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Instant Skeptic
It would be accurate to say that some of the more frequent questions I am asked are concerned with why I don't actually believe certain things. Below is a list (which I hope will grow and grow) explaining in very concise terms some of my reasoning. Of course giving such narrow accounts leaves me open to any number of retorts and comebacks. Nevertheless I think it's worth nailing my colours to the mast.
 

Critical thinking

Hypnosis
Ghosts/hauntings
Telepathy
Mediumship/spiritualism
UFOs/Alien abductions
Crop circles
Dowsing
Stigmata
Telekinesis
Cold reading
Homeopathy

 

Critical thinking
This is a huge area, whole books have been written about how to think critically but this is an instant guide so we’ll restrict ourselves to a few of the basics tools.

Occam’s Razor
A much loved principle among skeptics. Named after William of Ockham (I prefer Bill Ockham) who said something on the lines of, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity” only Bill said it in Latin. So what does this actually mean? It’s sometimes put as, “the simplest explanation is most likely to be true.” Notice “most likely”, this particular tool is no guarantee of proof. Simple example: I keep losing my car keys because invisible gnomes keep hiding them, or do I just forget where I left them? Here’s another example. Either mediums actually talk to the dead or they use cold reading (yes other possibilities may exist but I’m only trying to illustrate the basic point). Starting with cold reading we know that this method (a catch all term for a variety of verbally dexterous techniques) can work. I know because I’ve done it myself. We also know that the history of mediumship has been littered with fraud. On the other hand for the actual “talking to the dead” hypothesis to be true we have to make a number of unproven assumptions. E.g. our personalities can somehow survive death and communicate with certain gifted individuals. These ‘souls’ appear to be able to see without eyes and speak without voice boxes as well as survive without nourishment. All our current science seems to show that without a functioning brain we do not maintain consciousness. Take your pick. I can hear you already saying “Yes but what about my friend who was told... (add your own impossible fact).” Which leads me to another tool in the box….

Anecdotal evidence
Someone tells you that they’ve been abducted by aliens. They seem utterly sincere but you remain just a sliver of scepticism. Then you go to a UFO convention and you meet ten other people who also claim the same thing. Their stories have a certain similarity about them and now you think perhaps there is something in it. But what exactly? Basically whereas you had one piece of weak evidence you now have ten more pieces of weak evidence. Eleven pieces of the same weak evidence do not strengthen the claim. I know it seems like it but it doesn’t. You still only have the word of a few seemingly rational people. The problem is that the claim is rather extraordinary and the battle cry of the sceptic is, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A piece of alien technology that is completely unknown here on Earth would be extraordinary evidence. Alas anecdote is not sufficiently persuasive – and it’s not science.

Appeals to ignorance
“I saw him bend a spoon”.
“Perhaps it was sleight of hand?”
“I know what I saw.”
“But magicians can bend spoons. Quickness of the hand and all that.”
“No I could see he didn’t use any trickery.”
“Wow, there’s no other explanation, it must have been supernatural.”

What is being said here is basically, “I don’t know how it was done therefore it is paranormal.” In actual fact all that can be said is, “I don’t know how it was done.” There is no logic in saying, “I can’t explain it therefore it cannot be explained.” Maybe no one can at the moment but just because we don’t have an explanation to hand doesn’t mean that none exist.

It’s no good just claiming that because science can’t explain it then it must be supernatural. It’s not very satisfactory to support your argument by appeals to ignorance. How can aliens be here when the distance they would have to travel is so mind bogglingly huge? It’s a good question and just coming up with, “well they’ve probably developed technology we can’t possibly understand” is a bit of a weak response. It may even be true but if we’re limited only by our imagination then just about anything is possible.

Recommendations for critical thinking;

 
 
 

Hypnosis
Okay you’ve see perfectly reasonable people on television or at a show doing completely stupid things because they’ve been hypnotised. You’ve heard about others who have had surgical operations without experiencing any pain. Still more have recalled forgotten memories of abuse suffered as children and even people who have remembered past lives. With all this going on you’re thinking there has to be something in it. But is there?

Martin Taylor is a hypnotist who does an act where no-one ever gets ‘hypnotised’. They do all the stupid, and it has to be said, amusing stuff that you see with ‘real hypnotists’ but – no hypnosis. Pain is a very subjective thing and people can tolerate different levels of pain. Why don’t we all do away in anaesthetic? Answer, because hypnosis only apparently works for a few people. Can anyone recall things more accurately because they are hypnotised? Not that I know of.

There are two main theories about hypnosis the ‘altered state’ theory and the ‘social compliance’ theory. No one can demonstrate that there is any such thing as an 'altered state' but we know people will do things due to peer pressure etc. When a stage hypnotist gets volunteers from the audience he (or she) gets them to do a series of increasingly odd things until she (or he) is left with a core of willing volunteers.

You want to stop smoking or cure your fear of Michael Howard then don’t rely on hypnosis to help you out. However the more you believe it will work the more likely you’ll get a result.

Dr Graham Wagstaff: http://www.i-psy.com/people/people_wagstaff.php

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: http://skepdic.com/hypnosis.html

 


Ghosts/hauntings
So you’ve seen a ghost or someone you know has seen one. Fair enough, what was it you actually saw? I’m not asking for a description such as a man in an Elizabethan costume carrying his head under his arm but I want to know what do you mean when you say you’ve seen a ‘ghost’? There are a few possibilities. The spirit of a dead person or perhaps some sort of recording of a past event which is replayed under certain conditions. The again perhaps it was just something you misinterpreted. Pretty much everyone finds the last possibility very disappointing so let’s start with the other two. A dead spirit eh? Was this spirit dressed? Do clothes have an afterlife? How about ghost ships? Do you think of a ghost as being ‘non-physical’? If so how did you see it? Light waves must have been reflected from its surface so that your eye could register it and send signals down your optic nerves to your brain. Did the ghost communicate in any way? If so how did you hear it without sound waves? How can something be ‘non-physical’ and yet said to exist?

There is of course no known mechanism by which events can be recorded in old brickwork (for example). Yes I realise video and DVDs can do it but there’s a whole bundle of technology going on there from camera to DVD player, it’s an analogy but not an explanation. Perhaps we’ll discover it you say, after all science doesn’t know everything. Well that discovery will be Nobel Prize material but as far as I’m aware no one is even considering it as even a remote possibility so it may be quite a wait.

We do know that people see things that aren’t there. We also know that many sightings happen a night under conditions of poor visibility and when the ‘atmosphere’ is such that we are filled with a certain amount of expectation. To say you’ve seen a ghost is really not providing much information. You may well have seen something but not necessarily dead people.
See: Ghost hunting for beginners

Telepathy
Personally I’m grateful that I can keep my thoughts to myself. Imagine a world where the government could tap into your thoughts and not just your phone. So how could it work? Two possibilities spring to mind. Either it’s something physical and there is some physical transmission from one brain to another or it’s non-physical. If the first is true why can’t we detect any means of transmission? As Vic Stenger points out, scientists can detect the tiniest of things such as neutrinos. Neutrinos can pass right through you, me and the entire planet but we can detect them. Amazing and yet we can’t find any mechanism from one brain to another. Another curiosity is that this ‘energy’ is not hampered by such things as the inverse square law, i.e. the further you are away from the source of energy the weaker it gets. Can the brain generate enough power to transmit long distances? No.Zener Cards

On the other hand it could be more supernatural in origin and not be physical at all. At this point we wave science a fond farewell and move into philosophy. Rene Decartes of “I think therefore I am” fame, thought there were two types of substance; physical and non-physical. The problem with the latter is that it’s a pretty odd concept. How can something be non-physical and yet be said to exist? Beats me, but there’s another problem. How can something physical interact with something non-physical. Think about it! No answer seems to present itself and good old Rene, along with every philosopher since, couldn’t come up with an answer either.

Nevertheless for the sake of argument let's assume that a mechanism for telepathy could exist but we just haven't worked it out yet. Current testing for telepathy isn't trying to find the mechanism, it's trying to see if there is an effect at all and as far as I can tell, other than anecdotal evidence, there is no more reason to believe in telepathy than mentally being able to change lead into gold. Experiments using the Ganzfield techinque are being carried out at Edinburgh University but no breakthrough seems imminent.

Telepathy can appear to be real through trickery or sometimes through coincidences. A popular demonstration of telepathy is when a performer reproduces a drawing done by someone else. This is a trick pure and simple. You’re thinking of someone and they phone you within the next two minutes. It can happen – and we don’t need to rewrite the science books when it does.


Mediumship/spiritualism
Talking to the dead. Mediums are all over the place these days. The likes of Derek Acorah, Colin Fry, Shirley Ghostman turn up on our TV screens and have become national heroes, at least to some (yes I realise ‘Shirley’ is a spoof – do you realise the others are as well?) Spiritualism is great at reinventing itself. It began with rapping noises and moved on to table tipping and other curiosities. Soon there were full physical manifestations of dead spirits followed by the scientific sounding ectoplasm. Alas no more, at least not in public. All we get now are the likes of Derek Acorah asking, “Who’s John?

Margery CrandonDo survive bodily death? I doubt it. We evolved from simpler life forms and to think that somewhere along the journey, from single cell organism to human being, a benevolent god (I use this ill-defined word with caution) gave us ‘souls’ makes no sense at all. What does make sense is that we do not want to accept the fact that we will cease to exist when we finally die. Mediums live off this fear but in fairness that isn’t the same as saying they are deliberately conning us. The method they use is (usually) cold reading. This isn’t just a question of making obvious statements it is a sometimes complex mix of different tactics and strategies that enable a medium (or astrologer, graphologist, tarot reader, palm reader, etc…) to appear to be privy to information from an unearthly source. Much has been written about this technique and yet it is surprisingly still misunderstood. It is so good that the medium themselves can genuinely believe they have ‘the gift’. The method falls down when you start asking the medium to answer specific questions. My favourite being, “What was my maternal Grandfather’s nickname?” However if the medium manages to obtain personal information about you, either deliberately or by chance then this doesn’t necessarily apply. One thing that you might like to consider is that most mediums will not allow themselves to be tested: the exception being when the ‘scientist’ in question is a believer.

UFOs/Alien Abduction
To reach this planet alien spacecraft have to travel massive distances that are truly mind numbing to think about. Their craft is often reported as not being constrained by the laws of physics as we understand them. So what do they do when they arrive? Well they like using farmer’s crops to make interesting patterns. If this gets boring they occasionally abduct people and stick things up their noses. They often show considerable interest in our genitalia. Sometimes they just buzz around with no particular purpose in mind. They seem to take steps to avoid our radar but don’t mind being spotted by a lonesome truck driver.

Despite the huge number of sightings reported there is not one tiny shred of evidence the might give us some cause to consider that there may be something to this after all. Do you know how good the police are at collecting forensic evidence? DNA can be collected from your breath on a window (or so I’ve been told by the police). But in all these years of sightings, abductions and supposed government cover ups we don’t have so much as an alien crisp packet.

Tell you what, when you have some hard evidence give me a call. Meanwhile talk to the Gray ‘cause the Earthling ain’t listening.

Crop Circles
Look this is really easy. All crop circles can be made by people. Yes they are very clever and pretty but they bugger up farmer’s crops so stop it – or pay the farmer. There is no rhyme nor reason for aliens to waste their time doing this. If you think they are you’re beyond help.

Dowsing
A surprising number of people think this works. Yes the twig, pendulum or whatever moves but it moves due to the ideomotor effect and not because it can detect water, oil, gold, missing persons or dead bodies. Sometimes people will get lucky, in fact because of the water table here in the UK there’s a damn good chance you’ll find water almost anywhere – if you dig deep enough. What would prove this once and for all is for dowsers to show repeated success at properly conducted tests. Unfortunately what they show is repeated failure followed by repeated excuses. My suggestion is to buy the video from the Australian Skeptics and witness test after test followed by amazingly consistent results i.e. abject failure.

Stigmata
Since Francis of Asisi this phenomenon has caused the bewilderment of many. There are three popular theories;

a) God/Jesus or whoever causes this to happen by supernatural means.

b) The subject causes the injuries (whether real or fake) themselves.

c) Caused by the subconscious mind affecting the victim's body. Referred to as 'psychogenic purpura'.

My own view (applying Billy Ockham's theory) is that b) is the most likely candidate. For all I know c) remains a possibility but as this is controversial I'm sticking with b).

We never get to see the actual marks appearing by themselves, i.e. a camera fixed on the subject's hand and the gradual appearance of blood.

Here's the sort of thing I mean. Still photos of the various stages;

Stigmata image 1 Stigmata image 2 Stigmata image 2 Stigmata image 4

If you click each image you can see them in close up.
The stigmatic in this case did not wish to be identified. Okay it's my hand if you must know but this is strictly between you and me!

http://www.skepticssa.org.au/html/stigmata.html

http://skepdic.com/stigmata.html

http://paranormal.about.com/od/stigmata/


Telekinesis
Sometimes called ‘psychokinesis’, both words referring to the ability to physically move objects with the power of the mind. Grainy monochrome footage of Russian psychics moving things around aren’t particularly convincing – even if you can’t see the thread. Neither is making a compass needle twitch. Here’s a question. What, apart from a psychic with powers that defy scientific explanation, can make a compass needle move?

  • a carrot
  • a magnet
  • a picture of Prince Charles

Calls cost a minimum of 25p.

Bending spoons comes under this heading. Just how the mind might do this is unclear. Via a spaceship from the planet ‘Hoova’ is one possibility, using sleight of hand is another. Watching a magician make a spoon bend before your eyes can be both mystifying and entertaining. When you see one do it you should be generous with your applause as you may be witnessing great skill. If you want to know how it’s done then that’s easy - buy a DVD or book from your local magic supplier. Then again just save your money and let me assure you, as someone who has bought the books and DVDs, I have never seen a psychic bend anything that could not also be accomplished by trickery.

Cold Reading
This is a catch all term that purports to explain how such things as astrology, graphology, fortune telling, tarot reading and apparent communication with the dead. Having successfully posed as a tarot reader and an astrologer on television I can vouch that it does actually work. Typical techniques include talking about general aspects of people’s lives that sound specific to them but in fact apply to most of us at one time or another.

For example:

"I see a celebration coming up soon, or perhaps one’s just gone."

Birthdays are a pretty common occurrence and there’s a reasonable chance this will be happening. There’s also house warmings, weddings and wedding anniversaries, and christenings.

"There’s a legal matter that you’re concerned with. Could be a relative is up for armed robbery or maybe you’re moving house."

There might be frequent questioning although they might be in disguise.

“Who’s George?” Or, “I’m getting the name… George…<pause>”

I’ve written more fully about this technique in Psychic Sophistry and Before You See a Psychic.

A number of magician’s who specialise in producing psychic effects have accused me of exposing tricks by discussing cold reading to the point where some have refused to sell me certain items of a ‘magicky’ nature. They seem to think that this technique is their sole property and anyway so what if a few people get ripped off along the way? Needless to say I don’t agree with this view and neither do many magicians. This technique goes back way before any psychic entertainer got hold of the idea and there are more important issues at stake than what is probably a tiny part of their act. Of course if they set themselves up as psychics then as far as I’m concerned they are just perpetrating a fraud. I confess I have used cold reading techniques myself on occasion (as part of a trick) and even though I have explained it many times no one seems to spot it.

See also: James Randi's, "The Art of Cold Reading" and The Skeptic Dictionary

Homeopathy
This pretty much stands as a crowning glory to irrational thought. Despite all evidence to the contrary homeopathy has established itself as one of the most popular alternative therapies.

So you think it might work? Well we all know the story that some medications (e.g. aspirin) began life as herbal medicine. So you’re not going to rush to dismiss herbs, etc. out of hand are you? You may well view homeopathy as being something quite similar to herbal medicine.

You may also have heard that one characteristic of the treatment is to dilute the substance to very small quantities. Well isn’t that a similar way to how vaccines work? You take a very small amount of the substance which triggers an immune response in your body or something like that.

Well no that’s not what homeopathy is at all.

There are two main principles in homeopathy both of which are decidedly flaky. The first is that ‘Like Cures Like’. So if you feel all cold and shivery with a runny nose and a headache the stuff you take would, if administered normally, bring about similar symptoms. Think about this for a moment. Even though a virus may have brought this illness on, taking something that makes you feel just as bad supposedly helps alleviate it. Really?

One website I found (http://www.practicalhealing.co.uk/) lists some of the things that homeopathy can be used to treat, e.g.

Poor Sleep
Hair Loss
Exam Nerves
Sinusitis
Back Pain
Allergies
Warts
Drug Withdrawal
Memory Weakness

Bearing in mind our ‘like cures like’ hypothesis what could we use for poor sleep? Presumably caffeine fits the bill. How about hair loss? I mean who decides what works? What trials were done to arrive at these treatments?

Still we’re only just starting. Here’s the really weird bit. Homeopaths believe that the more you dilute something the stronger it gets, or at least the better its curative effect. That’s daft enough but it gets worse. The base substance (usually water) is diluted so much that the original treatment is completely missing. That’s right, all that’s left is water. You simply add a small drop to sugar tablets and swallow – hook, line and sinker!

The theory is that water somehow has a ‘memory’.

In 2002 the BBC programme Horizon (link below) tested this theory and James Randi stepped forward offering the JREF $1 million prize. Homeopathy failed dismally, much as you would expect but the most powerful point made by the programme (IMHO) was just what this diluted dosage means.

Take your substance (let’s say caffeine) and mix it with 99 parts water. Bash it around a bit (called percussion) and you have a solution rated as ‘1C’ - then mix it some more.

Mixing it repeatedly this way eventually gets you to ‘6C’ which means we have the equivalent of 1 drop of caffeine in 20 swimming pools full of water. Mix it some more and you’ll get to 12C which equates to 1 drop in a body of water the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Move up to 30C, which is a common dose, and you won’t have any of the original substance left. However that won’t matter because you’ve been bashing it about between each dilution thus helping the water ‘remember’ what was probably not an effective cure in the first place.

Horizon Homeopathy test
Skeptic's Dictionary
Belgian Skeptics attempt suicide
UK Skeptics on homeopathy

More to subjects follow.....

 

 

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