HAYLEY IS A GHOST

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Review: PSI Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet

PSI Wars coverThe TED Controversy took place between March and April 2013 when videos of talks delivered by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock at a TEDx event in London were removed by TED after complaints that the event was giving pseudoscience a platform. When Amazon recommended Craig Weiler’s  ‘PSI Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the InternetI was intrigued as I am one of those skeptics who believed that the removal of the videos was wrong and I have been critical of Wikipedia editing in the past. I was bitterly disappointed because it would seem that to Weiler I am the enemy too.

He explains early on that ‘one of the great things about the TED controversy was that it gave me an opportunity to explain the whole sordid background situation with organised skepticism’.

He isn’t wrong. The whole book is skeptic and science bashing with some cultural commentary thrown in.

He describes the TED controversy as a ‘milestone on the road to a fundamental cultural change’ and warns that ‘the TED controversy is a warning of things to come. It is time for media companies to looking more closely at whether they’re simply following the agenda of organised ideologue skeptics or whether they’re actually creating unbiased material’. [Sic]

Skeptics are continually referred to as ‘ideologue skeptics’ throughout the book by the way, hinting at the idea that skepticism is dogmatic. This is the biggest problem with the book; his hatred for skeptics overshadows everything else to the point that you can visualise the sneer on his face as you read.

Later in the book Weiler points out that he regards much of what he writes to be about pseudo-skeptics and not good skeptics but refers to it as ‘skepticism’ or ‘skeptics’ because that is how psuedoskeptics refer to themselves. In the next breath he likens pseudoskeptics to other groups who ‘think in similar black and white terms’ such as the Tea Party, Christian Fundamentalists and White Supremacy Groups. A slur that cheapens any valid criticism he may have had.

Early on the book there are pages dedicated to parapsychological research and psychical research – such as the founding of the Society for Psychical Research, the Ganzfield studies, Sheldrake’s Staring Studies and more, and Weiler dismisses criticism about these as slurs because ‘for skeptics, psychical research is never enough’.

The problem here is that criticisms from scientists are often made not because they want to brush away the ideas being tested but because they want to see the protocols improved so that the data isn’t open to variables that may have caused false results.

There will always be closed-minded people who claim to be skeptics or scientists (both of which require open minds) but they do not represent skepticism and science and to act as though they do isn’t a fair representation, but why let that get in the way of a good bit of bashing?

Those with open minds don’t defend bad research, they improve it, but for people like Weiler who rely on that bad research as the foundation for their beliefs this just isn’t acceptable. Instead all criticism and all skepticism is lumped together with pseudoskeptics and closed-minded people. ‘Skeptics gang up to make their numbers look larger than they actually are’ he states, hinting at the possibility that there is a larger skeptical conspiracy at play. This is something hinted at throughout the book, and actually mentioned in chapters when he writes about the editing of Wikipedia articles by a group called Guerilla Skepticism whom he refers to as evil.

Here’s the thing; there are problems within organised skepticism with individuals claiming to represent other skeptics when they only represent their own interests, but this doesn’t represent good, healthy skepticism. To conflate these is an underhand dismissal of people with genuine criticism.

Weiler accuses organisations like the James Randi Education Foundation and the Centre for Skeptical Inquiry of being dishonest PR machines who are out to cause confusion about parapsychology, and he accuses these organisations along with websites like QuackWatch, Whatstheharm, Skeptics Dictionary and Guerilla Skepticism, of creating an echo chamber type effect on the internet where they cite each other as sources but when faced with intelligent rebuttals ‘melt like a snowman in August’.

This may be true to a point (we’ve all seen those skeptics who dismiss people as ‘woo’ or ‘pseudoscience’, or with the same tired quotes like ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ ) but this isn’t always the case and this is not representative of those of us who are skeptical yet open-minded to alternative possibilities and this is the assumption made throughout this book. The assumption that turns potentially informed criticism into a laughable conspiracy theory.

 

I struggled to finish this book because of the slurs about skeptics, but also because of the double standards regarding “evidence” throughout. For example, an initial study by R Wiseman and M Schlitz in 1998 is presented as scientific evidence that ‘psychic ability declines in the presence of skeptics’ when the study claims no such thing. This is a terrible misrepresentation of a study in an attempt to explain away why psychics don’t perform as well when controls are put in place.

In another instance Weiler dismisses criticism that Sheldrake’s Staring Studies were too varied to produce reliable data as nonsense, stating that varied studies are ‘extremely unlikely’ to cause consistent positive results, when this is just not true.

The best studies in a controversial field like consist of many experiments across different labs that all follow the same procedure and with similar participants, and then show in a meta-analysis that there’s an overall effect. If you put a bunch of widely varied studies in the meta-analysis, your result is much less reliable. If you do this don’t be surprised when people are skeptical of your research and don’t pretend it isn’t a problem. Remember, open-minded people don’t defend bad research, they improve it.

The only recommendation I can make for this book is to leave it on the shelf unless you want a headache. No amount of reasoning will make a difference here.

9 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting review. I think you left a few things out which I would like to clear up.

    You make a large number of claims about what’s in my book such that I cannot address them all. I’ll cover a few however:

    First, and this is very important to me, I state very clearly in the book that skeptics are people and people are complicated. I gave examples of skeptics behaving well and badly as examples. I also made it quite clear that I was talking about a fringe element of skepticism, and I gave several examples of this. This fringe element is quite dangerous to a healthy scientific atmosphere. Surely this is uncontroversial?

    I think you are also misrepresenting my chapter on parapsychology. TED after all, was waving around charges of pseudoscience. I directly addressed this by citing the best skeptical criticisms in three areas, the Ganzfeld, the Staring Studies and the RNG studies. I don’t happen to think that the criticism was convincing, you disagree, obviously. But this is beside the point because the main issue here was whether parapsychology is a pseudoscience. The skeptical criticisms do not make that claim.

    You stated:
    “This is a terrible misrepresentation of a study in an attempt to explain away why psychics don’t perform as well when controls are put in place.”

    In the Wiseman/Schlitz study, Wiseman (skeptic) consistently got chance results while Schlitz (proponent) consistently got positive results with all the same controls in place. From the study conclusions, page 16:

    “It seems quite possible that the experimenter’s own level of belief/disbelief in the paranormal caused participants to express quite different levels of belief/disbelief in psi and have different expectations about the success of the forthcoming experimental session.”

    The other possible conclusion was that the experimenters themselves were responsible for the results through psychic functioning. It was also far from the only study that demonstrated this effect.

    Jim Carpenter addresses this quite thoroughly in his book “First Sight” pg’s 288-296.

    The claim you’re making about varied studies not qualifying to be included in a meta analysis was brought up by only one skeptical reviewer (out of many) regarding some of the staring studies. (Not all of them.) There are also different interpretations of how to view this data. You seem to be making a larger issue out of this than the scientists did.

    I’m sorry that you didn’t like the book and that you feel that it is not worthy of reading. I frankly expected just that sort of reaction from the skeptical community. No one likes to see their group criticized.

    I will leave you with this: the criticisms that I made are neither new nor my own. (Although obviously I share those opinions of the skeptical movement.) It is therefore probably a useful guide to what sort of criticisms the skeptical movement can expect to see in the future. This book is hardly the last word on the subject.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book.
    Sincerely,
    Craig Weiler

  2. question to craig

    22 December, 2013 at 5:11 am

    Craig sorry to cherry-pick your post but you said “But this is beside the point because the main issue here was whether parapsychology is a pseudoscience. The skeptical criticisms do not make that claim.” You have posted this elsewhere as well, I want to know how you came to this conclusion, if you mention this in your book then you are indeed wrong. I am not sure what you have read but the skeptics dismiss parapsychology as a pseudoscience. If you read Terence Hines’s book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal he characterises parapsychology as a pseudoscience because it contains non-falsifiable hypotheses, as does James Alcock in his chapter in the book “Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal.” These are major works in the skeptic field. Did you take inspiration from that book, considering Psi Wars is in your title?

  3. Thank you for taking the time to reply and bring up this important point.

    Here’s the problem: Neither Terrence Hines nor James Alcock are peer reviewing the parapsychology literature for a scientific journal and are therefore not subject to stringent standards of accuracy. There is also no rebuttal, which is an essential part of the scientific process.

    I investigated the literature upon which all scientific opinion is supposed to be based instead of the opinion itself. It clarifies a lot and dispels hyperbole from both sides. If you’re staring at scientific studies, you don’t need someone else to tell you whether they’re pseudoscience or not. You can make up your own mind.

    You might be interested to know that I ran the science section by Rupert Sheldrake before the book was finished and he pointed me to more peer reviewed skeptical criticism of his work that I had missed.

    I haven’t read either of those skeptical books, so I don’t know what they could possibly be referring to as “non-falsifiable hypotheses” nor do I see why this is even important to proof oriented scientific studies. You don’t need a hypothesis to test the existence of a phenomena. It’s irrelevant. You would have to throw out an enormous amount of science if that were a requirement.

    I realize that as a skeptic you might take these books seriously, but their very premise is at odds with basic facts that are easy to verify. Pseudoscience is a very strong claim that implies either fraud or incompetence and as such it isn’t difficult to disprove. “Major works in the skeptical field” isn’t a very strong endorsement either. The skeptical world isn’t all that big and its members generally aren’t very notable.

    Most importantly, they’re not being referenced in the parapsychological literature, meaning that they’re not taken very seriously by the parapsychologists. And they’re not cited in mainstream non skeptic literature either.

    In answer to your question about my title, no. I didn’t even realize that book existed until mine was in print. (Because no one references it.) Psi Wars is a general term that was already in use.

  4. another response to Craig

    23 December, 2013 at 4:52 am

    Craig thanks for the response. You say:

    “Pseudoscience is a very strong claim that implies either fraud or incompetence and as such it isn’t difficult to disprove.”

    This is not necessarily true. There have been incompetence and fraud involved in pseudoscience but not always.

    Terence Hines in his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal defines the common qualities of pseudoscience as:

    1. They look for or actually manufacture “mysteries”
    2. They claim that these “mysteries” can not be explained by science
    3. They make unfalsifiable hypotheses
    4. They uncritically accept myths as true
    5. They uncritically accept eyewitness testimony of unique, non-repeatable events for the existence of phenomena
    which careful scientific observers can not reproduce.
    6. They refuse to revise or change their findings substantially in light of new evidence.

    If we look at parapsychology or the work of Rupert Sheldrake they match 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The skeptics are correct when they characterise parapsychology or Sheldrake views as pseudoscience.

    As for unfalsifiable hypotheses in parapsychology, Hines mentions this in his book, he writes:

    “The most common rationale offered by parapsychologists to explain the lack of a repeatable demonstration of ESP or other psi phenomena is to say that ESP in particular and psi phenomena in general are elusive or jealous phenomena. This means the phenomena go away when a skeptic is present or when skeptical “vibrations” are present. This argument seems nicely to explain away some of the major problems facing parapsychology until it is realized that it is nothing more than a classic nonfalsifiable hypothesis… The use of the nonfalsifiable hypothesis is permitted in parapsychology to a degree unheard of in any scientific discipline. To the extent that investigators accept this type of hypothesis, they will be immune to having their belief in psi disproved. No matter how many experiments fail to provide evidence for psi and no matter how good those experiments are, the nonfalsifiable hypothesis will always protect the belief.”

    Hine’s book was published by Prometheus books which is owned by CSICOP. It is a major work in the field of skepticism, it is not a book that should be ignored. Robert McLuhan mentions it in his book Randi’s Prize.

    As for James Alcock he has indeed reviewed parapsychology literature for scientific journals. His paper “Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi” made a serious dent in the parapsychology community. You can find the paper online. It was published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

    You say:

    “Most importantly, they’re not being referenced in the parapsychological literature, meaning that they’re not taken very seriously by the parapsychologists.”

    This isn’t true. James Alcock’s criticisms of psi have been taken very seriously by parapsychologists such as Bruce Greyson, Dean Radin and Stanley Krippner and have been cited in the parapsychological literature. If you are interested the is a modern book on the psi debate that includes chapters from both believers and skeptics it’s called Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential Or Human Illusion? and includes chapters from parapsychologists like Chris Carter, Dean Radin but also from skeptics James Aclock and Chris French.

    As for your comment:

    “The skeptical world isn’t all that big and its members generally aren’t very notable.”

    I entirely agree which is why I don’t understand why you spend much of your time moaning about the skeptical community, if us skeptics are not notable then why waste your time trying to expose us 🙂

    According to polls the majority of people believe in the paranormal. There are far more believers than skeptics. According to CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz “In regard to the many talk shows that constantly deal with paranormal topics, the skeptical viewpoint is rarely heard; and when it is permitted to be expressed, it is usually sandbagged by the host or other guests.”

    The media usually promotes paranormal topics without critical or skeptical coverage. There are far more paranormal websites out there than skeptical ones. I really do not see any conspiracy theory to supress the paranormal. The only thing I would agree with you over is the censorship of the TED talks, which really was quite embarrassing. Despite differences, I appreciate your research and will probably buy your book. Have a good Christmas.

    • I will approve this comment, but anything of this length would normally not be approved. If you want to have this conversation with posts this length you need to take this onto your own blog. Please see my Comment Policy via the menu at the top of my website.

  5. Well Craig,
    You show a total lack of understanding what Science is and how it works if you think you can test anything without a Hypothesis. You can collect a bunch of data … And then just crunch numbers until some correlation or t-test gives you something of interest – though, that is not testing anything. There are uses for pure observational studies – to produce a Hypothesis to then test.

    Funny that you discount a couple of books because they were not ‘peer reviewed’ yet I have seen you cite sources like Sheldrake’s book on Morphic Resonance as being worthy.

    Gee parapsychologists don’t cite sources which call their field pseudoscience, who would have guessed at that. Why would other researchers in other fields cite skeptics of parapsychologists in their works – they rarely give parapsychology much attention unless it is in skeptical works.

    If only there was good solid clear evidence to support the many claims of Psi. As you say ‘it is a very strong claim’, claims weak on evidence or with lots of weak evidence to support them.

  6. “1. They look for or actually manufacture “mysteries”
    2. They claim that these “mysteries” can not be explained by science
    3. They make unfalsifiable hypotheses
    4. They uncritically accept myths as true
    5. They uncritically accept eyewitness testimony of unique, non-repeatable events for the existence of phenomena
    which careful scientific observers can not reproduce.
    6. They refuse to revise or change their findings substantially in light of new evidence.”

    I’ll cover a few points from your last statement but really, If you’re trotting out this stuff, then we have nothing to talk about. None of these assertions can stand the light of day and are easily disproven if you’re willing to go beyond relying on other skeptics for information.

    This puts me in the position of trying to disprove every fiction that you believe or can think up and I’m not really interested in that.

    With regards to Alcock and Hines, I was referring solely to the books, not the general work of the authors, however they have not published any scientific papers of significance regarding the studies I was investigating. Books don’t supersede scientific studies so I ignore them for the purposes of providing proof.

    With supernatural topics I think you’ll find that the media only treats them uncritically as long as they don’t impinge on the area of real scientific evidence. Once you go there, a different mentality takes over.

  7. A man claiming to be psychic self-publishes a book that says scientists are doing science all wrong?

    I’m convinced!.

  8. Weiler is a political anti-skeptic ideologue. He is no different than his pseudo-skeptical enemies, in that he relies on insults and straw-men to make his “points”. He often pretends to be the smartest guy in the room when it suits him, yet never met an argument from ignorance he didn’t like (see his 9/11 trutherisms, for example).

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