Brian Dunning, Is the “Skeptical Thing” Over? |363|

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Brian Dunning hosts a popular skeptical podcast, but is the “skeptical community” being pushed to the fringe.

photo by: Skeptiko

(audio from James Rani’s 2013 Amazing Meeting) Welcome back everybody. Moving right along, as they say, get your seats, get your seats. This is going to be a killer panel, I’m so excited to listen to this. Coming up now we’ve got magicians vs psychics…

Is it just me. or does the whole skeptical thing just sound dated? Like this clip from the 2013 Amazing Meeting.

Okay, here is the haiku from magicians vs psychics; both groups flat-out lie, you know, magicians, psychics, only one is honest…

Dated in a Johnny Carson kind of way.

(audio from Tonight Show) James Randi is here tonight and…

But it’s still kind of amazing to me, to look back at just a few short years ago, when real scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson embraced this guy who, as I explained today’s guest Brian Dunning, the creator and host of the Skeptoid podcast , is a proven liar.

(Alex Tsakiris) This guy was caught lying over and over. He lied about Uri Geller, he lied about Rupert Sheldrake, he lied to dozens of people about The Million Dollar Challenge and that was found out… he lied about his background, he claimed he was this genius with an IQ of 186 and he didn’t have to go to school, because he had this special [library pass]. I mean, his whole story was just one lie after another. You really consider this guy a mentor? In what way was he a mentor, or someone who you would look up to?

(Brian Dunning) Well first of all I want to say I don’t know anything about any of those charges you just threw at him and I don’t judge my friends based on what other people say about them.

Now skeptics still can provide a backdrop, if you will, to the real frontier science that’s going on and I tried to explain that to Brian in this interview but we didn’t get very far. So I’ll include some additional clips at the end of this show.

But it sure seems to me that this whole skeptical thing is over and, like Brian’s new film, Principles of Curiosity

(audio from film) The result, many of the new science discoveries you hear about on the TV News or read on the Consumer Focused website, really are, more than likely, wrong!

It all sounds a little dated. Stay with me, my interview with Brian Dunning of Skeptoid is next on Skeptiko.

(continued below)


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skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Brian Dunning back to Skeptiko. Brian is the creator and host of Skeptoid, a long-running and very popular podcast about Skepticism and he’s just released a new documentary film titled, Principles of Curiosity.

Brian, welcome back to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.

Brian Dunning: Hey thanks, it’s been a long, long time. A lot of water under the bridge, it’s good to be back.

Alex Tsakiris: How did that lead to this movie, Principles of Curiosity?

Brian Dunning: Yeah, so over the years, you know, it’s interesting because you find out what your listeners respond to by them writing in and telling you and what I got a lot of positive response from, was from teachers. Teachers were using my podcasts in their classrooms, they were writing up their own courseware, [and] they would send me the courseware they’d created. They’d create a whole series of lessons based on groups of podcasts that were all on the same subject.

That was when we kind of changed the company, made it into a non-profit. So it’s not something that I own anymore; I now work for the non-profit as an employee. I’m not on the board of directors, there’s real people who do all of that stuff. So it’s much more legitimate and it’s much more independent and the purpose of the non-profit is to provide free educational resources for teachers.

So, we still do the podcast and I make sure that the podcast is scholarly, meets certain standards, in terms of having the references and everything provided; it’s free to educators. Well, the whole show is, of course, free to everyone, like every podcast is, but educators get a version of it that doesn’t include ads and they get everything on a USB drive and things like that.

So this movie, Principles of Curiosity, was really the biggest and best project that the non-profit has done, as its own separately financed project to address the need that these teachers have expressed.

So, it’s something I’m super proud of. It’s free to the world. It’s on YouTube, you can see it at and there’s also a fantastic courseware package that’s on the website that’s free to download. I’ve got people right now who are promoting it to teachers worldwide, we’re trying to get it in with the National Science Teachers Association and all this stuff.

So it’s really fun, it’s really exciting times and it’s just super rewarding work and I couldn’t be happier with what I do for a living.

Alex Tsakiris: So I’m looking for shows that you’ve done, a topic that we’ve covered and I didn’t have to go very far.

Just a couple of months ago, Skeptoid podcast 577 you did on Precognition and Psychic Abilities. Do you remember that one, it was just a couple of months ago?

Brian Dunning: Sure.

Alex Tsakiris: So do you want to run down the basics of what you were trying to kind of cover there?

Brian Dunning: So, what I did was, I went out to… I’ve got a big Gmail list of listeners who have volunteered to help with research sometimes, and sometimes I’ll throw some questions out to them and I asked them, “Hey, have you had any kind of a strange experience that you can’t explain? Record it on your little memo feature, on your phone, and email it to me.” I don’t know, we probably got 40 or 50 and interestingly by far the largest group of them were people who saw a single point of light , a UFO, and I did an episode where I played all of those together.

The second largest group were people who had explained or expressed some story about a precognition type of event that happened to them, either they were thinking about something and then it happened or… you know, that kind of thing. They wake up in the middle of the night and they found their aunt had died or something after dreaming about the aunt, that kind of thing.

So, I did an episode where I compiled, I don’t know, four or five of those that were all similar, similar enough that we could talk about them as a group and talked about one potential explanation for all of them.

Alex Tsakiris: So great and the reason it caught my eye is, we’ve done a bunch of shows on that as well, but there’s a lot of research that’s been done on precognition and in particular, it’s been kind of a hot research topic because the parapsychologists, the professional scientists who studied this, kind of made a lot of noise. I mean, Daryl Bem from Cornell University published his study a few years ago and he actually made the circuit of the TV shows, did the Colbert Report, which is unheard of for these parapsychologists. Then there was this [situation] where Richard Wiseman, the famous skeptical scientist came and said, “No, it’s all bull.” I mean, were you aware of all the research that’s been done on precognition?

Brian Dunning: It’s not an episode that I had researched for some time. This particular episode that I did, we were just talking about these particular stories that were sent in, so I didn’t include other stuff.

To give a more general answer to your question, that’s something I’m generally aware of or keep up with, not as much as I’d like because I’m just so over committed with my time on working on whatever episode I’m working on. I don’t really get as much time to keep up with fun topics as I wish I did.

Alex Tsakiris: But you did a show on the science of precognition.

Brian Dunning: The 577 episode you’re talking about?

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah.

Brian Dunning: Well, it wasn’t the science of precognition in general, it was about these particular stories that were sent in by listeners and what might have been the case for these.

Alex Tsakiris: Kind of, but let me drill into this a little bit more. You start off that episode by saying this, “First it’s important to lay the groundwork for the conventional science-based explanation for apparent episodes of precognition. It comes from the law of large numbers.”

I mean, Brian no, it doesn’t. I mean, people have studied precognition for the longest time because it’s something that has been widely reported across cultures throughout time. These people have these experiences of feeling like they know the future or like you said, dreams. So they’ve studied this and they’ve actually studied it in the lab, it’s not that hard to study.

You know, most of the research that’s done on precognition is based on an old freshman psychology experiment that’s been going on for the longest time, where you sit a student down and you say, “Okay, an image is going to pop up on your computer and it’s going to either be bunnies and kittens or it’s going to be something really horrific or something really sexy and let’s see how you respond.”

So, that work they did, without even being interested in precognition but being interested in the physiological responses we have towards images and then a guy named Dr. Dean Radin said, “Hey, I wonder if I could use that same experiment, because we have such good data on it, and turn it into a precognition experiment and see if people react before the images are actually shown,” and technically that isn’t even precognition, that’s presentiment work. But that experiment’s been replicated 20 or 30 times by labs all over the world.

Then this latest round, the last couple of years, where Wiseman really just totally flubbed that one with Daryl Bem from Cornell and then Julia Mossbridge from Northwestern. They kind of did a twist on it where it isn’t really presentiment, in terms of measuring biological things, but precognition, seeing if people really did know what was going to happen next.

So, the reason I go into all this depth is, this is the complaint that so many of us have with the skeptical community, it’s just incredibly science-light, ultralight, to the point where it isn’t even science. I mean, this is the research on precognition, this is the only thing to talk about, not some hokey thing of the large numbers or something.

Brian Dunning: Well obviously, you’re not telling me anything I don’t know, but you can look at any ‘out there’ field, Big Foot, alien visitation, flat earth, and you can say exactly the same thing that you just said about precognition. There are lots of people studying it, it’s being replicated in labs all around the world. Where it becomes something that I would report on my show is when it passes scrutiny and gets into the major scientific journals and is accepted by the community at large. At that point it becomes an accepted science that I would report on my show.

Alex Tsakiris: But Brian, this did, I mean that was why it made such news, is Dr. Daryl Bem, highly, highly regarded in the social sciences, did get this published in a major journal in his field and that’s why he made the rounds on The Colbert Report and the New York Times and all the rest of it and that’s why your buddy, your skeptical buddy, Richard Wiseman, went to such great length to try and debunk that experiment and, you know, we can get into all that detail, but that detail is what’s really, really important. That’s where science happens.

Brian Dunning: Well, I mean, I hear this all the time from people who email me about whatever their pet special thing is and why don’t I report it because of all of this and all of this and it’s so legitimate and so many people have replicated it. You know, I’ve got to draw the line somewhere and where I draw the line is when something becomes broadly accepted by the science community.

Alex Tsakiris: But you did report it.

Brian Dunning: And when that happens I will take pleasure in reporting this guy’s work. I’m not familiar with him, I don’t know what the paper was, but that’s basically where I draw the line.

Alex Tsakiris: I get that in one sense and I won’t persist too much further, but I mean, the point is, you did report on it, you did a show on precognition. You just got it wrong.

Brian Dunning: What I reported on was, what is the current scientific accepted explanation for precognition reports. What you’re describing is that there’s actually some extrasensory perception ability, is not yet the mainstream consensus on how that works.

Alex Tsakiris: But do you understand what I’m saying?

Brian Dunning: When it becomes so I will take pleasure in doing an updated episode.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, but you reported on the conventional science based explanation, these are your words…

Brian Dunning: Yes.

Alex Tsakiris: …for precognition, is the law of large numbers.

Brian Dunning: Yes, that is what my show was about, was the accepted science explanation for phenomena.

Alex Tsakiris: That would have nothing to do with the precognition experiment that I just talked about, that cannot be, the law of large numbers cannot, in any way, explain that experiment because there aren’t any large numbers in that case. If it’s presentiment it’s the physiological response, if it’s the precognition it’s the guessing before the answer is known, kind of thing. There’s no law of large numbers there.

Brian Dunning: Yeah, well like I say, I have not read that report and nor would I if it’s something from a friend’s journal or if it’s something that wasn’t replicated or that received criticism in the next issue of the journal, you know, whatever it is. I try to set a pretty high bar for what I report.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, let’s move on. I’ll tell you what, the other thing I want to talk about is this skeptical community thing that you mentioned earlier, because it seems to me and a lot of other people I talk to, that the skeptical thing is kind of over.

I mean the JREF, James Randi Foundation thing is over, The Amazing Meeting thing is over and over in kind of a pretty dramatic way. At least that’s what I thought and then I read, you know, again I was researching for this show, so I reference your thing, a year ago you wrote, “The demise of TAM,” that is The Amazing Meeting, this annual conference that James Randi had, where all skeptics were invited to, kind of get together, and the JREF, James Randi Educational Foundation, which never really did much education as we’ve now come to find out as the financial reports have been issued, but you were saying that the demise of that, I’ll quote you, “Happened for exactly the right reason and no other. Our friend, James Randi, considered a mentor by many of us, has simply retired.”

Brian Dunning: Yes.

Alex Tsakiris: I mean, Brian, that’s just not accurate. There’s no mention that the revenues were declining, that they had to fire all the staff. There’s no mention of the sexual harassment scandal that just tore the whole community apart. There’s no mention of Randi’s other legal problems. I mean, is that really accurate to say, “Hey, he just retired,”?

Brian Dunning: In my opinion, yes. I mean, the guy… I don’t know how old he is, 80, 90 something.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, 88 or something.

Brian Dunning: He’s quite old, he’s quite feeble. He’s a good friend of mine, I keep in touch with him. There’s no way he’s up to attending a conference right now. He’ll do limited appearances and things like that but he’s quite old and quite feeble, he required care. Running the JREF was simply out of his hands and I think it was the right time to step back.

Everyone’s sad, I mean, everyone really enjoyed TAM, it was a great place where I enjoyed going every year, to see many friends that I’d see once a year and I know a lot of people who felt the same way. It was a lot of fun. I’m definitely sad that it’s over with. I mean, maybe you want to consider me a hostile witness or biased in that case, but I certainly am biased, because I really enjoyed the conference; I really enjoy him as a friend and as a mentor.

Alex Tsakiris: As a mentor? I understand the friend part and I understand that you enjoyed the conference, my point was just that the skeptical thing is just kind of over. I mean skeptics, for whatever reason, don’t have quite the same status, there isn’t quite the same oomph to the whole thing that there used to be, and part of that is surely that JREF isn’t around and TAM isn’t around.

But, I want to go back because I’m still stuck on this idea that you consider him a mentor. I mean, this guy was caught lying over and over. He lied about Uri Geller, he lied about Rupert Sheldrake, he lied to dozens of people about The Million Dollar Challenge and that was found out. You know, the whole thing, he lied about his background, he claimed he was like this genius IQ of 186 and he didn’t have to go to school, he had this special… I mean, his whole story was just one lie after another and this guy, you really consider a mentor? In what way was he a mentor or someone who you would, kind of look up to?

Brian Dunning: Well first of all I want to say I don’t know anything about any of those charges you just threw at him and I don’t judge my friends based on what other people say about them.

Alex Tsakiris: I mean, you can Google it, I mean, I’ll pause right now, you can Google all that stuff. He claimed that, not me. I mean, any one of those, but that’s fine, if you don’t want to get into it, that’s okay too.

Brian Dunning: But how do I consider him a mentor? I really didn’t… My first exposure to him, like most people, was seeing him on The Tonight Show, when Carson would have… and Carson, of course, was a major donor to the JREF, but when he would have people come on and as a boy I always heard about paranormal things and ESP and telekinesis and all these great abilities and thought, “Wow, that’s the coolest thing ever. Can that actually be real?”

Then when I saw it actually being tested and, you know, I don’t want to say controlled conditions, because you’re very limited in what you can do on The Tonight Show, but when I saw it being tested and failed and hearing it explained why, that was so eye-opening for me, it was like, “Wow. So it’s not necessarily a fact that this guy is able to move things with his mind, that there’s other explanations for it.”

For me that was a wonderful learning experience and it really opened up new horizons for me and I became fascinated with the idea of digging past the popular portrayal of strange phenomena, digging into them and finding out what’s really going on. That fascinated me. He introduced me to the concept that that was even a thing you could do and I would say that’s the reason I consider him a mentor.

Alex Tsakiris: I get part of that, I can’t get past the kind of honest liar ethos that he was all about. I mean, they even did a movie, a documentary about James Randi, The Honest Liar, and that seems to be a pretty good catchphrase for where he was always at. I mean, he was always ‘an end justifies the means’ ‘if I have to trick or fool you’. It’s really the antithesis of science, it’s the exact opposite of what science aspires to do.

So, when he’s caught, you know, lying about Uri Geller or lying about Rupert Sheldrake, if he was truly in the science realm, it would be game over, you can’t lie like that and still have a following and still have a reputation. I never understood why the skeptical community continued to embrace this guy when all these things were kind of revealed.

Brian Dunning: I’m not familiar with anything like that having been revealed, so I really can’t answer your question.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s so easy, I mean, if you just Google. The whole thing with Rupert Sheldrake was way out in the open.

Brian Dunning: Well, I’m not familiar with it. I’m happy to try and talk about it if you want to, but, I mean, tell me what it is that happened with Rupert Sheldrake. I’ve never met Rupert Sheldrake, I know vaguely something about him, but I’m happy to give my opinion if you want.

Alex Tsakiris: Well one, the fact that you don’t know, is I think telling. But Rupert Sheldrake did this experiment with dogs that appeared to have some kind of psychic connection with their owners, that they know when their owners are coming home.

Brian Dunning: That’s all I know about him.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. So Randi claims, “Hey, we tested all this. We tested all this and we have all the data and the data shows that it isn’t true.”

So Sheldrake, and if you know Sheldrake and I’ve interviewed him several times on this show, many times and talked to him, I mean, he’s a Cambridge biologist and he’s a soft spoken kind of British guy, but he doesn’t tolerate this kind of bullshit very easily.

So he just persisted and he just stayed on Randi and Randi had to eventually admit that, no, he hadn’t really done the tests, and he created all these lies. He actually said that the data was lost in a hurricane and that there was a flood, all these outrageous lies until he eventually admitted, “Okay, I don’t have any data on it and I’m sorry Sheldrake, I have to retract.” He said that privately and publicly he kind of took this middle position.

But the same thing happened with Uri Geller, where he said that Uri Geller was tested extensively at Stanford Research Institute by some very, very competent researchers, Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ. You can still watch the video out on YouTube on what they did. I mean, these guys know what they’re doing, and they were able to validate that Uri Geller was able to perform these things in a lab and then Randi just lied, he just lied. He said that the guy that videotaped those experiments was faking them and the guy came out and said, “That’s completely ridiculous. I’ll go to court. I’ll sign an affidavit. I’ll do anything you want, it’s completely made up.” And again, Randi had to back off of that one.

Again, these are kinds of things that would completely… if the guy was a real scientist, anything approaching a scientist, he would be completely ostracized from the scientific community and yet he’s still kind of held in high regard by a bunch of skeptics.

Brian Dunning: Well, he doesn’t claim to be a scientist. As far as I know he’s a magician.

Alex Tsakiris: But you’re a science writer and you say he’s a mentor of yours.

Brian Dunning: I mean, so is Benjamin Franklin, but I’ve never flown a kite in a lightning storm either. I mean, there’s a lot of people I respect and that I’ve learned from, I don’t have to claim to be in their same professional field.

I’ve never heard anything about Randi issuing big retractions and apologizing for having lied about people, I’ve never heard that. Also I’m hearing it now from someone who obviously doesn’t like him or respect him very much. So I mean, if you’ll forgive me I’ll take it with a grain of salt that what you’re reporting is a literal true account of what he actually said and maybe we should move on, because like I said, I’m not familiar with these situations, I’m not the guy to talk about them with.

Alex Tsakiris: It takes about five minutes to Google that, anyone can find it. So, I’m not making this stuff up.

Brian Dunning: No, I do all of my research based on substantially more than five minutes of Googling, that’s not enough to persuade me of just about anything.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, take as much time as you want, the fact that you don’t know it, is surprising, surprising to me, but that’s okay.

Brian Dunning: I mean, obviously we’ve all heard the Uri Geller stories though. He no longer even claims that what he did was real. He now describes himself as a mystifier and I think the criticism against him for not returning all the research money that was spent on him is well justified. I mean, you can’t argue that he was not a professional conman for his whole career, because he said that the four basic tricks that he does, that anyone can replicate, he always claimed that those were actual magical abilities and I don’t think that ever fooled any professional magician and I know a lot of people were kind of miffed that he did go out into the world and tell people that it was real abilities and he took research money from people who were easily fooled.

Alex Tsakiris: Who are you referring to that he took research money from?

Brian Dunning: The Stanford incident that you were talking about.

Alex Tsakiris: But no, it wasn’t a matter of easily fooled, and he didn’t easily fool them and their experiments still stand up. You’ve misread that situation, like I’m telling you, that’s one that, the way it eventually plays out is Randi is found to be the liar, not Targ and Puthoff, who have a stellar academic career and these experiments they set up, which again, anyone can watch, the videos are still up there from Stanford Research Institute, are rather easy to see and to replicate.

I just did an interview with Dr. Jacques Vallée, the famous UFO researcher, known for that, although he’s a solid scientist, a computer scientist of quite amazing stature in himself, but he tells the story in the interview about sitting down at the table with Uri Geller at lunch, when he was doing the experiments at Stanford Research, and just impromptu Geller said, “Okay, let’s do this experiment,” and anyone can go and listen to it.

Again, Jacques Vallée, if anyone’s read his work, he’s not a rube, he’s not someone who’s going to be easily fooled and he, along with many, many other credentialed scientists, have validated that Uri Geller was able to do these things.

Brian Dunning: What is his profession if you don’t mind me asking?

Alex Tsakiris: Jacques Vallée?

Brian Dunning: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, Jacques Vallée is a scientist.

Brian Dunning: In what field?

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I mean you can go and look… I mean he has an extensive, extensive history. I mean, he was a world-class computer scientist. He was a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley for the longest time, also an entrepreneur for the longest time. He’s best known…

Brian Dunning: If I could, could I tell a quick story about an email exchange I had this morning?

Alex Tsakiris: Of course.

Brian Dunning: That I think is relevant to this, because he’s a computer scientist, he’s a venture capitalist. None of those suggest that he’s an expert in stage magic.

I got an email this morning from a guy about an old episode I did on The Scole Experiment, way back long ago in the UK, where the Society for Psychical Research hired some séance performers to do a séance for them and this happened many times over a period of, I think even over a year, it’s been a while, but it was a fairly substantial series of séances.

Alex Tsakiris: It was more than a year.

Brian Dunning: It was a big project and they even invited people with expertise in magic. Stage magicians, like Richard Wiseman, came in and observed some of these and this guy, the guy who emailed me this morning said, “Hey, your conclusion didn’t really represent the conclusion of the experts who were there,” and I said, “Who were the experts who were there?” And he listed a handful of people who were experts, one was an electrical engineer, one was a physicist.

Alex Tsakiris: Rupert Sheldrake was there too.

Brian Dunning: Okay and he’s a biologist you said?

Alex Tsakiris: Right, a Cambridge biologist.

Brian Dunning: Okay, so biology, physicists, electrical engineering, none of these people you would have any reason to suspect they’re experienced in stage séance performances. Those are completely irrelevant fields of expertise.

The few people who were there, who were familiar with séance performances, basically came out laughing and saying, “These are silly tricks that have been familiar to séance performers for a hundred years.

So, I had this email back and forth with this guy. He was saying, “But this guy is a physicist, he’s going to know all about how magicians get out of illuminated handcuffs.” Why would he know that? Experience matters. You can complete an academic program in biology, that doesn’t mean you have years of experience with magical tricks. Those are totally, totally different fields, and one thing that we hear all the time is that scientists, people with experience in some particular physical science, some hard science, are easily fooled by magicians. Now, when you go to a magic show in Las Vegas…

Alex Tsakiris: We hear it, it’s just not true. I mean, we hear it repeated by the skeptical community, it’s just never something that’s been shown to be true in any kind of scientific way, where someone’s done an experiment and tested a bunch of scientists or applied any kind of scientific reason to that. So it’s just one of those urban legends that you like to report on, that is actually not true.

Parapsychology is the most rigorous field of science. That’s not my opinion, that’s the conclusion that people have done that have studied it, because there’s been so much debunking and so much skepticism applied to it that they’ve had to adhere to the highest level of double-blind studies, carefully controlled, all that stuff.

Brian Dunning: May I ask you, how many working scientists do you feel would agree with the statement that parapsychology is the most rigorous science?

Alex Tsakiris: I’m telling you what the research… First of all that’s…

Brian Dunning: Do you think that’s really what most scientists would agree with?

Alex Tsakiris: Brian, you obviously aren’t familiar with that research but I can send you the research. This is where I think you have a fundamental and in a lot of ways a misunderstanding of science. The whole purpose of science is to remove us from the kind of biases that are loaded into that question. Good science takes a question and tries to solve it the best way they can and then presents the data.

So, someone did that in this case. They said, “Is parapsychology scientifically rigorous?” They said, “Okay, how would we measure that?” Well, they’d say double-blind studies are of the utmost importance in terms of measuring that, they’d say replication is, they’d say a bunch of different factors and then they’d go out and look at it, which is their methodology, what they did. So you can argue with the study they produced but you can’t just switch over to this mode of just saying, “Well what do you think Joe, does that jive with your belief of how things work?” I mean, that’s not science.

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