The open-mindedness of skeptics

Today I’d like to briefly discuss the issue of open-mindedness, since I grow more and more alarmed by the rate at which this issue comes up in debates between skeptics and “believers” in alternative medicine, religion, the paranormal, the supernatural, and all sorts of other products of human imagination.

At this point the astute reader might point out, “Aha, you’re already presupposing that these things are products of imagination, so your mind is already closed to other options!” This is not the case. I believe that these things are products of imagination because that’s what they appear to be, based on all available evidence, so they are very probably imaginary. Is it possible that they are real, and not imagined? Of course! Show me evidence that is convincing enough (that is, evidence that’s as grandiose as the claim itself), and you’ll make me a believer (that is, you’ll make me believe that your claim is very probably real)!

I have changed my mind regarding various claims plenty of times in the past, precisely for this reason: I was shown convincing evidence (or found it myself) that made me reverse my views on a particular subject.

A brief analogy. Okay, not so brief.

When I was younger, I used to believe that I exerted some sort of energy that made street lights turn off exactly as I would drive underneath them in my car (this is apparently a common illusion). This didn’t quite sit well in my mind: why me? Am I really that extraordinary? Why doesn’t every driver cause street lights to go out? Then I decided to research the facts: I found out how street lights work, and I read up on some of the workings of human psychology, namely selective memory. And before long, I understood that the light bulbs are on a duty cycle (they periodically turn on and off to prevent overheating), and that my mind was assigning special significance to the times when a street light happened to turn off directly above me!

Did I feel saddened by the notion that I was no longer extraordinary? Maybe for a brief moment, but the reality check was soon overtaken by a feeling of enlightenment. It felt good to understand the real reason behind a phenomenon that was poorly understood (by me, at the time). Instead of living with a superficial pseudo-understanding of how things work (where I am endowed with street light powers), I felt extraordinary because I gained a much more meaningful understanding of the real world.

So what does this have to do with an open mind? Well, consider this. Suppose I meet a person (let’s call her Alice) who absolutely insists that the street light phenomenon is actually genuine — that people do, in fact, emit an energy field that causes street lights to turn off above them.

When I present all the research I did regarding street lights and human psychology, Alice dismisses it as inconclusive and insufficient. When I say that there is a perfectly good natural explanation for the phenomenon, Alice claims that her explanation is better because it feels right to her. She gives me a list of testimonials from her friends who have also experienced the phenomenon, and says, “they can’t all be wrong, can they?” When I show her the mathematics that proves how statistically likely it is to see a street light turn off during any drive, she insists that the number of times that she’s seen it can’t be a coincidence.

When I ask her to show me peer-reviewed publications on the reality of this effect, she says that she doesn’t have access to them at the moment, but assures me that they exist. When I ask her if she would be willing to perform a blinded test of her abilities, she refuses, saying that the street lights turn off only when she doesn’t think about it or least expects it.

When I ask her to explain the physical processes that she thinks are behind the phenomenon, she begins talking about quantum mechanics, saying that all particles are entangled, that our intentions can change the course of quantum reality, and that we, as observers, can choose the outcome of wavefunction collapse.

When I try to correct her naive understanding of quantum mechanics, she says that science doesn’t have all the answers. When I tell her that I used to believe in the same explanation that she does, except I learned better, she proceeds to state that I am hopelessly closed-minded and, with a tone of pity, says that I will never be able to control street lights like she can, because I don’t believe in it enough.

Sound familiar?

While the above analogy is a bit of a straw man (or straw woman in this case), the vast majority of debates between skeptics and “believers” take on exactly the above format. The believer, frustrated by the skeptic’s unwillingness to accept her extraordinary claim without sufficient evidence, resorts to calling the skeptic closed-minded.

Let’s think about the definition of an open mind. I would consider an open-minded person to be someone who is able to objectively evaluate new evidence, and integrate it into his or her framework of theories regarding the world. “Objectively” evaluating evidence means evaluating it regardless of personal interests, emotional appeal, profit motive, or peer pressure.

It is abundantly clear that, in the above scenario, it’s Alice who is closed-minded, because she is either unable or unwilling to honestly evaluate the real reasons for the street light effect.

However, the question remains: Am I closed-minded for being unwilling to consider Alice’s theory that she has psycho-kinetic powers? Well, that’s a bit of a loaded question. First of all, Alice does not have a theory that explains the effect. Saying that the effect is caused by telekinetic powers is a bit like saying, “It’s magic” — it doesn’t constitute an explanation, because it doesn’t explain how the process actually works.

Alice would have to define what exactly her powers are, their range and intensity, and how these powers can be reconciled with currently known laws of physics. If she claims that current physics are insufficient to explain her powers, or that she has tapped into a “new” law of physics, she suddenly has an entire world of physicists to contend with, all of whom agree on well-established physical laws that preclude such powers.

The only thing that would pique the interest of the world’s physicists is a simple test — an experiment that shows, repeatably, that the laws of physics do not apply to Alice. Is that too much to ask? As long as such an experiment does not exist, we have no reason to believe that Alice has any powers except an overly active imagination.

Replace the street light effect with any other extraordinary claim (energy medicine, life-force, zero-point fields, astrology, dowsing, etc), and the conclusions turn out the same: if the claim is real, it would undermine one or more laws of physics. In any case, the evidence for such a claim would have to be at least as spectacular as the claim itself.

In short, I am open-minded to any new evidence, whether it supports my worldview or contradicts it. However, I have some sensible constraints on what passes as “evidence.” As the immortal saying goes, I have an open mind, but not so open that my brain falls out.

If you are making extraordinary claims that are not supported by our current theories about the world, all I ask is that you demonstrate something, anything, that supports your claims, and shows that whatever you’re demonstrating isn’t just in your mind.

Reiki clinic at MetroHealth

In local news, the Plain Dealer reported on the “Hands to Heart” Reiki clinic at MetroHealth hospital. The same reporter wrote about her own Reiki session a day earlier.

Finally! A clinic dedicated to administering placebo. Naturally, we have to give it an Eastern-sounding name, and plenty of positive testimonials, and it becomes a virtual gold mine! Of course, they assure us that the sessions at the clinic are free, but what about when their clients become hooked, and start wanting private sessions? And what about the peddling of CDs, books, and other merchandise along with the sessions?

While the article felt like it was trying to do its best to remain neutral, there was definitely a strong hint of implied acceptance of Reiki for what it claims to be. There were several points in the article that would threaten to mislead an unknowing consumer into thinking that Reiki is a plausible treatment.

From the article:

The hospital’s clinic offers unconventional therapy for those who have found conventional medicine only goes so far.

Only goes so far?! And how far, pray tell, does Reiki go? This would imply that Reiki somehow goes beyond “conventional” medicine. If this were true in any sense, then Reiki would become conventional medicine!

The article is a bit deceptive in a few other places. It says,

…[R]eiki has found acceptance among the hospital’s nurses as a complementary therapy. But the doctors are “a bit of a more challenging group to get,” she said, because there are no medical studies that prove [R]eiki’s effectiveness.

What it should really say is, “There are studies that tested Reiki’s effectiveness, and found no effect.“. Here’s one, for good measure.

The article also fails to mention that, if the principles behind Reiki are true, they would invalidate most of our laws of physics and our understanding of biology and physiology. So why haven’t any “Reiki masters” been invited to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony?

I applaud the doctors for being “hard to get” with respect to this foolishness.

My Conversation with God

I had a conversation with God last night. Really, I did! I was just re-reading through portions of Neale Donald Walsch‘s wildly popular Conversations with God series, and I couldn’t help but wonder how any self-respecting God, if one exists, would allow such lunacy to continue. And, wouldn’t you know it, God responded!

An uncommon dialogue

DB: Son of a bitch, this stuff is giving me a migraine…

God: Hello!!! This is… Gaaawwwwwwwwwwd.

DB: Holy crap, you do exist! Silly me, I thought you were a logical impossibility!

God: Oh, I am an impossibility. Of awesomeness!

DB: But how do I know it’s really you?

God: Well, I can’t really prove anything to you at this point. Maybe it’s really me, or maybe it’s a drug-induced hallucination. And the headcheese hoagie you ate for dinner can’t be helping, either.

God's imageDB: You know–

God: I’m–

DB: Oh, sorry, go ahead.

God: No, no, you spoke first.

DB: I’ve actually had a few burning questions to ask you, now that you’re here. Do you mind?

God: Burning questions are better answered by Satan. Get it?!

DB: Wow… that is just awful.

God: I’m just joshin’ you. Go ahead and shoot away.

DB: You know who Neale Donald Walsch is, right? He has built a multi-million dollar empire from his “Conversations with God” books.

God: Yes, I’ve heard… such things.

DB: Well, was it really you speaking to him? Because, forgive me, but it sounds an awful lot like Walsch’s conversations are between himself and his gigantic ego, instead of a deity like yourself.

God: You’re absolutely right. I’ve never spoken to him in any way, not in print, writing, thoughts, or conversation. He is a dangerous cult leader, and I’m amazed that more and more people keep on feeding his ego trip. You can quote me on that.

DB: Oh, good, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. It will be interesting to see what my readers think of your opinion on this, o Lord. So, let me ask you this. How can I make a million dollars from this conversation that we’re having right now?

God: It’s simple! People are idiots. I created them that way, because I felt like it. All you have to do is sprinkle this conversation with some positive messages, appeal to their fantasies and desires, and subtly inject your own agenda at your leisure! Tell people that, by just reading this conversation, their lives will improve and become filled with happiness. Also, use words like “Eastern” and “alternative.” Then all you do is sell, sell, sell!!! Write books, have seminars, workshops, retreats, cruises, and charge as much as you want! They’ll pay, and beg for more! Make sure to nickel-and-dime at every turn, so they get used to paying whenever they hear your name. And of course, make sure to copyright everything you do, and insist that you’re the only one with the true message.

DB: Awesome! But what if people’s lives don’t improve from reading this conversation?

God: Tell them it’s their own damn fault. Use an excuse like “you create your own reality” or “you are your own god.” That will shut them up real quick, and give them some much-needed guilt, so they’ll buy even more stuff from you! If they still insist that their lives aren’t changing, wave your hands in the air and tell them that they haven’t “opened their mind” enough, and offer to clear their mind for an additional charge.

DB: Wow, it sounds so simple when you put it like that!

God: I know, right?! Oh, and one more thing. When selling this stuff, you really have to stand out, or no one will notice you. You have to be really flamboyant. I mean extremely flamboyant. Flail your arms around when speaking, and dance around on the stage. Change the emotion in your voice randomly from one sentence to another, just to throw them off.

DB: But what if people accuse me of being a fraud?

God: So what? Just tell them they can believe whatever they want! Maybe you spoke to God, maybe you didn’t! Here’s a good one to throw at them: “we’re all god!” I’m God, you’re God, this rock is God! Did you talk to a rock today? Boom, you talked with God, and I just blew your mind! Is that profound enough for you? How about them apples, Debbie Downer?

DB: Okay, let me give it a try real quick, and tell me if I’ve got it.

God: Alright, let’s see what you’ve got.

DB: [Clears throat] Umm…

Eastern religion… is… awesome. You people are… fantastic. Leading a healthy lifestyle is… great. Come to my workshops and, for $500, I will repeat these platitudes to you!

God: No, no, no, you have to do a lot better than that! First of all, you can’t just ask for money. What are you, a wimp? You have to demand money. You have to make them assume that they need to give you money to get anywhere!

DB: [loosens up] OK, let me try again…

We’re all connected! If you try hard, you can accomplish things in life! Don’t harm animals! America! Sex is good for you! Think about money and it will come to you! You must give me $1200, so that I can show you how to make $500!

God: Ehh… good, not great. Here, take an example from the master. Now watch what I do, and listen closely: I’m just going to speak naturally, and say whatever comes to mind… [Clears throat]

According to the scientifically proven Law of Attraction, which we all know is true, quantum reality can be manipulated by something as simple as your thoughts! Since your consciousness exists both in the physical and spiritual realm, according to scientists, you can consciously use quantum effects like entanglement and superposition, to literally change the world around you. Once you master this simple skill, which we’re all born with, you can attract prosperity, health, love, power, and anything else you want in your life.

At my upcoming workshop, for an introductory fee of $10000, I’ll teach you to channel your life-force energy through scientifically verified quantum field points on your body, allowing you to heal yourself and others, enjoy a better love life, create wealth, and finally be the master of your quantum world. Also, for an additional $200 per 10 minutes, I will hold an attunement session with you, where I will use my mastery of the quantum field to unblock your chakras, one at a time, and re-enable the flow of magneto-electric spiritual energy throughout your body!

…You see? Damn, I’m good! I didn’t even have to think about that! The bullshit just flows so naturally. It’s a gift, really, but you too can learn to talk like this, if you keep practicing.

DB: Wow, I am speechless. I threw up in my mouth a little, but that is just brilliant! God, you’re a genius. Let me just write this all down…

God's imageGod: Well, what did you expect, a retard for a god? Would a retarded god sacrifice himself to himself to atone for the sins of his own creations?

DB: Hmm… why don’t we save that question for a future conversation?

God: Absolutely! Feel free to contact me anytime. You know how to reach me!

DB: Actually, I’m not sure how I reached you. You just started talking to me.

God: Exactly! Cheerioooooo!…

DB: Wait, just one more thing! How can you, in good conscience, allow people like Walsch to continue to do what they do?

God: How am I supposed to do anything when I don’t exist? Jackass.

Money, please!

So there you have it, dear readers, straight from the horse’s mouth. Neale Donald Walsch never had a conversation with anything but his own giant head. I spoke with the real God, as you can plainly see above. So… give me money. Come on, cough it up.

This just in: You create your own reality!

When proponents of pseudoscience talk amongst each other, any doubts about the validity of their claims hardly ever arise. When two pseudoscientists have roughly the same beliefs, they will never question one another, and no attempt to verify their claims will be made. It’s assumed, as a given, that what they believe is real and true.

It’s only when pseudoscientists are confronted by skeptics that they try to cobble together actual pet theories of how their claims can be justified. These theories are usually ad hoc (as in, invented right on the spot), just to get the skeptic off the pseudoscientist’s back. There are, however, certain theories that seem to permeate the pseudoscientific community, and are used universally for all brands of quackery.

One of my favorites is the argument that each of us “creates our own reality.” And that’s not in the weak sense of “our life is what we make of it,” with which I completely agree. It’s in the strong sense that physical reality actually bends to our will in real time! This is reminiscent of the philosophy of solipsism, where all of reality is in the mind of the observer. The pseudoscientists, however, dress up the argument in the usual array of loosely-knit scientific terms hijacked from quantum mechanics, such as taking the idea of quantum entanglement to mean that “everything is connected,” among other nonsense.

To the untrained skeptic, this might seem like a powerful argument. And it is, in most cases, a debate-stopper. I mean, if we all create our own reality, then surely we can create whatever physical laws we like! Skeptics create realities of strict, unchanging physics and lead boring and unfulfilled lives, while pseudoscientists create realities where “anything is possible.” Or so the argument goes. This argument, however, is a debate-stopper for the wrong reason: not because it’s so airtight that it checkmates the skeptical opponent, but because it’s so devoid of meaning that no further discussion can logically continue.

Because of this, the “argument” serves as the foundation for the most weasely excuses for why a quack treatment won’t work on skeptics:

  • My treatment won’t work on you because you created a reality that stops it from working!
  • You have to want the treatment to work. You must open your mind to it.
  • Your skeptical presence in the room will stop the treatment from working.
  • The outcome of the test will be whatever you believe it should be. Your presence will skew the results in your favor.

Poverty of the argument

My contention is that the idea that “we create our own reality” is an empty philosophy, a cowardly withdrawal from reason. It’s intellectually lazy, and ultimately useless as a means of understanding our existence. Allow me to illustrate how I arrived at this with a series of observations and rhetorical questions.

  • If we create our own reality, then why don’t we have intimate knowledge of its innermost workings? For instance, why isn’t everyone endowed with instinctual knowledge of physics? And I don’t mean Newtonian physics, or even quantum physics, but the “true” physics that governs all the fundamental forces and encompasses what quantum mechanics and general relativity only approximate? If we are the architects of our world, surely we should know how it works!
  • On a related note, how is it possible that so many discoveries about our world have been totally counterintuitive, like the roundness of the Earth, heliocentricity, or the curvature of spacetime? If we are the ones who create our world, it would stand to reason that our intuition should naturally guide us towards understanding its nature. And yet, from the most profound breakthroughs in our history, we’ve observed the exact opposite.
  • Taking the above points a bit further, how can there be anything in the world that is “unknown” to me? That is, why am I not omniscient with respect to my reality, since it’s all my creation? For example, how can I be surprised when I taste a certain food for the first time? Why am I awed when I walk into a cathedral I’ve never visited before?
  • If I create my own reality, why are there people in the world who are better than me at various activities? For example, if I pick up and start reading Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, there’s a good chance that I won’t understand a word of it. But why is that? If Andrew Wiles and his proof are products of my imagination, then why can’t I understand the proof that my imagination created?

    Because you wanted to create a proof that you couldn’t understand.

    No, I didn’t! Being a world-renowned mathematician was one of my earliest dreams. So why hasn’t that reality been realized?

    Because you created a reality wherein you have to learn and grow in order to understand it.

    If this is the case, then the whole argument becomes an easy candidate for Occam’s Razor. Why would I voluntarily limit my understanding of reality, and then spend my life attempting to rediscover this understanding, while never quite approaching the level of understanding I must have had in order to create reality in the first place?

  • If our understanding of reality is deliberately limited, then attempting to expand our understanding of it would ultimately require cautious use of the scientific method, which is precisely what we do in understanding the real world! It should be apparent that this argument eventually achieves a one-to-one correspondence with plain old realism, albeit in a roundabout way that has emotional appeal for those unwilling to face realism head on.
  • Why is the reality we create imperfect? This boils down to the Problem of Evil, which is ever so inconvenient for believers in omnipotent, benevolent gods. When someone uses the argument that “you create your own reality”, they’re essentially transferring the burden of the problem from God to “you,” since you now become the god of your reality.

    So then why do I, as a god, create a reality that is not perfect? At what point did I decide to create a reality where I’m a common citizen who has to work for a living and deal with the everyday problems of middle-class life? When did I decide to give HIV to a quarter of the population in Africa? And when did I decide to create a vast number of people who delude themselves with imaginary realities and magical thinking, and kill each other over whose beliefs are holier? None of the above creations are things that I ever wanted. And yet they exist.

  • If we create our own reality, then why is reality so difficult to alter? Specifically, why doesn’t reality automatically bend to our will, like the pseudoscientists say it should? If the state of reality is guided by our deepest desires, why doesn’t reality rebuild itself according to what we want at any given time? It seems like the only way to make actual changes to our reality is by doing physical work, or paying someone to do it for us. It almost seems like we have no cognitive control over external elements in our reality!
  • I could go on, but the conclusion will remain the same. No matter how we approach this argument, like any other pseudoscience, it will eventually reduce to absurdity. So, please, next time you hear this nugget of pseudo-reasoning, recognize it for the intellectual poverty it represents, and challenge the speaker with a much-needed dose of skepticism.

The Intention Experiment(s?)

Unknown to me until now, Lynne McTaggart (author of The Field and The Intention Experiment, discussed in my previous post) has apparently been spearheading a series of actual “intention experiments” online. This is done by giving online readers a certain task to “intend” upon, and observing the results.

I found a very interesting discussion thread on the JREF Forum that details the various iterations of McTaggart’s website over the last several months. Apparently, every “intention experiment” promoted by the website is referred to as “the first intention experiment.” When that experiment fails or produces inconclusive data, the next experiment is called the “first,” and so on.

The “experiments” themselves appear to be completely nonsensical. For example, one of the experiments was to measure the emissions of “biophotons” from plants that were being intended to glow by distant observers. According to the website:

Our first experiments examined the alteration in the tiny light — called biophoton emissions — being emitted from living things. We chose to look at this tiny current of light, because it is infinitely more subtle than, say, cellular growth rate.

Of course! Why measure something tangible, when you can measure something “infinitely more subtle”!

The current incarnation of the Intention website doesn’t even brag about the results of the experiments anymore, but instead directs visitors to purchase McTaggart’s books and DVDs, and join an online community that’s reminiscent of some kind of sad, pathetic support group for people who are uncomfortable saying, “won’t you pray for me?”

Here’s an example of the Intention website’s community posts:

…In 2001 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I had a mastectomy & chemo (experimental) that just about killed me. I had a bad reaction that left me with nerve damage and constant bone/joint/muscle stiffness & pain. Last week I had my annual mammogram on the remaining breast. I rec. a letter saying there was a “suspicious” area, so I have to return on 8-8-07 for more films/sonogram. I would really appreciate as many members as possible to send the intent that all will be fine

Wait a minute… for some reason that has a very familiar ring to it. What if we replace the word “intent” with the word “prayer”? Isn’t this the exact same thing?!

Who are they trying to kid? Instead of praying to an invisible supernatural deity, they’re simply praying to an invisible supernatural “field”! Well, I’m afraid the old adage still applies: Nothing fails like prayer.