Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 17, 2012

Is Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris a Willful Deceiver?


Introduction

I like to look at my stats page on WordPress to see what sites link up to me, how people get here. I thoroughly enjoy when RationalWiki links to me, using me as a source, and I recently found out that a new Alex Tsakiris page has an entire section devoted to my analysis of where Alex goes wrong in his attempts to argue scientifically.

I also saw that a blog, much much more popular than mine by Alex’s latest guest was linking to me – a blog by Dr. Jerry Coyne, an “outspoken atheist” according to how Alex bills him. In perusing the comments on that blog (which is where someone had linked to one of my previous posts), I noticed a claim that Alex’s transcripts were deliberately altered to change the guest’s meaning.

Update 2 days later: The errors referred to below have now been corrected.

On Transcripts

Now, a bit of explanation — Alex, on his Skeptiko website, provides transcripts of his interviews for every episode. In fact, I have used them before though I’ll note that in the body of every post where I talk about Alex, I have written my own transcript of the episode.

Several podcasts provide transcripts (my own, Skeptoid, Astronomy Cast, just to name a few), and I think they’re a valuable service. I understand that making transcripts of an interview is somewhat different than making one for a podcast episode that you’ve scripted out (which is why I don’t do transcripts of my own interview episodes). When I do transcripts, I simply copy-and-paste from what I wrote for the episode into the web page.

Evidence of Fraud?

However, it appears as though Alex – or whomever does his transcripts – has willfully and without notice altered his guest’s words.

Here is a screenshot that I took on Friday evening, February 17, 2012, of the episode with Dr. Coyne, #161

Alex Tsakiris' Transcript for Skeptiko Episode #161

Alex Tsakiris' Transcript for Skeptiko Episode #161

For word-searchability, here is the quote, copied-and-pasted from Alex’s site:

Alex Tsakiris: I’m just saying if they’re saying at the fundamental level of physics non-local theories are incompatible with what we observe, then I think it calls into question the things that we’re talking about in terms of Materialism, Determinism. Isn’t that the direct implication of what they’re saying?

Dr. Jerry Coyne: No! No, because they’re talking about what happens in a very, very tiny micro level. It does not mean that you can’t predict what happens when billiard balls hit each other on a billiard table for which quantum mechanics is perfectly applicable. It’s as if you’re saying we can’t play billiards and we can’t shoot rockets to the moon because of this stuff that happens on a micro level.

The fact is that assuming that these phenomena apply on most of the levels of reality that we deal with renders everything wrong is simply incorrect. For most micro-phenomenon you’re turning to quantum mechanics. It works fine. And in terms of evolution I don’t see how this quantum mechanics affects evolution at all. I mean, maybe it can affect mutation. You said that these people say that but that turned out to be something you made up. I don’t see how it can and even if it did it would not by any means render mutations non-random in the way that evolution has to mean that they’re random.

Reading that, as someone with a physics background Dr. Coyne is mistaken. Billiard balls hitting each other is obviously a Newtonian issue, otherwise if classical mechanics could not explain what goes on in a basic game of pool, then Quantum Mechanics would have been developed centuries before it was.

In the second paragraph, the statement about QM applying to micro-phenomenon is mostly correct (I’d argue nano, but whatever), though it doesn’t really lead logically into what he says next about QM not affecting evolution. It’s a totally new idea.

Tonight, I listened to the episode. At 12 minutes 58 seconds, I started to record my own transcript of what Dr. Coyne stated:

Dr. Jerry Coyne: No! No, because they’re talking about what happens in a very, very tiny micro level. It does not mean that you can’t predict what happens when billiard balls hit each other on a billiard table for which Newtonian mechanics is perfectly applicable. I mean, it’s as if you’re saying that we can’t play billiards or we can’t shoot rockets to the moon because of this stuff that happens on a micro level.

The fact is that assuming that these phenomena apply on most of the levels of reality that we deal with renders everything wrong is simply incorrect. I mean, for most macro-phenomenon, Newtonian or classical mechanics works fine. Um, and in terms of evolution I don’t see how this quantum mechanics affects evolution at all. I mean, maybe it can affect mutation. You said that these people say that but that turned out to be something you made up. Um, I don’t see how it can and even if it did it would not by any means render mutations non-random in the way that evolution has to mean that they’re random.

Notice a difference? Yeah. Whoever wrote the transcript on Alex’s site changed out “Newtonian mechanics” for “quantum mechanics” when talking about billiards, and changed “macro-phenomenon, Newtonian or classical mechanics works fine” to “micro-phenomenon you’re turning to quantum mechanics. It works fine.”

‘Cause, you know, they sound so similar.

Someone even has pointed this out to Alex on his comments for that episode:

Correcting Alex's Transcript for Skeptiko Episode #161

Correcting Alex's Transcript for Skeptiko Episode #161

There may be other examples — I chose not to listen to the entire hour-long episode with an eye on Alex’s transcript. Let me know if there are other examples. I really don’t know what to think on this one. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I was hoping that despite my two very extensive blog posts on Alex (here and here) that Alex just had his head down a rabbit hole, he’d drunk the Kool-Aid®, he was a true believer who sorta meant well and was blinded by his beliefs, etc. This, however — changing your own guest’s words in a transcript — changes things.

Hounding Alex on the Forum

Alex has a forum thread for this episode. On it, Alex was notified of the problems in the transcript here:

Where are Transcript Corrections

Where are Transcript Corrections

Alex acknowledged them about an hour later, and claimed he corrected them here:

Alex Acknowledging Corrections

Alex Acknowledging Corrections

So I went back to the page for the episode, reloaded it, cleared the cache and reloaded it and … the errors are still there. And as of adding this sentence, 19 hours later, the errors are still there. I’m not sure what Alex meant by “all better.”

Final Thoughts – You Make Up Your Own Mind on This One

I’m not saying these are huge issues and evidence of a conspiracy nor anything like that. It’s possible that in an hour-long program and longer spent writing a transcript, errors will happen. I’m somewhat willing to extend the benefit of the doubt on this. But when an error is pointed out and then is said to have been corrected but it hasn’t been, that brings it to a new level.

So, what do you think, folks?

And I’ll note that if the transcript ever does get updated (and someone lets me know – I’m only going to check it for another day or so), then I’ll of course update this post to let people know.

20 Comments »

  1. I think what I have always thought, that Alex Tsakiris is dishonest. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

    Comment by Amber S K — February 17, 2012 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  2. You’ve done the right thing in confronting him about his site. He has an agenda, and he possibly over-vigeriously pursues it at times. But overall, he’s a great, and entertaining firewall to our traditional views on skepticism.
    While I personaly agree with little that he presents, Its displeasing to think of him not around to confront what turns out to be…reality.

    Comment by Richard Mcmahan — February 17, 2012 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

  3. I’m not sure whether the transcript errors are wilful deception. What *is* wilful deception is the leader and summary that Alex added to the ends of the interview, totally misrepresenting what happened and trying to make it all about Jerry Coyne’s atheism – something he did not mention in the interview at all, as far as I recall.

    Comment by cabbagesofdoom — February 18, 2012 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

  4. 😀 I follow WEIT, and it rapidly became clear this guy could do with an article in RW, suitable for warning others. So I wrote it. Thank you for having taken the time to write up just where Alex (and many like him) completely fail to understand … anything.

    Comment by David Gerard — February 18, 2012 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

    • It’s nice to be appreciated.🙂 And I do think that my two main posts (so far) on Alex are some of my best ones. Completely illustrating how NOT to do science while remaining fairly level-headed and not resorting to name-calling.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 18, 2012 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  5. While I can’t say I agree with a lot of the positions Alex holds, I see no reason to call this anything but a transcription error. There isn’t a pattern to show otherwise. From that view point, which you may not share, this kind of comes off conspiracy theorist or at least using seeming errors to attack while dodging a debate. The debate should be kept on a point v point bases. Even if it is not perceived as such from the other, there is no reason not to hold to that standard yourself. All of this is, of course, my own view of the situation.

    Comment by Nigel — February 18, 2012 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

    • I agree with you somewhat as I say in my last section of the post. It’s the effective, “I fixed it!” and it’s a day later and it hasn’t been fixed that is troubling from an intellectual honesty part. If it were me, I would just not respond to the person until I actually fixed it, verified it was fixed, and then I’d tell them I fixed it.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 18, 2012 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

      • Agreed, it definitely could of been handled better.

        Comment by Nigel — February 18, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    • Nigel,

      I would be with you, but this is a pattern. I’ve been informed of or have witnessed several occasions in which Alex has edited interviews or added voice overs that the interviewee was not aware of, Ophelia Benson being on example. I know of at least a couple of times where a follow-up interview was agreed on and then when it came time to plan it, Alex never responded, while saying the opposite on his podcast and accusing the other party of not following through. Though I of course am not in his mind, I feel that Alex is often dishonest even during debate, specifically because I don’t see how he can have someone explain science to him so many times and still not understand it. Also, naming his podcast “Skeptiko” and not explaining that he is different from the well-known “Skeptico” could easily be seen as an ambush tactic.

      He’s not stupid and is in fact a very good debater. He does provide good exercise for the skeptic to recognize logical fallacies, I will give him that. However, I don’t see that he has a problem with twisting the facts to fit his point and he certainly remains purposefully obtuse if it serves his position. I find that makes me very uncomfortable. I think Stuart has more than enough evidence to speculate that its possible that Tsakiris is willfully deceitful.

      Comment by Amber K — February 18, 2012 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

    • Are you kidding? How can you possibly mistake “Newtonian” for “Quantum” while doing a transcript? Unless you have some serious hearing problem, it is next to impossible.

      Comment by piero — February 20, 2012 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  6. ” I went back to the page for the episode, reloaded it, cleared the cache and reloaded it and … the errors are still there. And as of adding this sentence, 19 hours later, the errors are still there. I’m not sure what Alex meant by “all better.”

    you may being a bit unfair—– because :

    Previously I have uploaded pictures to the sceptico forum. Then went and altered some ,and guess what, they don’t change. The skeptico server cache must keep the original version ( at least for a length of time, before it refreshes, perhaps). So i had to rename the file, and get the change .

    I suspect that was the case when Alex made the amendments.

    Comment by Jan — February 19, 2012 @ 4:29 am | Reply

    • That’s odd for a forum to do that, but I’m talking about Alex’s skeptiko.com site (which I’m assuming is managed by either WordPress, Blogger, or similar software). Not sure why that would take (now) over 30 hours to update a change. As I said, if the transcript changes (and someone lets me know or I see it), I’ll be sure to update this post.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 19, 2012 @ 5:27 am | Reply

  7. You know, Tsakiris lost any benefit of my doubt a few years ago when he was crafting that big medium experiment…

    For those that don’t know, the idea was that he had some audio clips of people talking. Then he’d have a medium listen to the clips and match up the clips to the people who said them. Then he’d post the clips online and have skeptics see if they could match them up to the same level…

    Not a terrible idea on the surface. It would say nothing conclusive as an expert on warm reading might still show better success than someone who didn’t, but might still be interesting. The first attempt demonstrated (to Alex) that the medium effect was real, but skeptics pointed out some of the numerous control issues. Still, Alex seemed responsive refined his protocols for the second attempt, and revised and tightened the protocols again for the third… at which point he stopped talking about the results, which I’m guessing is because with the tighter protocols, the medium effect got smaller and smaller until he abandoned it because it wasn’t giving him the results he wanted.

    What started as an apparently honest exploration of one of his beliefs got thrown out the window because it demonstrated he was wrong. Whether he’s deliberately deceitful, I don’t know (though I suspect not), but he’s certainly not interested in honestly engaging with critics.

    Comment by porlob — February 19, 2012 @ 10:18 am | Reply

    • Yeah, I remember that “experiment.” I actually wrote a bit about it in this post on the importance of peer-review.

      The same thing happened with Alex’s “psychic dogs” experiment to try to replicate Sheldrake’s results.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 19, 2012 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

  8. Alex has corrected all the transcription errors that I gave him.

    Comment by Paul C. Anagnostopoulos — February 21, 2012 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  9. Personally, I think Alex is a repulsive skunk. I was recently asked to decline from posting on his site for several days ( later extended to several weeks ) because………well, you tell me.

    I had just listened to his ridiculous interview with Joe McMoneagle ( Remove viewing spy! ) during which all manner of far fetched and bizarre claims and statements were made, without Alex holding his guest to any critical account AT ALL ( episode 166 – listen to it if you have the stomach ). I then made two contributions early on the discussion thread, replying to existing ones, but later found that Alex had removed almost all of my first contribution and the entirety of the second ( in this case without acknowledgement ) and that I was being instructed to desist from posting there for several days, but without explanation.

    The point is that I was not accused of anything, and in any case there is no appeal procedure over at Skeptico by which one case seek justice should Alex simply delete comments he finds inconvenient. In this case it did emerge later in the thread ( in response to an inquiry from another contributor ) that I had allegedly infringed one of his ( unspecified ) rules. On locating these rules on his Forum site, the only thing I can imagine that I did was to ( in just one post ) call into question the existence of a particular class of paranormal phenomenon ( which McMoneagle claims to be an adept at ), namely the production of genuine Out of Body Experiences at will, on the grounds that such paranormality would be very easy to verify experimentally yet never had been. I can only think that he construed this as a blatant rejection of the paranormal per se ( which is apparently forbidden on his discussion thread ), but actually it is not.

    Previously, I have tried repeatedly without success to get Tsakiris and Enrique Vargas to state simply and explicitly that they are not the same person, but without success ( I simply get into a ridiculous discussion with Vargas that went nowhere at all, with Alex failing o contribute at all ) . This is important as the Vargas character frequently appears in the discussion thread as a sort of moderators Rockweiler, rubbishing skeptical opposition and `off message` guests ( see the thread following the Jerry Coyne farce of an interview for example ). If Tsakiris = Vargas, this tells us a very great deal about the psychology of our illustrious host.

    In my humble opinion, Tsikaris dishonestly uses an alter ego to manipulate opinion on his boards and to rubbish his opponents, and he certainly removes inconvenient postings without proper explanation or recourse to appeal. Perhaps others could approach him on the current discussion thread at Skeptiko and seek a clear, explicit denial of the former charge ( which I was first alerted to after reading the RationalWiki article about him ).

    Comment by NigePL — April 6, 2012 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

  10. As this one has popped up again, did he ever correct that transcript?

    Comment by Trebor — August 30, 2013 @ 4:36 am | Reply

    • Doh, I should read the comments to the end!🙂

      Comment by Trebor — August 30, 2013 @ 4:41 am | Reply

  11. Alex is quite dishonest I think. These mistakes are quite damaging to the people who appear in these interviews. He also adds his own voice comments to skew the overall flavour of the interview tin his favour. He is one of the few sophitiscated quacks out there.

    Comment by Rebs@yahoo.com — March 22, 2015 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

  12. My personal point of view started with the book “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks” which led me at some point to many internet publications and one of them was the interview on Alex’s Blog and at that point I started to get a feeling that this is somehow an intentional action against science by the religious community masked as whatever but in heart is an attempt to hinder and disable scientific advancement by introducing confusion and mistrust of the scientific research. I do hope that I am over exaggerating this, and that it is nothing but a number of individual futile attempts from some ignorant people.

    Comment by Salim AlZeer — May 19, 2016 @ 6:23 pm | Reply


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