Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 29, 2010

Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris: On the Non-Scientifically Trained Trying to Do/Understand Science


Preamble

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).

Introduction

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.

Edited to Add: I have since written a lengthy post on the argument from authority versus scientific consensus that I highly recommend people read.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

49 Comments »

  1. My stickler with Alex is he seems to sometimes use the “credentialed” scientist thing to argue against the use of a magician in a lab when testing psi. He seems to think it’s picking on psi researchers. His logic goes “we don’t require magicians in the lab for any other kind of scientific research”. The point has been made to him a) well some parapsychologists do agree we need that control (I believe a former head of the american parapsychological society stated as much) b) rats tend not to have a money/fame motivation. Humans will cheat. He seems to completely ignore that and waves it off despite the evidence of project alpha.

    Comment by karl — May 29, 2010 @ 1:52 pm | Reply

  2. BRAVA! I can say no more. (unless I made a gender mistake)

    Comment by Evil Eye — May 29, 2010 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

    • Yes, you made a gender mistake.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — May 29, 2010 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

      • In that case… Bravo!

        Comment by Evil Eye — May 30, 2010 @ 3:23 am

  3. If I recall Alex’s pre Dr. N. ep titled “novella is dead wrong” (what’s with these insulting titles he’s tucked into lately?) the “dead wrong” was his belief Dr. N misread the paper about “out of hospital” and assumed it was not conducted in a medical facility. He made a big, grinning point about that. Dr. N. pointed out that Alex misread the paper himself. Out of hospital didn’t imply what Alex claimed it implied. It’s a bit like when that anti vaxxer thought Dr. N. didn’t read a study when in fact the anti vaxxer (a journalist) didn’t understand the basic stats before him.

    Comment by karl — May 29, 2010 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

    • Yes. That title was a big statement for Alex to make, and we know it wasn’t the first time he tried to throw down the gauntlet so boldly. And as usual, when Dr. N was around to defend himself, the criticism turned out to be a complete fizzle. I would think that Alex would learn not to make such bold claims right out of the gate after each time they have been marginalized, if not completely dismantled. And yet…

      And the antivax debacle was J.B. Handley confusing autism incidence and prevalence. Whoops!

      Comment by Hubbub — May 29, 2010 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  4. ^ Agree.

    It’s Alex’s subtly fallacious methods of thinking that bothers me, not his positions. The conclusions vs. data was what (almost) got me the most. He lumps the conclusions and data together as “the study”, and uses “the study” as an authority instead of the data. This essentially allows him, perhaps innocently, to slip in an argument from authority via the investigator’s opinion. It really is a hallmark mistake of non-scientists trying to interpret the scientific literature.

    What DID get me the most was the confidence in which he was willing to assert that Steve was wrong on purely neurological issues. I absolutely agree with your caveats in that this criticism should not be used to stifle participation from non-experts. However, his casual dismissal of Steve’s objections on matters of neurology, in my opinion, demonstrates an utter disregard for the meticulous complexities learned by scientists in such esoteric fields.

    Comment by Hubbub — May 29, 2010 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, I admit I tried to walk a VERY fine line in that 5th point. In fact, I published the post and then edited it to add it. I think it’s great that people who are non-scientists want to and try to and do get into and involved with science. I’m in a field that arguably has the largest interest among the lay public of any of the hard sciences.

      But, I think that you are setting yourself up for an uphill battle when you argue in a very definitive and confrontational manner with someone who actually has made a career for decades in studying the field. Karl’s point about Skeptiko #104 being entitled “Why Dr. Steven Novella is Dead Wrong About Near-Death Experience Research” kinda setting that stage just adds to that case.

      It is a fine line between an argument from authority and where “Alex needs to listen to Steve and not just say, ‘I don’t believe that'” without evidence, but I think Alex has crossed it. Many times.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — May 29, 2010 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

    • It’s what Dr. N. has told him before. They’re looking at the same research. They’re coming to very different conclusions. What Alex fails to ask and fails to try to understand is why most scientists don’t come to his conclusion. Alex seems to assume its because they’re afraid where the data might lead (despite being told over and over that a dualistic position truly backed by the data would be thrilling) and they’re trapped in their materialistic paradigm (which he always assures us is on the verge of collapse… much as the UFO people claim they’re always on the verge of a bit announcement or landing.)

      Comment by karl — May 29, 2010 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

      • I’m not sure if you saw Alex’s response to my criticism on the SGU thread he started. I don’t think he gets it.

        http://sguforums.com/index.php/topic,28181.msg719647.html#msg719647

        Me:
        First off, I’m glad Alex is willing to engage in a rational discourse with Steve.

        Although, I am surprised by a few things that Alex says. Before, during and after the interview, he criticizes Steve for referencing the data in the study but disagreeing with the authors’ conclusions. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding on Alex’s part as Steve is under no obligation to accept the authors’ interpretation.

        Alex:
        Ok, but then I would have expected him to say that from the onset… remember he originally presented this study as being inline with his position:

        Quote

        Big picture: I was right to point out that he reported on a study that concluded the opposite of what he said. The study concludes it is not thought possible to explain NDEs only in terms of physiological processes. So their conclusion is mind not equal brain. And of course, Steve is saying the exact opposite of that, which is fine, except that he’s the one who cited this study as evidence for his position.

        Comment by Hubbub — May 29, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  5. Karl, your last point there is something that Steve has been trying to get Alex to understand since his original interview in 2007 in episode #16, “Parapsychology Research Can Learn From Skeptics.”. Steve tried to steer that conversation towards a, “Why do we both look at the same data and get different conclusions — what’s the difference between a ‘skeptic’ and ‘true believer?'” but Alex has not seemed to want to pursue that in any follow-up interviews … even the hour-long one on the SGU podcast.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — May 29, 2010 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

  6. Hubbub – that pretty much falls in-line with what I’ve stated above. He’s missed the point that Steve said the study did agree with the materialistic explanation, but in the end Steve said it’s a bad study. I remember back in college I did a test problem, finished first, and went and looked up the answer. I got it right. But I got the test back with a 70% because I did it wrong. All because the conclusion may be what you support, the data could show it’s a pointless study that doesn’t actually show anything.

    Again, non-scientists out there: You need to separate the data from the author(s) conclusions. They are two very different things.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — May 29, 2010 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

  7. Hello,

    I agree with your post, except for the point 5. Of course you can be “amazed” by the fact that a non-scientist will argue with one, but that’s hardly an argument. That’s just your personal feeling about it. Who cares? I mean, first off, from an epistemological point of you, you could have someone who learned by himself, doesn’t have any credential, but who is right on something and a scientist is wrong. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. And second, a lot of scientists would comment on topics that are not their specialty (let’s say for exemple Richard Dawkins who doesn’t know anything about theology).

    Let’s face it: in the skeptical mouvement, we have lots of people who comments about topics without being scientists and/or specialists of the field: Penn & Teller, James Randi, and son on and so forth. Would you write the same thing in a post about Penn & Teller arguing against a something?

    Even if you say the contrary again in again, your point 5 goes against your point 2, and thus make your post weaker.

    Withe Skepticality,

    Comment by Venom — May 29, 2010 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

    • “Would you write the same thing in a post about Penn & Teller arguing against a something?”

      Sure. Many skeptics, including myself, criticize P&T’s BS ep about global warming. Their “scientists used to claim we were heading for global cooling in the 1970s” was a well debunked meme. Randi was roundly criticized by skeptics for his rather glowing and uncritical acceptance of An Inconvenient Truth. And even recently Randi was taken to task for another post… the topic escapes me at the moment. And lets not forget the Dawkins/Bill Maher flare up.

      Comment by karl — June 1, 2010 @ 7:21 am | Reply

      • Hello,

        Sure, but my point was just that those criticisms come only when skeptics disagree with what the person is saying. Not if they agree. James Randi wrote something against climate change. He was heavily criticised for it. What if he had written something for climate change? That doesn’t mean is suddenly competent to talk about it.

        And since we’re talking about parapsychology, Randi is not really competent to talk about it, or rather his skill is very specific (detecting trickery). Should we not criticise him for stating all the time that parapsychology is bunk, since he clearly doesn’t have the credentials to do so? He’s not a scientist, he’s not a trained psychologist (for exemple), and he’s certanly not a trained parapsychologist. I would say that probably the number of scientific paper he published in peer-review journals on the subjet is near O.

        So, if I follow the point 5, that scientist should not comment on scientific topics they’re not specialised in, should really applied on Randi and parapsychology…

        The argument (argument that I don’t agree with as I said above) can’t be just used when Randi (or another skeptic) says something we don’t like.

        With Skeptiality,

        Comment by Venom — June 26, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  8. Hi… happy to engage/discuss but you will have to provide some specifics regarding where my argument/data is in error, or where Steve’s wins out.

    Comment by Alex Tsakiris — June 1, 2010 @ 5:04 am | Reply

    • Alex, I believe you missed the point of my post. I was not critiquing your specific arguments nor data about NDEs. I left my personal views about NDEs out of this discussion entirely as that was not the purpose of this post.

      Rather, I was critiquing how you made your arguments in the sense that you were arguing, to put it bluntly, as a layperson, while Steve was arguing as a scientist. In this kind of discussion, you need to be cognizent of how to look at evidence (Points 1, 2, and 4), how to read scientific articles (Point 1), and be aware of some forms of biases (Point 3).

      I provided a specific quote from the transcript of your episode to point out the issues in Point 3. If you would like, I can provide examples for Points 1, 2, and 4 of what you said.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — June 1, 2010 @ 7:40 am | Reply

    • If I could only get one thing across, it’s how the conclusions of a study are not inherently packaged with the data in the study. Steve clearly outlined how he thinks the data in the study supports his conclusions. Citing the data in a study does not obligate you to adhere to or even acknowledge the interpretations of the authors. Contrarily, to lump the data and opinion together as “the study” and cite the author’s interpretation to support one’s position is simply a veiled appeal to authority of said authors. To be clear, the fact that Steve “was the one who cited the study” adds no validity to the compliant that “he should have disclosed that the authors disagree”.

      I cite as an example below:

      Quoted from the epilogue of the podcast:
      “I dug it up and I read it, and like before, the conclusions of the study seem to contradict what Steve is saying. Here is the conclusion. I’m reading it here from the abstract:

      “This article concludes that though there are many common themes, there are also reported differences in near-death experience.”

      Okay, good so far. Seems to support what Steve is saying. But listen to this:

      “The variability across cultures is most likely due to our interpretation in verbalizing of such esoteric events through the filters of language, cultural experiences, religion, education, and their influences on our belief systems.”

      In the interview Steve was saying that if you look at NDEs across cultures, you discover that they’re different, and that that’s a clue that these experiences are created in our brain because we know how these other cultural beliefs and attitudes develop. But what the research is actually saying, including the research that Steve cited in support of his argument, is that the differences we see across cultures in near-death experiences are due to our interpretation, and that the experiences themselves are essentially the same.”

      Comment by Hubbub — June 1, 2010 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  9. To be fair to Alex, he only uses the argument from authority when it suits his conclusions. He often says that scientists are wrong – but HIS scientists are right. After all, they’re doing GOOD science and are able to tease out the facts.

    Comment by Blake Smith — June 1, 2010 @ 8:21 am | Reply

  10. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Reed Esau, EvilEyeMonster. EvilEyeMonster said: Great skeptical Smackdown of Alex Tsakiris' on NDEs – http://tinyurl.com/28onydh […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris: On the Non-Scientifically Trained Trying to Do/Understand Science « Exposing PseudoAstronomy -- Topsy.com — June 1, 2010 @ 10:05 am | Reply

  11. I don’t understand

    you say “Argument from Authority Is Not Scientific Consensus”

    But since when did science become a democracy, that is why is concensus of peers of any value in science…. if they could all be wrong?

    Comment by Mill — June 2, 2010 @ 4:20 am | Reply

    • There are mixed opinions on whether an argument from scientific consensus actually is an argument from authority, though my understanding is that most think it is not. You are correct that science is not a democracy, rather it is a meritocracy where – by the nature of the broader scientific process – only the best ideas survive. “Best” here is defined as the ones that explain the data and fit in with other established scientific theories.

      The consensus is of value because in order for there to actually be any consensus, a theory has to be accepted by the vast majority of people who actually study that field. They could all be wrong, and history has many examples of this. However, the consensus is a much stronger way to argue than from any individual authority.

      To borrow an example from evolutionary theory, the Discovery Institute maintains their “Dissent from Darwin” list of supposedly Ph.D. scientists who study biology who do not find current evolutionary theory convincing. The list has a few hundred names, and I said “supposedly Ph.D.” because scrutiny by many has shown (a) they do not all have Ph.D.s, (b) most do not study biology, and (c) several on the list who are Ph.D.s and study biology actually do fully endorse evolution and have asked the DI to take their names off the list (they never “signed up”). Contrast that with the National Center for Science Education’s “Steve/Stephanie” list of actual Ph.D. biologists just named “Steve” or “Stephanie” who are convinced by evolutionary theory … and that list far out-numbers the DI’s list. The “Dissent from Darwin” list is an argument from authority, the “Steve” list is a scientific consensus.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — June 2, 2010 @ 7:08 am | Reply

    • Mill, it depends on the question you want to ask. Let’s put it this way. You want to sue your employer. 99/100 lawyers tell you you have no case and you’d be throwing your money away. 1 says “yeah, you got a great chance!” What’s your reasonable course of action? Sue or not sue? You may get lucky and have found the one lawyer who knows a loophole. But most of the time, the safe bet is listen to the consensus. Consensus answers the question of the the most reasonable course of action, not whether something is absolutely true or not.

      Science is not blessed with unlimited funds for research. It tends to employ the consensus approach for deciding the most fruitful avenues of research. My father, for example, was once on a committee to decide whether or not Linus Pauling should get a research grant. They were all very impressed by how nice a person Pauling was, his accomplishments, and the fact he won two Nobel prizes. However, his specific avenue of research they did not think had the evidence and plausibility to warrant funding. The consensus denied him funds. Maybe he got private funds and proved ’em all wrong. But more often than not, the safe bet is the safe bet.

      Biological science is a pretty complex science with loads and loads of confounding variables and also ethical considerations. It would be reasonably easy to demonstrate vaccines do not cause autism. Simply give one population vaccines and another population give them a placebo injection. Track them for a few years and see who gets autism. But it’s highly unethical to make people think they’re protected against a range of deadly diseases. Because we can’t generally do this, biological science is about amassing a great deal of research and many people evaluating that research and coming to a consensus about what is the likely explanation. In the NDE example, is the NDE experience a single cause (your soul leaves the human body) or are there multiple causes that lead to a similar outcome? Since we can’t give people heart attacks and control for certain variables, we need to sift through a lot of data and people need to figure out what its likely telling us.

      Let’s look at the lawyer example but with NDEs. Suppose you’re about to covet your neighbor’s wife but there could be an immortal soul that you might risk. But she’s a really, really hot MILF and that’s a pleasure you also don’t want to give up. You decide if the best evidence is there is an immortal soul then you won’t risk it. But if evidence for an immortal soul fails to support the hypothesis about its existence, you’ll get on with your coveting. 99/100 doctors says “the evidence points to the NDE as being biological/psychological”. One says “no, its good evidence of an immortal soul.” Do you listen to the consensus or the one dissenting voice?

      Comment by karl — June 2, 2010 @ 7:20 am | Reply

  12. “What if he had written something for climate change? That doesn’t mean is suddenly competent to talk about it.”

    Actually, he would be, depending on what he wrote. If he was merely trying to do his best to summarize the consensus evidence as one lay person’s understanding, then he is competent to talk about it. My view of skepticism is skeptics do their job when someone takes a non consensus scientific claim directly to the public or media. The job of the skeptic is to then point out, to the best of the skeptic’s ability, what the consensus is. For example, if someone claims there is no global warming or 9/11 was in inside job, the skeptic would go “well, actually, the consensus among every meteorological society is global warming is likely caused by humans” or “well, actually, every engineering society that has looked into 9/11 disagrees.”

    Randi was spanked when he ignored the consensus and started to try and interpret science for himself.

    Comment by karl — June 26, 2010 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  13. Go on his ‘cast and show him what is wrong and how it should change his opinion.

    Comment by Jason — July 22, 2010 @ 7:46 am | Reply

    • Somehow I sincerely doubt Alex would want me on his podcast to explain this to him and his audience. He has yet to even respond on here when he asked for clarification and I gave it. But, in the event that he would want me, I don’t think I’d have a problem going on.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 22, 2010 @ 8:19 am | Reply

  14. I know this is an oldish post but I just was directed to it by someone on Brian Dunning’s FB page. I LOVE this post. Our skeptic’s society did our first ever meeting about Alex Tsakiris – in this case his argument with the RI guys about mediums. I really wish I had seen this before hand, it’s brilliant. I’ll be reading this blog from now on.

    Comment by Amber K. — September 3, 2010 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, Amber. I had fun writing this post, and it’s still one of my favorites. I actually wish Alex really would “engage/discuss” this with me as he said he’d be “happy to,” but I have not heard back from him since his original comment here. And yet on his podcast, he fairly consistently complains about people who are unwilling to follow up with him …

      Also glad to gain a new reader. Unfortunately, I’ve been VERY lax about new posts lately because I’m trying to balance 35 -> 50 hrs of work a week in order to defend in April and with a bunch of other stuff, it’s hard to find an hour or two to properly write a new post. But, the blog’s not abandoned, new posts will be forthcoming!

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 3, 2010 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  15. Alex “interviewed” me a couple of days ago (September 7). I hadn’t heard of him before, and thought he was that other Skeptico. The interview…didn’t go all that swimmingly.

    Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 9, 2010 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

    • What was the “interview” about?

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 9, 2010 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  16. About stuff that Alex is interested in and I’m not. Hence the scare quotes on “interview” – I understand an interview to be at least somewhat about the person being interviewed and her subject or book or ideas, not those of the interviewer. I don’t understand “interview” to mean “Can I interview you about your opinion of my ideas?”

    Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 10, 2010 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

    • Ah, yeah, that’s kinda Alex’s “interview” style.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 10, 2010 @ 9:27 pm | Reply

      • Yes, so I’ve gathered now. I think it’s a bit like an ambush, and not very ethical, really. I think he should be clear about what he’s doing ahead of time, so that people can say no thanks if it’s not something they want to do.

        Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 11, 2010 @ 5:38 am

  17. If it will make you feel better Ophelia check out Alex’s interview with Robert Price. Alex spends a lot of time trying to convince Price about Near Death Experiences etc. Price is a bit like “wtf do I know about this?” I think he kind of hijacked the author of that book Mistakes Were Made but Not By Us. Alex seems to have read it as a huge endorsement of the non materialist paradigm and how those materialists are just closed minded bastards. Even the woo side Alex spares no guest. Denise O Leary, probably the stupidest creationist author out there, was a guest. She’s also a hardcore Canadian catholic and subscribes to the catholic doctrine that pretty much all people of faith, no matter what religion, will find their way into heaven. But Alex assumes since she’s a creationist she must be a “jesus is THE way” type. He thinks he’s got her cornered with NDEs. See, everyone of faith gets into heave, so what do you have to say to that! Ha! Denise responds pretty much like “yep, doesn’t surprise me”. Alex doesn’t seem to grasp that and keeps trying to catch her in a very right wing American fundy type of belief. Oh the hilarity ensues.

    I myself was on a UFO believer podcast and they kept trying to spring these “gotcha” cases on me. Well, what do you think about that? Huh? How do you explain that! And I just kept having to say “well, not knowing anything about it, I’d first consider these known explanations and there you go.”

    Heck even Alex’s very very first episode was with Michael Shermer who assumed “skeptiko” meant something entirely different. Alex’s “ringer” kept trying to hit Shermer with this very weird “I’m not saying it’s god but doesn’t nature seem to have an emergent purpose” line and Shermer was like “what are you people on over there?”

    Comment by karl — September 11, 2010 @ 9:34 am | Reply

    • Heh heh. Yes I, like Shermer, took the “Skeptico” at face value, which is no doubt the intention – which in turn is why I think it’s not ethical. I suspect he’s ambushing people on purpose. There’s no huge harm done, to be sure, but it’s really quite rude to waste an hour of someone’s time that way.

      He didn’t get a real interview out of it though. Once I realized he was bullshitting I pretty much gave up and waited for it to be over. He said he’d never done an interview with so many long silences.

      Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 11, 2010 @ 11:34 am | Reply

      • To be a teensy bit fair to Alex, I think in general it behooves people to do a bit of research into those who will be interviewing them. For example, I’m going to be interviewed on the radio show Amerika Now and when I went to their site and guest list, I saw a fair amount of new-agey stuff. And when I went to the network that broadcasts/pays(?) them, the first ad was for homeopathy. I still agreed, but I know what I’m getting into now. I also listened to one of their episodes to get a feel for it and to be better prepared for now what I think they may ask.

        Granted, if you get a lot of interview requests, you can’t always do that, and you would hope they would be up-front with you, but I still think the interviewee bears some responsibility there.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 12, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

      • True. I did take a quick look, and should have taken a slower one.

        But still – that doesn’t remove the ethical dubiousness from the other party. Consumers should be cautious about what they put in their mouths, but that doesn’t make it ok for people to market crap. I still suspect that Alex is using the “Skeptico” label to play “gotcha” (the transcripts I have read seem to back this up – subjects keep being surprised at what the host is saying).

        Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 12, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

      • Ophelia – I just listened to the episode with your “interview” today. Pretty much how you described it – in fact, one can almost tell the moment where you realized it wasn’t quite what you expected. The interview seemed much like his last interview of Susan Blackmore.

        It was kinda like if, when I taught intro astronomy this summer, I had told my students about the Apollo moon landings and then asked them to have an in-class debate about US space policy. I don’t know if you actually listened to the episode (I personally find it very difficult to listen to interviews of myself), but Alex actually defends his approach as a way to get atheists/skeptics off-guard and look at his “evidence” without prep.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 16, 2010 @ 12:16 am

      • Stuart – I managed to listen to only a little of the interview – it is pretty toe-curling. I can hear the boredom and effort in my voice from the beginning (or rather, I can’t hear it, but it reminds me of what it felt like at the time) – I was put off and somewhat at a loss from the beginning because even then it was obvious that it wasn’t a real interview. I don’t normally say “um” that often.

        Anyway, it’s interesting that Alex defends his approach. So the “gotcha” is intentional. Cute.

        Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 17, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  18. Ophelia I caught it today. I think you handled it well, given Alex’s game. It was pretty hurting he didn’t really ask you any questions about your books, the web page of yours he seems to think is a good site, etc. In about a 30 minute show, you spoke about 3 minutes in total and Alex lectured you and then lectured listeners “off camera” for the rest of the show.

    Anyway, I liked how Alex would rant for 10 minutes and you’d greet him with a bit of silence and then correctly comment “I really don’t know anything about this. Sorry.”

    Comment by karl — September 18, 2010 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  19. I find listening to Alex Tsakiris painful, but I listened to be able to have some idea of what Ophelia is talking about. This was more painful than usual, because he actually stopped the interview in the middle when Ophelia made a good point and did a “voice-over” claiming she was in the weeds. WTF? Then when she disagreed with his assertions about the New Testament, he does it AGAIN! That’s not fair. A discussion is a discussion. You don’t get to edit it and cut it off when the people you’re discussing things with disagree with you. Ophelia, you did a great job of dealing with his utter crap without getting irritated. Well done.

    Plus, where does he get off bringing up this so-called NDE research as if it’s established and accepted by the scientific community? Dr. Stephen Novella was already on the show, and since he’s a neurologist I’d think his opinion carries some weight and he basically said this isn’t significant or scientific. Not to mention even if he hadn’t, why in the world would any of this pseudo-scientific crap be on anyone’s radar? Is the entire scientific community waiting with baited breath for proof of NDE’s? Hardly.

    The most depressing part of Skeptiko is reading the comments at the end of each episode. None of these people has the slightest idea what a skeptic is or what it means to be skeptical. They seem to think it’s some kind of new cult. Big kudos to Alex Tsakiris for poisoning the well and extra special kudos to his listeners for having the inability to see a logical fallacy when it’s staring them in the face. A friend recently postulated the Alex Tsakiris makes us better skeptics because he’s so good at what he does, but I’ve gotta say, the fact that he’s so able to influence non-thinkers is really disheartening.

    Comment by Amber K — September 18, 2010 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

  20. Thanks Karl. The short silence was while I rolled my eyes. :- )

    Amber – I didn’t realized he did voice-over commentary later. That’s pretty extraordinary! I guess I’ll have to listen to the damn thing after all.

    Comment by Ophelia Benson — September 20, 2010 @ 9:22 am | Reply

  21. The whole point of Alex (here are all my credentialed allies)Tsakiris’ pod-cast is surely to rubbish materialists and point out how wrong they are. He doesn’t care for peer review (unless it is the ones he claims prove that consciousness exists outside the body) or faces the facts that all this so called ‘latest ‘scientific’ evidence’ just isn’t. If Alex was right then there would be some major conspiracy throughout most of the scientific community. So he is a nut-job. I sometimes get exacerbated listening to him attack the likes of Steve Novella who must be one of the World’s Highly Regarded neuroscientists! So if NDE’s are proof of an afterlife we would agree with the hypothesis if it was carried out correctly and the data was testable. The data he is always going on about is untested propaganda and someone should nail that out to him. Ooh Iv’e got that off my chest.
    I think the interview with Ophelia was very underhand and unprofessional. Making it seem like there was no point listening to her as she never read the latest literature and would be too long to explain. What a horrible person he is. he reminds me of Lord Haw-Haw.

    Comment by DrMik — September 25, 2010 @ 10:23 am | Reply

  22. Just an idea. What would be the situation of science if someone ‘knew’ that an established theory was wrong but had no interest in publishing any papers. Admittedly it would not be part of the scientific community but it could still be science.

    Comment by Mick — September 27, 2010 @ 4:46 am | Reply

    • Mick — Then they would take it to their grave. Fairly simple. This is one reason why I think the ability of scientists to communicate is almost as important as their ability to do research.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 27, 2010 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  23. I have a horrible suspicion that ‘good’publicity/communication is more powerful than good research. The most successful product tends to be the one best advertised not the best product. Life, don’t talk to me about life. (Kitchhikers guide)

    Comment by Mick — September 30, 2010 @ 6:47 am | Reply

  24. I realize I’m a little late to this party, but I’m here now… why so much about process/form and so little about content… happy to offer Ophelia a re-do on my show or one of her choosing (offered this before). I suspect it won’t be accepted because her position is so weak (logic/reason/science is not on the side of dogmatic defenders of Materialism). I suspect this may have been the reason for the long pauses and many ummmmmms in the original broadcast.

    Comment by Alex Tsakiris — February 18, 2011 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

    • Alex, as you know, form can dictate a significant amount of what is portrayed. Anyone who pays any attention to regular news interviews knows this, and you surely know this having done a podcast for several years. For example, your latest habit of having someone speak for a minute or two and then jumping in after the fact and talking to the audience for several minutes, then going back to your interview, and repeating this gives the impression – whether intentional or unintentional, and whether by design or not – of you quote-mining to make “the materialist/atheist” look stupid.

      This was especially the case with Greta Christina. I listened to that interview and was pretty annoyed with it because (a) it was just annoying to hear you interject every few minutes, and (b) it really made it sound like it wasn’t a “debate” as it was billed, but it was a pick-and-choose exercise on your part. It’s very disingenuous and I am not alone in this thinking. And I also have to mention that you turned off – even more than already – a lot of people with your recent apparent endorsement of JFK conspiracy theories.

      As to whether Ophelia will agree to a second interview by you, I don’t pretend to guess what she will decide, but I would think that if she declines it is because of your open hostility towards anyone who disagrees with you. There are many people who can conduct civil, polite, non-hostile interviews with people with whom they don’t agree, and the interviewee comes away thinking, “They may not agree with me but at least they were respectful and allowed me to state my case in a way that I’m happy with.” I don’t think any of your guests come away with that.

      Additionally, you seem to refuse to look beyond the “what” and into the “why.” You’ve discussed these topics of mind-brain duality quite a bit and I think your listeners have most of the objective data. What you have failed to address despite the urging of your “skeptic” guests is why you come to your conclusion but they come to theirs. Therein lies the nature of their skepticism versus yours. You can find experts in any field who endorse almost any idea. What you should be looking at is why you differ in your standard of evidence and what that means.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 19, 2011 @ 10:56 am | Reply

  25. […] months later, I wrote another post on Alex, this one being rather lengthy: “Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris: On the Non-Scientifically Trained Trying to Do/Understand Science.” The post garnered a lot of comments (and I’ll point out that Alex posted in the […]

    Pingback by Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris on Monster Talk / Skepticality, and More on How to Spot Pseudoscience « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — December 9, 2011 @ 11:58 am | Reply


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