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.


February 3, 2010

“How Could a Simple One-Armed Farmer …” A Bit More on Billy Meier / Michael Horn, And What Scientific Falsification Means


In what is hopefully the last post for quite awhile on the alleged contactee status of Swiss farmer Billy Meier and his “Authorized American Media Representative” Michael Horn, I would like to discuss two very old (3+ years) interviews that Horn gave on the podcast, The Paracast. Specifically, I would like to address the second interview where Horn is presented with a specific analysis of a specific photograph that was shown beyond a reasonable doubt by one of the foremost experts in Photoshop to have been faked … and then Horn’s apparent refusal to actually answer the claims raised.

What Does it Mean to Falsify Something?

In science, there is pretty much no case where you can “prove” something. Just like the American legal system, someone is never “proven innocent,” nor are they “proven guilty.” They are either shown to be “not guilty” (very different from “innocent”) or that there is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that someone is guilty.

We operate much the same way in scientific circles. Even the two pillars of modern physics – Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – which I note are “theories,” have never been proven to be 100% true. They simply can’t be – science doesn’t operate that way. True, there are literally thousands of independent experiments that have tested these theories and shown them – so far, beyond a reasonable doubt – to precisely predict the results of the experiments to within measurement uncertainties and errors.

However, all it takes is ONE experiment, one piece of indisputable, independently reproducible evidence or an experiment or observation that is irreconcilable with any established theory, and the theory goes out the window. In historic hindsight, it’s really as simple as that, though of course during the process of the revolution it is a little messier.

Why do I bring this up? Well, it’s very relevant to the interviews that I’m going to address.

Paracast Interviews

Yet again, Conspiracy Skeptic Karl Mamer clued me into some older interviews that were done with Michael Horn and put out on June 27, 2006, and July 11, 2006. I think during that time I was on a 25-hr/day schedule to photograph the moon every night for two lunar months … but I digress.

Anyway, in the first interview, Horn was pretty much given free reign, much like in the Coast to Coast AM interviews I’ve heard. It was really the latter that this post will focus on. First off, The Paracast has two hosts – Gene Steinberg who is an award-winning journalist, and David Biedny (pronounced “Bee-ed-nee”) who is one of the world’s foremost experts in the Adobe program “Photoshop” and works at Industrial Light and Magic. His credits include working on the effects of Hudson Hawk, Terminator 2, Star Trek VI, The Rocketeer, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Hook (I wonder if he’s the one who digitally removed all of Robin Williams’ chest hair in that movie). The reason why I bring up Beidny’s credentials in what may seem like an obvious argument from authority (though it’s not and I’ll address that below) is that the second interview was almost all Biedny going head-to-head with Horn with the intent of his analysis of a single photograph that Horn claimed was genuine.

Burden of Proof versus Refutation

First, if you end up listening to The Paracast as a result of this blog post please note that it DOES have commercials annoyingly throughout it. Be fore-warned.

Moving on, if we ignore the front matter and the posturing, the real meat at the beginning of the interview as about falsification. The two hosts put forth the idea that if any single piece of Meier’s evidence that Horn was putting forth as genuine was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be faked (false/hoaxed/lied/etc.), then that should – and would in their eyes – call the entire thing into question. Following the logic of science that I laid out at the beginning of the post, that makes perfect sense to me.

However, without actually acknowledging that, Horn countered that if he could show that a bunch of it was true, then it should be accepted as true. The hosts, and I sitting in my little office, laughed at that.

Why? one may ask. After all, isn’t that only fair – wouldn’t it be a double-standard to think otherwise? The answer: No.

Think of it like this: In my apartment, I could use a mixture of some various chemicals to come up with something that looks like chocolate. I may have actually done this. I could then present it to people as, “This is genuine chocolate. Here, have a taste! It’s chocolate and you’ll be able to tell!” Those people – I may present it to hundreds – may agree with me that it’s real chocolate. I could then call on them as witnesses that it’s real chocolate. However, I may then give it to someone who is able to analyze it in a different way, or may be more sensitive to the actual taste of chocolate or the chemicals I’ve used, and that person could then demonstrate that, beyond a reasonable doubt, what I gave them as “genuine chocolate” was fake.

I could say, “But all these other experts said it was real!” That wouldn’t matter. I had fooled them. All it takes is one, irrefutable piece of evidence that I had hoaxed my chocolate that would then call everything else I had tried to pass off as chocolate into question. Even if some of it actually had been real.

So, that is why I can fairly easily say to Meier, or a creationist, or an astrologer, or anyone else, really, that once I’ve conclusively demonstrated that any one of the claims you’ve put forward as genuine is demonstrably false, then that should call into question everything else you’ve done. Just look at the South Korean scientist who was found out to have faked some of his stem cell research.

[As a side-note, to anyone reading this who has had any chocolate that I’ve made, I would never actually try to pass of fake stuff as real, and I’m up-front when I do use white chocolate which isn’t really chocolate.]

Getting Into It, But Not Really, or “How Could a Simple One-Armed Farmer …”

With this in mind, Biedny did an in-depth analysis of one of the photographs that Horn had been putting forward as genuine. On the episode, Biedny pointed to several artifacts in the photograph that clearly demonstrated compositing different images and models to create the single finished product. Getting into the details is not the purpose of this post – go listen to the episode if you’re interested.

Rather, Horn’s reaction is what I wanted to address. As has been the case in the comments section of my own blog, Horn has refused to directly address the refutations I gave of the alleged prognostication of asteroid Apophis. The first post on the subject contains the bulk of Horn’s comments which simply dodge the issue and point to other alleged predictions. The second post on the subject contained a detailed look at the timeline of the alleged prediction where I looked through all of the available documented evidence to show that Meier did not predict Apophis. For me, that was the equivalent of what Biedny did with the one photograph – I went into detail on one prediction. The third post was more of a superficial discussion of it, discussing my discussion of the blog discussion during my discussion with Karl Mamer. Lots of discussing.

But none addressing the point — I directly challenged Horn on at least 4 occasions on my blog – both in posts and on the comments – to come up with a refute to my break-down of the timeline of the alleged prediction of Apophis. He has not done so.

Neither did he with any of the points that Biedny raised for the faked photograph. Rather, very conspicuously – and discussed during a recap during the last ~8 minutes of the latter Paracast episode – Horn dodged the points that Biedny raised. He had two main things he kept going back to. First was the various other experts that he claims have looked at the photograph and said it’s genuine. However, I refer you to my discussion of chocolate that I had a few paragraphs ago – it does not matter how many experts I have convinced that what I’m putting forward is real, it just takes one to shoot something down. The second thing he kept coming back to was, “Yes, but how could a simple one-armed farmer …” (the quote may have been “simple one-armed Swiss farmer” a few times, I don’t actually remember). I liked the host’s response to that after the upteenth time that Horn raised it (following is paraphrased even though it’s in quotes): “We’re not saying that he did. He could have had help. All we’re saying is that there is undeniable evidence that this photograph has been faked, we don’t care how he may have done it.”

Final Thoughts

That was really the extent of the discourse. Not once did Horn directly address Biedny’s demonstrable claims of pointing out flaws in the photo that show it to have been forged. Horn simply dodged the subject. Occasionally, Horn would ask, “But look at this [other] photograph.” Biedny’s response – in my mind – was quite proper, and it was effectively, “Why should I? I’ve neither the time nor inclination. I’ve shown one that you put forward as genuine has been faked beyond a reasonable doubt, calling into question all the rest of the claims.”

Similarly on my blog, Horn has refused to directly address the evidence I presented in terms of the Apophis timeline, and rather he has pointed to other alleged predictions and claims and lines of evidence that, at the moment, I have zero inclination nor time to pursue. But, I don’t think I need to. I have demonstrably shown with the available evidence that the claim that Meier predicted Apophis is false. I think that calls into question all the rest of his claims, and I don’t think I need to go into them, especially when others already have.

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