219. Dr. Stephen Law On How Science Handles Extraordinary Claims

219-drstephenlaw-interview-alex-tsakiris-skeptiko-219

Interview with philosopher and noted atheist Dr. Stephen Law examines the philosophy of science and extraordinary claims.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Stephen Law author of, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole.  During the interview Law talks about how science measures extraordinary claims:

Alex Tsakiris: This idea of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof, you want to talk about sweeping mystery, sweeping evidence that you don’t like under the rug, here is the mantra for the Centre for Inquiry crowd. I see that as an intellectually feeble pronouncement — extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof—that is anti-science, isn’t it?

Dr. Stephen Law:   Why do you think that?

Alex Tsakiris:   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 the idea that after the fact, after the results come in, we say, “You know, those are pretty interesting results but I deem that to be extraordinary; therefore, you’ll need an extra level of proof on that.” I think it’s just silly.

Dr. Stephen Law:   Okay, I think I see where you’re coming from. The way I’ve understood that principle, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, says that suppose I tell you that over there, I’ve got a mobile phone and a cup, okay, and I do this, there’s the mobile phone and the cup.
You’re going to go, “Hey, yeah, that’s good enough for me.” Steve’s got a mobile phone and a cup. If I now wield out a fairy which I make dance on the end of my finger and go, “There you go, a fairy on the end of my finger,” you’re going to go, “Yeah, Steve’s got a fairy on the end of his finger. Fair enough. I’ll accept that on the basis of the same kind of evidence that I accepted he’s got a cup with a mobile phone.” I bet you would not.

Alex Tsakiris:   Sure, but we’re talking about science here. We’re talking about peer-review.  The example I sent you and I have personal experience with, because he told it to me on this show, is British psychologist and parapsychology critic, Richard Wiseman.  He has investigated probably more of these paranormal parapsychology claims, like telepathy, than 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 begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?”

So Stephen, this is not a fairy in the cup. This is a guy who has reviewed hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and is saying, You know what? It’s good enough for any other field of science but not good enough here because of the ground-breaking upset it would make for science. This is the best evidence I could give you for my claim about scientific materialism being woven into science as we know it.

Dr. Stephen Law:   I think if I stick my finger out there and it appears to be a finger with a fairy spinning around on the end of it, you’re going to be very, very suspicious. You’re not just going to say, “Yeah, Stephen’s proved to me that there are fairies.” You’re going to require much more investigation before you take my word for it that there really is a fairy spinning around on the end of my finger. Why is that? It’s because the prior probability of anything like a fairy exists is very, very low indeed, knowing what we do.

(continued below)

Dr. Stehpen Law’s Blog

Click here for YouTube version

Click here for forum discussion

Play It 

Listen Now:

Download MP3 (64 min.)

Read It:

Alex Tsakiris:   Let me, in that spirit, return to your book, Believing Bullshit, with another quote that I liked: “The more we appeal to mystery to get ourselves out of intellectual trouble, the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient truths or discoveries, the more vulnerable we become to deceit. Deceit by both others and by ourselves.”

Let me juxtapose the quote from your book with a quote from biologist Rupert Sheldrake, author of The Science Delusion, one of these folks out there among many, many that I’ve spoken with and are out there who can see this scientific materialism and the position of folks like Richard Dawkins as a major impediment to really moving forward and answering some of these big questions. Here’s what Sheldrake says: “For more than 200 years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. These believers are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs.”

So of course, he’s being a little bit provocative in using these words of religion but I think he has a point when he talks about this promissory note of science and that really being a part of scientism, of just wait a minute boys, we’ve got it covered. Just give us some more time. But really, when we look at the long history of science, for the last 200 years we see progress in some areas and in other areas the kinds of questions we’re talking about in terms of consciousness, in terms of meaning, we see very little progress. Or worse yet, we see progress that’s leading us in another direction that we’re not willing to follow because we’re married to this idea that unless we can measure everything then we’re going to be lost.

Dr. Stephen Law:  I don’t sign up to scientism if scientism is the view that ultimately every meaningful question can be answered by an application of the empirical sciences. I don’t sign up to that. But then the vast majority of scientists don’t sign up to that, either. They acknowledge the moral questions, for example, are questions that science is not well placed to answer and many other questions, too. In fact, even Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, makes it clear that he doesn’t think that science can answer every question. So very, very few people actually are wedded to scientism.

Also, very many scientists are not wedded to materialism because, as a matter of fact, they’re religious, right? Many Christians are scientists. They’re clearly not materialists but they really do believe that by using science they can better understand a great deal of the world around us and that science is the best tool for finding out about that world we see around us. So I just don’t buy this that science is all about materialism and scientism. That just seems to me to be an excuse or a way of explaining away why it is that maybe scientists aren’t signing up to what it is that Sheldrake wants them to sign up to, maybe.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, I don’t know on that last part. I think there’s a deeper point here when we talk about scientific materialism and this idea that when it comes down to it, science is nothing if we can’t measure things, right? And the notion that we are something more than our brain, that mind equals brain, isn’t true. We are not biological robots. You said earlier that falsifying that doesn’t mean an end to Atheism. We could go off on that discussion.

Falsifying that does bring an end to scientific materialism in a way that it’s currently deeply, deeply embedded into our culture, certainly into our academics. That is that if mind does not equal brain, if your mind isn’t solely a result of the chemical neural activity inside your brain right now, then we’ve got a huge measurement problem. We have to start asking questions like, how many angels fit on the head of a pin. Those kinds of questions that we left long ago because we realized where they take us. I don’t know how you get around it from a philosophical standpoint. I think that’s what’s at stake with this mind equals brain problem.

Dr. Stephen Law:  Well, I can see what you’re doing there. You’re saying there’s a veil here and the stuff this side of the veil, I can put my tape measure up against it and I can measure it. But hey, if there’s stuff behind the veil and I can’t get my tape measure back there and do the measuring because it’s the mind and the mind isn’t physical even, then there’s a real problem about scientific investigation of that phenomenon.

Alex Tsakiris:   I don’t think I’m saying that. I think that’s what Stephen Hawking is saying, what Richard Dawkins is saying. I think that’s what a lot of people are saying who are like, hey, don’t really go there too far because you don’t want to fully embrace what that means. Tell me why you don’t think that’s…

Dr. Stephen Law:   Just because something is not observable doesn’t mean that it’s not scientifically investigable. Science deals with…

Alex Tsakiris:   Wait a minute. I don’t think that’s true. Tell me how we can measure something we can’t observe.

Dr. Stephen Law:   Well, you can investigate things by investigating their effects. You can’t observe electrons. You can’t observe the distant past of this planet. You cannot observe a living dinosaur. All of these things are beyond our ability to observe but we can still draw reasonable conclusions about these unobserved portions of reality by thinking through the consequences of such things.

If it’s true that dinosaurs once reigned the Earth, then we should find certain things embedded in the ground now, for example. There should be certain clues that we should be able to discover. If it’s true that crystals have certain effects on people’s psyches by some supernatural means, we can do some double-blind experiments to see whether or not the crystals have those kinds of effects. If prayer has the ability to cure people then we can do double-blind experiments. They have been done to see whether petitionary prayer really does have the ability to cure heart patients, say.

Just because the phenomenon itself is behind the screen doesn’t mean that you can’t actually empirically investigate it. I thought that Rupert Sheldrake was very much in favor of that kind of investigation.

Alex Tsakiris:   I think he is but what he’s alluding to is that we have to be cautious in the same way that you’re talking about. In a way that’s why I like to juxtapose those two quotes, yours and his, because in a way you’re talking about the same thing. About sweeping mystery under the rug. What Sheldrake is warning us about is don’t think that science isn’t already sweeping a whole lot of mystery under the rug. I always think of the quote from the famous physicists, Richard Feynman, who says, “Anyone who claims to understand quantum theory is either lying or crazy,” right?

There’s a whole lot of mystery that is at the core of physics as we understand it that we just conveniently sweep under the rug because we don’t want to deal with it. Or as you put it, we put it on the other side of the veil and say, “Oh, we can’t really understand it but we can fool around with measuring these effects.” I think what you’ve really done is switch the game here because the game was about that we have this closed-loop system. Everything that is physical is manifested in a way that we can measure it. If we change that assumption I really think we’ve changed the game in a fundamental way. Obviously you see it somewhat differently.

Dr. Stephen Law:   I have no problem at all with acknowledging that some things are currently beyond our understanding and may be in principle beyond our understanding. My problem is with those who, when their belief in some phenomenon has been challenged, there’s a serious intellectual threat. The evidence very strongly suggests that what they believe is not true.

Say they believe in petitionary prayer or they believe that crystals have some amazing effect on people’s psyches. The experiments are done and the evidence looks very much as if it’s simply not true. They respond by saying, “Yes, but there are more things in heaven and hell than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That’s what they say at that point. And what they’re doing now is they’re using the veil as an immunizing device to protect what they believe from any kind of threat. Now that, it seems to me, is intellectually very devious indeed.

To some extent we all do that a little bit but the more you do it, the more vulnerable you become to deceit by others and by yourself. You end up kidding yourself in the end. So it’s that kind of appeal to mystery that bothers me. I have no problem with mystery. There are plenty of them and they inspire us to keep looking and keep searching and it may be that some will never be solved. It may be that they are necessarily unsolvable. But let’s not use mystery as a get-out-of-jail card whenever we find ourselves cornered in an argument.

Alex Tsakiris:   Fair enough. But as you’re also Provost for the Centre for Inquiry in the UK, which I’m not sure how it’s perceived in the UK but in the U.S. is known as basically a debunking organization for all manner of paranormal claims.

That leads me directly into this last topic I want to talk to you about in terms of philosophy of science. As you were saying that, what just kept ringing through my ears is what I hear all the time, this idea of extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I mean, you want to talk about sweeping mystery, sweeping evidence that you don’t like under the rug, here is the mantra that the whole Centre for Inquiry crowd pulls out.

I guess I should start with that. I see that as just an intellectually feeble kind of pronouncement. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof—that is anti-science, isn’t it?

Dr. Stephen Law:   Why do you think that?

Alex Tsakiris:   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. Stephen Law:   Okay, I think I see where you’re coming from. The way I’ve understood that principle, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, says that suppose I tell you that over there, I’ve got a mobile phone and a cup, okay, and I do this, there’s the mobile phone and the cup.

You’re going to go, “Hey, yeah, that’s good enough for me.” Steve’s got a mobile phone and a cup. If I now wield out a fairy which I make dance on the end of my finger and go, “There you go, a fairy on the end of my finger,” you’re going to go, “Yeah, Steve’s got a fairy on the end of his finger. Fair enough. I’ll accept that on the basis of the same kind of evidence that I accepted he’s got a cup with a mobile phone.” I bet you would not.

Alex Tsakiris:   Sure, sure. We’re talking about science here. We’re talking about peer-review. Here’s the example that I sent you and I have personal experience with because he told it to me and we discussed it on this show. 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 bets the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?”

So Stephen, this is not the fairy in the cup over here. This is a guy who has reviewed hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and saying, You know what? It’s good enough for any other field but not good enough because of the ground-breaking upset it would make for science. This is the best evidence I could give you for my claim about scientific materialism being woven into science as we know it.

Dr. Stephen Law:   I think if I stick my finger out there and it appears to be a finger with a fairy spinning around on the end of it, you’re going to be very, very suspicious. You’re not just going to say, “Yeah, Stephen’s proved to me that there are fairies.” You’re going to require much more investigation before you take my word for it that there really is a fairy spinning around on the end of my finger. Why is that? It’s because the prior probability of anything like a fairy exists is very, very low indeed, knowing what we do.

Alex Tsakiris:   You don’t even believe this yourself. Again, the quote is “By the standards of any other area of science this is proven.” 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. But it is…

Dr. Stephen Law:   There are certain things that the scientist is going to take as real. He’s going to take it that that really is #1 on the dial. He can see it right there. That’s not going to be a problem as far as he or she is concerned. There are certain things we are going to take on the basis of that’s just how things appear to be. Scientists do that; even in the laboratory they’re going to do that, although they’ll hopefully go away and repeat the experiment and other people will do the same kind of thing.

Again, they’ll just look at the dial and say, “Okay, #1. Okay, let’s carry on.” The extent to which we raise the evidential bar depends on just how extraordinary the claim is. How likely it is that we would have the evidence that the claim is true and how unlikely it would be that we would have the evidence if the clue wasn’t true.

Alex Tsakiris:   But isn’t that what science is doing? Isn’t that what science is doing all the time? Isn’t that what the peer-review process is doing, is determining what evidence we already have as our base, what new evidence we should consider?

Dr. Stephen Law:   Maybe your view is that there’s already an awful lot of evidence in for the existence of psychic powers, say.

Alex Tsakiris:   Enough evidence that “by the standards by any other area of science it’s proven.” Those are Wiseman’s words, and I think it’s true.

Dr. Stephen Law:   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. It’s not that I would always refuse to believe that there were some psychic powers. As a matter of fact, I don’t. But I’m certainly open to persuasion.

But I know, for example, that scientists can be a little bit unreliable when it comes to investigating psychic phenomena. They have been duped. It’s on record. It has been established that scientists are really, really good when it comes to chemicals in a petri dish, but when it comes to a couple of people in front of them, they are vulnerable to the same kinds of moves and deceits that the rest of us are. It turns out they don’t have any special expertise when it comes to investigating someone like Uri Geller, for example. It turns out that they will fall for the same tricks as the man in the street.

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.

Alex Tsakiris:   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…

Dr. Stephen Law:   They have proved it.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, wait a minute. We could get into that evidence and talk about that but I think what you’d find is that all the work that’s been done suggests that parapsychology stands above virtually every other area of science in terms of controlling for these kinds of lack of controls because they’ve been under such scrutiny for the last 50 years. They’re more aware of this than anyone else. That’s what the hard data tells us. Again, I just think that the idea that we need to layer on top of science The Centre for Inquiry…

Dr. Stephen Law:   All of these people are investigating and finding nothing. They can’t replicate experiments; they do not get the same results when they repeat the experiments that supposedly show the psychic effect. There is not the repeating that you would expect. So at the very least you should be a little bit skeptical here. You shouldn’t just assume that the reason they’re not getting the results. When Wiseman does the experiment he doesn’t get the results. When Chris French does the experiment he doesn’t get the results. When Randi did the experiment he didn’t get the results.

Alex Tsakiris:   Randi? You really want to throw Randi into a serious scientific debate? Again, if that’s your claim then you would have to back that up.

Now we’re moving from talking about philosophy to talking about the evidence. I’m all for talking about the evidence but I don’t think that’s a debate that really you will stand up very well in because we’ve looked at the evidence. The evidence has been published. The evidence isn’t as you’ve been led to believe. The evidence is as Richard Wiseman has said right here, that by any other area of science it’s proven. That really is the dirty, dark secret here but it gets spun in a different way. So if you want to talk about evidence, we can talk about evidence all day long. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of these guys and had them on the show and hashed that out, including…

Dr. Stephen Law:   Think about it like this. Say somebody says, “I’ve got a machine here that’s really good at lifting heavy weights.” We say, “Okay, that’s not particularly surprising or a particularly extraordinary claim. We’ll test it. Let’s produce a rig and an experiment. We’ll test it in the lab to see if it really does the thing.” By golly, it does. It passes the test, okay?

Now this guy comes in. He says, “I’ve got this other machine. It’s a perpetual motion machine.” He moves it in. He says, “Just do the same experiment. I don’t want you to change anything. The same standards that you applied to my first machine I want you to apply those exact same standards to this machine. If it passes then you have to tell the world that my perpetual motion machine really works.”

I don’t think that would be fair because the first machine is not revolutionary and extraordinary in the way that the second machine is. That second machine has to be investigated much more carefully and the standards applied have to be far more rigorous because of the truly extraordinary nature of the claim that’s being presented to us. That’s what extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence means, and it’s true.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, Stephen, I just beg to differ. I don’t think you’re intimately familiar with the data. Dr. Dean Radin is someone I just interviewed on the last episode of Skeptiko…

Dr. Stephen Law:   I invite him to contribute to Think. I’ve published his stuff.

Alex Tsakiris:   That’s great. Let’s just dive into a little bit of the details of some data. He ran this experiment called a presentiment experiment. The reason he set this up is because it’s a common experiment that’s been run on freshmen college students for decades. That’s that you hook them up to some kind of biometric device, various different ones, to measure their reactions. You flash a picture on the computer screen and it’s either a non-exciting picture of a pastoral scene or something like that or it’s something very provocative like sex or violence or something like that.

Then he wanted to measure the reactions from those people. What he found was a reaction before the photo was even selected by the computer. It’s a very small reaction but it’s repeatable. He has repeated this experiment, Stephen, over 50 times in seven different labs. It’s been repeated around the world…

Dr. Stephen Law:   Not just by him. By other people.

Alex Tsakiris:   By other people, yes. By him, dozens of times. By other labs other than him, at least nine times by the last count. It’s been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals. So here is an example of the kind of evidence that Richard Wiseman is talking about when he says that by any other standards of science, a guy does an experiment, repeats the experiment, makes the experiment public, this is proof.

It’s just not accepted because it doesn’t fit within our paradigm. Not because it’s extraordinary but because of the implications of what that would mean for—talk about a measurement problem. Okay, now we have to measure the fact that you are somehow aware of things that are happening before they happen. Well, you can see how unsettling that is to science.

 

 

But as you’re also

 

Submit a Comment