”. I once thought Gould’s NOMA was a nice idea. I see how it is not useful now. The authors lucidly unpack the reasoning and the attempts to create a truce or to mesh the two “magisteria,” but as I go on through life, I agree this just will not work. Early work, especially Newton’s, appealed to the actions of a God. Early modern science was accommodating to Christianity, keeping within a narrow range of natural philosophy. Until it didn’t.

This was my favorite take away: If the bible was divinely inspired, why don’t scientific findings that we have made match up with what is written? When the religious doctrines have to be modified or reinterpreted to conform with man’s discoveries, what does that say about the Bible and doctrines being divinely inspired to begin with? Yep, more solid rocks in the foundation for an atheistic view that the authors conclude is the “honest” and “reasonable” worldview to have.

Useful discussions on these issues are not simple. This book makes examining the myths, misconceptions, and arguments about religion and lack of religion coherent and compelling. I strongly recommend it.

The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

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It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.

Doubt and About for Winter 2015 BRrrrrr

Oh man, it’s winter. Where is the sun?

I’ve been busy reading and watching monster movies and documentaries. I’m going to write up some notes from my readings and share some gems.

In an update from last D&A, I’ve closed down my public Facebook page for now. I’m more interested in working in the background. Speaking of that, I am still maintaining the social media accounts for the JREF but am focusing on helping to organize TAM#13 for 2015 this summer in Las Vegas. That’s a tremendous job but I’m absorbing what it means to put together a major conference event. I’m sure not doing the heavy lifting. But, people are so often quick to criticize without knowing what it entails.

I’m getting more and more jaded with silly ghost and monster stories in the news. So, the content on Doubtful News has been less frequent. I’m becoming more picky about what I put up there. I no longer can manage to list every big questionable claim made in the media. It’s often so ridiculous, I get a bit depressed I have to even mention that’s portrayed VERY inaccurately and quite dubious of a story. Or, it takes a considerable amount of effort to research and digest a story (like the latest Pew research on science and the public). I didn’t expect to get burnt out from it but, now that I think about it, it’s inevitable. Meanwhile, I’ve had another new project idea.

I’ve started the site Practical Skepticism. It’s what I think the public needs – to see how critical thinking processes can help ANYONE make better decisions in life. My goal is to show the inherent value of the skeptical process, that it’s not cynical, it’s not just for groups of old, atheist men, and it is tremendously valuable to have as a life skill. 

I’m moving away from aiming efforts at the fractionated, unorganized, “skeptic” community but focusing on everyday useful stuff that can improve society for all ages and lifestyles. If you would like to contribute to Practical Skepticism, drop me a line. I’ll be posting more in the near future when I populate the site with more content. But I sure hope I can get some other contributions posts in these beginning stages.

The public MUST be the audience for the message. I feel very strongly about that; I hope you see why and join me in this effort to refocus the goals of the skeptical community to be education and outreach. My main interest is in the relationship between science and the public. There are many factors involved in science appreciation and acceptance that are separate from the ‘don’t be fooled’ lesson of general skepticism. We have a lot of work to do to make forward strides but according to some thoughtful messages I’ve received, people will get behind such goals and show support.

Coming up on my agenda for face to face outreach this year, besides TAM in July, is the Skeptical Classroom event in March at Northern Arizona University. I’ve never been in Flagstaff so I’m very excited. I’m bursting with ideas for my talk about applying skepticism in the natural sciences classroom. 

I also got my first invitation to speak at a “paranormal” type event – the Albatwitch Festival in Columbia, PA next fall. I wrote about it here. I’m still thinking about how to address what will likely be a crowd of those greatly invested in paranormal beliefs. That will be a challenge. 

Tell me what YOU think. I read all comments posted here even if I don’t make them public.

Deliver me from another ridiculous “demons everywhere” story – Book Review

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A review of Deliver Us from Evil, R. Sarchie with L.C. Cool

deliverI shall cut to the main point. I didn’t set out to read this one. I saw it in the library and it looked like a fast read. It’s important to understand what’s being put out there as “true” stories. As usual, it was the same faith-based nightmare fuel meant to scare people into being more pious and to show that the author’s religion is the one true faith.

Ralph Sarchie is a NYC cop but he has taken on a role to deal with demonic “perps” as well as the genuine human horrors he sees everyday. Demons are criminals, exorcism is the “spiritual equivalent of an arrest”.

A movie of the same name came out last summer. This BBC piece on why exorcisms are so fascinating notes the same fears appeared in many movies about exorcism – a vulnerable child is involved. This is a strong hook likely exaggerated EVEN MORE in a movie that I doubt bears any resemblance to real life.

Also a strong theme is the need to feel that the world has aspects of good and evil and that the former will triumph over the latter. That simple dichotomy, good vs evil, is what this book is all about. It is stories from one guy who, with the help of others including the crack(pot) demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren [red flag], does “the Work” (of the Lord). Pre-enlightenment diabolic drama set in modern crime-ridden times – that’s what this is.

Sarchie is deeply, DEEPLY steeped in religious belief. His traditional Catholic faith permeates everything. His life revolves around God. He states in the afterword that this book is for people of faith and those paranormal investigators that come across this stuff. It’s not for skeptics who don’t take his belief-based stories at face value. He’s right there. In my opinion, these stories make no sense except in terms of complicated social, economic and psychological problems that are all but impossible to fix in the short term. But the route he takes is to do an exorcism, then pray a lot, (the afflicted should go to church more,) come back for another exorcism and it will probably be OK as long as God is the center of everything.

Possession used to be uncommon, says Sarchie, now these scumbag entities are all over, in our houses and inside our bodies. Why? The occult.

This is such a old, tired, baseless and NAIVE argument. He strongly asserts that Satanists are friggin’ EVERYWHERE you look, trying to recruit kids into their coven. Wearing an occult symbol or reading a grimoire can open you up to demonic forces. The Ouija board is a wicked occult trap and should be outlawed. Non-religious meditation is an invitation to be taken over by evil. There is zero evidence for any of these claims which are based on fear.

The idea that Satanic forces are at work committing crimes is from the Satanic Panic era of the 80s and 90s when cops were taught to recognize work of Satanists. The trouble is, there was no evidence that such organized cults ever existed and carried out these atrocities. But every anomaly was interpreted to be related to this evil cult permeating our wholesome society. Nonsense. All of it.

There have always been occult interests in society (but there hadn’t always been one or more exorcism-themed movies every year to enhance the acceptance). I see Sarchie’s stories as typical anecdotes of people who have a underlying point to make (go to God and to church) and a drive to convince listeners. It’s also not difficult to understand that Sarchie truly does believe he’s encountered supernatural evil many times, even in his own home. That’s his worldview. It is… fantastic. I mean that in the sense of being like fantasy. He states that if you call yourself a Christian, then you must believe the devil is REAL. Really real, not just a metaphor for evil.

All the angels, hierarchies in Heaven, Bible stories, all real.

Satan’s minions? Real.

Poltergeists? Ghosts? Naw, probably demons.

He hates when paranormal investigators fool people into thinking they just have a pesky but harmless noisy ghost. Only a diabolical force can move heavy things. Human ghosts are weak. Parapsychologists and other science-minded people [sneer] are clueless — to “debunk” a devil means that he has succeeded in fooling you that he isn’t real. To deny the devil provides him with power. What a convenient dodge of scientific testing.

In Sarchie’s (or the co-writers) religious self-righteousness, he sometimes claims to know better than the priest. He identifies a serious problem that some priest don’t even believe in the devil. None of this modern Catholicism stuff, only old school tradition applies. However, in a very New Agey twist, Sarchie describes chakras as places of psychic energy in the body. Demons can enter through these.

He uses pieces of the true cross on these spots to annoy the demons into leaving the afflicted. (I couldn’t help but wish for a double blinded study of relics and holy water with controls in an encounter with someone who thinks he is possessed. No science allowed in the realm of the spiritual, though.)

Your aura shows if you are free of sin; he can see its color. A strong aura repels demons. There is no word on where he gets this information from. I’d not heard it before. But I’m wondering how he might explain why atheists don’t seem to get possessed very often…

Other than those outliers, this book is preachy from beginning to end. It contains contradictions and non sequiturs and, frankly, some stuff that is just made up: A woman’s heart disease was brought on by demons in the downstairs apartment! “Still skeptical?” he asks, let me tell you ANOTHER story that is not referenced or documented. This is hardly convincing unless you are already ensconced in the good vs evil belief system.

There is not just one reason or a few quibbles why I find the entire concept of demons, Satan and exorcism un-compelling — there are many and various solid reasons to consider myriad alternative explanations to “demons”, such as illness and psychological conditions. This child-like belief in God and the Devil manifest makes the complicated human life into a comic book, oversimplifying the very natural and difficult trials of modern existence. I feel those who condone exorcisms are more often harming the people they think they are helping. Such unshakeable commitment to a supernatural worldview that has been displaced by natural understanding centuries ago is a tragedy. But, he sure leads a dramatic life, one that I wouldn’t want. I certainly feel sympathy for his victims and even for him to take on other people’s emotional wreckage. I’d love for more support to be made available. However, that recognition does not make demonic possession genuine or justifiable.

The people undergoing the exorcisms in this book are restrained either by cloth ties or by volunteers. Sarchie states the demon must be given “no quarter”, “no mercy”, it must be “forced out”. Here’s where this shit gets dangerous. He briefly mentions the death of Anneliese Michel, as if the devils inside her caused her death instead of the very real torture she endured. He made NO mention of the fact that she was malnourished and dehydrated due to the “rites” of exorcism and her parents and the priest were charged with a crime. I don’t care what deity you subscribe to or not but this is a human being, not a supernatural entity of your imagination. Exorcism is unethical and wrong!

The book ends with DIY prayers. I kid you not.

I don’t recommend this book; I won’t be seeing the movie; I don’t believe in Satan and his associated fiends of Hell. Demons are a creation of the human mind and not “real”.

Or, the devil won with me. You decide. I don’t care. Life goes on, same as yesterday. You damned deluded exorcists — your hatred for the devil and your sanctimonious pomp and exaggeration ruins people’s lives.

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