Have universities degraded to teaching ‘only’ scientific knowledge?

Alison Campbell considers the current state of tertiary education.

The title for this article is taken from one of the search terms used by people visiting my ‘other’ blog, Talking Teaching, which I share with Marcus Wilson and Fabiana Kubke. It caught my eye and I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.

We’ll assume that this question is directed at science faculties. Using the word ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science.

(If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience, eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’ etc, has no place in a university, and it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in various curricula in the US, UK and Australia, among other countries. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, and close investigation – in one case, by a nine-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ and not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts and expect to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences and a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowlege they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that by simply presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking and answering questions in a scientific way. And in that sense, I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’.

Until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts and cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts (and teaching practical skills), conveyed very little of what science is actually all about. And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (eg Deslauriers et al, 2011, Haak et al, 2011, and Musante, 2012).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (and much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of university, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments and must surely have talked about the hows and the whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour.

However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, and they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy and the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, and students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first-year.

In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously, and with it, the pressure to get it all across. And when you’re under that pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses require students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’ve generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller third-year classes? And in fact I know lecturers who do just that.) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, and practising a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I referred to show that it can be done, and done very successfully.

First up: there’s more to producing a scientifically literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, and then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world. Of course, we also need a serious discussion at the curriculum level, about what constitutes ‘must-have’ knowledge and what can safely be omitted in favour of helping students gain those other skills. (This is something that’s just as important at the level of the senior secondary school curriculum.)

And secondly: giving students early practice at doing and thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study, maybe going on to become scientists themselves. In NZ graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!

Deslauriers, L.; Schelew, E.; Wieman, C. (2011): Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-4.
Haak, D. C.; HilleRisLambers, J.; Pitre, E.; Freeman, S. (2011): Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332 (6034),1213-6.
Musante, S. (2012): Motivating tomorrow’s biologists. Bioscience 62(1): 16.

School of thought

Adam van Langenberg gives practical suggestions on how to run a high school skeptical society, based on his own successful experience.

In late 2010 I was fortunate enough to see noted US skeptics Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning speak at the La Notte restaurant in Melbourne. As entertaining as these talks were, what really grabbed my attention was local skeptic Richard Saunders’ demonstration of the Power Balance scam. The more he demonstrated, the angrier I became. Angry because I’m a high school teacher and a lot of my students (and a few of our teachers) were wearing these things. Five minutes earlier I didn’t even know what they were; I had assumed they were one of those charity bands you see everywhere. Now my protective instincts were kicking in and I wanted to help my kids from getting sucked into this scam.

At school the next day I showed several of my classes the applied kinesiology techniques the salespeople were using. The students thought the tricks were very cool and a lot of embarrassed bracelet wearers suddenly started justifying their fashion choices:

“It was a gift!”

“I found it on the footpath!”

Mostly, though, they stopped wearing them.

The success of this led me to create the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society. We meet once a week and spend our lunch hour discussing specific pseudosciences, critical thinking techniques and debating the merits of scepticism. A brief speech at a school assembly brought over 100 students to the first sessions (a mass Zener ESP experiment) but numbers are now more stable with 20 – 40 kids on average.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group is how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

Favourite topics so far have included three weeks on logical fallacies and a month spent teaching the children how to cold read. I may have created some monsters here because they turned out to be quite gifted at it.

I truly believe that critical thinking and scepticism belongs in our school’s curriculum. Until that day comes, we are relying on teachers to inject it into their classrooms themselves. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of this. I know at least one science teacher who fervently believes that aliens have been landing on the Earth for many years and I worry about how many of their students have been taught to believe this.

I think that a sceptical society is the next best thing, as it brings the concept of scepticism into the community. People refer to me as “Mr Sceptic” (and occasionally “the dream crusher”) and many students and teachers have approached me for my thoughts on various ideas. “Sceptical” is now a word being used more and more at my school. My ultimate goal is to have every student understand what scepticism is and just how rewarding it can be.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I consider to be important when running a group like this. What follows are my ideas.

Make the sessions fun and relevant

Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children can have very short attention spans and if they’re not enjoying themselves, why would they continue? They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my talks funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

That’s a key point – a ‘sceptical society’ probably won’t draw a huge crowd, but an experiment to see if anybody is psychic probably will.

Relevancy is also very important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’ll all be aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their minds and it doesn’t come up as often, but it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that the anti-vaccination mindset makes them very angry.

It’s important to follow the news and select the things that you think will interest them.

Don’t make it a science club

Be aware that to most teenagers ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of boring stuff. You might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an obvious science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to show them how to make it better.

The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

Probably don’t make it a secular club

A few people from the sceptical community have gotten upset with me about this, some suggesting that if I’m not actively turning my students against religion then I’m basically wasting my time. Let me explain why I think this is a bad idea.

First of all, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think you’d get very far. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

More importantly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome. I steer clear of religious topics for that reason alone. If somebody brings up testable religious claims (such as creationism) I’m always happy to discuss them, but I will never make them the focus of the session.

A lot of my children come from very religious families, who could quickly make a complaint and ban their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait until the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. This answer turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to the psychics? Absolutely not. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Children’s minds are so inquisitive and always on the go. The most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position, it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as much as possible, the better I can do my job.

Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago a boy in my class started talking about transvestites. He wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by suggesting that some of them probably are but not all of them. What followed was a wonderfully respectful and inquisitive classroom discussion. I sat back and watched, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. What really impressed me was that these children were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle ‘grown up’ topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. I don’t like angry, condescending adults so I don’t want my kids turning into them. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with ridicule and personal attacks, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my students started laughing at people who use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don?t blame them for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if the patients were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach kids to look down on victims of pseudoscience, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless, of course, they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.

Self-Esteem: too much of a Good Thing?

The idea that low self-esteem is the cause of violent behaviour has been current for some time. Many years ago I attended numerous education meetings where I heard that certain (male) individuals “lacked self-esteem” when it seemed patently obvious that this was not true. I argued that these individuals greatly esteemed many of their own behaviours – it was just that these behaviours were those the counsellors thought should be deplored.

The result was that schools developed programmes to encourage pupils to make lists of their wonderful features and to compose poems of self-celebration. Parents and teachers were afraid to criticise children, or to let them take part in exams and competitions as this could turn them into violent thugs. It became important above all that children never experienced failure.

Scientific American (April 2001) had an article entitled Violent Pride: Do people turn violent because of self-hate or self-love? by Roy F Baumeister. This dealt with the problem of violent young men and characterised them as being usually egoists with a grandiose sense of personal superiority and entitlement; yet counselling textbooks say such people really suffer from low self-esteem.

Although it was a “well-known fact” that low self-esteem causes violence, Baumeister was unable to find a formal statement of the theory, let alone any evidence to support it. According to Baumeister: “…we found no indicators that aggressive male bullies are anxious and insecure under a tough surface.”

Self-esteem can be measured using a questionnaire with such examples as:

  • How well do you get along with other people?
  • Are you generally successful in your work or studies?

Baumeister et al also tested for narcissistic tendencies in a similar manner. People with high self-esteem were not necessarily narcissistic – most could recognise that they genuinely were good at some things but not all.

A study on men imprisoned for violent crimes showed these had the highest mean score for narcissism (among prisoners), though their score for self-esteem was about in the middle. Narcissism correlated very strongly with violent behaviour.

The idea that low self-esteem is the underlying cause of “just about every psychological problem” originates with Nathaniel Branden (originally Nathan Blumenthal), psychotherapist and author of several books on the subject. According to Branden: “faulty self-esteem [is] a flawed self-concept, intellectual self-doubt, a sense of unworthiness or guilt, an experience or inadequacy, a feeling that ‘something is wrong with me’ or that ‘I am not enough.’ ” But of course if the concept is made as broad as this everybody must experience low self-esteem at times.

Nash published Branden’s first book on the topic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, late in 1969, but it was taken up by Bantam and over a million paperback copies were sold worldwide. In 1977 Branden started a series of intensive “workshop” courses to teach his ideas. The course was called Self-Esteem and the Art of Being. Originally the attendees were psychotherapy students. These people spread the gospel and the idea really took off.

Branden had been a member of the Ayn Rand inner circle and, although 20-odd years younger, was her lover for a considerable period. This grand idea, of the importance of low self-esteem, was formulated by or with Rand sometime in 1955, certainly before the spring of 1956. But we have only Branden’s word that he had any involvement then – about 14 years before he published anything on the subject. Rand would later claim that Branden had stolen her idea; after Branden rejected her sexually she became extremely bitter. However when Atlas Shrugged (which seems to have introduced the idea) was published, it was dedicated to both her husband and her lover!

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contains a speech by John Galt, Rand’s superman hero that sets out three principles as the supreme and ruling values of human life:

  1. Reason
  2. Purpose
  3. Self-esteem

I regret that I was unaware of the Ayn Rand connection around 25 years ago, when I was involved in education and attacking the idea that low self-esteem was the problem with difficult boys. Rand’s anti-communism of course made her “Right Wing”. The “Left Wing” trendy types that were pushing faulty self-esteem as the cause of problems with difficult adolescents would have been horrified at the connection. I had found Atlas Shrugged and other Rand books unreadable; recently I had to read some Rand to write this essay but did not enjoy the experience. I still have not finished any of her books.

Rand frequently used archaic meanings for common English words. Few skeptics would quibble about basing their ideas on reason, but today this means that we organise our ideas to avoid contradictions. Rand’s philosophy involved a resurrection of the mediaeval idea of Rationalism, which meant something quite different – that one can acquire true knowledge of the world simply through thought. Modern science has rejected this idea – and Rand largely rejected science.

The Baumeister studies are very relevant to New Zealand today, but I suspect that few teachers or social workers involved with difficult and violent young males have even heard of them. Jim Ring is a Nelson Skeptic.

Good Company

What name do you give to a quirky bunch of people who are scientifically literate, who question fads, and who want their beliefs to rest on evidence from the material world — the sort of evidence that does not require one to ignore or reject all the laws of physics and other knowledge we have and that we rely on daily when flying, taking antibiotics or using the computer?

The group’s shortened name is the New Zealand Skeptics and in September in Christchurch they held their annual conference. What a delightful and idiosyncratic event this was, not least because there are so few lawyers in this group. I spend my professional life training would-be lawyers and writing articles for lawyers and other legal academics. You might think lawyers are instinctively sceptical. But actually, they’re not. They’re trained to take authorities — statutes, the decisions of judges — largely at face value. Yes, lawyers get very good at undermining certainty, at injecting doubt into the clearest of statutory provisions. But that is a different mindset than what one finds at the annual Skeptics conference.

This year, there was a host of interesting papers delivered. An academic from Canterbury University rubbished the trendy acceptance by some — under the false guise of being open-minded-of the possibility of psychic and paranormal knowledge. In fact, not one single police department in the US has found police psychics to be useful; only two or three out of nearly 500 National Enquirer predictions came true in the last dozen years or so; and not one single reproducible ESP phenomenon has ever been recorded, despite a huge reward being on offer to anyone who can demonstrate (that’s the key word) such powers.

Not really a surprise though, once you realise that if it were true, you’d have to jettison or re-write all we know about the physical laws underlying our understanding of the universe, knowledge that has doubled life expectancy in the past century, led to untold material advances and helped lift huge numbers of people out of poverty. The same sort of mindset was brought to bear in papers on organics (vastly over-rated), herbal medicine (how do you spell “placebo”?) and “biodynamic” approaches to eradicating the painted apple moth, just to name three. But two of the talks at the conference cry out for special mention, and praise.

The first was a talk on the Liam Williams-Holloway case. This included the chance to see the Australian 60 Minutes segment which broadcasters here have refused to televise. The most memorable line from that segment came from one of the alternative medicine practitioners: “All we care about is the wealth of our patients – I mean health.” That whole sorry and saddening episode casts a cloud over a good many people, and leads me to wonder why the parents of Liam have not been charged with a criminal offence.

Finally, I must mention the talk given at the conference by Lynley Hood, author of the prize-winning book A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case. If anyone out there thinks Peter Ellis should have been convicted, or still thinks he is undeserving of a pardon, that person should read this book. (See this month’s lead article –ed.)

I’d like to see a Commission of Inquiry headed by a tough-minded overseas judge — maybe the English judge who, in the height of a similar hysteria over there, acquitted two similarly placed crèche workers who have just won a big defamation case.

But if you think that’s likely to happen here in New Zealand, if you think the vested interests might break ranks, you need a good dose of scepticism.

The Myth of Common Sense

John Riddell reckons he’s a sensible bloke. But then, doesn’t everybody?

A while ago I had to take my wife out for our anniversary, so while we were waiting for our burgers and fries I flicked through one of those out of date magazines they leave out. There was an article about keeping your kids safe while surfing the net. It made a few sensible suggestions and then it said something interesting. It said you should use “common sense”.

Do you have common sense? If you don’t, what use is this advice?

I know I have common sense. I’m sure you do too. As far as I can make out, everybody thinks they have common sense. Which is strange, because I know plenty of people who appear to have no common sense at all. Politicians for example.

Which means there is a bit of a problem. If everyone thinks they have common sense, and everyone thinks that some people don’t, then there must be people who think they know what common sense is when in fact they do not.

Surely that cannot be. Because if that is true, then even though I know I have common sense, there may be people who think I do not.

That’s a worry.

But what is common sense? Maybe I don’t have common sense. Could it be that what I think is common sense is different from what you think is common sense?

Does that make sense?

If you look at the words, “common sense”, the meaning seems simple enough. Common sense must be “sense” that is held in “common”. That’s a belief that is held by two or more people. The trouble with this is we use the phrase “common sense” to refer to something that is “obviously true”. But it might not be obvious to me. Or it might not be true. What is obvious to me might not be obvious to you. And believing something to be true doesn’t make it so.

If you and I believe the world is flat then it is “common sense” that the world is flat. Anyone who disagrees with us just doesn’t have common sense.

“I believe it. My friends believe it. If you disagree with us you must be wrong.”

This idea goes back a long way. In 325 AD, Constantine the Great gathered a council of Bishops in Nicea. They were required to come up with a creed for Christianity. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”, etc. They called it the Nicene Creed. If you accepted the creed, you were an Orthodox Christian. Orthos is Greek for “right”. Doxos means “opinion”. If you believed what they did you were of the “right opinion”. If you didn’t you were a heretic, and we all know what to do with heretics.

We now have Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and for that matter, Ethiopian Orthodox. Each thinking that their version is the “right opinion.”

The political version of the same thing is the “Right Thinking Person”.

As in “The time has come for all right thinking people to come to the aid of the Party.” It doesn’t matter what your political leanings are. So long as you are in our political party, you must be a right thinking person. Not like those wrong thinking people in the other parties.

The phrases “Common Sense”, “Orthodox”, or “Right Thinking Person” are used as substitutes for logic, or evidence. They are a type of Appeal to Authority. Usually, in an appeal to authority, you claim something must be true because someone important believes it.

“Sir Isaac Newton believed it and he was an intelligent person, therefore it must be true.” In reality, this is not necessarily true because even intelligent people believe things that are not true.

The common sense argument is an appeal to the authority of numbers. “It’s common sense. Lots of people believe this. Forty million idiots can’t be wrong.”

So when I read the article about safely surfing the net and they suggested using common sense, I had to stop and think.

Whose common sense was I supposed to use?

Everybody has a collection of experiences that they use to explain the world. Everyone’s experiences are different. These experiences create a person’s beliefs and therefore what they think is common sense. A computer geek may have the right sort of common sense to decide how to control what his kids are viewing. But I might not. And since no two people have identical beliefs, you cannot be sure if you have the same common sense as the author.

So the advice to use common sense is useless. The next time you are told to use common sense, be careful whose common sense you use.

A Brief History of Skepticism

Around 300BCE there started a school of Greek philosophy called Skepticism. It continued for centuries, but was more like dogmatic doubt than the modern version. Bertrand Russell put their creed as “Nobody knows, and nobody can know”. They may simply have a bad press. Carneades, one-time head of the skeptical academy, was accused of denying the possibility of all knowledge. In fact he seems to have denied the possibility of certain knowledge, a very different thing.

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Keeping an Open Mind While Staying in a Hippy Hole

IT’S nothing short of a miracle that this issue has made it to the mailbox. For the last six months the family, including our cat and retired cattle dog, have been living in a small housetruck. (Just as well we farmed out the rabbits, mice and fish). The reason for our spartan existence is we are in the middle of building a rammed earth house. Not only do we fill buckets with the best of the builders, we, or should I say I, also feed them. (Nothing is too good for our boys.)

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How Thinking Goes Wrong

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.

Hume’s Maxim

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.

All the Trouble in the World

All the Trouble in the World, by P.J. O’Rourke; Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd 1994; 340 pages; $20.00 paperback

Everyone will enjoy this book. Well, everyone except paranormalists, ecological alarmists, pseudo-scientists, feminists, left-wingers, the entire New Age community, and of course those eternally doom-ridden types who seem determined to drag everyone else down to their own level of self-imposed suffering.

My only complaint — and it is a grievous one — is that O’Rourke prefaces the book with the exact same H.L. Mencken quote that I was on the brink of using myself. (Call it a coincidence if you want, but the odds of such a thing happening strike me as so slim it’s hard to avoid thinking that some form of telepathy was at play.)

The quote in question appears in one of Mencken’s autobiographical books, Newspaper Days, written in 1941, wherein he refers to a formula he devised way back in the ’20s. He called it Mencken’s Law and it goes like this: “Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretence of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.”

This was Mencken’s way of describing the same political correctness that plagues us today. The same old notion of virtue-on-the-cheap that has been annoying and injuring B since…Adam, probably. In Mencken’s time such nonsense led to Prohibition.

All the Trouble in the World opens with the line “This is a moment of hope in history. Why doesn’t anybody say so?”, which pretty much sums up what the book is about.

His general thesis here is that we are living in great and exciting times, and that humanity is better off now than it has ever been. But thanks to ecological despair mongers, whinging leftists, and the apocalyptic messages of the New Agers and Born Again Armageddonites, who believe that the only road to salvation is to abandon all rational thought and embrace the teachings of the fairy dust queen, we have been bamboozled into thinking that the monsters of ruin and disaster are breathing down our very necks.

The book is subtitled “the lighter side of famine, pestilence, destruction and death”, and to look at the whys and wherefores of all this O’Rourke takes us on a hilarious romp to countries where such things are taking place, including Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Haiti and the Amazon, resulting in a travelogue guaranteed to send the painfully virtuous on a book-burning spree.

Like all of O’Rourke’s writing, the style is garrulous, comical and fun to read; the content well informed and the reporting first-rate. Unfortunately, there is no outright O’Rourkian madness such as we find in Republican Party Reptile — “How to Drive Drunk While Getting Your Wing Wang Squeezed Without Spilling Your Drink”, for instance — but such failings aside, I would not hesitate to put All the Trouble in the World on any skeptic’s reading list.