First, let me give one announcement for folks who may read this blog regularly (hi Karl!). This may be my last post for about a month or so. As you may remember from my last post, I will be teaching all next month, June 1 through July 2, and the class is every day for 95 minutes. I have no idea how much free time I may have to do a blog post, and I have some other projects I need to finish up before the end of the month (I’m also a photographer and I had a bride finally get back to me about photos she wants finished).
I have posted once before about Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris in my post about The Importance of Peer-Review in Science. The purpose of that post was to primarily show that peer review is an important part of the scientific process, a claim contrary to what the host of said podcast had claimed.
Now for the official disclaimer on this post: I do not know if Alex is a trained scientist. Based on what he has stated on his podcast, my conclusion is that he is not. What I have read of his background (something like “successful software entrepreneur” or around those lines) supports that conclusion. However, I don’t want to be called out for libel just in case and so that is my disclaimer.
Also, I am not using this post to say whether I think near-death experiences are a materialistic phenomenon or point to a mind-brain duality (mind/consciousness can exist separately from brain). That is NOT the point of this post and I am unqualified to speak with any authority on the subject (something I think Alex needs to admit more often).
Anyway, I just completed listening to the rather long Skeptiko episode #105 on near-death experiences with Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe host
Steven Novella Dr. Steven Novella (see Points 2 and 3 below for that “Dr.” point). I want to use that episode to make a few points about how science is done that an (apparently) non-scientifically-trained person will miss. This post is not meant to be a dig/diss against so-called “citizen science,” rather the pitfalls of which non-scientists should be aware when trying to investigate pretty much ANY kind of science.
Point 1: Conclusions Are Not Data
Many times during the episode’s main interview and after the interview in the “follow-up,” Alex would talk about a paper’s conclusions. “The researchers said …” was a frequent refrain, or “In the paper’s conclusions …” or even “The conclusions in the Abstract …” I may be remembering incorrectly, perhaps someone may point that out, but I do not recall any case where Alex instead stated, “The data in this paper objectively show [this], therefore we can conclude [that].”
This is a subtle difference. Those of you who may not be scientifically trained (or listened to Steve’s interview on the episode) may not notice that there is an important (though subtle) difference there. The difference is that the data are what scientists use to make their conclusion. A conclusion may be wrong. It may be right. It may be partially wrong and partially right (as shown later on with more studies … more data). Hopefully, if there was not academic fraud, intellectual dishonesty, nor faulty workmanship (data gathering methods), the actual data itself will NEVER be wrong, just the conclusions from it. In almost any paper — at least in the fields with which I am familiar — the quick one-line conclusions may be what people take away and remember, but it’s the actual data that will outlive that paper and that other researchers will look at when trying to replicate, use in a graduate classroom, or argue against.
I will provide two examples here, both from my own research. The first is from a paper that I just submitted on using small, 10s to 100s meter-sized craters on Mars to determine the chronology of the last episodes of volcanism on the planet. In doing the work, there were only one or two people who had studied it previously, and so they were obviously talked about in my own paper. Many times I reached the same conclusion as they in terms of ages of some of the volcanos, but several times I did not. In those cases, I went back to their data to try to figure out where/why we disagreed. It wasn’t enough just to say, “I got an age of x, she got an age of y, we disagree.” I had to look through and figure out why, and whether we had the same data results and if so why our interpretations differed, or if our actual data differed.
The second example that’s a little better than the first is with a paper I wrote back in 2008 and was finally published in a special edition of the journal Icarus in April 2010 (one of the two main planetary science journals). The paper was on simulations I did of Saturn’s rings in an attempt to determine the minimum mass of the rings (which is not known). My conclusion is that the minimum mass is about 2x the mass inferred from the old Voyager data. That conclusion is what will be used in classrooms, I have already seen used in other peoples’ presentations, and what I say at conferences. However, people who do research on the rings have my paper open to the data sections, and I emphasize the “s” because in the paper, the data sections (plural) span about 1/2 the paper, the methods section spans about 1/3, and the conclusions are closer to 1/6. When I was doing the simulations, I worked from the data sections of previous papers. It’s the data that matters when looking at these things, NOT an individual (set of) author(s).
Finally for this point, I will acknowledge that Alex often repeats something along the lines of, “I just want to go where the data takes us.” However, saying that and then reading a paper’s conclusions are not mutually compatible. Steve pointed that out at least twice during the interview. At one point in the middle, he exclaimed (paraphrasing), “Alex, I don’t care what the authors conclude in that study! I’m looking at their data and I don’t think the data supports their conclusions.”
Point 2: Argument from Authority Is Not Scientific Consensus
In my series that I got about half-way through at the end of last year on logical fallacies, I specifically avoided doing Argument from Authority because I needed to spend more time on it versus the Scientific Consensus. I still intend to do a post on that, but until then, this is the basic run-down: Argument from Authority is the logical fallacy whereby someone effectively states, “Dr. [so-and-so], who has a Ph.D. in this and is well-credentialed and knows what they’re doing, says [this], therefore it’s true/real.”
If any of my readers have listened to Skeptiko, you are very likely familiar with this argument … Alex uses it in practically EVERY episode MULTIPLE times. He will often present someone’s argument as being from a “well-credentialed scientist” or from someone who “knows what they’re doing.” This bugs the — well, this is a PG blog so I’ll just say it bugs me to no end. ALL BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS A PH.D. DOES NOT MEAN THEY KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING. ALL BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS DONE RESEARCH AND/OR PUBLISHED DATA DOES NOT MEAN THEIR CONCLUSIONS ARE CORRECT OR THAT THEY GATHERED THEIR DATA CORRECTLY.
Okay, sorry for going all CAPS on you, but that really cannot be said enough. And Alex seems to simply, plainly, and obviously not understand that. It is clear if you listen to practically any episode of his podcast, especially during any of the “psychic dogs” episodes or “global consciousness” ones. It was also used several times in #105, including one where he explicitly stated that a person was well-credentialed and therefore knows what they’re doing.
Now, very briefly, a single argument from someone does not a scientific consensus make. I think that’s an obvious point, and Steve made it several times during the interview that there is no consensus on the issue and individual arguments from authority are just that — arguments from authority and you need to look at their data and methods before deciding for yourself whether you objectively agree with their conclusions.
Point 3: Going to Amazon, Searching for Books, to Find Interview Guests
Okay, I’ll admit this has little to do with the scientific process on its face, but it illustrates two points. First, that Alex doesn’t seem to understand the purpose/point of scientific literature, and second that fast-tracking the literature and doing science by popular press is one of the worst ways and a way that strikes many “real” scientists as very disingenuous. I’ll explain …
First, I will again reference my post, “The Importance of Peer-Review in Science.” Fairly self-explanatory on the title, and I will now assume that you’re familiar with its arguments. In fact, I just re-read it (and I have since had my own issues fighting with a reviewer on a paper before the journal editor finally just said “enough” and took my side).
To set the stage, Alex claims in the episode:
“Again, my methodology, just so you don’t think I’m stacking the deck, is really simple. I just go to Amazon and I search for anesthesia books and I just start emailing folks until one of them responds.”
As I explained, peer-reviewed papers are picked apart by people who study the same thing as you do and are familiar with other work in the area. A book is not. A book is read by the publishing company’s editor(s) – unless it’s self-published in which case it’s not even read by someone else – and then it’s printed. There is generally absolutely zero peer-review for books, and so Alex going to Amazon.com to find someone who’s “written” on the subject of near-death experiences will not get an accurate sampling. It will get a sampling of people who believe that near-death experiences show mind-brain duality because …
Published books on a fringe “science” topic are done by the people who generally have been wholeheartedly rejected by the scientific community for their methods, their data-gathering techniques, and/or their conclusions not being supported by the data. But they continue to believe (yes, I use the word “believe” here for a reason) that their interpretations/methods/etc. are correct and hence instead of learning from the peer-review process and tightening their methods, trying to bring in other results, and looking at their data in light of everything else that’s been done, they publish a book that simply bypasses the last few steps of the scientific process.
Not to bring in politics, but from a strictly objective point, this is what George W. Bush did with the US’s “missile defense” system. Test after test failed and showed it didn’t work. Rather than going back and trying to fix things and test again, he just decided to build the thing and stop testing.
Point 4: Confusing a Class of Outcomes with a Single Cause
This was more my interpretation of what Alex did in the interview and what Steve pointed out at many times, and it is less generalizable to the scientific process, but it does apply nonetheless.
Say, in cooking, you serve up a pizza. The pizza is the “class of experiences” here that is the same as a class of things that make up the near-death experience (NDE). The toppings of your pizza are the individual experiences of the NDE. Pizzas will usually have cheese, NDEs will usually have a sense of well-being. Pizzas may more rarely have onions, NDEs may more rarely have a white light tunnel associated with them. You get the idea.
Now, from the impression I got, Alex seemed to claim throughout the episode that there was only one way to make a pizza — have an NDE. Steve argued that there were many different ways to make a pizza, and that all those different techniques will in general lead to something that looks like a pizza.
Point 5: Steve’s a Neurologist, Alex Is Not
I need to say before I explain this point that I am NOT trying to say that you need a Ph.D. in the topic to do real science. I do not in ANY WAY mean to imply that science is an elitist thing where only people “in the club” can participate.
That said, I really am amazed by Alex arguing against people who actually have studied the subject for decades. If you are a non-scientist, or even if you are a scientist but have not studied the topic at-hand (like, gee, me talking about near-death experiences while I’m an astrophysicist/geophysicist), then you need to make darn sure that you know what the heck you’re talking about. And you need to be humble enough to, when the actual person who’s studied this says you’ve made a mistake, take that very seriously and look again at what you thought was going on. The probability that you have made a mistake or misunderstood something as opposed to the expert in the field is fairly high.
Again, this is not my attempt to backtrack and myself commit an argument from authority fallacy. However, there is a difference from making an argument from authority fallaciously versus listening to what an authority on the subject says and taking it into account and re-examining your conclusions. It seriously amazes me how much Alex argued against Steve as if Alex were an expert in neurology. It caused him to simply miss many of the points and arguments Steve was making, as evidenced by Steve saying something and then needing to repeat his argument 20 minutes later because Alex had ignored it because Alex has been buoyed by his interviews with previous pro-duality guests.
As I’ve stated, the purpose of this post is not to discuss whether NDEs show a mind-brain duality or if it has a purely materialistic explanation. The purpose is to point out that the methods Alex uses are fallacious, and while I know that people have pointed it out to him before, it seems that it has made very little impact upon the way he argues. I believe this is in part due to his need for confirmation bias – he definitely has made his mind up on whether or not psi-type phenomena exists. But I also am fairly sure that it’s because Alex lacks any kind of formal training in science. Because of that, he makes these kinds of mistakes – at least originally – without knowing any better. Now, since it’s been pointed out to him, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to keep making them, but again that’s beyond the purpose of this post.
So, to wrap this all up, non-scientists take heed! Avoid making these kinds of mistakes when you try to do or to understand science yourself. Make sure that you look at the data, not just the conclusions from a paper. Don’t make arguments from authority. Remember that popular books are not the same as peer-reviewed literature. And keep in mind there can be (a) multiple explanations and (b) multiple ways to reach an end point.