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.

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