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On Skeptics, UFOs, the Paranormal... and Disinformation

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posted on Dec, 14 2006 @ 01:48 PM
Today I ran across Rupert Sheldrake's homepage. For those who don't know, he's a Cambridge don who pursues some lines of enquiry that what I will call "aggressive skeptics" deem heretical and "pseudoscientific". The purpose of this thread is to lay out my thinking on this subject and to note some curious parallels between skeptical attacks on ufology and on "the paranormal".

Science and Skepticism

I would regard myself as a skeptic, but to many people I would be classed as a "true believer", in that I have come to accept that certain things which are currently labelled "pseudoscience" by the aggressive skeptics, are worthy of scientific enquiry and are based in reality. For example, I've practised t'ai chi for many years now, and while at first I was agnostic about the existence of chi, I have since had personal experiences that leave no doubt in my mind that it is, in some way, objectively real in a way that current scientific models do not - in fact, refuse to - acknowledge.

Therefore my skepticism is directed as much as at what science has to say about the world as at any claims that are made about the nature of the world by other belief systems. Ultimately, I trust my own sense-data and my own logic, which, although fallible, are all I've got. Putting my trust in other people's logic, for me, still involves checking their thought against my own.

For some time now, I've had a conviction which I've articulated to myself as: scientific progress happens at the fringes. Not terribly original - but today I found a very neat expansion of that (can't find it now, of course, but I'll try and reconstruct it). Broadly, the idea is that scientific progress necessarily involves taking what we have as a common-sense view of the world and turning it upside down. Here are two simple but powerful examples.

For thousands of years, people watched the sun rise and set and assumed the Earth was still. Galileo was tortured for saying otherwise. It was, on its face, an absurd belief, ridiculous. Yet we now accept it - most of us, anyway.

Likewise, for thousands of years, we thought of solid matter as just that - solid. Now, of course, we know that even the densest solid object (on Earth, smart boy - I'm not talking about neutronium, for heaven's sake!) is mostly empty space. Again, this belief goes against all common sense.

Therefore, it's almost inevitable that the things we think of as being "facts", "common sense", are precisely those things that we will have to reconsider. And what I hope to show is that it is the "aggressive skeptics" who are actually the true believers, and that they are used by people who want to divert attention from matters that deserve serious attention.

There are two areas where "debunking" is a cottage industry. One is the paranormal, and the other is ufology. I'd like to consider the paranormal first, for reasons of historical narrative.

There is, in fact, a line drawn in the sand between science and religion, and this is what I shall, albeit briefly, next attempt to explain.

Science v. Religion - the Turf War for Legitimation

In the period we now know as "the Enlightenment" - the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries", there was a struggle for dominance between science and religion. This dominance was political in nature. Beforehand, kings ruled by divine right. Nowadays, we have the social scientists and economic theorists who tell us how our countries should be run and our societies structured. It was a very real political fight: and it was also a fight for the right to explain how the world functioned.

The upshot is that a line in the sand was drawn, between the "spiritual" and the "material": the one, the provenance of the clergy, the other, the domain of the new cadre of scientists and engineers. We shall see that this line still exists, and that in order for a new, inclusive paradigm to emerge, it's going to have to go.

The Paranormal - Victim of the Turf War

What we now refer to as "the paranormal" straddles this line between the material and the immaterial, as does what is known as the "mind-body" problem, and the nature of consciousness. Despite some nineteenth-century attempts to look at the paranormal through the eyes of science, broadly, the scientific community has rejected the existence of such things as ESP. Yes, I know... there have been many scientific studies of these things, but, I believe, because of the after-effects of this "turf war", these areas are on the borderline between the two camps and it makes some people irrationally uncomfortable to investigate them.

Skepticism can block scientific progress

Skepticism is often, by its very nature, simply reactionary conservatism. Consider this example:

In 1794 the eminent Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-99), one of the founders of experimental biology, published a modest but heretical proposal. Long intrigued by the ability of bats to fly in total darkness without bumping into things, he set out to discover how they did it. He reasoned that they must be using one of their five senses, and in a series of extremely cruel experiments he maimed bats by destroying their senses one by one, blinding them, blocking their ears or even cutting them off, eliminating their sense of smell and removing their tongues.

It soon became clear to him that it was the sense of hearing that bats needed in order to avoid obstacles. But hearing what? Bats made no audible sounds as they flew, and little if anything was known in the 18th century about ultrasound, the secret of bats' success as nocturnal navigators.

Spallanzani was in effect making a claim for the paranormal, much as the pioneers of psychical research were to do in the following century in the case of telepathy. There was no sign in 1794 of a normal explanation for the bat�s navigating skills, so the scientific establishment did what it tends to do on these occasions - it made one up. Its chief spokesman was the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a pioneer in both anatomy and palaeontology. He decreed, in a paper published in 1795, that "to us, the organs of touch seem sufficient to explain all the phenomena which bats exhibit".

...whereas Spallanzani, and several colleagues whom he persuaded to repeat his experiments, reached their unanimous conclusion only after numerous experiments, Cuvier solved the problem without having performed a single one. It was, as the 20th century bat expert Robert Galambos noted, "a triumph of logic over experimentation".

Cuvier's explanation soon found its way into the textbooks, and stayed there until the start of the 20th century...

There is a rather precise parallel to Rupert Sheldrake's attempts to explain the ability of animals to navigate, be it homing pigeons, salmon or turtles, which travel thousands of miles to their original spawning grounds.

I would also, at this point, interject that there's a phrase that has gained some currency, which I find to be deeply unscientific. It is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". The fact is that what is extraordinary is a value judgement and has nothing to do with science. A hypotheisis is testable. It works as long as it handles data - as soon as it ceases to do so, it requires modification. That's all.

To be continued...

[edit on 14-12-2006 by rich23]

posted on Dec, 14 2006 @ 02:30 PM
Skeptics - Mercenaries in the ongoing turf war

It has become clear to me that what I term "aggressive skeptics" are actually interested in enforcing dogma rather than maintaining an open and enquiring mind. There are many good illustrations of this, but this is a particularly good one from Sheldrake himself. He has been looking into the fact that people can apparently tell when they are being stared at. On the linked page he examines the arguments raised by the "skeptics" and disposes of them unceremoniously:

Marks (2000) and Marks & Colwell (2000) were faced with the problem of explaining why [their] findings replicated my own. They speculated that subjects might have learned implicitly to recognize patterns in the randomized sequences used in their trials. These particular counterbalanced sequences were downloaded from the New Scientist web site, and were the same as some of those I used in some of my own trials. They proposed that because these sequences deviated from "structureless" randomizations, subjects who were given feedback could have learned implicitly to detect patterns in the sequences, thus enabling them to guess at above-chance levels. They announced their hypothesis as if it were a fact in the title of their article in the Skeptical Inquirer : "The psychic staring effect: An artifact of pseudo randomization."

This Marks-Colwell hypothesis is fatally flawed for four reasons:

1. Marks (2000) and Marks and Colwell (2000) were apparently unaware that their implicit learning hypothesis had already been refuted by thousands of trials involving structureless randomizations (Sheldrake, 1998, 1999). where implicit learning would have been impossible. In addition, a computerized staring experiment has been running at the New Metropolis Science Museum in Amsterdam since 1996, and more than 18,500 subjects have taken part. A program in the computer provides structureless randomizations for the sequence of looking and not-looking trials. The results are positive and astronomically significant statistically.
2. The implicit learning hypothesis has been refuted by thousands of trials with no feedback, with the usual pattern of positive and highly significant results (Sheldrake, 2000a). Implicit learning depends on feedback, and hence cannot explain these results.
3. . If implicit learning led to positive scores in looking trials, then it should also have done so in not-looking trials. But it did not (Figure 1). Why not? Marks did not mention this problem; perhaps he hoped his readers would not notice it.
4. In Colwell et al.'s experiment, the same subjects took part in nine successive 20-trial sessions with feedback. There was a statistically significant learning effect in successive sessions, but only in the looking trials, not in the not-looking trials. This is consistent with the subjects learning to detect stares more effectively. But such learning would not have been possible in the trials I conducted. Each subject was tested only once, in a single 20-trial session, and hence the learning hypothesis cannot account for the experimental data shown in Figure 1A.

There's plenty more. But why should we think that some of these people are "mercenaries"? Let's have a look at some well-known skeptics. My source is
this page, and while using one page may seem like a cop-out, the inquisitive reader can use the site to find much corroborative evidence for the points I'm making here.

Martin Gardner

Mr. Gardner, a founder of CSICOP, was well-known to me in my youth and my chemistry teacher at school championed his works with evangelical enthusiasm. It is interesting to me that he seems to embody the concept of the turf war I was briefly elucidating in the previous thread:

Conjuring has been a life-long hobby and much of his criticism of psychical research focuses on possibilities of cheating. The style of his attacks is frequently bitter, derisive and personal. Yet, surprisingly, unlike most self-proclaimed skeptics, he is not an atheist. Gardner's motivation is religious. As he explains in his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, he believes in God, the power of prayer and life after death. In a penetrating study of Gardner's work, George Hansen, in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001) , argues that Gardner's position can be traced back to his teenage Protestant fundamentalism and his belief that the realms of science and faith should be sharply separated. "[H]e vehemently opposes using science to empirically address religious issues. He is comfortable with CSICOP because it doesn't really do science. Instead it ridicules attempts to study the paranormal scientifically". Gardner serves as a border guard to keep the paranormal out of science and academe.

I think you can see that, from the language used, my metaphor of the turf war was far from overstating the case.

But of course, the Lord God King of skeptics is James Randi.

Carl Sagan, in his sympathetic introduction to Randi�s book The Faith Healers (1987) described him as an "angry man". His work as a debunker has attracted lavish funding and in 1986 he was the recipient of a $286,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 1996 he established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He has an ambiguous attitude to scientific authority, deferring to it when it supports his beliefs, but rejecting it when it does not.

On his web site he asserts: "Authority does not rest with scientists, when emotion, need and desperation are involved. Scientists are human beings, too, and can be deceived and self-deceived". He is not afraid to attack scientists who take an interest in subjects like telepathy, like Brian Josephson, Professor of Physics at Cambridge University. In 2001, on a BBC Radio program about Josephson's interest in possible connections between quantum physics and consciousness, Randi said, "I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many aspects for them to turn to something like quantum physics." Josephson has a Nobel Prize in quantum physics. Randi has no scientific credentials.

Josephson also has a legacy of his work that Randi will never achieve - he's had the "Josephson junction" - an electronic circuit based on principles of quantum tunnelling, for the discovery of which he won the Nobel prize at 22 - named after him.

For Randi to call this man a scoundrel is the acme of hypocrisy, given Randi's dishonest claims and propensity to play fast and loose with facts to bolster his arguments.

But the thing is, as we have seen, Randi is very well financed. Why should this pay so well?

We will return to this question.

posted on Dec, 14 2006 @ 03:02 PM
On to Ufology

Reading this stuff about Randi make me think of Philip Klass, arch-debunker of UFOs. The parallels between the two men are striking: both were apt to ignore testimony and facts that undermined their theories; both resorted to ad hominem attacks; and both offered prizes if their debunking turned out to be incorrect.

And I thought of this article by the entirely wonderful Richard M. Dolan, author of the staggeringly good UFOs and the National Security State - volume 2 out soon and a must-buy... the article details Klass' attempt to smear Stanton Friedman. Now you may have your own opinion of him, but read the article and you will see that whatever you think of Friedman, Klass was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. The article ends:

Thus, this most recently discovered letter is simply one more bit of evidence relating to the "legacy" of Philip J. Klass. Anyone who has surveyed the mans life and career should understand by now that any such so-called legacy of his has nothing to do with his analysis of the UFO phenomenon, which was always shallow and politically motivated. Rather, it will be for his underhanded, sleazy, behind-the-scenes efforts to intimidate academically and scientifically qualified institutions as well as mainstream U.S. media away from the study of UFOs. This is work, moreover, that strongly appears to have been done on behalf of elements of the United States intelligence community. That fact may not yet be proven to the satisfaction of everyone, but the ducks are certainly lining up.

So Randi and Klass both share a fondness for ad hominems and ample funding. Dolen asserts that his funding came from within the National Security community, and it wouldn't surprise me if, ultimately, so did Randi's. The "why" comes from this fascinating article about Project Stargate, the CIA's remote viewing project. According to Joseph McMoneagle, there were significant successes achieved, and yet, when the outside scientific community came to investigate, their research was compromised by the CIA, who hid the best test subjects and results. Another view of the same investigation into Project Stargate remarks:

If one was to listen to a bunch of first-grade piano students fumbling through Chopsticks with wrong notes in every bar while upstairs and out of earshot a talented youngster was giving a faultless performance, without the music, of Chopin's Barcarolle, you would be wrong to conclude that there was no real evidence that anybody could play the piano properly, let alone brillliantly. Which is in effect what the skeptical invaders did, as they always do. What has been lost as a result can only be imagined.

One has to wonder whether anything much has actually been lost, or whether it has gone underground.

Ultimately, the parallels between the likes of Philip Klass and James Randi suggest, to me at least, that they were both used to deflect attention away from, indeed to ridicule, areas in which the National Security state had serious interest and was doing extensive work.

posted on Dec, 17 2006 @ 05:33 PM
(Only have a few minutes before work, so forgive the briefness of my reply.)

You raise some excellent points, and I've long been suspicious about the . . . aggressiveness with which many researchers (and indeed, people in general) react to even the suggestion of investigating paranormal phenomenon. UFOs and the like are relegated to radio programs like Coast to Coast AM, and in general treated at best with levity.

It seems to be a knee-jerk response to ridicule the idea, and I find that interesting, as I do several other near-universal reactions that seem to perhaps be socially encouraged/constructed.

At any rate, I hope to return to this thread later, and I thank you for it.

posted on Dec, 17 2006 @ 07:07 PM

Those were excellent and very informative posts. You thoroughly exposed the sinister character of deceivers such as Randi and Klass.

They are sinister because they try to discredit the achievements of others who present knowledge that requires a change in the generally accepted paradigms of the nature of the world and the universe.

They are also sinister because they are funded by agencies that seek to prevent the dissemination of knowledge to the general population that may alter their way of thinking and consequently the status quo.

And they are sinister because they amount to little more than intellecual hit-men who try to murder new ideas/truths with lies and ridicule to prevent the survival of those ideas and their integration into the general store of knowledge that is available to all.

Randi and others of that ilk are the enemies of knowledge and true science while posing as caretakers of them. They are part of the attempt to control people by controlling, and even minimizing, their knowledge, and their willingness to think independently.

It is part of the reason that so few people are really aware of many of the inexplicable things that are going on all over the world. It is a recipe for disaster in the near future when those things will reach the point where they will no longer be containable. Events are approaching that will be so wide-spread and unexpected by a vast number of people who have been kept in the dark for so long, that they will probably fly into panic. It almost seems as though that is the real purpose behind the secrecy about such things as ufos. Though the claim by some is that the existence of ufos is kept a closely guarded secret to prevent panic, it may well be that the real reason is to set the stage for world-wide panic and terror by unleashing suddenly the appearance of such things as ufos upon a world that is totally unprepared for it. This would be a perfect excuse for a new world order of tyranny.

[edit on 17-12-2006 by SkyWay]

posted on Jul, 26 2007 @ 08:54 AM

My God, we could well be twins we have so similar ideas and theories. I firmly believed in science for many years (was going to be an MD before illness overtook my life and made it impossible, but I still managed a simple PhD at least

I've always considered Randi and many of his fanatics to be far too fanatical (as are so many 'normal' scientists). The age old adage, "what man does not understand he fears, what man fears he destroys" always sat well we me in regards to chronic, mind-bendingly rigid belief, and I think science is just as much a religion as Christianity or any of the others, you have to have some belief otherwise you know nothing and can form no basis for viewing anything else.

No, I only believe science so far, and from then on, it goes on personal opinion and trusted snippets of fact that I can guarantee myself. Like putting flouride in water, or mercury in fillings - mostly everything these days, whether it be religion, politics or science is done for prestige, money, and power (social and economical). If lying and deceit didn't pay so well, we'd have a few more discoveries by now that could have revolutionized the world, but alas, we're stuck with tyrannical rule by dictators in all by name, death, war, oil and famine as usual.

Excellent posts and I shall certainly keep an eye out for you in the future, as well as check back here to see if you've posted anything else.

posted on May, 28 2009 @ 05:59 PM
Rich you're my new favorite ATS'er.

To fear new ideas is to fear progress.

As hard as it is for me to say this, I do feel Klass and Randi have contributed to their respective subjects. We should always be cautious of too readily accepting new information in to our collective knowledge. However this isn't to say we should rule out fringe subjects as not being worth further investigation and open-minded analysis.

That's about the extent of my praise for Klass. He went too far. Look at what he did to McDonald. He overstepped the line when he wrote to ONR suggesting that McDonalds security clearance be revoked. He COMPLETELY crossed the line when he wrote to McDonald's supervisors at the University of Arizona to argue that McDonald's academic tenure should be questioned. The second he did that he was no longer in pursuit of truth, but rather his own vanity.

With every pro we should consider the con. Likewise with every claimed discovery we should put it through the ringer to ensure it holds water. However to falsely maintain that something hasn't passed a bar to uphold a personal belief, counter to well established fact, is insidious and in opposition to the scientific method.

[edit on 28-5-2009 by Xtraeme]

posted on May, 30 2009 @ 04:55 AM
reply to post by Xtraeme

But the bottom line is that these are both people who were and are (in Randi's case at least) toscupper inquiry into areas not deemed fit for investigation by the mainstream world.

Randi in particular has done and continues to do enormous damage to the progress of scientific inquiry. And I can't imagine Klass ever saying anything I'd agree with. What things did he say that you agreed with?

posted on May, 30 2009 @ 11:18 AM

Originally posted by rich23
reply to post by Xtraeme

But the bottom line is that these are both people who were and are (in Randi's case at least) toscupper inquiry into areas not deemed fit for investigation by the mainstream world.

Randi in particular has done and continues to do enormous damage to the progress of scientific inquiry. And I can't imagine Klass ever saying anything I'd agree with. What things did he say that you agreed with?

Klass's analysis of the RB-47 case was solid. Granted his argument has somewhat been scuttled as of Brad Sparks investigation, but that's the way these investigations should work. There should be an argument for, against, and eventually finding ourselves in a position where both sides finally come to agreement about what did or didn't happen.

If agreement never occurs at least outside 3rd parties have the ability to investigate each claim and come to their own conclusion to the merit of each argument as proportioned to the authors bias. If it was one-sided then there would very likely be instances where we would accept incorrect, facile interpretations of the data because no one's present to ask the hard questions.

The trick is gaining a measurement of the individuals bias.

In the case of Klass it's evident he was playing dirty. We have numerous examples of extreme personal bias where he tried to shutdown investigation of UFOs altogether (petitioning ONR to stop funding Dr. McDonald's legitimate atmospheric study of UFOs, ad hominem attacks against Friedman, etc). Wanting to stop all inquiry in to the subject of UFOs is extremely questionable. To arrive at that conclusion is to assume that there are no unknowns in our skies, and never will be. This is an easy notion worth dispelling.

Sprites, large scale electrical discharges that occur high above thunderstorm clouds, were documented "with anecdotal reports since 1886." (1) It wasn't until 1989 that scientists photographed the phenomenon! Colin Price, a geophysicist at Tel Aviv U., believes Sprites have resulted in numerous UFO reports. (2)

Ergo since we have an example where this line of thinking is incorrect, does that not also suggest there are other 'true unknowns' being observed that could account for yet other sightings? It goes without saying.

Klass was a piece of work, and I take what he writes with a grain of salt. However I was happy that someone at least tried to make sense of the data in a down to earth fashion. He just went way too far, casting doubts on all his work and therefore also his motivations.

[edit on 30-5-2009 by Xtraeme]

posted on Jun, 4 2009 @ 09:28 PM
Star and Flag

I firmly believe that things that might seem like magic and completely impossible to us today , could be very reasonable and explanable things in the future. Then ceasing to be "magical" and quite simple , perhaps everyone will be psychic in the future?

Thank you for the posts.

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