Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 24, 2013

Skeptiko’s Standards of Evidence for Fairies


I’ve written very roughly one post every year or so on Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris and his absolute refusal to understand how science is done and why there is a disconnect between “true believers” and “skeptics.” Here are the four posts I’ve done (well, now five), and I recommend the 2010 and 2011 posts specifically. They’re long, but I think they’re very well written and from time-to-time I even go back and re-read them and just think, “Wow, that was really good!”

Anyway, enough self-praise. It was only in one of my posts, the 2011, that I discussed Alex’s derision with Carl Sagan’s famous, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” phrase. In that post, I discussed it in the context of how a hypothesis is tested and may eventually become a theory.

But, I think it’s worth delving more into this now because in his latest, Episode 219, Alex, almost makes this the center point of the conversation between himself and Dr. Stephen Law of Centre for Inquiry UK.

And despite Dr. Law explaining it, Alex still does not get it.

The discussion starts about this very roughly at the 38 minute mark. Please note that I’m using Alex’s transcript for this, assuming that it’s correct. Though that might not be the case.

Extraordinary Claims Is Anti-Science

Alex first broaches this topic by stating the following:

“I see that as just an intellectually feeble kind of pronouncement. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof—that is anti-science, isn’t it? … We’ve built this whole institution of science, the whole process of peer-review, the whole process of self-correction around this idea that we will altogether discover what is real, what is not real, what is extraordinary, what is not extraordinary. So then the idea that after the fact, after the results come in, we say, “You know, that’s pretty interesting results but I deem that to be extraordinary; therefore, you need an extra level of proof on that.” I think it’s just silly.”

Dr. Law responded by giving an example of, if he claims that he has a cell phone and a car, no one would think twice about it. But if he says that he has a fairy that he can make dance on the end of his finger, then Alex would doubt that. It’s an extraordinary claim.

I thought that was pretty good. Alex agrees, but then switches it “back to science” (my phrase in quotes). The problem with this dismissal and then redirect is that it’s not a redirect. Every claim should be testable – that is science. Stating that you have a fairy dancing on your finger is a claim and it should be subjected to the same kind of testing that anything else would be. The fact that our daily experience says that fairies don’t exist means that the burden of evidence he needs to provide in order to counterbalance all the other evidence they don’t exist is higher. Ergo, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Dr. Law states this later as: “It’s because the prior probability of anything like a fairy exists is very, very low indeed, knowing what we do.”

Alex’s Go-To Richard Wiseman Quote

I like Richard Wiseman. Well, I like a lot of his work — I’ve never met the guy. He is a Ph.D. psychologist. He is not a hard scientist. And like everyone – in spoken word or print – I’m sure he’s said some things that he didn’t quite mean or that he might think are true but no one else does.

I give that preface because this has been Alex’s go-to “stump the skeptics with an argument from authority” thing for years now, and in a test on “Who’s Bigger” Alex pulled it out and showed it to Dr. Law:

That’s British psychologist and parapsychology critic, Richard Wiseman, who has investigated probably more of these paranormal parapsychology claims like telepathy than just about anybody else. Here’s his quote: “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing (and he later added in this quote, ESP) is proven. But that be[g]s the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?” …

He is talking about creating another level of proof, a completely arbitrary level of proof based on his beliefs of what is extraordinary in terms of a claim and extraordinary in terms of proof. There’s no way to intellectually defend the statement.

The conversation then goes into a direction I think it shouldn’t have, I think that Dr. Law should have come back very forcefully against Richard’s statement and pointed out (correctly) that Alex is using one psychologist’s opinion as a stand-in for all skeptics and all scientists (and all scientists who are skeptics).

If it wasn’t obvious yet, I disagree with what Wiseman said. Heck, Penn and Teller showed in 20 minutes that remote viewing (in one example) is utter bull.

I think that Dr. Law needed to return to the “definition” of an “extraordinary claim.” After all, my recollection is that Sagan was using it as a simple example of how science is actually done and how we should weight evidence. So I’ll repeat it because Dr. Law did not: An “extraordinary claim” is only extraordinary when there is a large amount of evidence already that it does NOT exist. Ergo, to demonstrate that it does, you have a much larger burden of evidence not only to demonstrate that it does exist, but to demonstrate why the evidence that it doesn’t exist does not stand up to your new evidence that it does.

And we do do this all the time in science. I think I’ve talked before about the “granola bar” model for Saturn’s rings, that after Voyager we thought that ring particles resided in density waves that could be modeled as granola bars of high density material with nothing between them. That explained the observations well, and there was no reason to change it. But evidence mounted that could not be explained by the simple granola bar model and after enough did, we have a new paradigm of how the ring particles are distributed that can explain both the new evidence AND the old Voyager evidence. That’s what you need here.

Where the Conversation Actually Did Go

Unfortunately, Dr. Law made the mistake of stating, “Maybe your view is that there’s already an awful lot of evidence in for the existence of psychic powers, say.”

So Alex whipped out his Big Gun again and quoted Wiseman. Again, Dr. Law did not take that opportunity to call out the argument from authority but instead said, “I can’t comment on that because I’m not an expert on that area of science. But let’s suppose that that’s true. I guess what Wiseman is saying here—and that might be true for all I know.” He went on to talk about how scientists have been fooled before by tricksters (such as Uri Geller), that scientists are in fact one of the easier groups of people to fool because we have built up over the decades exact methods of observation that we expect should yield objective results, and magicians sneak in around the edges and take advantage of what we expect.

Dr. Law clearly has not argued (or at least was not prepared to argue) with Alex and explain his point so Alex might grasp it, because he then stated, “So you have to be extra, extra specially careful when it comes to investigating those kinds of things. I can’t believe that you would disagree with me about that.”

I just had to shake my head at that. It’s Alex’s entire point: He doesn’t think you should have to take extra measures, hence his lack of comprehension of “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence.” And of course, Alex took that bait:

“Intellectual black hole alert. Dr. Law, this is exactly what you preach against is that we’re going to layer on top of this without any proof, without any evidence. If that’s your claim, then someone needs to prove that, as they’ve tried to do so many times and as the social sciences…”

When Dr. Law responded that “they have proved it,” Alex retreated. Unfortunately for Dr. Law, Alex is very good at recovering and redirecting where he wants to go. The rest of the “interview” is very much continued re-direction which didn’t really accomplish anything and Alex tries to stop the interview, though Dr. Law insists on trying to make his point once more, this time with a perpetual motion machine. Alex’s very patronizing response is what I think I’ll finish this post up with:

Well, Stephen, I just beg to differ. I don’t think you’re intimately familiar with the data.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it is about the data. It is about the data both for and against a phenomenon and how it all fits together and how it balances out. An “extraordinary claim” is not something that has a set definition, or that some Elevated Council of Elders gets to decide what fits into it. It’s something for which there’s simply a lot of evidence against.

The maxim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” I think, is a good way to concisely describe this simple concept. And it’s one that after over 200 episodes of Skeptiko, Alex Tsakiris still refuses to understand. And I use those words purposely: This concept has been explained numerous times to Alex, so by this point, it I can only conclude that it is a willful choice to not understand.


P.S. It looks like someone has used a lot of my blog posts on Alex’s RationalWiki page. Anyone a good wiki editor want to fit this in somehow, get more directs to my blog? 🙂

P.P.S. Alex actually posted in my comments twice in my 2010 post (search for “Comment by Alex”). He said he would be “happy to engage/discuss” yet when I agreed, nothing. I would repeat now, for the record, that I am fully willing to go on Skeptiko and discuss the specific points that I have made in any of my posts. After all, these get to the heart of why there is a disconnect between so-called “skeptics” and “believers,” which is supposedly what Alex went into Skeptiko to try to understand and bridge.

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