Thursday, August 19, 2010

How not to be a sheep

When I'm speaking to fellow skeptics, the main criticism of the paranormal is lack of hard evidence.  Where are the definitive, repeatable, unambiguous, lab-tested studies that tell us that, say, ESP is real?  Then, when I speak to those that claim to experience ESP, they give you a list of such experiments, saying that the skeptics are so closed-minded that they wouldn't see the evidence if it was printed on the wall opposite the toilet.

The skeptics say the believers are using bad methods.  The believers say the skeptics are afraid of change.  The skeptics say the believers prefer their fairy tale world to reality.  The believers say, "Hey, skeptics, that was a dickhead thing to say!"

We see this everywhere.  Everything from climate change to the health benefits of cigarettes has plenty of scientific evidence to back up both sides of the argument.  Or even worse, a word that should be struck from the dictionary, they have definitive "proof."

So, what do we do?  We know that someone is, at best mistaken, or at worst lying.  If you ask most people surrounding an emotionally charged controversy, all you'll get is more bogged down by second, third and fourth-hand studies of things that should have been figured out by now.

Don't go around asking people what the studies said.  A person recalling what they heard someone else tell them about the study is bound to sound like, "Well, they had the subjects... I guess people off of the street... they had 'em put on a... something that blocked out light and sound.  And then they had them guess about... Anyway, it was a very significant result.  Seventy percent.  Or something."  What you're doing is playing a game of telephone, and you're the fifth person down the line.  This is useless, as far as learning goes.  It's tiny bits of truth buried in a lot of noise, like listening to a radio frequency that falls just outside of a music station.

Read the studies yourself!  You're a human, the most intelligent animal on this planet, so click a link or two, and find the raw material.  Don't be intimidated by the way scientists word things.  Scientists, like lawyers, want to be very specific in their speech, and it doesn't sound natural, but if you wade through all of that intimidating text, you'll come out the other side with a better understanding of the study than most people have.

And, while you're reading, keep in mind that scientists are people, too.  Some of their conclusions are premature.  For instance: showing that two things happen together (violence and video games, for instance) does not tell you that one caused the other.  This is logic, and all of us have easy access to it.  More than once, I've read a peer-reviewed scholarly paper, and realized that there was something they never accounted for, or that  the results relied too heavily on human perception.

Skeptics: Don't rely on James Randi to tell you that something has been debunked since 1980, so that you can parrot that onward.  See exactly how it was debunked, and your arguments will be stronger for it.

Believers: Don't rely on Charles Tart to tell you that something has been proven since 2003, so that you can argue with the skeptic in the previous paragraph.  Go see the proof yourself, get to the root of it, and see exactly how the conclusion was made.

Because anything else is just lazy.


  1. I couldn't agree more. With people on both sides of the argument seemingly taking short cuts, you should always go back to the original source, otherwise you can't be sure that you're correct in your thinking. (And even then, you can't be sure, I guess...)

    Recently I found out that one particular "fact" I'd seen several times had been gradually blown out of proportion. I wrote about it on the forum at JREF.

  2. Impressive detective work. People need to realize the power they have been given with the internet. It's the power to figure it out for yourself.

  3. I saw your reply on JREF about more museums throwing out their collections of meteorites. Could you elaborate? Thanks.

  4. Basically what I meant is that, regardless of what you've discovered, you're still going to hear a lot of people saying the same thing that they were before.


    "A lie can run around the world before the truth can get it's boots on."