81. Dr. Phil Plait Defends JREF

bad-astronomy-by-philip-plaitGuest: Dr. Phil Plait, author of Bad Astronomy defends JREF.

Other links: Rosemary Breen is conducting a survey on paranormal experiences.

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Announcer: On this episode of Skeptiko, Dr. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer.

Dr. Phil Plait: My initial reaction to what you’re saying is strong disagreement with what you’re saying. First of all, science is not a single track. It’s not saying let’s look for a God gene to explain everything. There are psychologists, there are researchers who’ve gone out and researched this sort of thing. Why do people believe in some things?
There are people who study brain physiology, try to figure this kind of stuff out. If – there are reasons we speak. There are reasons we communicate. There are reasons our hands work the way they do. And it all ties into the function of the brain. And there are people who are in there looking at sort of the brain-mind connection.

Announcer: Stay with us for Skeptiko.

Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode I have an interview – quite a long interview – with Dr. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Now in the course of this interview you’ll hear me several times talk about finding a skeptic to follow-up on the Global Consciousness Project and to kind of face off with the data and with me on that.
And I have followed up with Phil on that, but I’d also like to follow-up with you, the Skeptiko audience, find someone, if you’re skeptical, who you think can do a good job of debunking or just countering the claims of the Global Consciousness Project. We’d love to have them on.
Similarly, on some of the other topics that we’ve been talking about here, if you’re skeptical and you want to see a serious scientifically-oriented skeptic come on the show and talk about that, we’d love to have them on, because I have to tell you, at this point I’m having trouble finding credible skeptics to really confront some of these issues.
So if you know of someone or if you are someone who has a scientific background and does have a counter position on near-death experience, psychic medium research, Global Consciousness Project, psychic detective work, or any of the other topics that you’ve heard us talk about on the show, please get in touch with me and come on. We’d love to have you on and further that dialogue.
Okay, so now onto my interview with the Bad Astronomer, Dr. Dr. Phil Plait.
We’re joined today by scientist turned blogger and author. He’s the creator of the hugely successful Bad Astronomy Blog and the author of Bad Astronomy and Death From the Skies, Dr. Dr. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Welcome to Skeptiko.

Dr. Phil Plait: Hi, thanks for having me on.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s a real pleasure. You know, the Bad Astronomy Blog has been an absolute Internet sensation and I’m sure…

Dr. Phil Plait: True.

Alex Tsakiris: …most everyone who’s listening has, right. So, start off, tell us a little bit about how that happened. I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of folks listening that really are wanting to know how they can do something like that. How’d you make that happen?

Dr. Phil Plait: Yeah, I get a lot of requests about that, you know? How do I become a big blogger or something like that? And I tell them, yeah, build a time machine, go back to 1993…

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: …you know, it’s a matter of timing as much as it was anything else. If you can catch that wave when it’s at the right time, like being on Twitter and getting a gazillion followers like Wil Wheaton or Stephen Frey or those kind of people. If you get in at the right time and you’re already doing pretty well, yeah, you can catch that wave.

Alex Tsakiris: Now I think you’re being a little modest, though, I mean you do it in a way that is unique and it mixes in humor with vital information…

Dr. Phil Plait: Oh. You know.

Alex Tsakiris: …and it’s something that resonates with a lot of people.

Dr. Phil Plait: But brilliant content is, of course, necessary, as well.

Alex Tsakiris: Yes, yes.

Dr. Phil Plait: I can’t deny that.

Alex Tsakiris: Yes, extraordinary writing skills as well.

Dr. Phil Plait: And a shred of honesty and modesty go a long way.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: I did it like everything else in life that seems to take off when you’re not expecting it. I just felt like doing it one day. I was just writing about standing eggs on end in 1993 and the Web was brand new. I put up a page about it and a few months later I wrote another one about another astronomical myth that had ticked me off and then another one and another one. And then what happened was, it just snowballed. And what I tell people about this, because you know, when I look back on this and I think, ‘I’ve written two books and thousands of blog posts and magazine articles and all this stuff.
And it looks like, you know, this incredible body of work, and it doesn’t seem that way. It just seems like this is just something I’ve been doing.’ The thing is you’ve just got to do it. You just wake up and do it. And then what happens is, as you’re doing it, the opportunities will come up. And at some point, if you’re ready for these opportunities, you can jump on them. I tell people, you make your own luck. There’s no such thing as luck. It’s just statistics and probability. These opportunities come all the time but you may not know about it because you may not be ready for it.
You might be thinking, ‘Oh, I should be writing a blog or something like that,’ and you don’t do it and then three months later somebody comes along and says, “Boy, we’d love to buy up a blog that was about people who eat their corn a certain way,” or you know, something like that. And you think, ‘Oh, if only I had been doing that.’ The thing is, if you had been doing it, yeah, you’d be all set. So…

Alex Tsakiris: All right.

Dr. Phil Plait: …so you’ve just got to jump on these opportunities. I started writing the Web page, I wanted to write a book, I started writing magazine articles, I just basically called up magazines and said, “Hey, I want to write for you.” And they said, “Okay.” You know, it was that easy. It’s not always that easy, of course. And now it’s actually – I imagine it’s probably harder now because with the Internet being so big and so many blogs out there, and it’s harder to buy your way into the mainstream media. However…

Alex Tsakiris: It’s the…

Dr. Phil Plait: What?

Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s the classic first mover advantage that’s the same in business across the board, but…

Dr. Phil Plait: But in this case you don’t have to worry about it…

Alex Tsakiris: Hey, but you know, I…

Dr. Phil Plait: …because there’s this long tail, right?

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. That’s right.

Dr. Phil Plait: You’re sure there are 20 people who are the biggest bloggers out there, but you don’t need to be the biggest blogger out there. I’m nowhere near that level. But what happens is, there are millions of people reading the Internet, so even if you’re out there on the tail of the distribution of people out there blogging, you are getting people listening to you.

And the more people who listen to you, if you give them the content they want, the more they will link to you, and you can get on Facebook and you can get on Twitter. And more people start coming in, you get linked more and more, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a lot of people reading your stuff. I still can’t believe how many people read my stuff. It’s crazy.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, you know, let’s talk about the people who read your stuff because you seem to have…

Dr. Phil Plait: They’re all nuts. I’ll say that.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] They are, right? Well…

Dr. Phil Plait: They’re showing a distinct lack of taste, but there you go.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Well, you seem to have really hit a broad target that not a lot of people can. I mean, you’re a regular guest on Coast to Coast, and you’re a regular at The Amazing Meeting. I mean, I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head who can pull that off and do both. I mean, what do you think that’s about?

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, there’s Seth Shawstack, as well, the Seti astronomer who looks for aliens. He’s been on Coast to Coast and he speaks at skeptics conferences as well.

Alex Tsakiris: But you’re beloved by both groups. I mean you can’t say that about…

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, that’s true. I can’t deny that. You know, honestly, and seriously – but seriously, folks – it’s not like – it’s hard to explain. Okay, look. I’m a fan boy, right? I grew up watching “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space” and “Space 1999.” Reading all the books, going to conventions, and like doting on the authors and all that stuff. I’m still that guy. I still go to Comicon and meet you know, Adam Savage is like, “You’re Adam Savage, you’re on “Myth Busters,” you know, or I met Mickey Dolenz from The Monkees and it’s like, “Omigod, you’re Mickey Dolenz.”
So it’s not like you wake up one day and you say, “Why yes, I am a beloved Internet personality.” It doesn’t work that way. What happens is, it’s day-by-day. I met James Randi who is a hero of mine, the skeptic James Randi, the magician, the conjurer, and now the debunker – the if you want to use that word – the skeptic who is responsible basically for showing that Peter Popoff the faith healer was a fraud. And that Uri Geller is you know, not a psychic. This is a guy who’s using basically tricks to trick people.
And he’s responsible for the modern skeptical movement. He’s one of the big movers and shakers in that. And I wrote a book and my editor said, “We need somebody to blurb the back of the book. To write you know, this book may save your life, or whatever. We need a big skeptic.” And I said, “Well, how about Randi?” “Sure.” What am I thinking? I’ll just sent it to Randi. So we did. And Randi said, “Sure.”
And he wrote a blurb for the back of the book and then months later he sent me an e-mail saying, “Hey, can you come down to Florida? We’re going to have a conference on critical thinking. Can you give a talk?” And so I did. And then he said, “Can you come next year? We’re going to do this again next year.” And then, bang, the next thing I know, I’m speaking at The Amazing Meeting every year, and there you go.

Alex Tsakiris: And the next thing you know, you’re their [inaudible].

Dr. Phil Plait: And so now I’m, yeah, I’m president of his educational foundation and it’s like, but really…
Alex Tsakiris: Let me jump in there. Let me jump in there. Why did you take that position? I think that was a bit of a surprise, maybe, to some folks.

Dr. Phil Plait: It was a momentary lapse of reason.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: The reason I took it, the reasons I took it – it’s complicated – but honestly, you know when James Randi says, “I want you to do this,” No, I’m going to say no to James Randi? I mean, you can’t do that. You say yes. It’s the chance to go from somebody who’s writing a Web page and grumbling and being reactive to everything going on out there, to somebody who can be proactive and say, “You know what? I’m taking these guys on. I’m going to write about this kind of stuff. We’re going to go out and do some things and test people and talk about this kind of stuff and help shape one of the big movements in the world right now. The critical thinking movement.”
And although it’s still – well, I say it’s a big movement, there are a lot of people out there who are critical thinkers without knowing about it. And they’re sort of adrift. And when they find out about my Web site or Randi’s Web site, or Michael Shermer with the Skeptic Society, or the Center for Inquiry. I could name these groups over and over and over again. They realize that there are a lot of other people like them themselves out there. And it’s great.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but in the first part of that I think therein lies part of the problem and that’s we’re going to take these guys on. I mean, I think that’s part of the baggage of the JREF kind of thing. I mean, who are you…

Dr. Phil Plait: I don’t know if I’d call it baggage. It’s responsibility, is what it is.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think there’s some baggage there. I mean, I think taking on guys is something that JREF has come under criticism for as well. I mean, who are you taking on? I mean, debunking and taking on people who are fraudulent is one thing. Attacking scientists who you don’t like is maybe something else. And I mean, I think – let’s talk about pseudo-science.

Dr. Phil Plait: Sure.

Alex Tsakiris: Because that’s where I think this falls into. And you’ve done a nice job on your blog, at least, of writing about pseudo-science and for example, why you don’t particularly go out of your way to debate people who think that they see faces on the Mars…

Dr. Phil Plait: Sure.

Alex Tsakiris: … photos or something like that. And you make a very valid point about where you draw the line in terms of who you engage with. But there’s kind of a slippery slope to the pseudo-science label and it crops up in kind of the JREF think and the skeptic think, and that’s that sometimes people haul out pseudo-science whenever they don’t like what someone else is saying.
I had an interesting discussion just a few days ago with a guy, very popular skeptical Web site and blog, and he brought up the topic of the Global Consciousness Project so we’re talking about it and then half-way in, he’s like, “Hey, you know what? That’s pseudo-science. It doesn’t deserve discussion. I’m out of here. I’m not talking about it anymore.”
And you know, then you look at the guys behind Global Consciousness. No matter what you think about that, you know, but you’ve got a Princeton guy, you got a guy who’s Bell Labs and SRI, all the right credentials. You might not like what they say but do you really want to kind of just kind of go out and label these guys as pseudo-science? And that’s what I think – that’s the baggage I think that JREF has and has maybe fed into a little bit in terms of labeling people you don’t like or who don’t follow scientific orthodoxy as practicing pseudo-science.

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, I would actually call that a definition. If you’re not following – if you’re trying to present an idea as being representative of reality, that psychic powers exist, ghosts exist, UFOs exist, global consciousness exists…

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I lost you.

Dr. Phil Plait: …anything like that. If you’re trying to say this is reality, this is the way the universe is working, and you don’t approach it from a scientific orthodoxy, then yeah, I would say it in fact, is pseudo-science because what science does is tries to represent reality and tests ideas against that. And so for example, if you’re saying, “I think ghosts are real,” and I say, “Well, present your evidence,” and I have a cloudy picture, I have eyewitness testimony, you know, that sort of thing.
I’ll say, “Well that’s not good enough evidence. You’re not approaching this idea scientifically.” And they say, “Well, this isn’t a scientific idea.” And I’ll say, “Yes, it is, because you’re claiming that ghosts exist. If ghosts exist, then they’re not supernatural. They’re natural. There must be some real explanation for what’s going on. “ Do we have a consciousness that…

Alex Tsakiris: Right. But…

Dr. Phil Plait: …survives death? If you’re claiming that we can take pictures of ghosts, then there has to be a scientific process, which just means analyzing the evidence, then that’s fine. So if scientists – so to get to your – I think what you’re saying here, if a real scientist – and by that I mean somebody who is credentialed and has done real science all their life – if they start approaching some idea and they’re not using scientific methods and yet still claiming that they’re investigating this – and by investigating it means they’re just talking to people and getting anecdotal evidence – that’s not science. Now, I’m not going to say…

Alex Tsakiris: But wait…

Dr. Phil Plait: Okay, go ahead, go ahead.

Alex Tsakiris: But they were in this case. I mean, in this case, they were.

Dr. Phil Plait: Okay, sure. I’m not saying that…

Alex Tsakiris: …they were published, all the data is there and they’re using standard you know…

Dr. Phil Plait: Yeah, I’d have to look at the evidence…

Alex Tsakiris: …statistical measures for doing it. So the point I’m trying to make is, you know, I don’t think this is at all uncommon. I’ve run across this so many times…

Dr. Phil Plait: Oh, sure.

Alex Tsakiris: …in the last couple years where skeptics kind of pull out this pseudo-science, wave the magic wand. I don’t need to talk about it anymore. You touched on survival of consciousness. There’s a pretty good body of research by highly respected, highly regarded researchers who are publishing in journals like The Lancet, you know, one of the top medical journals in the country. A body of research there on near-death experience that’s highly suggestive of survival of consciousness. We can’t just wave the magic wand and say, “Pseudo-science, pseudo-science.”

Dr. Phil Plait: Sure.

Alex Tsakiris: …and that’s my problem with it.

Dr. Phil Plait: I agree with that. I don’t think any skeptic, any true skeptic – and I hate to use that kind of a fallacy, there’s the No True Scotsman fallacy where you throw that out to somebody and it puts them on the defensive.

Alex Tsakiris: Uh-huh (yes). Right. [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: But you know, a skeptic is someone who demands the evidence. And you can’t make a conclusion without you know, overwhelming evidence. And if you come into an argument or if you come into a conversation, I should say, where for example, I might say, “You know, I don’t think we’re being visited by aliens.” Then it’s easy for somebody to say, who is not familiar with me or any of that stuff, and say, “You’re a close-minded cynic.”
And I’ll say, “No. What you’re missing is that for the past 20 years I’ve been reading about UFO evidence and looking at the videos and looking at the claims and all this, and it’s not like I’ve just come to this conclusion. There’s a huge amount of effort that’s gone into it.” When it comes to something like near-death experience, I personally do not know about the research that’s been done on this. There’s no way any human…

Alex Tsakiris: Why not? But wait a minute.

Dr. Phil Plait: Because I’m a busy guy, you know?

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] I know you’re a busy guy, but hold on. You’re also now the president of JREF and you’re the Bad Astronomer, and astronomy’s your thing, but I’ll give you an example.

Dr. Phil Plait: Okay.

Alex Tsakiris: You know, when I talk to Christian theologians or Christian authors on this show, I always ask them this one question. I’m going to ask you the same – I’ll rephrase it for you. But what I always ask them, I say, “How has the Dead Sea Scrolls changed your doctrine, your understanding, your belief in the Bible?”

Dr. Phil Plait: Me personally?

Alex Tsakiris: And – no, no.

Dr. Phil Plait: You’re asking…

Alex Tsakiris: I’m not asking you that one. [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: …theologians, okay.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m saying, this is what I ask the Christians…

Dr. Phil Plait: You know, the Dead Sea Scrolls, I’m not you know…I need vowels in my words. It’s a prejudice of mine, but go ahead.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Right. The answer I always get is, “It hasn’t. It hasn’t changed my belief in the Bible.” And my response is, “Why? How can it not? This is the greatest archeological find in Biblical archeology ever and how has – and it starts with these words that you don’t find in the Bible that you claim to be your Bible. How can this not have changed your view?”
And so I turn it to you, and say, you know, not as the Bad Astronomer but as the president of JREF, here’s this body of work on near-death experience, this body of research, been published, peer reviewed in the best places. How has that changed your view on human consciousness? And you know, you can give me any answer you want, but I think the answer you already gave me is, it hasn’t because I haven’t read it…

Dr. Phil Plait: Right.

Alex Tsakiris: …and my question would be, “Why? How could you have ignored this kind of fundamental question?” I mean, you want to talk about science. What is science all about? I mean, fundamentally it’s about who are we, where did we come from, where are we going? That’s what it always gets down to.

Dr. Phil Plait: Okay.

Alex Tsakiris: So here’s the area of research that is trying to most directly address it, among others. How can you not know?

Dr. Phil Plait: That’s easy to answer. Because if you bring it up like that, it’s like this is incredible. This is so important. How can you not know about it? Well, because that’s one example of something that might impact science and pseudo-science out of hundreds – and I mean hundreds.
You’re talking about near-death experiences. We can also talk about ghosts. We can talk about ESP, telekinesis, UFOs, the Anti-Vax movement, global warming, pregnancy myths, alt med, right people who – and when you talk about alt med now you’re talking about homeopathy, chiropractor, acupuncture, herbal medicine versus Western medicine.
There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of incredibly important fields of study when it comes to science and pseudo-science. There is no way any human being can keep on top of all of these things. I have my own things that I’ve been researching and you know, mostly astronomy. But I’ve also been interested lately in the Anti-Vaccination movement because I’ve found that this has been terribly important. I do read a little bit about some of these other things, but there is no way a human being can physically keep up with any of these.

You could approach any top skeptic, if you want to think of it that way, in the world right now. You can talk to James Randi or Michael Shermer or any of these people and say, “What do you think about these people who are saying that dark matter doesn’t exist and it’s actually modified Newtonian dynamics that’s doing this?” And they probably won’t know what you’re talking about.
They may have heard about this, but they haven’t done the field equations of relativity. They don’t – they haven’t done the observations…

Alex Tsakiris: Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: …as in Hubble and everything. There just simply isn’t any way to do this. And so…

Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough. Fair enough, but you know, that would be a refreshing change in the skeptical movement. A refreshing change in JREF to say, I don’t know. Because you go ask any one of those people you just mentioned. You’ll get a heck of a lot of opinion. You bring up ESP? You want to bring up medium communication? You want to bring up after-death encounters? Near-death experience…

Dr. Phil Plait: Well…

Alex Tsakiris: You’ll get a lot of opinion, you won’t get a lot of, “You know, I haven’t read the research.”

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, you’ve got to be careful here because the other thing is that for example, with the Center for Inquiry, they have a long list of experts. For example, Joe Nickle and a lot of other people who go out and investigate…

Alex Tsakiris: Joe Nickle?

Dr. Phil Plait: …haunted houses and other people.

Alex Tsakiris: Joe Nickle’s an expert?

Dr. Phil Plait: I’m sorry?

Alex Tsakiris: Joe Nickle is not a researcher, right? I mean…

Dr. Phil Plait: Um…

Alex Tsakiris: But go ahead. All right, go on.

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, I mean, he goes out and investigates haunted houses and he does that sort of thing.

Alex Tsakiris: Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: He’s an investigator. And so for the JREF for example, we have people we go to. I got an e-mail just the other day about somebody who is making a paranormal claim, that I have no experience with and it had to do with seeing ghosts in pictures. All right, well, I sent that e-mail to a few people saying, “Who does this? Who looks into this sort of thing?” so that we can answer this guy’s e-mail.
That’s not my field of expertise and I’m not going to say anything about it. If somebody asks me about it I’ll say, “From what I have read, all I have seen about ghosts are the pictures and the claims and that sort of thing, and it doesn’t seem like that that’s enough to actually base a claim of life after death about.” And if somebody says, “Well, we’ve got scientific research,” then I’ll say, “Great. Show that to somebody who does that sort of investigation. I can’t do that.” I’m working on administrative problems, I’m trying to organize The Amazing Meetings in London and Vegas, and a gazillion other things. I just can’t do it. The whole point here is…

Alex Tsakiris: I understand. Understood. Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: …you have to delegate this sort of stuff. And I do see skeptics saying that sort of thing. I see Randi saying things like, “I don’t know necessarily about that particular field. Talk to this guy.”

Alex Tsakiris: What landed – [laughs] behind that? I’ve got to point that out.

Dr. Phil Plait: Behind the scenes. Typically, you know…

Alex Tsakiris: I mean…

Dr. Phil Plait: …people – when people interview me, like you’re interviewing me now, they might say, “What do you think about these guys who think the universe isn’t expanding?” Typically, an interviewer like you is not going to ask me, “What do you think about pregnancy myths?” You know, I’m not even the person to ask about that. So typically I’m asked about stuff I know about already. It’s a selection effect.

Alex Tsakiris: I understand. And you know, I don’t want to kind of bring in something from left field. I do think the skeptical community – you brought up Shermer – Shermer’s addressed near-death experience. Got it completely wrong, so wrong that the original researcher had to come back and refute what he had said, and said, “You know, you read my research the wrong way.” So it’s not a topic that’s kind of outside of the scope of what the skeptical community has kind of felt the need to kind of address, but we can move on. It’s not your thing and that’s fair enough. Let’s talk about science because I think that’s…

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, I do want to – just one last thing to say here is, you know, I don’t know about – it’s sort of a meta-discussion here. I don’t know about what Michael Shermer said about that sort of thing. Or what that guy said.
Maybe that researcher guy’s totally wrong and Michael’s right. Maybe Michael’s wrong and that other guy’s right. I don’t know. So it’s absolutely possible that somebody approached a skeptic, interviewed them, and they got something totally wrong. You know, I’ve said things that are wrong, as well.

Alex Tsakiris: No, I mean, here’s what happened. Here’s what happened, and it’s a he-said-she-said, I understand that. But you know, Pim van Lommel was the guy who’s published probably the most well-organized, well-done study on near-death experience. It was published in The Lancet, you know, one of the top medical journals in the country, and the world, English-speaking medical journal in the world. Ten year, longitudinal study, whatever.
He publishes it, Shermer feels a need to come out and write a review of it in Scientific America and you know, just gets it wrong. He says, “Hey, this is evidence that near-death experience you know, isn’t happening, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.” And he just completely, completely got it wrong. That’s not what it says. The researcher comes out and says, “Hey, no, you got it wrong. You came to the exact opposite conclusion that the people who are doing the research did.”
So you know, there’s always this – we can get into that, too, because I think that’s an interesting topic of how things get polarized. And I think that’s another problem, because like with the baggage, or I guess I talked about what the baggage of JREF is. And it leads into the topic I wanted to talk about next, and I think it’s a topic you’re very interested in. That’s science education.

Dr. Phil Plait: Sure.

Alex Tsakiris: And you know, this polarizing and politicizing of science, where it becomes a debate and there’s one side versus another. You know, are you feeding the beast? Are you creating more of a problem in terms of science education by drawing out this controversy? Sometimes with a controversy either A doesn’t exist or too, is being handled by the normal means of just kind of two scientists slugging it out.

Dr. Phil Plait: Oh, that’s a – whoo – that’s a complicated topic. As far as feeding the beast goes, there is a difficult decision to be made on when to counter bad science and when not to.

Alex Tsakiris: Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: I’ve had to deal with this myself. There are times when I’ve ignored some pseudo-scientific astronomical claim because it’s just, you know, there’s just some guy out there ranting and railing and it’s ridiculous. What he’s saying is so clearly contradictory to the evidence and what we understand to be true. But if he’s one guy with a Web site who’s getting you know, one reader a month, it’s not worth anybody’s time to debunk him.

But when he gets picked up on Coast to Coast AM, or CNN decides to do an article on this guy who thinks you know, I don’t know, the sun is a giant piece of charcoal briquette that’s only been burning for 1,000 years, you know, that’s when you’ve got to say, “Well, maybe it’s time to take these guys on.” Because you don’t want that sort of thing to go mainstream and be taught. Or to even have people think there’s some controversy. You know, there is no controversy in the scientific community about, for example, vaccinations.
They absolutely do not cause autism. We do not know what causes autism. We don’t have the smoking gun for that. But test after test, big, like you said, longitudinal tests that have taken many years with hugely statistically significant numbers, show without a doubt that vaccination does not cause autism. Okay? We’re done with that argument.
And yet, there’s this manufactured controversy saying yes, they do, because we have anecdotal evidence of it and it comes from parents. You get an emotional involvement with it because you’re talking about parents who are upset. And suddenly the media get into this, and now we’ve got people who are basically lying about vaccines and lying about the evidence in Australia and in America and in Europe. It’s like, where did this come from? This is not a controversy.
And so you’ve got to be careful with that sort of debate. It’s not two scientists slugging it out. You know, look, if a scientist comes along and says, “I think dark energy is this.” And another astronomer comes along and says, “No, I think dark energy is that.” And they’re slugging it out, fine. Let’s do it.
But when it comes to somebody like a medical professional who’s saying vaccines don’t cause autism, and Jenny McCarthy who has no medical training whatsoever, and has been shown in the past to have all kinds of nonsensical beliefs, yeah, that’s not the kind of thing I necessarily want to see. Because that’s a manufactured controversy that is going to confuse people when no confusion is needed.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, you make a good point. And there’s a lot of good to be done by debunking, and I think that’s one thing that I wish JREF would embrace more of their kind of debunking mode rather than saying – I think some of the times the line is we don’t do debunking. We do science or something. Debunking is wonderful. Debunking is great.

Dr. Phil Plait: I tell people you can’t debunk without bunk.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: You know, you can call me a debunker all you want. I love that term because that means you’re admitting that what you’re saying is bunk. Right? It’s just like there you go.

Alex Tsakiris: But the flip side of that, I guess, and again it’s the baggage. You know, is the Pigasus Award hasn’t just been dished out to folks who are full of bunk. You know, it’s also been targeted at William Tiller of Stanford, Charles Tart of UC Davis, Gary Schwartz of Arizona. So these folks, if you want to talk about science education, take a step back and say, aren’t these the kind of people that we want to hold up as role models? People who have busted their ass, gone through, got the PhD, done all the work, published all the papers.
I mean, you take Gary Schwartz, PhD, Harvard, goes on becomes the head of the department at Yale before he goes to the University of Arizona. You might not like his research, you might not like his conclusions, but this is a scientist who’s done all the things that we want scientists to do. So if you want to say one of JREF’s roles is to promote science education, how can you come back at the other side and kind of hold these scientists out for public humiliation? I mean, by what standard? Who makes you the kind of gatekeeper of who’s a good scientist?

Dr. Phil Plait: I would say you have to be careful. Just because somebody’s got PhD credentials and has been doing research all their life, does not mean that the conclusions to which they come after doing all this research have any basis in reality. There are people out there…

Alex Tsakiris: And it doesn’t – but it doesn’t make you the one to decide. I mean, if you want to pick at targets you just – see because the example you gave with the immunization, the vaccination thing. And you said, the two examples you gave were hey, this guy is working out of his basement, has a newsletter, it goes to one person. Or McCarthy has no academic credentials. I think you’re on real safe ground. I think that’s debunking.
But when you move into this other area where people have done research, they’ve done all the right things, but now they’ve ventured into an area that you don’t find credible or you don’t find fitting with your view of the world, I think you’ve got to be really, really careful to do that. Especially when I brought up this other topic and I said, “You know, hey, how about near-death experience research?” Don’t know anything about it. How about ESP research? Don’t really want to comment on it. But you do want to support the idea that we need to call out some of these researchers for public humiliation. I don’t think that necessarily washes.

Dr. Phil Plait: Um, it depends on the situation. If you – there are – boy, there have been a long series of scientists who, later in life, have maybe gone off the deep end a little bit. And you can – it’s very easy to find some of these people. I’ve dealt with one or two of them personally on my own, people who did great research in the 1960s and 70s, and then 30 years later their claims are just totally off the wall. In many cases, you can read their research and you can say, “This is baloney. This is clearly wrong. This is just…”

Alex Tsakiris: But it only matters, Phil, if we apply it to a real example. I mean, I’ve spoken with on my show Charles Tart, Gary Schwartz I’ve spoken with, and Rupert Sheldrake I’ve spoken with a couple times. Not off the wall people. I mean, you read their books, not off the wall. You may not like their conclusions, but these are not people – these are people who are still actively highly regarded inside their field.

So then it comes down to just you know, you want to get into a pissing match about who is a good scientist, you really are at that kind of level, but these aren’t people that have – that you could really call out in that way. And yet that’s kind of – that’s what I’m saying. That’s the baggage of JREF. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened with those folks. Pick on somebody else.

Dr. Phil Plait: I can’t say whether it should happen with those folks or not. For all I know…

Alex Tsakiris: But you have to. That’s your legacy and I think you can’t please…

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, for all I know, those three guys are total cranks. I don’t know.

Alex Tsakiris: You’ve got to be able to say – are you saying that they’re – you’re the president of JREF…

Dr. Phil Plait: I’m not saying that.

Alex Tsakiris: Are – are…

Dr. Phil Plait: You’re telling me about these things right now. I have not done the research on Rupert Sheldrake or these other guys, simply because I just haven’t. I haven’t had the time. I’m – again, I’m one guy. The JREF has looked at these guys before.

Alex Tsakiris: Ummmmm, okay.

Dr. Phil Plait: If that – if Randi or somebody else in the organization has come to that conclusion, well then that’s the conclusion they’ve come to. It may not be the conclusion I would come to if I had done it. It may very well be. There’s literally not a whole lot I can say about this to you right now, in this interview, live, because I literally have not done that research.
If I were to come across a researcher in my own field with which I’m familiar, who is clearly saying things that are contradictory to reality, even if it were a friend of mine, somebody who is saying, “You know, I don’t think dark matter and dark energy exist. I think it’s this.” And I can say, “Well, that’s not right. We’ve got these observations. We know that what you’re saying is wrong.” I’m going to call this guy out. I don’t care if he’s spent his whole life researching it or not.

If a scientist spends their whole life and has done the work and has done all this kind of stuff, and is still saying something that is clearly wrong, even to somebody who may not have spent their whole life researching it. If you go to somebody and say, “Dr. Smith, present me your best evidence,” and they present their best evidence and you look at it and say, “But this is clearly wrong.” And it’s obvious. And that’s what they’re saying is their best evidence. Then why not come to that conclusion? If you can back it up. It’s…

Alex Tsakiris: Well, that all sounds good. I mean, there’s no disagreement. Because it all sounds good in the abstract. But I’m telling you, after digging into it for two years and interviewing – you know, Rupert Sheldrake, the main guy who challenged him was Richard Wiseman. Had him on the show extensively, you know, both of them, back and forth, all the papers were…
Dr. Phil Plait: Were they on together?

Alex Tsakiris: …kind of based..what’s that?

Dr. Phil Plait: Were they on together?

Alex Tsakiris: No, but I threaded it, you know…

Dr. Phil Plait: Okay.

Alex Tsakiris: …so I had one on and then I’d play the clips from the other one to the other one and then Steve Novella, the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, he had them on. I mean, we hashed the thing out pretty thoroughly. And it doesn’t look good for Wiseman. I mean, it just doesn’t in the final analysis. He just made some huge factual misrepresentations about what had been done. But again, you can’t comment on this stuff if you don’t know about it. I’m just saying I resist this idea of just kind of these generalities of, “Hey, no one’s going to disagree with that.
If somebody’s totally off the wall, yeah, we shouldn’t support them,” and all the rest of this. But it comes down to the specifics. I’ve been at this for a while and it just doesn’t always look that good for the skeptics when you look at some of the people that they’ve gone after and you really look at the ways that they’ve gone after them, the reasons they’ve gone after them. Some are good, and you know, some are not. And I think there’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that power and that claim of being kind of this watchdog for scientific orthodoxy.
But I’ve strayed off of the topic of science education, which I think is – you know, I think it goes hand-in-hand with this. You know, because it’s like science education. Who’s against science education? Well, no one is.

Dr. Phil Plait: [laughs] The Texas State Board of Education, I’d say might be.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Okay, maybe, I don’t know. I don’t know where that one is, but the point is, science education, yeah good. Everyone feels the warm and fuzzy. But science lobbying? You know, is JREF a lobbying group for a particular point of view? Or is it really just for in general, science education? I don’t know. I’m not – I don’t need another lobbying group. Especially in science.

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, we’re not a political organization so I couldn’t say for example, as president of the JREF, we need to go after Obama. We need to go after Newt Gingrich, we need to go after Ross Perot or somebody like that. I’m just trying to think of the Libertarian candidate’s name – Ron Paul, sorry, not Ross Perot. Same RP, same initials.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: We can’t do that because that might be seen as partisan. We can say, for example, we support the First Amendment. And so if the Texas State Board of Education which is half of that board, are Creationists and want to weaken science education, very clearly they’re following the so-called wedge document where they’re trying to wedge religious issues into science education.
If we see that happening we can absolutely speak out about that. It’s – I don’t know if we don’t need another science lobbying group because we’ve had many, many years of science being under fire and it’s very difficult to argue against that. There were all sorts of issues with science being attacked politically. And we’re still seeing that when it comes to, for example, global warming. You can say that it’s been politicized on both ends.

Alex Tsakiris: Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: So what is the science showing? And that’s really hard to find because when you look that up, when you talk to people, you find that it has been so politicized for so long that finding the actual science of this is difficult. And so finding a science lobbying group would actually be great for me, because I’m so tired of seeing people who are lobbying for the politics of science. It’s another added layer to science that we do not need.
I don’t want to have to deal with people’s already built-in – I was going to say prejudices, but that word itself is loaded, ironically. But that’s what it is. People are pre-judging an issue based on their political bias. I’m tired of dealing with that. I’m tired of having to think to myself, ‘Is this person a liberal or is this person a conservative?’ I just want to talk about the science of something about this. So that’s already difficult.
And even with science education, you say who would be against science education? And I’m telling you right now, the political Creationists. The Fundamentalists in the country are against science education. They want – they say straight out they want to teach religion.
There are platforms of political parties in this country where the platform itself has a plank that says, “We want to bring the Bible into the classroom.” That’s a violation of the First Amendment. I mean, how much more clear can you be? And so these things have to be discussed.
But to pull back just a wee bit, when an issue comes up and it’s something like global warming or something like the vaccination movement, the anti-vaccination movement, there are many methods of fighting this. You have to fight the immediate problem. When Oprah Winfrey gives Jenny McCarthy a multi-venue platform for her to spread her nonsense, that has to be fought immediately. That has to be discussed immediately, because Jenny McCarthy is saying stuff which is factually incorrect and provably wrong and has an immediate impact on people. Because the vaccination rates are…

Alex Tsakiris: Great. Great. Go for it.

Dr. Phil Plait: …lowering down, right? But there’s an underlying issue that a parent who wants to investigate the vaccination and autism connection that they’re hearing about, has a hard time finding this kind of stuff. And when they find the evidence, can they analyze it properly?
And the answer typically is no, because they don’t have the background in critical thinking. The background in evidence-based, in science-based discussion of an issue. And that goes back to then, science education. And it’s not just science education, it’s scientific method education. There is a precious few handful of people in this country who understand that science is not a collection of facts. It is a method. It is a process. And in a sense it’s like…

Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely.

Dr. Phil Plait: …an organism. So if somebody says, “I have evidence of this,” it’s not just accepting it or denying it, it’s saying, “Show it to me and let’s look at it.”

Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. But then that take me back to my earlier point. I mean, at some point, Phil, we’ve got to come back to some of the statements that JREF has made and say okay, where is the science that they’re pointing to in saying it’s flawed versus where is just kind of a philosophical statement that you know, hey, all this – you want to talk about ghosts. All that poltergeist stuff is crap. Well, that’s something to say, but then you have to back that up. And that’s not my thing, poltergeists, you know?

My thing is human consciousness, however you want it – you know, the medium research, I’m interested in that. All the human consciousness near-death experience, because I think it’s consciousness is a very, very hot issue. But to come out with these kind of blankets, I don’t see JREF attacking the science. It goes back to the conversation I was telling you about with the guy with the Global Consciousness Project, right?

We got into it. We talked about the science. We’re talking about you know, this random number generators and whether you should see randomness across…

Dr. Phil Plait: [inaudible 0:41:16.8] project, right?

Alex Tsakiris: …and how we use those statistics. And then, boom. Pull back and say, “That’s pseudo-science.” I just run into that time and time again with skeptics. It’s not driven by the data. Pigasus should not exist. Pigasus isn’t about the data. Pigasus Award doesn’t say here is the study that was published that is most flawed. It says, here is the individual that’s espousing a certain idea that is flawed. And I think that’s anti-science. I think that hurts science. It drives into, it feeds into this whole misconception we have about science that it is this position rather than it is a method. But like you just said…

Dr. Phil Plait: Now I disagree. If somebody is clearly not performing a scientific study of something…

Alex Tsakiris: Prove it.

Dr. Phil Plait: …They claim they are.

Alex Tsakiris: Prove it. You just said clearly. So then prove that. Focus on how they’re not clearly doing it. I’m sure – you know, you sound pretty up-to-date on the vaccination/McCarthy thing. I’m sure you could probably prove that to my satisfaction. Great. Well then prove it. But on these other things, you’re not willing to back off one inch on the personalization of kind of the public humiliation that the Pigasus Award is, but you have no proof.

Do you want to schedule a follow-on interview and you can follow-up on anyone of these and tell me where these people have made you know, significant errors in their research? I’d be happy to do that. You probably don’t have the time, but I mean that’s what I’m talking about. You want to prove it then back it up.

Dr. Phil Plait: I think in my opinion what I’m hearing from you is that you’re using a wrench to hammer a nail. The Pigasus Award is not designed to be an analytic study of where some research has gone wrong. That’s not the point. The point is to sort of bring it to light…

Alex Tsakiris: It should be. But then it shouldn’t exist.

Dr. Phil Plait: No, no, now hang on a second…

Alex Tsakiris: It shouldn’t be a personal attack…

Dr. Phil Plait: Hang on a sec. It’s not just coming out of the blue. For example, Jenny McCarthy. We gave her a Pigasus Award this year. The anti-vaccination movement. Yeah, sure, we’ve given them an award, but that’s an end point of many, many, many investigations into this. If you go to The Swift, for example, which is now the JREF blog – it used to be a newsletter – you can find article after article where we’ve talked about the anti-vaccination movement.
There are people who have applied for the million dollar challenge, for example. The million dollar paranormal challenge, which if your listener’s aren’t familiar with it, we have a million dollars sitting in basically in a bank and we’ll give it to somebody who can pass a test that shows that they have paranormal powers. Or at least shows that we cannot disprove that they have paranormal powers. And so if somebody is actually doing this and they apply for the test and they don’t make it or they have some ridiculous claim, they might win a Pigasus Award.
And if you see the Pigasus Award, that’s sort of the end product of all these other things that have gone on. Randi’s looked into it, I’ve looked into it, other contributors to the JREF have looked into it. So the Pigasus Award is not designed to be the opposite of a Nobel Prize. It’s not like the Ignoble Award. It’s just the end product of this other work. If you feel that the Pigasus Award has been given to somebody who doesn’t deserve it, then let us know. And say, “Look, you know, I found…

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, okay, I’ll let you know. Rupert Sheldrake doesn’t deserve it. Gary Schwartz doesn’t deserve it. Charles Tart doesn’t deserve it. Those are three people I know, I’ve spoken with. And they don’t deserve it. And I’ve spoken with Randi. I had him on the show and we talked about Rupert Sheldrake.
And you know, Randi’s an incredibly gifted communicator but he’s not deeply engaged in the research. And you know, you try and gage him on the specifics of the topic, he doesn’t know. And in this case he’s relied on Richard Wiseman. And Richard Wiseman, when he was on my show, he completely did a 180 on his former statement. He said, “Well, now I do have to admit for the first time after 10 years, that my data does match Sheldrake’s.“
But the – it’s just – I don’t think everything that JREF does is really in line with these ideals that you have about promoting science and I guess that’s what I’m pointing out and I think it’s feeding into the disenchantment that a lot of folks have with science, rather than trying to pull us out of it. And this whole kind of ridiculous idea we have of this battle between science and religion, I understand your anger at the Texas State School Board and I understand why that inspires you to take action. I understand that.
At the same time, I wonder if science is really approaching the whole issue of spirituality and what might lie underneath that, from anything approaching a fair playing field that would allow researchers on either side to really delve in and answer those questions. It seems like science is so dorky. I mean as soon as you get into anything like consciousness or spirituality, science takes – it’s just dorky – it’s like is there a God gene? Why do people go to church on Sunday?
Rather than saying, hey, there’s millions of people that are having this experience, this near-death experience, and they’re encountering something that sounds a lot like God. Is that true? And you can take this – I’m not hung up on near-death experience.
You want to talk about all the hospice workers. You go into any hospice around the country and you tell them, just personally, you go, “Hey, you know, I’ve been seeing my dad. I’ve been seeing a vision of my dad at the end of my bed and he just died six months ago.”
They take you in the back and they say, “Look, Phil, don’t worry about it. You’re okay. A lot of people experience that. It’s not a problem.” Okay, those are the people, that’s what they say, right? But then if you go to your psychiatrist or you go to the hospital, they say, “Hey, take this medicine and get those things out of your head.” There’s this disconnect that I think we have to open science up to. Researching. I don’t care what the conclusion is, just there’s no way to explain why we don’t research it.

Dr. Phil Plait: My initial reaction to what you’re saying is strong disagreement with what you’re saying. First of all, science is not a single track. It’s not saying let’s look for a God gene to explain everything. There are psychologists, there are researchers who’ve gone out and researched this sort of thing. Why do people believe in some things?
There are people who study brain physiology, try to figure this kind of stuff out. If – there are reasons we speak. There are reasons we communicate. There are reasons our hands work the way they do. And it all ties into the function of the brain. And there are people who are in there looking at sort of the brain-mind connection.
Whether they’re doing this scientifically or not I don’t know. Again, it’s not my field. But I know that it’s not just a party line. This is not like we have a global plank for science that says spirituality doesn’t exist. On the other hand, I don’t also think that there’s if you go to a hospice it’s the same thing either on the other side where it says everybody thinks that. Hey, you know what? If everybody thinks it, doesn’t mean it’s real. And that’s what science is all about. Science is investigating reality.
If enough people feel a strong connection, a personal connection with God, then that is something that is worth investigating, whether it’s a genetic thing, whether it’s a brain thing, or whether God exists and is communicating through us in some means that we don’t understand yet. All of these things are subject to investigation. If you want to look into that, I think that’s great.
And I think that – you know, I’m not going to say it’s dorky. As someone who studies astronomy and has a PhD in the field and has been writing about it now for years and years, it can be dorky. You can get some guy who is stiff and unexpressive and stands there and says, “blah, blah, blah,” or you can get somebody who’s passionate about it and loves this kind of stuff and talks about it and makes it colorful and fun and exciting.

You know, that’s the way it’s going to be. If there is a public perception, right, that medicine is “dorky,” that it’s stiff, that they just prescribe pills to solve problems, then that’s a public perception problem. I don’t think that’s a science problem.
I think that’s a scientific PR problem. And I don’t necessarily see it that way. I see that a lot of anti-science people are pushing that. For example, again in the anti-vax movement where they’re saying doctors just want to vaccinate. You know, and surgeons just want to cut. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that’s fair. I think that’s a political maneuver to try to paint your opposition badly. If you – and I’m talking to you , here, personally – if you think the skeptic movement has gone off the rails in this area…

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Right. [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: …then I personally have no problem finding out about that. If you say that this person is wrong in what they’ve said, then I think that should be looked into. Because I think that we need to be skeptical of everything, and that includes skepticism itself. Are we doing this correctly?
One of the things I’ve done – I’ve been careful about is not to say – well, I can’t say I’ve been careful not to say, “That’s wrong.” You know, if somebody says UFOs exist, I don’t say that’s wrong. I say, “In my opinion, what we have seen from the evidence does not support the idea that alien spaceships are coming down here and abducting people in their sleep and tearing out the rear ends of cows and all that kind of stuff. The evidence doesn’t support that.”
Can aliens come here? Do aliens exist? Have they been coming here? I can’t say, right? So you’ve got to be a little bit careful about that. If somebody comes along and says there’s no such thing as flying saucers, all right? Then I have to say, “No, I don’t think we can say that. I think we have to tread a little more carefully there.” That’s being skeptical of the skeptical movement.
A lot of people think skepticism is just doubting, is just denying. And that’s not true. So that’s why I’m a little – a little hesitant of saying skeptical of the skeptical movement because words have meaning, different meanings to different people. I’m saying that we have to be careful. It’s very easy for somebody to become a demagogue. And I don’t want to become a demagogue.
I don’t think any of us should be demagogues. To stand up on a soapbox and say, “These guys are wrong.” Unless we have the evidence to back us up. And the difference between that and being a demagogue is that a demagogue is just absolutely 100 percent sure with no doubts. And we always need to be able to say, “Oh, you know what? I was wrong. I shouldn’t have said that this guy’s research is saying this when it turns out, you know what? He was saying that – a mistake on my part. Let’s reinvestigate this.” I’m all for that. And if you have…

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, fair enough.

Dr. Phil Plait: …problems with that sort of thing…

Alex Tsakiris: I’ll tell you what…

Dr. Phil Plait: …then you know, offline then…

Alex Tsakiris: Well…

Dr. Phil Plait: …send me an e-mail and we’ll talk about it.

Alex Tsakiris: We can do it online. I tell you what. You’re president of JREF. Assign someone to come on my show – and I’ve already done it, but we’ll talk about the Global Consciousness Project. The neat thing about that – and I think you would like it if you looked into it – it’s completely open source. You know, I have this site also called, Open Source Science, where it says hey, everything should be out there. Everyone should be able to do it.
Hey, Global Consciousness Project, they’ve collected this number from random – this data from random number generators, 65 of them around the world, all the data is out there on the Web site. Ten year’s worth. So there’s plenty of work to assign somebody. Give me somebody, we’ll talk to them, I’ve already talked to you know, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, a very, very popular skeptical Web site. But I also talked to Dr. Dean Raden and Dr. Roger Nelson from Princeton, who are the principle researchers behind it. Great. I mean, I think you want to talk about bringing it real, that makes it real.
The skeptical movement has been completely, completely against these guys and said all these kind of outrageous things about what quacks they are. It’s completely unfounded. Everything that the skeptics have said. So, bring it on, tell me somebody, and we’ll have a good dialogue. I’m not interested in just you know – I’ll have a good dialogue and we’ll just hash it out. I’ll connect the researchers with the counters. Tell me who to talk to. You know, you said you have a list of people who are well qualified. Tell me who’s well qualified to deal with this. It’s basically a statistics experiment.

Dr. Phil Plait: Right, and…

Alex Tsakiris: And you can do that offline, you know, get back to me offline.

Dr. Phil Plait: Yeah. And it’s not just statistics because for example, if you’re generating random numbers that’s hard to do. That’s really, really hard to do.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, you know, they have a really neat – I mean, I think you or I would really get into it.

Dr. Phil Plait: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: They have a very solid piece of hardware, you know…

Dr. Phil Plait: I – yeah, I can’t…

Alex Tsakiris: they’re sampling a little resistor on board and…

Dr. Phil Plait: I absolutely cannot say their random number generator’s wrong. I’m saying that if they’re making a claim about global consciousness that can affect a random number generator…

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but just trust me.

Dr. Phil Plait: …I’d have to be super, super sure about that. And I personally can’t do that.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Right. But trust me. The hardware isn’t where you’d find a problem. These guys are you know, top-notch and it’s easy with the hardware. You’re sampling it 200 times a second over years, you know, you can see if it’s it gone haywire, if it’s not doing random.

Dr. Phil Plait: I don’t know if I agree with that.

Alex Tsakiris: But give me somebody,,,

Dr. Phil Plait: That’s uh…

Alex Tsakiris: I think you would if you…

Dr. Phil Plait: I think that’s an argument from a report if you’re saying these guys are top-notch. Top-notch people can be wrong, right? That’s kind of what we’ve seen this whole time, so…

Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. I’m absolutely…

Dr. Phil Plait: …it would need to be investigated from the bottom up.

Alex Tsakiris: …so give me, give me some…Great. This will be a great example of the new JREF. The new Phil Plait JREF openness, ability to look at yourself and see if we really should be skeptical of the skeptics. Give me anyone you think is right, and I’ll guarantee you we’ll do it if you…

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, look, I’m not going to get cornered into a specific thing here. The JREF is only a handful of people. There are a few other groups out there. We have a ton of stuff that we’re working on right now, and I am all for looking into this kind of stuff if we can, if we have the time, if we can find qualified people to do it. It’s not that straightforward.
So I’m not going to go on a public podcast and say, “Absolutely, call me, we’ll take care of this.” Because it could be quite some time. And it may never happen. It’s absolutely possible that in this specific instance, you know, something else comes up that takes up more of our time or whatever. I do say that I do want to be open and if people have these kind of problems I want to look into them and do what I can.
But doing what you can literally means that. If somebody comes in and says, “My big toe can communicate with aliens from Osiris III,” there’s just not time or the ability to do that.
And what’s super-important to one person or even to a lot of people may not be to another one. So I’m not – I don’t want to commit to anything here. I don’t want to sound like I’m…

Alex Tsakiris: And I’m not trying to. No, I’m not trying to pin you down…

Dr. Phil Plait: …I’m not trying to be weasely here or anything like that.

Alex Tsakiris: And I think maybe I went on too long about that. You know, but I think it’s on the other hand, and let’s be realistic, it’s easy for you to blast it out there and say, “Hey, who’s interested in taking on the Global Consciousness Project?” And then I’ll even qualify them from there and see who’s the best, who seems the most qualified. And we’ll go from there. So you know, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot on your part to say, “Hey, this is something…”

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, if you have a list of people or if you have people that you think should be looking into this, then sure.

Alex Tsakiris: I have all the people on my side, and the only guy on the other side who’s ever come out is Jeff Scargle of NASA, but you can have – I think it’s good to have a fresh person who’s a skeptical person come and do it. Because what it’s really about is holding the skeptical community true to all the things that you just said, because in my experience it doesn’t necessarily work that way. It’s that openness isn’t there. But hey, you know what? I’ve used up just about the complete hour of my tape, here, talking about my stuff.
And we haven’t talked a lot about what’s going on with the Bad Astronomer. So in the time that we have left, tell me what’s going on with you and we’ve talked all about JREF. I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff that’s going on at Bad Astronomy.
Dr. Phil Plait: Well, JREF is a huge fraction of my life right now, but it’s part of several facets of things I’m working on. And absolutely, the blog is something that takes up quite a bit of my time, as well. The Bad Astronomy Web site has always been sort of my baby, but I started up the blog a few years ago and then that go basically – I don’t want to say purchased, but it got moved to Discover Magazine and the Discover Blogs last year in 2008. And it’s been going gangbusters.
I was really nervous about that move when I first did it because it’s a big deal. Am I going to lose a lot of readers? Are they going to want me to not write about some topics I’ve been writing about? And it turns out it was fantastic. They have brought new people to my audience, and I brought new people to theirs. It’s freed me from having to deal with upgrades and software every three days like it seems like WordPress does all the time, which is really aggravating.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: Without having to worry about the overhead, I can worry more about other things in life and it’s been great. They’ve been really good about supporting me, and if there’s a software issue I can call them that get that taken care of. So for example, as we’re talking right now, I just posted yesterday a pretty big blog post that’s been hammering our servers. And that’s something that would have – I would have been basically nursing the servers for days after something like that. Now I can just say, “Hey, what’s going on?” And they fix it. Yea!

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: So it’s been terrific. I’ve seen growth in my audience. I’ve seen an ability for me to take on new topics and experiment and say, “You know, I’m going to write about this,” and see what people think. And if everybody says yeah, this is boring, well, if it’s not boring to me I might still write about it and to heck with them. But if people really respond to it, then hey, this is something else I can be writing about if I can figure it out and have the time. So that’s been fantastic. And it’s also – I’ve been writing – I just wrote a book, Death From the Skies, which came out in October 2008 and that’s doing okay.

Alex Tsakiris: Right.

Dr. Phil Plait: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to people publishing a book the same week the economy goes into a recession.

Alex Tsakiris: Especially with the title, Death From the Skies. [laughs]

Dr. Phil Plait: Yeah, that kind of sucked. I was watching the news and almost literally it was the housing market that first started causing problems and then it was the banks themselves, because of the housing market. And I was watching this happen leading up to the publishing of my book and it was basically in that month of October of 2008 when all the banking problems came to light. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to sell eight copies of this book.’
So you know, despite all that it’s doing okay. And I think it’s marching along and we haven’t seen sales really drop off because of the recession. It’s just been sort of steady. And I’m actually pretty happy with the way it’s been going. And I’ve been able to write about it on the blog and talk about it on podcasts like this one, and so that’s nice. And so, the writing I’ve been doing has been a lot of fun. It’s been taking up a lot of time, but I’m really enjoying it and it’s something I feel like I can actually do. It’s nice to be able to grow up wondering you know, what it is you’re going to do in life.
I’m not – I love astronomy and everything like that, but as far as leading research projects, it’s not my thing. It’s not really what I wanted to do. And I was assisting other people with their projects and I really enjoyed that. I didn’t want to lead the research, I was able to support it. And I really liked that.
But then I found out that writing about it is something I really like doing. So this is a – it’s like I’m so happy because I was able to find what it is I like to do and it turns out I can do it and people seem to respond to it. So it’s been a pretty good ride for me.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I’m sure it’s a ride that will keep on going. I think you really have all the right tools. You’ve put it together the right way, and you deserve all the good things that are coming to you, so.

Dr. Phil Plait: Well, thank you.

Alex Tsakiris: And I certainly appreciate you taking the time and having this discussion. You know, sometimes this discussion between skeptics and believers to make kind of things simple, is a difficult discussion to have. But one of my real goals has been to create the dialogue because it seems like there isn’t enough of it. So, I really appreciate you having that dialogue with me.

Dr. Phil Plait: I don’t mind having a dialogue, and I do think that we all need to question our foundational systems of how we’re going about doing whatever it is we’re doing in life, and whether that’s skepticism or faith or I don’t know, shoveling snow for a living. It doesn’t matter. Are we doing this the right way? I think you and I will disagree on details and maybe even on some bigger generalities, but I think we both do agree that we need to hold up a mirror to everything in life and if that means holding up a mirror to the skeptical movement to make sure it doesn’t become dogmatic, absolutely. I think that needs to be done.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, thanks again to Dr. Phil Plait for joining me today on Skeptiko. If you’d like more information about our show, including a link to a very interesting survey on paranormal experiences that’s being done by a Skeptiko listener, Rosemary Brane, in Australia. She sent me a link to this survey. I completed it and it sounds like just very good, sold based data that she’s gathering on the kind of experiences that people have had. So that’s also in the show notes for this show, so check it out. And that is, of course, at our Web site, www.Skeptiko.com.
You’ll also find there an e-mail link to me, a link to all our previous shows, and a link to our forum. So that’s going to do it for today. Stay with us. Much more in the future coming up with Skeptiko. New ventures, new projects, more about that soon. Until next time, bye for now.