Goldsmiths, University of London, 11th-13th September 2015
by “Ian Filtrator”
“The Association for Skeptical Enquiry is committed to the application of rational, objective and scientific methods to the investigation and understanding of ideas, claims and practices, especially those of an extraordinary or paranormal nature.”
– ASKE website
I’ve just been to two conferences.
At the same time, in the same place, featuring the same speakers.
The first, ostensibly upfront and straightforward in its intent to apply the rigour of scientific enquiry, in particular to non-mainstream activities such as paranormal investigation and complementary medicine, with, amongst other aims, the wholly laudable intent of protecting the ignorant and gullible.
The second? Well…the second was not advertised but could seemingly be accessed by initiates and those in the know. Perhaps we could hypothesise its presence from observations? Why do “Sceptic” and “sceptic” (for American readers, “Skeptic” and “skeptic”) seem to mean different things? Why the need for two words, and what might it signify? What is the nature of Skepticism, and why is scepticism not enough? And what sort of scientific conference opens with a video address from James Randi, an established fraud and self-confessed liar with no scientific credentials?
So many questions.
“To be a true sceptic you’ve got to be prepared to be persuaded by evidence.”
– Attributed to Professor Chris French by a fellow presenter
Let’s deal with the first conference first. There was some very interesting content, delivered by presenters who are prominent in their fields.
Drawing on his background as a linguist, Mark Newbrook warned of the dangers of reading maverick claims as mainstream due to ignorance of the field of enquiry, and the danger in the reluctance to challenge Skeptical heroes in areas other than their field of expertise (“We’re against what he’s against, so he’s our friend and not to be challenged”).
With deadpan humour and some nicely absurd examples, steganographer Klaus Schmeh illustrated how it’s possible to find hidden messages when there are none. It is possible, however, that the goddess Apophenia is undiscriminating in the traps she sets, perhaps for this company as much as those they seek to “expose…”
Psychologist Richard Wiseman offered a clear and very useful guide to spreading one’s chosen message on YouTube, a guide that he admitted would be just as useful to the opposition.
Physicist Jim Al-Khalili introduced us to the field of quantum biology, where weirdness abounds and micro phenomena manifest on the macro level, which seems to introduce the scientific community to some limitations of currently held positions which might have far-reaching implications.
Psychologist Chris French and colleagues introduced us to the work of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. In the course of his presentation it became apparent how much commitment had gone into starting the unit and keeping it afloat in an academic climate that has been far from sympathetic.
Other presenters delved into conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, sleep paralysis, fairies and folklore, some debunking, some simply applying the rigour of known scientific method to observed phenomena.
“Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.”
– Attributed to Charcot by Freud
What of that second conference? Where was that to be detected?
Could it be heard in the gasps of disbelief from the audience when a quarter of their number put up their hands to the question, “Who has found complementary medicine helpful?”
Could it be seen in audience members immediately shaking their heads at data inconvenient to their views or when a panellist suggested, “Other views should be heard.”
Could it be seen in the theatrical eye rolling, exchange of looks and forehead slapping at any mention of “spirituality?”
How about the sycophantic, almost messianic regard noted in several conversations which was accorded to Skeptical doyens such as Richard Wiseman, someone reputedly not averse to ignoring inconvenient data (Carter, 2010)? From what do you need to be saved, I wondered (cf. Farias et al, 2013)?
What are we to make of the hisses and groans meted out to Deepak Chopra and Rupert Sheldrake respectively, writers who are quite different in character but who seem to be lumped together as the pantomime villains in this particular theatre?
And if we look again at the research findings presented in this gathering, we might wonder, by implication, which were not?
Let me use an area of enquiry to illustrate this, an area that popped up on several occasions in the proceedings.
The presenter Barbara Rowlands stated, “The placebo response underpins complementary medicine.” If that statement is examined, a potentially fruitful line of enquiry emerges, given the infancy of placebo research and the fascinating findings emerging so far. But it was here stated with no argument, no supporting evidence. I fear that “placebo” is here being treated as synonymous with “baseless,” a fear given shape by the sage nodding of the audience at her statement.
The use of the word placebo simply to signify an inactive or inert substance in treatment is out of date (Price et al, 2008). The study of placebo effects, the group difference between outcomes when active treatment and inactive treatment groups are compared in clinical trials, has expanded into the much more interesting and challenging area of placebo responses, an individual’s responses to a symbolic intervention. This area of study has produced some results which are on the face of it puzzling, and which have potentially fascinating implications (Kaptchuk et al, 2010). The use of the word placebo simply as a banishing of entities troublesome to many of the people here is not good enough.
Continuing the theme, what should we make of Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, formerly Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, presenting a list of “complementary therapies” with the comment, “There is some evidence for some…” cue smirk at the audience “…if you are generous minded.” Pause for knowing chortles from the audience. The fact that the list included interventions established in medical settings and for which there is good evidence does lead one to draw the conclusion that he was playing to his audience.
“All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”
And what of that audience? It was, as one of the panellists identified, overwhelmingly white, male, middle class and in our society, privileged. Nothing they can do about their backgrounds. But in that context the parading by different speakers of people they felt were forlorn and deluded, so this audience could laugh, occasioned not only discomfort but the impression that they were picking their targets in a highly selective fashion. Shooting fish in a barrel using a 20 gauge shotgun is not only unsporting but very poor science.
It seems that “Skeptic” encompasses a wide continuum of attitudes. Some presenters were evidently not just sceptical but open in their thinking. Several distinguished themselves (step forward Professor Chris French, Dr James May and Rabbi Pete Tobias) in tempering empirical rigour with a clear openness and humanity in their approach. Others gave the impression that their minds are sealed to any anomalous observations.
To require the application of rigour in the study of anomalous phenomena is quite proper. To decide in advance which areas are worthy of study and which subjects and researchers should be excluded by sneering at their mere mention is not. Science is to be found not in the phenomena that are studied or the types of observations made, but in how those observations are analysed. Engaging with hard cases is important to human enquiry. To side-line data that are troublesome to one’s stance, in favour of picking easy targets, is simply lazy.
I’m looking forward to a repeat visit in two years.
Carter, C. (2010) “Heads I Lose, Tails You Win”, Or How Richard Wiseman Nullifies Positive Results, and What to Do about It: A Response to Wiseman’s (2010) Critique of Parapsychology. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 74: 156-167
Farias, M., Newheiser, A., Kahane, G. & de Toledo, Z. (2013) Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 49, Issue 6: 1210–1213
Kaptchuk, T.J., Friedlander, E., Kelley, J.M., Sanchez, M.N., Kokkotou, E., Singer, J.P., Kowalczykowski, M., Miller, F.G., Kirsch, I., Lembo, A.J. (2010) Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015591
Price, D.D., Finniss, D.G., & Benedetti, F. (2008) A comprehensive review of the placebo effect: Recent advances and current thought. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 565–590