Friday, May 15, 2015

On Skepticism (Part 3)


Let me tie this all together by addressing the typical skeptical attacks on "pseudo-sciences" like psi, dowsing, and, increasingly, some aspects of quantum mechanics itself.
Note: Bear in mind as I do that a clash of philosophies is a clash of worldviews. I obviously have deep-seated views and vested interests on the subject. So does the other side. There are an entire host of psychological factors at play here. Because I know my own bias and recognize that I have it, I strongly encourage you to look into the subject yourself if anything I've said piques your interest.
Now, on to the common rhetorical points of the skeptical argument seen from the perspective of skepticism as a philosophy rather than an intrinsic part of science.

"There is not one shred of evidence…" Of course there's evidence, even for the most specious of claim. The question is how defensible and reproducible is the evidence.

"Anecdotal evidence is not evidence at all." It's called a case study. Unless you're willing to throw away the entire field of medicine (and most other life sciences for that matter), this is a dishonest critique. In fact, any data collected before the advent of automated recording is anecdotal, since it was processed through human researchers. Moreover, since most people do not look at raw data but rather the processed data presented in research papers, the overwhelming majority of data could be considered anecdotal. There is, however, a strong need for skeptics to discredit anecdotal evidence--the bulk of human history is a body of evidence. If this mass of evidence is allowed into the discussion, simple mockery and dismissal of the inconvenient becomes much more difficult. This is especially relevant in consciousness studies.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." Not to science. Science says data is data. Deciding what is extraordinary is a subjective act. For example, what level of extraordinary proof could possibly support the contention that the entire universe arose as a point-mass of probability from a quantum foam of unknown origin which then exploded into all of existence in a matter of picoseconds, before all known laws of physics suddenly altered and have remained constant to this day, eventually giving rise to life against all known laws of probability? I'd need to see more than a pie-chart to buy into that one.

"There may be some results but if you look closely, it's really all fraud, bias, and/or poor experimental design. And what about the 'file drawer' effect?'" Wherever there are humans there absolutely is fraud, bias, and mistakes, but why should we assume this only occurs in areas outside of establishment science? Remember Millikin? The history of science is rife with all of these. But science, Popperian science, rectifies these concerns through independent replication. In many areas labeled 'pseudo-science' such as psi research, the constant pressure of skeptics has actually resulted in an interesting phenomenon: the 'fringe' studies now have more scientific procedural rigor than mainstream science. Most people don't know this because it's a lot of work to keep up with ongoing research if it doesn't overlap with their daily life, which is why we rely on experts to filter information for us. Unfortunately, this also makes us vulnerable to Kuhnian consensus and skeptical broad brushing. The 'file drawer effect' is the accusation that only the 'good' studies get published and the others vanish into the bottom of a file drawer. This happens in everything but, again, it's not common and the para-science community is very conscious of it. Because of this, it is common practice, when presenting data, to calculate the number of failed studies that would be required to invalidate the observed data. As more and more data has accumulated, in many fields, there now simply are not enough file drawers in existence to bury enough data to invalidate the results.

"I don't need to look at their data to know that it's wrong." This is a biggie. It is an admission of arguing from ignorance, and of presupposing the answer before examining the data. It's not scientific, it's not honest, and it's not a very smart thing to admit.

"I don't need to waste time and effort doing counter-studies." Then how, pray tell, can you then claim that the data is invalid? Oh, right, I'm thinking like a Popperian. In the Kuhnian world, it's about consensus and social activity, not falsibility and data.

"Science has already reached a consensus on this matter. The real question is, what psychologically is wrong with you that you cannot accept the data?" Attacking the messenger rather than the message is an old rhetorical trick, but it not science. There is a field of psychology that studies this very effect and it's quite interesting. And, yes, there are psychological factors that do make it impossible for individual researchers to objectively see the data staring them in the face. But this is the case for all humans, begging the question, "Why are skeptics never skeptical of skepticism?"

"Statistical analysis is a slight of hand trick, not a valid way to evaluate data." Yes, I have actually had this one thrown at me. It's a confusing statement. If I don't use the basic tools designed to analyze data (i.e. math), what am I supposed to use? Statistics can be manipulated and abused like everything else, but how does that invalidate the tool? Especially since the same analytics are used for mainstream science but no one is challenging their use there.

"Negative effects (like psi-missing) are not effects." This statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of science. If I am testing your drinking water for the presence of cyanide, I don't keep testing until I find some. Not finding something is every bit as valid as finding it. Using this argument is kind of like not understanding what zero means. Psi-missing, where the argument usually crops up, is the phenomena where some people actually score significantly below chance on Rhine cards and the like. Ironically, these people tend to be those who enter the experiments with a pre-stated bias against psi and/or a professional interest in disproving it. To say that below chance results are different from above chance results is like administering a set of vision tests to a group of people and then calling the blind guy a liar for not seeing anything.

"There might be something here but whatever it is, it's not (whatever is actually being suggested)." I sometimes feel this statement may sum up Ray Hymen's entire career. He's a prominent skeptic who has been employed by the government to review controversial data. He tends to reach conclusions like this a lot. It is a form of ignoring the nose on the front of your face because you do not believe in noses. It is not a new argument: rocks do not fall from the sky because there are no rocks in the sky. Another way of looking of this argument is as a kind of 'buy now, explain later' agreement. It is the skeptic saying, "Yes, there is clear and compelling data here. But you're still wrong and I am certain that someday the consensus under the current paradigm will provide an explanation that does not force me to consider the validity of your crackpot ideas." I may be a crackpot, but data deserves an honest consideration rather than dismissal on religious (scientism) grounds.

"It's too complicated and you fail to grasp the subtleties involved. There's plenty of evidence and if you knew anything about it, you wouldn't be asking such an uninformed question. (Subtext: You're too stupid to understand so I'm not going to waste my time answering your question.)" Again, no science in this objection at all. From a personal standpoint, I maintain that it is irresponsible to mock someone as ignorant and then fail to provide them with an answer. Many things are complicated and subtle. To say that about a subject is meaningless. If you hold yourself to be an intellectual that understands all that complicated and subtle stuff, you should be able to either answer a simple question—the uninformed, after all, can't be asking that complicated a question, can they? They're not smart enough—or, at the very least, be able to provide a bibliography for them to start to learn and understand. But that's not science, that's a philosophy of education. At least give the honest answer, "I don't have enough hours in my day to deal with idiots like you." Insulting, yes, but honest.

"Taking X research or subject seriously is really just letting Y special interest group further their agenda." The most common current version of this is, "We can't allow an open discussion of intelligent design, irreducible complexity, or flaws in the fossil or genetic record because it's all just a smokescreen for the evil, ignorant creationists to poison the minds of our children." This is a common argument, but it doesn't even come close to being a scientific one. Science is about data: show the data, let it stand on its own. If you don't want to let people be exposed to conflicting data or to examine your own data too closely, what are you afraid of? This leads directly to, "I'm not hiding anything, I'm just trying to keep us from wasting valuable time debating the obvious." Allocation of resources is not science, it's philosophy. You're making a subjective decision about what to present and what not to. Whether you're right or wrong, it's still not about science at this point and it's dishonest to pretend otherwise. This line of discussion is about protecting and promoting a worldview. It's also irresponsible scientifically because it presupposes that the data is invalid based on who is providing it. Data stands alone. It also presumes a false dichotomy. If, for example, I think there are parts of the evolutionary theory that don't stand up to scientific examination, that does not automatically mean that I'm a supporter of a rival theory. And even if I am, that does not mean that my objections, if they are based on data, are invalid. Again, I'm not stating whether the argument is valid, merely that it is not a scientific argument, as many would lead you to believe.

"The effect size is too small to be relevant. The signal-to-noise ratio is too low to be interesting." This one makes me very angry. It's not science because science does not engage in subjective decisions about small and large. It's barely an engineering argument, if anything. It ignores the history of science and the fact that most effects are small when studied and then the effect increases once we learn how to harness it (think about electricity, magnetism, and nuclear forces if you need some recent examples). More to the point, it is a selfish, spiteful argument. For instance, the effect of distanced healing techniques such as prayer is over three times larger than the effectiveness of using daily aspirin to prevent heart attacks. Both are 'small' effects but, since aspirin fits the accepted consensus, it's a common treatment while prayer and the like are marginalized. But let us go further: let's assume the effect size of a given alternative medical treatment is tiny, say 0.001%, and let's even assume that the effect size would not be increased by further applied research. This "irrelevant" effect could mean the difference between life and death to one person in one hundred thousand. So, how many people are you going to let die because you don't think this effect is 'interesting'?

So, one eventually asks, what is it that skepticism is afraid of? There is a vein of the age-old "we know everything so don't threaten our comfy chair with new stuff," but most of the attacks are against any sense of meaning in existence. A quick examination of skeptical literature and especially their magazines reveals a fairly consistent bogeyman in skeptic's world: teleology. Teleology is the fancy word for the idea that things have a purpose, that there is a Why as well as a What. Science as a tool can tell us what something does and how something works, but it cannot tell us why something is.
Skepticism as a philosophy would have us believe that What and How are the Why—there is no purpose, no meaning, only bare existence. This is why the favorite whipping boys of skeptics are consciousness (especially anything implying that it exists above and beyond the mere chemical interactions of the brain), anything that implies life separate from the base physical processes, and—most especially—religion. This stance is blatantly intellectually dishonest. After all, if we are indeed deterministic machines, why are you spending so much time and effort arguing about these things at all? The meat computer in my skull can't help it, I'm physically incapable of hearing and acting on your arguments, and none of it matters anyway. The very act of protesting against these things shows the validity of at least examining them.
Again, to be very repetitive at this point, these are all philosophical differences that are not science, and it becomes rapidly apparent that skeptics have no faith in the validity of their philosophy. The religious person believes that their truth is sovereign and will win out under honest examination. The Popperian scientist believes that the rigors of experimental analysis will eventually lead to correct (or more correct) theories and is content to let the data settle the discussion. It is the Kuhnian skeptic who feels the need to hide their philosophical precepts under the cloak of scientism and use, not data, but rhetoric to defend their theories. They are trying to substitute the limited tool of science for the more appropriate tool of metaphysics, hoping to claim a win by default. The result is they bring science to a philosophical discussion and philosophy to the science lab. Against the guns of belief on the one hand and data on the other, they've brought a knife…and a dull one at that.
Over the years, my personal tolerance for this kind of thing has been stretched thin. As a scientist (with over a decade of direct laboratory experience), a philosopher of science, and a literal creationist, I am more than a little tired of being told that I can't be the things I am, that I am stupid, and that I must have some kind of severe mental defect if I believe in all this. Science seeks truth about the natural world through rigorous examination; religion provides me with the framework to understand the spiritual world around me, and since I am a Christian, I follow a reasonable God; and a proper understanding of the philosophy of science tells me that these two things are not only not in competition with each other, they are complimentary studies that inform and support each other.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On Skepticism (Part 2)

In opening, I made two assertions that may need to be explained: that skepticism is not part of science and that skepticism is a philosophy of science. Both statements may be addressed by looking at the prominent schools of thought within the "community" of scientific philosophers. The majority of views can be placed in one of two schools of thought: Popperian or Kuhnian, so named after Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.
Popper's view of the philosophy of science is essentially what most of us were taught in school, a more detailed version of the observation/hypothesis/experiment model. (Those of you saying to yourself, "It's science! What's so hard about that?" are probably Popperian.) The watermark of Popper's view is the emphasis on falsibility; that is, if it can't be tested, it's not science. Unique events are outside the realm of science; no theory is exempt from challenge irrespective of how well entrenched; and scientists test their theories. By contrast, Kuhn argued that science is what scientists do, and therefore science is a kind of consensus-seeking relativism. In fairness, Kuhn himself was not far removed from Popper, with Kuhn placing his emphasis on problem solving as the defining aspect of science. Unfortunately, his disciples took the philosophy farther and farther away from any absolute standard until the Kuhnian school was more focused on hierarchies, theorem-choice, and "problemshift." (I hate those phrases. Hierarchies are "who's on top of the pecking order," theorem-choice is "which theory will yield more profitable results" and problemshift is a made-up academic word that even the people who use it don't know what it means. As best I can explain it, problemshift is "I got this part figured out, but answering that question just created new questions." As knowledge on a subject is acquired, the emphasis of the research changes; think of it as "the problem is shifting.")
Lest I be guilty of oversimplifying, let me quote here from Imre Lakatos' paper, "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes." (Book: Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.)
Note: I have chosen to quote Lakatos rather than Popper and Kuhn directly for reasons of brevity. Lakatos does a very good job with the text of explaining the positions of both men and, on various points, criticizing and defending both. The few (ellipsis) edits I have made are also for space.
"…In his [Popper's] view, virtue lies not in caution in avoiding errors, but in ruthlessness in eliminating them. Boldness in conjectures on the one hand and austerity in refutations on the other: this is Popper's recipe. Intellectual honesty does not consist in trying to entrench, or establish one's position by proving (or 'probabilifying') it--intellectual honesty consists rather in specifying precisely the conditions under which one is willing to give up one's position…Belief may be a regrettably unavoidable biological weakness to be kept under the control of criticism: but commitment is for Popper an outright crime.
"Kuhn thinks otherwise…His main problem too is scientific revolution. But while according to Popper science is 'revolution in permanence', and criticism the heart of the scientific enterprise, according to Kuhn revolution is exceptional and, indeed, extra-scientific, and criticism is, in 'normal' times, anathema. Indeed for Kuhn the transition from criticism to commitment marks the point where progress--and 'normal' science--begins. For him the idea that on 'refutation' one can demand the rejection, the elimination of a theory, is 'na├»ve' falsificationism. Criticism of the dominant theory and proposals of new theories are only allowed in the rare moments of 'crisis'…
"For Popper scientific change is rational or a least rationally reconstructible and falls in the realm of the logic of discovery. For Kuhn scientific change--from one 'paradigm' to another--is a mystical conversion which is not and cannot be governed by rules of reason and which falls totally within the realm of the (social) psychology of discovery."

My primary purpose is not to debate the merits of the various philosophies of science. I am of the Popperian school and I think Sir Karl himself did a much better job of laying out his arguments than I ever could. Instead, I have provided the thumbnail sketch of Popper's and Kuhn's views to explain my earlier contentions: that (a) in the Popperian philosophy of science, skepticism is not part of science (data is data, there is no hierarchy of data or overwhelming burden of proof, just raw fact) and (b) that skepticism is a philosophy of science, specifically a descendant of the Kuhnian school of relativism complete with all of its built-in socio-political baggage. Once skepticism is understood as a philosophy, its flaws and dangers are much clearer, as is an understanding of its methods and the behavior of its proponents.
In short, the philosophy of skepticism establishes an orthodoxy within science. It places an unreasonable burden of proof on any theory or concept that would compete with what the orthodoxy has already accepted. It establishes this orthodoxy based on consensus (a social activity) rather than experimentation (a scientific activity). Finally, it sets up the skeptic as a kind of high priest and defender of the faith, rooting out the heretic under the mandate of fighting "irrationalism."
Please understand, I am not accusing everyone who considers himself a skeptic of holding these views or acting in this manner—many do not—but I do contend that these are the ultimate conclusions to be drawn from the skeptical school of thought. Moreover, in my opinion, this leaves skepticism in a position to do a considerable amount of harm, suppress large amounts of 'inconvenient' data, easily be abused by those with political ambitions who wish to hide under the banner of 'science as truth,' and in return contribute very little, if anything, to science or society itself. In addition, skepticism is a philosophy of reductionism, determinism, and materialism. Its logical conclusions have led us to theories such as that the conscious mind is epiphenomenal (that the idea that we have free will or are anything more than meat puppets is an illusion, and what we perceive as consciousness is just a side-effect of a mechanistic series of chemical reactions.) I've always wondered, if you really believe something like that, why are you bothering to try to convince me of it? Why talk to me at all?
At the Kuhnian-skeptical end of the road there is a relativism that says the mind is meat and man is an animal. At that point, there is no basis for either morality or ethics. I realize I may be accused of creating a straw-man version of it at this point and trying to tarnish the skeptical viewpoint by fear-mongering, but I don't think so. A philosophy should be tested by considering what its extreme version looks like because sooner or later, someone will go there. Of course, such a standard cannot be used to invalidate a philosophy (humans are humans and they will abuse anything if it serves their purposes) but, in weighing the merits of a philosophy, this extreme view should factor into the calculation. (The extreme application of Darwinian eugenics leads to genocide. It's been argued that extreme Christianity bombs abortion clinics, but a more honest view of the extreme end of the Christian philosophy are people like the Shakers. Agree or disagree, the very fact that we are discussing moral, social, and political repercussions simply reinforces that point.)
By contrast, I am also not implying that I believe aliens built the Egyptian pyramids right after Edgar Cayce traveled back in time to channel the wisdom of ancient Atlantis for them. But here I appeal less to the monolith of Science than to simple common sense. We are allowed to think for ourselves without having an official 'Science Guy Approved' sticker on our forehead. Likewise, science is not the only way of knowing truth or even things. As Sir Karl himself noted, just because something is not scientific, it does not follow that it is therefore not true or valuable. The proposition that science assumes to itself all that is true or of value is another side-effect of the Kuhnian school's dominance in academia. A tool is just a tool. Tools are meant to be used, not worshipped.