left biblioblography: And The Word (Or Insult) For The Day Is…Pseudoskeptic!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

And The Word (Or Insult) For The Day Is…Pseudoskeptic!

Cross posted @ God is 4 Suckers!pseudoskeptic

“A neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the air. A psychotic is the man who lives in it. A psychiatrist is the man who collects the rent.” – Jerome Laurence

I have always been interested in psychology – and the human mind, regardless of ideology or epistemology, not only loves to be tricked, it will also insist that the illusion played upon it is reality incarnate,  and will fight tooth and nail to defend it. To be fair, I’ve encountered this with close to every group on the internet, and alas, atheists are not exempt.

Over the past few years, outspoken and vocal atheists have been going about deflating warm and fuzzy feelings, crashing castles in the sky, and in general blowing delusional fantasies to itsy bitsy teeny weeny tiny bits. So it stands to reason, that we’ve made more than a few enemies.

So when I chanced across this little temper tantrum, well, it was amusing enough to share and fisk:

Ever get into an argument with a skeptic only to end up
exasperated and feeling you've been bamboozled?  Skeptics are
often highly skilled at tying up opponents in clever verbal
knots.  Most skeptics are, of course, ordinary, more-or-less
honest people who, like the rest of us, are just trying to make
the best sense they can of a complicated and often confusing
world.  Others, however, are merely glib sophists who use
specious reasoning to defend their prejudices or attack the ideas
and beliefs of others, and even an honest skeptic can innocently
fall into the mistake of employing bad reasoning.

This distinctly sounds like somebody got spanked very badly, at least to me.

In reading, listening to and sometimes debating skeptics over the
years, I've found certain tricks, ploys and gimmicks which they
tend to use over and over again.  Here are some of 'em.  Perhaps
if you keep them in mind when arguing with a skeptic, you'll feel
better when the debate is over.  Shucks, you might even score a
point or two.

Take notes, people.

consists of demanding a new, higher and more difficult standard
of evidence whenever it looks as if a skeptic's opponent is going
to satisfy an old one. Often the skeptic doesn't make it clear
exactly what the standards are in the first place.  This can be
especially effective if the skeptic can keep his opponent from
noticing that he is continually changing his standard of
evidence.  That way, his opponent will eventually give up in
exasperation or disgust. Perhaps best of all, if his opponent
complains, the skeptic can tag him as a whiner or a sore loser.

Skeptic:  I am willing to consider the psi hypothesis if you will
only show me some sound evidence.

Opponent:  There are many thousands of documented reports of
incidents that seem to involve psi.

S:  That is only anecdotal evidence.  You must give me laboratory

Right here, we now have an insight into the plaintiff’s core complaint: this person believes strongly in psi/paranormal/parapsychology.

0: Researchers A-Z have conducted experiments that produced
results which favor the psi hypothesis.

S:  Those experiments are not acceptable because of flaws X,Y and

0: Researchers B-H and T-W have conducted experiments producing
positive results which did not have flaws X,Y and Z.

S:  The positive results are not far enough above chance levels
to be truly interesting.

0: Researchers C-F and U-V produced results well above chance

S:  Their results were achieved through meta-analysis, which is a
highly questionable technique.

O:  Meta-analysis is a well-accepted method commonly used in
psychology and sociology.

S:  Psychology and sociology are social sciences, and their
methods can't be considered as reliable as those of hard sciences
such as physics and chemistry.

Etc., etc. ad nauseum.

So many problems to address on this. First, there’s three different definitions in sociology for meta-analysis. Secondly, which one of three formats does one use? Thirdly, who does the meta-analysis? I am far more likely to go for a series of  independent studies than say, control groups for Tarot card accuracy by the Divination By Cards society. Also, one human being alone contains so many hard-to-adjust-for idiosyncratic variables that it renders this approach…well, variable.

2.) SOCK 'EM WITH OCCAM:  Skeptics frequently invoke Occam's
Razor as if the Razor automatically validates their position.
Occam's Razor, a principle of epistemology (knowledge theory),
states that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is
to be preferred -- or, to state it another way, entities are not
to be multiplied needlessly.  The Razor is a useful and even
necessary principle, but it is largely useless if the facts
themselves are not generally agreed upon in the first place.

Well, I invoke Occam when I encounter someone who’s ‘theory’ is all over the place. For instance, a Wiccan-Buddhist-Liberation theologist who blames UFO sightings for global warming (just an example: I doubt such a creature exists). But when someone claims they can read my mind, or pass a Rhine test with flying colors, well, it’s smock-and-lab time, baby.

And of course, something about being tested seems to make all these magical powers magically disappear.

3.) EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS:  Extraordinary claims, says the
skeptic, require extraordinary evidence.  Superficially this
seems reasonable enough.  However, extraordinariness, like
beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Some claims, of
course, would seem extraordinary to almost anyone (e.g. the claim
that aliens from Alpha Centauri had contacted you telepathically
and informed you that the people of Earth must make you their
absolute lord and ruler).  The "extraordinariness" of many other
claims, however, is at best arguable, and it is not at all
obvious that unusually strong evidence is necessary to support
them.  For example, so many people who would ordinarily be
considered reliable witnesses have reported precognitive dreams
that it becomes difficult to insist these are "unusual" claims
requiring "unusual" evidence.  Quite ordinary standards of
evidence will do.

Oh yeah – like who? Edgar Cayce? Allison Dubois? Uri Geller? The list of frauds is long and odious, and in fact, there are so many of them, Houdini made a career out of debunking them.

4.) STUPID, CRAZY LIARS:  This trick consists of simple slander.
Anyone who reports anything which displeases the skeptic will be
accused of incompetence, mental illness or dishonesty, or some
combination of the three without a single shred of fact to
support the accusations.  When Charles Honorton's Ganzfeld
experiments produced impressive results in favor of the psi
hypothesis, skeptics accused him of suppressing or not publishing
the results of failed experiments.  No definite facts supporting
the charge ever emerged.  Moreover, the experiments were
extremely time consuming, and the number of failed, unpublished
experiments necessary to make the number of successful, published
experiments significant would have been quite high, so it is
extremely unlikely that Honorton's results could be due to
selective reporting.  Yet skeptics still sometimes repeat this

Here’s a little bit on the Ganzfield experiments:

Isolation — Richard Wiseman and others argue that not all of the studies used soundproof rooms, so it is possible that when videos were playing, the experimenter (or even the receiver) could have heard it, and later given involuntary cues to the receiver during the selection process. However, Dean Radin argues that ganzfeld studies which did use soundproof rooms had a number of "hits" similar to those which did not.

Randomization — When subjects are asked to choose from a variety of selections, there is an inherent bias to choose the first selection they are shown. If the order in which they are shown the selections is randomized each time, this bias will be averaged out. The randomization procedures used in the experiment have been criticized for not randomizing satisfactorily.

The psi assumption — The assumption that any statistical deviation from chance is evidence for telepathy is highly controversial, and often compared to the God of the gaps argument. Strictly speaking, a deviation from chance is only evidence that either this was a rare, statistically unlikely occurrence that happened by chance, or something was causing a deviation from chance. Flaws in the experimental design are a common cause of this, and so the assumption that it must be telepathy is fallacious. This does not rule out, however, that it could be telepathy.

Shorter version: telepathy’s out unless it can be shown to score higher than the occasional statistical hit.

5.) THE SANTA CLAUS GAMBIT:  This trick consists of lumping
moderate claims or propositions together with extreme ones.  If
you suggest, for example, that Sasquatch can't be completely
ruled out from the available evidence,the skeptic will then
facetiously suggest that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny can't
be "completely" ruled out either.

That’s only an example (however, if it isn’t, then this cat’s got a baroque meritocracy the size of the great wide open spaces). The phrasing of course, is it ‘can’t be completely ruled out’, suggesting that the question is invoking an absolute that can’t be established.

6.) SHIFTING THE BURDEN OF EVIDENCE:  The skeptic insists that he
doesn't have to provide evidence and arguments to support his
side of the argument because he isn't asserting a claim, he is
merely denying or doubting yours.  His mistake consists of
assuming that a negative claim (asserting that something doesn't
exist) is fundamentally different from a positive claim.  It
isn't.  Any definite claim, positive or negative, requires
definite support.  Merely refuting or arguing against an
opponent's position is not enough to establish one's own
position..  In other words, you can't win by default.

Ah, no no no no. This is an argument from ignorance AKA shifting the burden of proof. The legal definition states it as ‘The process of transferring the obligation to affirmatively prove a fact in controversy or an issue brought during a lawsuit from one party in a legal controversy to the other party. ‘  You want to prove Bigfoot as fact? You need to prove it, I don’t need to disprove it. Simple as that.

As arch-skeptic Carl Sagan himself said, absence of evidence is
not evidence of absence.  If someone wants to rule out vistations
by extra-terrestrial aliens, it would not be enough to point out
that all the evidence presented so far is either seriously flawed
or not very strong.  It would be necessary to state definite
reasons which would make ET visitations either impossible or
highly unlikely.  (He might, for example, point out that our best
understanding of physics pretty much rules out any kind of
effective faster-than-light drive.)

Appeal to an authority the skeptic approves, then another negative proof fallacy.

The only person exempt from providing definite support is the
person who takes a strict "I don't know" position or the agnostic
position.  If someone takes the position that the evidence in
favor of ET visitations is inadequate but goes no farther, he is
exempt from further argument (provided, of course, he gives
adequate reasons for rejecting the evidence).  However, if he
wants to go farther and insist that it is impossible or highly
unlikely that ET's are visiting or have ever visited the Earth,
it becomes necessary for him to provide definite reasons for his
position.  He is no longer entitled merely to argue against his
opponent's position.

I’d be happy to go the extra mile (and indeed, I’ve done so on different topics). I think it was George Carlin who stated, “We engage in necrophilia and kill each other, gee, wonder why aliens don’t visit us?” (paraphrase) There’s a multitude of reasons why ET’s don’t visit us, and among them is that opinion that is anathema to the highly incredulous: they may not even exist.

There is the question of honesty.  Someone who claims to take the
agnostic position but really takes the position of definite
disbelief is, of course, misrepresenting his views.  For example,
a skeptic who insists that he merely believes the psi hypothesis
is inadequately supported when in fact he believes that the human
mind can only acquire information through the physical senses is
simply not being honest.

Ah yes, the fallback position of the true atavism: if you’re a skeptic, you’re a skeptic about everything, including the fact that you’re a skeptic! Prove the human mind culls data from external sources, or STFU.

7.) YOU CAN'T PROVE A NEGATIVE:  The skeptic may insist that he
is relieved of the burden of evidence and argument because "you
can't prove a negative." But you most certainly can prove a
negative!  When we know one thing to be true, then we also know
that whatever flatly contradicts it is untrue.  If I want to show
my cat's not in the bedroom, I can prove this by showing that my
cat's in the kitchen or outside chasing squirrels. The negative
has then been proven.  Or the proposition that the cat is not in
the bedroom could be proven by giving the bedroom a good search
without finding the cat.  The skeptic who says, "Of course I
can't prove psi doesn't exist.  I don't have to.  You can't prove
a negative," is simply wrong.  To rule something out, definite
reasons must be given for ruling it out.

Sure, you can prove a negative. No argument. Prayer doesn’t work. No one has proof that Bigfoot exists. 75% of UFO sightings are mundane explanations. The Exodus and the Deluge never happened. God ain’t there. There’s a laundry list of non-events and delusions that these people flock to.

Of course, for practical reasons it often isn't possible to
gather the necessary information to prove or disprove a
proposition, e.g., it isn't possible to search the entire
universe to prove that no intelligent extraterrestrial life
exists.  This by itself doesn't mean that a case can't be made
against the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, although
it does probably mean that the case can't be as air-tight and
conclusive as we would like.

And again, the case can’t be made for the damn thing. It doesn’t NEED to be ‘air-tight’ – I’d settle for conclusive, though.

8.) THE BIG LIE:  The skeptic knows that most people will not
have the time or inclination to check every claim he makes, so he
knows it's a fairly small risk to tell a whopper.  He might, for
example, insist that none of the laboratory evidence for psi
stands up to close scrutiny, or he might insist there have been
no cases of UFO's being spotted by reliable observers such as
trained military personnel when in fact there are well-documented
cases.  The average person isn't going to scamper right down to
the library to verify this, so the skeptic knows a lot of people
are going to accept his statement at face value.  This ploy works
best when the Big Lie is repeated often and loudly in a confident

Translation: “OOOH! Those nasty ole pseudoskeptics make shit up! Big poopy-heads!” Please. This is a poison the well tactic. Besides, the internet will allow the average joe (or josephine, if somebody nitpicks) 5 to 10 minutes to eviscerate any of these claims.

9.) DOUBT CASTING:  This trick consists of dwelling on minor or
trivial flaws in the evidence, or presenting speculations as to
how the evidence might be flawed as though mere speculation is
somehow as damning as actual facts.  The assumption here is that
any flaw, trivial or even merely speculative, is necessarily
fatal and provides sufficient grounds for throwing out the
evidence. The skeptic often justifies this with the
"extraordinary evidence" ploy.

That’s a strawman argument, but of course, this guy runs to the library to do research, so I’ll cut him a break.

In the real world, of course, the evidence for anything is seldom
100% flawless and foolproof.  It is almost always possible to
find some small shortcoming which can be used as an excuse for
tossing out the evidence.  If a definite problem can't be found,
then the skeptic may simply speculate as to how the evidence
*might* be flawed and use his speculations as an excuse to
discard the information.  For example, the skeptic might point
out that the safeguards or controls during one part of a psi
experiment weren't quite as tight as they might have been and
then insist, without any supporting facts, that the subject(s)
and/or the researcher(s) probably cheated because this is the
"simplest" explanation for the results (see "Sock 'em with Occam"
and "Extraordinary Claims"; "Raising the Bar" is also relevant).

Ahem…SMALL SHORTCOMING? Are you kidding me? So, when do I get to see an actual telekinetic feat? Get someone to read my mind? Pick 10 out of 10 cards accurately? I mean, when it’s not a Las Vegas act?

10.) THE SNEER:  This gimmick is an inversion of "Stupid, Crazy
Liars."  In "Stupid, Crazy Liars," the skeptic attacks the
character of those advocationg certain ideas or presenting
information in the hope of discrediting the information.  In "THE
SNEER," the skeptic attempts to attach a stigma to some idea or
claim and implies that anyone advocating that position must have
something terribly wrong with him. "Anyone who believes we've
been visited by extraterresrial aliens must be a lunatic, a fool,
or a con man. If you believe this, you must a maniac, a simpleton
or a fraud." The object here is to scare others away from a
certain position without having to discuss facts.

Really, outside of the spelling errors, this is known as the Ad hominem attack. And really, this fella’s something else again. Bigfoot, UFOs, Psi phenomenon? How can I NOT snark at this person?

To be fair, some of these tricks or tactics (such as "The Big
Lie," "Doubtcasting" and "The Sneer") are often used by believers
as well as skeptics.  Scientifc Creationists and Holocaust
Revisionists, for example, are particularly prone to use
"Doubtcasting." Others ploys, however, such as "Sock 'em with
Occam" and "Extraordinary Claims," are generally used by skeptics
and seldom by others.

Because of course, skeptics are usually less prone to cognitive dissonance.

Unfortunately, effective debating tactics often involve bad
logic, e.g. attacking an opponent's character, appeals to
emotion, mockery and facetiousness, loaded definitions, etc. And
certainly skeptics are not the only ones who are ever guilty of
using manipulative and deceptive debating tactics.  Even so,
skeptics are just as likely as anyone else to twist their
language, logic and facts to win an argument, and keeping these
tricks in mind when dealing with skeptics may very well keep you
from being bamboozled.

‘Bamboozled’?  I don’t know abut that (it invokes an image of taking someone’s wallet)…but what is a ‘loaded definition’? Usually in any debate, the definitions as well as the premises have to be agreed upon. English is like Greek in one respect – one word has multiple definitions, which we all wrestle with on a regular basis.

Here is my issue:

I would love to live in a world where aliens dropped down from the skies for a bit of a natter, or there was a Bigfoot, or paranormal powers actually existed. And there are such worlds. Unfortunately, they exist in science fiction stories, graphic novels, movies, or in anime. The fact is that the human brain is a huge receptor, and it loves to be deceived. Especially by itself. So, yes, the bar by necessity HAS to be high. I for one do not require 100% certainty. I’d settle for 90%. Hell, I’d be ambivalent at 50%.

Sadly, such percentiles are not forthcoming.

Till the next post then.

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