I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.
The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.
However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards
Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are
Video (c) JREF 2012.
Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?
Listen to the speech again.
“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”
I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.
Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.
Let’s move on. Randi continues –
“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”
I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.
The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.
The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.
And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.
Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.
As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…
UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”
I agree totally.
I often get invited to events through groups I have joined on Facebook or my membership of email lists, and have only the very vaguest idea of who it was who asked me. Tonight was one of those – my Facebook page announced that I had said I would attend a free lecture on “What has Philosophy Got To Do With Religion?”, and given that one of my standard responses to people asking me “what do you do?” is “er, philosophy of religion” (– it makes them go away I find, and sounds better than “hunt ghosts and argue on the internet”) — well I felt kind of obliged. The fact the lecture was taking place within a gentle stroll of my house probably helped too.
“Why do I go to lectures?” would be a more useful session for me to attend, given that I invariably fall asleep, or become incredibly bored, or gaze out the window and think about when this room was the SU Bar, and Roger Puplett used to rip his shirt off while playing Van Halen’s Jump as last record of the night, and … see?!! I have the attention span of a newt on uppers: I find it hard to sit still for 5 minutes, and almost impossible to go two minutes without asking a question. It’s bad enough when I’m lecturing, I get bored by my own lectures, and tell the audience that frequently.
Well given I hate sitting through lectures, was stuck by a hissy radiator turned on full blast that slowly baked me and the room was too full to sneak out to get a drink, I should have hated this. Given Mark Vernon announced that his talk had three parts, and would last 45 minutes, and that after two parts were on 45 minutes and he stopped to ask if he should proceed, hell I should have been crawling up the walls. Yet so effective a speaker is Vernon that we all asked him to continue, and I’m sure would have stayed much longer if it was not for the heating stuck on (I crept out to the SU bar and got a drink at the beginning of questions, but returned to loudly ask more as is my nature )
Vernon read his presentation: a long introduction on Aurignacian art, which I was confused a little by the relevance of, then a rather succinct but fun critique of EvoPsych stuff on religion, and Hyper-Sensitive Entity Detection stuff like Dennett’s ideas, and those of Bruce Hood – he has more time for Scott Atran, but still regard him as wrong from what I can make out — and a short but well aimed attack on over generalising modular mind theorists (folks like Steven Mithen?), with some interesting research cited. I would hesitate to use as Vernon appeared to (in passing, as a minor point) Developmental Psychology as a way to judge how early human psychology evolved; but compared with some of the problems with the Evo-Psych approaches, that is easily forgiven, and I may have misunderstood. It was really hot, and the radiator was annoying me with its hiss, burble, hiss, while slowly cooking me. I wished more of my friends from Skeptics in the pub were present (any of them actually) — some Skeptics often seem to buy wholesale highly questionable EvoPysch “just so” stories without any real effort at critical analysis or awareness of the problems with them in my experience, just as earlier generations of rationalists embraced Frazerian and Comptean ideas of Religion with equal fervour. (Occasionally one sees all three argued in the same forum thread on certain New Atheist sites… ) Mark Vernon’s objections would have perhaps made it clear that these theories are not just contested, they are highly controversial, even among Evolutionary Psychologists and evolutionary biologists and morphologists, let alone cognitive scientists.
I found it hard to concentrate because of the heat, but Vernon kept me listening, and I was particularly interested in some of the paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris’s ideas. Graham Budd had mentioned him to me recently, and I will definitely look up his work, and would have by now if Wikipedia was not down today in protest over SOPA. Vernon acts as a great introduction to others ideas: he seems astonishingly well read, ad his reading particularly showed in the second part, which was on being good without God.
I have long been of the opinion that one can be good without God – inevitably the Euthyphro Dilemma came up in the questions, but agree with Vernon the best modern explorations of the issue are by Richard Holloway. It was in this section the temperature finally proved too much for me, and I began to think about a question the friendly gentleman from the Bible Society sitting in the row in front of me had asked me before talk began about how authentic a lot of ‘Celtic Spirituality’ was to the historical roots. Not sure how we got on to it, but I’m quite sceptical on the issue, and I started daydreaming about writing a blog piece on it, only to reconnect with the talk somewhere about Iris Murdoch on morality, God and Truth and have no idea what was going on. Fortunately as part 3 commended I was on safer ground – for now Vernon turned to the soul, and the question of post-mortem survival.
Vernon made some excellent points about afterlife in various religious traditions, and the development thereof, but this will be very familiar to anyone who has read my review of Christopher Moreman’s Beyond the Threshold and hence lost some of its force which I think lay in how surprising these things are to most people. Ditto with Vernon’s emphasis on Reconstituitionalism, the merging of the soul with a new body at Resurrection, as being the New Testament view of afterlife. (As I remarked in questions, one of them. I think there are at least two, if not three views of life after death in the New Testament writings, by no means necessarily incompatible). There was a brief discussion of the odd character of the resurrection appearances, which always reminds me of a wonderful passage from Tyrell’s Apparitions I think, but I will leave that to a later post as I have been planning to explore it for years. Anyway I don’t agree Reconstituionalism is the only viable reading of the NT texts on afterlife, but it is certainly a strong theological tradition, and the great sceptic and CSICOP founder member Martin Gardner (who hoped for life after death himself) gives an excellent overview of it on his The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. as I recall. Vernon gave a good overview of Aquinas I think, not that I have ever managed to really grasp Aquinas on the Soul or Life after Death, not least I suspect because some of his ideas are actually contradictory, or divergent. This has inspired me to take another look.
Anyway I had never heard of Mark Vernon before tonight, but excellent speaker, and I will check out his books, such as his latest “How to be an Agnostic”. His website is here, do go take a look. and do catch him at one of his upcoming event s listed there – well worth seeing.
As an aside, I was shocked to learn that despite the Premises and Services Agreement between the University and the Student Union that was agreed when I was there, the SU has now lost control of the bars at the University of Gloucestershire, which are now run by a third party company. None of this was reported in the local press or even on the uni website as far as I know; I have been assured by a friend that a deal was struck to protect the Student Welfare aspects of the SU’s work, which was always funded by the profits from the bars and Summer Balls in the past. I won’t mourn this change, it may be for the better, and my loyalties lie with the College of St Paul and St Mary and CGCHE, predecessor institutions, but I was very surprised to hear from the staff the SU bar was no longer that, while getting a drink.
Ah well, the room TC007 where we had the talk was once the SU Bar, before it moved upstairs to its present location, so change can be good I guess. I recalled sitting there tonight walking in there in 1987, and being hit on the head by an ashtray and nearly knocked out when I first entered the room; and then 1992, and watching the news coverage of the LA riots which was playing on the big screen, Hugh and I (with severe sunstroke) danced 17 minutes to Sister Ray by the Velvet Underground before I vomited in a loo that once stood roughly where I was sitting tonight, and collapsed there with a terrible headache. Now it’s a bland lecture room. Such are memories – inappropriate, intrusive. Years ago I taught in a uni classroom that had previously been a female friend’s dormitory room – that jarred, and was almost awkward. Who says there are no ghosts?
I don’t mean Lisa, I mean my internet activities.
I just saw a friend has joined a Liberal Christian forum on Facebook, and it has brought to mind a few thoughts on what many people think is a rather perverse feature of my personality; given that I am a religious and ‘paranormal’ believer, with fairly strong beliefs that I express freely, why do I spend most of my on-line existence in atheist and sceptic sites?
Well firstly, as I have pointed out for many years now, I don’t see there being a dichotomy between ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’. The opposite of belief is disbelief: often a leap of faith in itself, and an opinion. Yet the notion of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ is pretty meaningless unless we understand the context in which it is being employed. I know hard atheists who believe in life after death, hard Christians who have no belief at all in angels, and hard-core mediums who think psychic powers are bunk. If you are confused by any of those statements, just ask for clarification, but I think we can all accept that a believer in werewolves may or may not believe in ghosts, and a believer in a God may or may not believe in fairies.
Some atheist friends often remind me of all the gods I purportedly do not believe in (and then I like to argue henotheism awhile for fun!); yet often they seem to fail to apply the opposite notion — a disbeliever in deities (god/dess/es) may or may not disbelieve in all kinds of other things. There are plenty of virulent atheist spiritualists out there; and mediums seem pretty equally split on whether they do or don’t believe in reincarnation. Some of us may still believe in the Tooth Fairy; some may believe in Santa Claus, and some may believe Ipswich Town FC are a first-rate club. There is no necessary relationship between those beliefs.
The terms disbelief and belief are opinions on a specific issue: context is all important.
I see Scepticism as something very different – a process of understanding, by which one questions assumptions and truth claims critically. The sceptic may or may not believe in deities, ghosts or the Easter Bunny – that is an outcome of their enquiry, not scepticism in itself. One is a method, one a conclusion – the two should never be confused. As such one can believe sceptics believing in almost any hypothesis, given a limited set of data from which to draw their conclusions.
So scepticism is never enough – with scepticism must go work, research, and an attempt to apply the methodology objectively to as much pertinent data as possible. Any methodology applied to insufficient data will result in worthless results: sceptics must make an effort to make an informed and reasoned case, and that unfortunately is often a lot of hard work. Given the differing access to the evidence, it is unsurprising that sceptics often sharply disagree in their conclusions. Yet ultimately is hard for me to see any difference between a sceptical approach and a rationalist-empiricist synthesis scientific one. It’s almost impossible to define the scientific method, as long-term readers will appreciate, but scepticism comes pretty close. One critically examines claims, by a variety of methodologies – much as in the humanities actually.
So I regard myself as a process sceptic. I like to examine beliefs, including (especially) my own, and try to see if they stand up:and the acid test for doing this is surely in dialogue with those who have very different readings of the evidence, and hold very different opinions? One of the beliefs I hold is that “linguistic communities” who hold similar beliefs build them in to a way of interpreting reality in line with their paradigm — magicians learn to talk magic, Wiccans wicca, Atheists atheism and Hindus Hinduism, and by adopting certain linguistic ways of rendering or negotiating their lived experience they create a feed back loop that sustains and strengthens their pre-existing beliefs.
I’ll give the example I always give. Many years ago the Christian Union had booked a coach for an outing. The coach broke down, and by midday it was clear we could not get a replacement bus. I thought the bus had broken down owing to a mechanical fault: but I saw two divergent opinions arise among the Christians sitting around waiting for news. Some saw this as an attack by the devil: little imps had engaged us in spiritual warfare, and we were facing the opposition of the Evil One. Others, mindful that the devil has no power over God’s children, saw it as a sign from God – we were meant to stay and witness on this glorious sunny day to the heathens at the university, rather than take a coach to the sea-side. My comment on the bus probably being badly maintained and this being the cause of us being stuck there was passed over without any comment: yes that was the cause, but not the meaning of the events. Fair enough – what was fascinating to me was how this rather dismal outcome was negotiated in terms of existing theological and language structures to affirm Christian beliefs. It all felt a bit “heads I win, tails you lose to me” but of course if you believe that God is sovereign over all and intimately concerned with our lives that makes perfect sense: I accept the theology, but don’t process things that way, I have not spent enough time in Christian communities to interpret on those lines.
It’s easy to take cheap shots at Christians: I can imagine some of my dear atheist mates laughing heartily at this. Yet atheist communities, paranormalist communities, Lib Dem communities and for all I know Country Music fans do very similar things. They build consensus modes of interpretation, filters if you like, and they view the world through those lenses. Challenge the assumptions, and you may be ostracised, or ignored. In-group ways of seeing prevail: it takes a lot to upset them, because they are learned short-cuts for dealing with reality. Some one who has been unemployed a very long time will view the world radically differently from a bank manager, or office worker – but the difference between a Wiccan, a Spiritualist and an Atheist may be even stronger, as they have learned to read reality from utterly different perspectives. To a materialist the notion of a meaning beyond the cause of the coach breakdown is just silly. A spiritualist may find the idea of ESP bonkers: they knew stuff because a spirit told them, not because they psychically read Uncle Joes’ mind.
In fact we defend our communities beliefs passionately: we are annoyed when people question the common sense right to love as you will, live as you will, work as you will, in line with our concepts of what is right and proper. We form communities with like-minded people, and we pat each other metaphorically on the back, and only fight to establish OUR version of the party line. A fight between Anglicans is likely to be more heated than a row between a Baptist and an Atheist – the closer the conceptual closeness, the more the heresy hurts.
So maybe that is why I hang out on atheist sites: I am too annoyed by my fellow Christians to want to spend much time discussing with them, as they say things that challenge my own reading of Christianity, and I am too cowardly to defend and fight for my interpretation. Or more positively, because I see the value in learning a completely disparate mode of interpretation, so I read every communities I cans stuff, and try to self identify with te concerns and ways -of-seeing of that group, and engage in playful guerilla ontology, forcing them to question assumptions by mere existence at the party.
I don’t know: maybe I am just perverse, after all. I do know though that as a self-proclaimed sceptic it never does any harm to open yourself to other perspectives, and to listen to others.
The UK Sceptics have announced their 2009 conference to be held at Muncaster Castle, Cumbria on the 18th-20th September 2009. Speakers include Chris French and Chris Roe, but also interestingly John Walliss on mediumship and amazingly Nick Pope – yes, Nick “real X Files” Pope! I have never heard of the other speakers but it looks like an excellent line up, covering a huge array of topics, from the social psychology of conspiracy theory to “The Lure of the Dark side: Sex, death and the paranormal in cult movies.” Sounds intriguing! I don’t know if I will be able to make this one – places are limited, and Cumbria is a bit of a trek for me unless Dave Curtin is interested or some of my other friends are interested, but if you are considering going do email me or comment and let’s see if we can work something out!
It is astonishingly cheap for a weekend in a castle — to quote their website “As is clear from the location chosen and the invited speakers, we have decided to make the conference a quality event rather than go for minimum cost; however, the price per head will still only be £65 as an Early-Bird booking discount (£75 if booked after July 1st).
This price includes, access to both days of the conference (10 talks, 5 per-day); access to the Friday night welcoming wine reception (meet the speakers) to be held in the castle; tea, coffee and biscuits each morning and afternoon session; a two course hot fork buffet style lunch on Saturday and Sunday, full access to the castle and grounds for the duration of the conference (note castle is open Friday and Sunday – grounds open all the time).
In addition, an optional 3-course dinner for speakers and delegates is available on Saturday evening in the castle (priced separately £45 per-head).”
Well I’ll be skipping the dinner, and it looks like one has to find accommodation – where is Dave when you need him? Still it looks pretty good to me!
So anyone interested? Full details at