This article originally appeared in the excellent US magazine Skeptic, edited by Shermer, (Vol 2 No 3) and also forms Chapter 4 of Shermer’s book Hope Springs Eternal: How Pseudoscience Works and Why People Believe in It. It’s a thought-provoking piece which should be handy reference for any skeptic’s library. This is part one of three.
In one of the most important books ever written on the philosophy of science, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington made this observation in The Philosophy of Physical Science (1958, p.9): “For the truth of the conclusions of physical science, observation is the supreme Court of Appeal.”
It is that simple. Whenever there is a dispute we have merely to look and submit our conclusions to the Court. The decision will be obvious and indisputable. Of course, if it were really that easy Eddington would not have had to write an entire book about it, covering all the problems scientists confront in the physical sciences, a relatively “pure” enterprise compared to the biological and social sciences.
The problem is that the Court is staffed by illogical, emotional, ego driven, culturally biased, and socially embedded observers. They are filtered through these fallible brains, and in the process thinking can and often does go wrong. And not just for those pseudoscientists, paranormalists, and fringe-belief inhabitants whose claims skeptics often take such delight in skewering. The multi-faceted fallacies of thinking, unfortunately, apply to everyone, even the most rigorous and careful of scientists and skeptics. Even skepticism, taken to an extreme, can be an inhibitor to creative and critical thinking.
Thus, it is a useful exercise for us to reexamine these various ways that our thinking can go wrong. I have subdivided them into different categories, with lists of specific fallacies and problems in each. As a positive assertion on how thinking can go right, I begin with what I call Hume’s Maxim and close with what I call Spinoza’s Dictum.
The importance of skeptical publications in this late 20th century resurgence of interest in miracles and various claims of the paranormal cannot be overstated. yet it is equally important to remember our historical antecedents and how they analysed and critiqued such claims in their own time.
One of the greatest skeptics of the Modern Age is the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), whose work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is a classic in skeptical analysis. The book was originally published anonymously in London in 1739, as A Treatise of Human Nature, but, in Hume’s words, “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” (An author’s biggest fear is not being panned; it is being ignored.)
Hume blamed his own writing style and reworked the manuscript into An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature in 1740, and again in 1748, as Philosophical Essays Concerning the Human Understanding. The work still gained Hume no recognition, so in 1758 he brought it out in a final version as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which comes down to us today as his greatest philosophical work.
Ironically, when Hume finally did achieve fame and position, his critics often attacked his earlier works, a practice Hume found “very contrary to all rules of candour and fair-dealing, and a strong instance of those polemical artifices, which a bigoted zeal thinks itself authorised to employ,” as he wrote in an “Advertisement” to the final publication!
In Section XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”, Hume distinguished between “antecedent skepticism”, such as Descartes’s method of doubting everything, that has no “antecedent” infallible criterion for belief; and “consequent skepticism”, the method Hume employed that recognises the “consequences” of our fallible senses, but corrects them through reason: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Wiser words could not be chosen for a skeptical motto.
For the modern skeptic, Hume’s Section X, “Of Miracles”, provides a foolproof, when-all-else-fails analysis of miraculous claims.
That is, when one is confronted by a true believer whose apparently supernatural or paranormal claim has no immediately apparent natural explanation, Hume gives us an argument that even he thought was so important (and Hume was not a modest man) that he placed his own words in quotes and called it a maxim.
I think it is so useful an argument that it bears repetition, as Hume’s Maxim: The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”
When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Scientific Problems in Thinking
Theory Influences Observations
In his quest to understand the physical world, Werner Heisenberg concluded: “What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” This is especially true in quantum mechanics, where the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum action states that “a probability function does not prescribe a certain event but describes a continuum of possible events until a measurement interferes with the isolation of the system and a single event is actualised (1987, p.412)
The Copenhagen interpretation eliminates the one-to-one correlation between theory and reality. The theory, in part, constructs the reality. Reality exists independent of the observer, of course, but our perceptions of it are highly influenced by the theories through which we examine it. Philosophers thus say that science is “theory laden”. Eddington put it this way (p.110):
Suppose an artist puts forward the fantastic theory that the form of a human head exists in a rough-shaped block of marble. All our rational instinct is roused against such an anthropomorphic speculation. It is inconceivable that Nature should have placed such a form inside the block. But the artist proceeds to verify his theory experimentally — with quite rudimentary apparatus too. Merely using a chisel to seperate the form for our inspection, he triumphantly proves his theory.
This is true not only in the physical sciences, but in all observations made of the world.
When Columbus arrived in the New World he had a mental model that he was in Asia, and proceeded to perceive it as such. Cinnamon was a valuable Asian spice and the first New World shrub that smelled like it was declared to be it. When he encountered the aromatic gumbo-limbo of the West Indies, Columbus concluded it was an Asiatic species similar to the mastic tree of the Mediterranean. A New World nut was mistaken for Marco Polo’s description of a coconut. Even Columbus’ surgeon declared, based on some Caribbean roots his men had uncovered, that he had found Chinese rhubarb.
A theory of Asia produced observations of Asia, even though Columbus was half a world away. Such is the power of a wrong theory to deceive our senses and our mind.
Observations Change the Observed
Physicist John Archibald Wheeler once noted the change in thinking that quantum mechanics had wrought in our understanding of nature (1987, p.427):
Even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. He must reach in. He must install his chosen measuring equipment. It is up to him to decide whether he shall measure position or momentum. To install the equipment to measure the one prevents and excludes his installing the equipment to measure the other. Moreover, the measurement changes the state of the electron. The universe will never afterward be the same.
The problem is especially true in the human and social realm as the act of studying a problem can change it. Anthropologists know that when they study a tribe the behaviour of the members may be altered by the fact they are being observed by an outsider.
Margaret Mead was apparently duped by her female subjects in Samoa, who acted the way she expected them to with regards to their teenage sexuality. This is why psychologists use blind and double-blind controls. If subjects know what experimental conditions they are being subjected to, they may alter their behaviours. Or, if the psychologist knows which group they are in, he or she may perceive the behaviour to be appropriate for that condition.
Lack of such controls is often found in tests of paranormal powers and is one of the classic ways that thinking goes wrong in the pseudosciences.
Experiments Construct Results
The type of equipment used and the manner in which the experiment is conducted, very much determines the results. The size of telescopes throughout history, for example, have shaped our theory of the size of the universe. Hubble’s 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes on Mt Wilson in Southern California, for example, provided the seeing power for Hubble to determine individual stars in other galaxies, thus proving that those fuzzy objects called nebulae that were thought to be in our own galaxy, were actually seperate galaxies. In the 19th century, craniometry defined intelligence as brain size, and measured it as such; today intelligence is defined by the IQ test.
To illustrate the problem Eddington presented this clever analogy (p16):
Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematise what it reveals. He arrives at two generalisations:
(1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
(2) All sea-creatures have gills.
In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observations.
An onlooker may object that the first generalisation is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge. In short, what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.”
Likewise, what my telescope can’t see isn’t there, and what my test can’t measure isn’t intelligence.
Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science
Anecdotes — stories recounted in support of a claim — do not make a science. Without corroborative evidence from other sources, or physical proof of some sort, 10 anecdotes are no better than one, and 100 anecdotes are no better than 10.
Anecdotes are stories told by biased and selective human story tellers. Farmer Bob in Puckerbrush, Kansas may be an honest, church-going, family man, but we need concrete physical evidence of an alien spacecraft or alien bodies, not a story about landings and abductions at 3:00 a.m. on a deserted farm road.
Likewise with many medical claims; I do not care if your Aunt Mary’s cancer was cured by watching Marx Brothers movies, or taking liver extract from castrated chickens. It might have gone into remission on its own, which some cancers do; or it might have been misdiagnosed; or, or, or…
What we need are controlled experiments, not anecdotes. We need 100 subjects with cancer, all properly diagnosed, 25 of whom watch Marx Brothers movies, 25 of whom watch Alfred Hitchcock movies, 25 of whom watch the news, and 25 of whom watch nothing. Then we need to deduct the average rate of remission for this type of cancer, and then do a data analysis to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between any of the groups. If there is, which would be extraordinary, we better get confirmation from other scientists who conduct their own experiments separate from ours, before we hold a press conference to announce the cure for cancer.
Pseudoscientific Problems in Thinking
Scientific Language Does Not Make a Science
Packaging a belief system in the facade of science using the language and jargon, as in “creation-science”, means nothing without evidence, experiment, and corroboration. Because science is such a powerful system in our society, those who wish to gain respectability but do not have evidence, do an end-run around this problem by trying to look and sound the part. Here is a classic example from a New Age column in the Santa Monica News:
This planet has been slumbering for aeons and with the inception of higher energy frequencies is about to awaken in terms of consciousness and spirituality. Masters of limitation and masters of divination use the same creative force to manifest their realities, however, one moves in a downward spiral and the latter moves in an upward spiral, each increasing the resonant vibration inherent in them.
How’s that again? I have no idea what this means, but it has the language components of a physics experiment: “higher energy frequencies”, “downward and upward spirals”, and “resonant vibration”. These things mean nothing without precise and operational definitions. How do you measure the planet’s higher energy frequencies, or the resonant vibration of these masters of divination? For that matter, what is a master of divination?
Bold Statements Do Not Make True Claims
A red flag that something is pseudoscientific is when outrageous claims are made for its power and veracity, especially when supportive evidence is lacking.
L. Ron Hubbard, for example, opens his book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, with this statement: “The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to hsi invention of the wheel and arch.” Wilhelm Reich called his theory of Orgonomy “a revolution in biology and psychology comparable to the Copernican Revolution.” I have a file filled with papers and letters from obscure authors filled with such outlandish claims (I call it the “Theories of Everything” file).
Scientists sometimes make this mistake, and when they are wrong they pay a high price, as we saw at 1:00p.m., March 23, 1989, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to the world through a pres conference that they had discovered cold nuclear fusion.
The proper procedure in science is to hold the press conference after the claim has been tested and corroborated by other scientists in other labs, and after it appears in a peer-reviewed publication. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence must be before making such pronouncements. Gary Taubes’ excellent narrative of the cold fusion debacle, appropriately named Bad Science (1993), well demonstrates the implications of this problem.
Martyrdom Does Not Equal Correctness
They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright Brothers. Yes, well, they laughed at the Marx Brothers. So what? Becoming a martyr does not mean you are right.
Wilhelm Reich compared himself to Peer Gynt, the unconventional genius out of step with society, and misunderstood and ridiculed until proven right:
“Whatever you have done to me or will do to me in the future, whether you glorify me as a genius or put me in a mental institution, whether you adore me as your saviour or hang me as a spy, sooner or later necessity will force you to comprehend that I have discovered the laws of the living.”
History is replete with chronicles and tales of the lone and martyred scientist working against his peers, and in the face of opposition from the known doctrine of his own field of study. Most of them turned out to be wrong and we do not remember their names. For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for exclaiming the truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) Walter Wanabees whose “truths” never cut muster with the powers that be.
Can Walter really expect scientists to take the necessary time to test every fantastic claim that comes down the pike? No. If you want to do science you have to learn to play the game of science. This involves getting to know the scientists in your field, exchanging letters, calls, faxes, and (now) email with your colleagues, presenting papers at conferences, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and the like. Galileo paid his dues and learned to play the game. Walter Wanabee must do the same.
Rumours Do Not Equal Reality
A classic fallacy of thinking is “I read somewhere that…” or “I heard from someone that…”. Before long the rumour becomes reality as it is passed from person to person, usually by work of mouth, without the necessity of supportive evidence. Rumours, like “urban legends”, may be right, of course, but they usually are not, even if they do make for great tales.
What teenage boy did not tell his date on Lover’s Lane the “true” story of the escaped maniac with a prosthetic hook who haunted that very parking spot, with the addendum that one couple, when they returned home, found a hook dangling from the passenger door handle? Or the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” story where a hitchhiking woman vanishes from the car in which she was picked up, whereupon the driver, who had lent her his jacket, discovers that she had died that same day the year before; he then discovers his jacket on her grave. (There are many modified versions of these stories, but the core remains the same.)
At a dinner I once hosted for Stephen Jay Gould, the Caltech historial of science, Dan Kevles related a story he suspected was apocryphal about two students who took a ski trip before their final exam but did not get back in time because the evening activities extended well into the night. They told their professor that they got a flat tire so he gave them the final the next day. Placing the two students in separate rooms he asked them just two questions: (1) “For 5 points, what is the chemical formula for water?” (2) “For 95 points, which tire?”
Both Gould and Carol Tavris, also at the dinner, suspected it was an urban legend because they had heard a vaguely similar story. The next day I repeated the story to my students, three of whom simultaneously blurted out “which tire?” before I could give the punch line. They had heard the story in high school. Urban legends spread far, wide and fast.
The following are examples of rumours that, in fact, have no basis in truth:
- The secret ingredient in Dr Pepper is prune juice.
- A woman accidentally killed her poodle by drying it in a microwave oven.
- Paul McCartney died and was replaced by a lookalike.
- Giant alligators live in the sewers of New York City.
- The moon landing was faked and filmed in a Hollywood studio.
- George Washington had wooden teeth (false teeth were made of ivory or walrus tusk).
- The number of stars inside the “P” on Playboy magazine’s cover indicates how many times publisher Hugh Hefner had sex with the centrefold (it was actually just a distribution code).
- A flying saucer crashed in New Mexico and the bodies of the E.T.s are being kept by the Air Force in a secret warehouse.
There are a thousand more like these that are titillating to consider but should not be taken seriously without confirming evidence.
Unexplained Is Not Inexplicable
Most people are overconfident enough to think that if they cannot explain something, it must be inexplicable and therefore a true mystery of the paranormal. There is nothing more amusing than an amateur archaeologist declaring that because he cannot figure out how the pyramids were built, that they must have been constructed by space aliens.
Even those who are more reasonable at least think that if the experts cannot explain something it must be inexplicable. This is often seen in the performance of seemingly impossible feats, such as the bending of spoons, firewalking, or mental telepathy, which are thought to be of a paranormal or mystical nature because most people cannot explain them. And when they are explained most people respond with a “yes, of course”, or “that’s obvious once you see it”.
Firewalking is a case in point: people speculate about supernatural powers over pain and heat, or mysterious brain chemicals secreted to block the pain and prevent burning. The simple explanation is that the capacity of light and fluffy coals to contain heat is very low, and the conductivity of the heat from the light and fluffy coals to your feet is very poor. As long as you don’t stand around on the coals you will not get burned. (Think of a cake in a 450-degree heated oven. The air, cake and pan are all 450 degrees. Only the metal will burn your hand, because air and cake are light and fluffy and have a low heat capacity and conductivity.)
This is why magicians do not tell their secrets. Most of their tricks are extremely simple and knowing them takes the magic out of the trick.
There are many genuine unsolved mysteries in the universe and it is okay to say “We do not yet know but someday perhaps we will”.
Coincidences Are Not Causation
Coincidences are a type of contingency — a conjecture of two or more events without apparent design. When the connection is made in a manner that seems impossible by our intuition of the laws of probability, there is a tendency to think something mysterious or paranormal is at work.
You go to the phone to call your friend Bob. The phone rings and it is Bob. You think, “Wow, what are the chances? This could not have been a mere coincidence. Maybe Bob and I are communicating telepathically.”
Most people have a very poor understanding of the laws of probability. Gamblers will win six in a row and think they are on a “hot streak”. Or they will think they are “due to lose”. They have just predicted both possible outcomes, a fairly safe bet! The probability of two people having the same birth date in a room of 30 people is 71%, yet most would be shocked to find such a “coincidence” and think something mysterious was at work.
As B.F. Skinner proved in the laboratory, the human mind seeks relationships between events and often finds them even when they are not present. Slot-machines are based on Skinnerian principles of intermittent reinforcement. The dumb human, like the dumb rat, only needs an occasional reinforcement to keep pulling the handle. The mind will do the rest.
I believe that one of the reasons paranormal beliefs and pseudoscientific claims flourish in market economies is because of the uncertainty of the marketplace. According to James Randi once communism collapsed in Russia there was a significant increase in such beliefs.
Not only are the people freer to try and swindle each other with scams and rackets, many truly believe they have discovered something significant about the nature of the world. Capitalism is a lot less stable a social structure. These uncertainties lead the mind to look for explanations for the vagaries and contingencies of the market (and life in general), and these often take a turn toward the supernatural and paranormal.
Continued next issue.