The Nature of Scientific Scepticism
In the course of the last several hundred years, and particularly in the last two centuries, the religion of science has become the dominant influence in the outlook of the western world. A peculiar type of cynical prejudice and religious dogmatism has infiltrated scientific thought to the point where we can almost regard science as a new religion rather than the logical process of investigation which practitioners like to think it.
One of the truly peculiar schisms in contemporary culture is the split between art and science. Science and art are usually seen as being polar opposites – one utilising logic and clear thinking, the other utilising intuition and creativity. The problem with this schizoid split is that it is an illusion, albeit a persistent one. When we think of a poet or an artist, we usually think of someone who is highly creative and imaginative but not necessarily very logical or clear-headed. When we think of a scientist or an engineer, we usually think of someone who is highly logical and precise, but not particularly creative or imaginative. (I guess it goes without saying that rationality is not a prerequisite for scientific brilliance – witness the genius Leopold Kronecker who although an astonishingly brilliant mathematician, nevertheless did not believe in irrational numbers – cases like this are far from uncommon in the annals of science). But both notions are completely inaccurate. Artists are no less capable of precise logic than scientists and scientists are no less capable of creativity than artists. This probably strikes most as being inaccurate, but that is far from being the case. Artists use meticulous logic in executing their work – the logic has its own stalling assumptions which do not necessarily have their basis in external reality, but as we shall see, this is also ultimately true of science also – but the logic is there all the same. How could a poet ever write a sonnet without paying the strictest attention to rhyme scheme, length and meter, which are not truly artistic but merely mechanical in form. The true art comes into play in the content of the sonnet, not the mechanical form. Likewise how can a scientist ever get from his or her initial “hunch” to the theory? It doesn’t take an unusual amount of brilliance to do a simple mathematical proof, but if the solution to the problem is not obvious, it takes more than logic to end up at the answer – it takes intuition. In other words, the process that a scientist goes through in solving a problem is a supra-logical one – it is a creative process of exactly the same sort that the artist uses. In science, the end result is logic, but the process of arriving at the insight that allows one to accomplish this is not logical, but creative. For example, we all know that integrals and derivatives are intimateley related – the proof can be found in the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, but the connection between these two sets of functions is not at all apparent. Integrals represent areas beneath curves and derivatives represent the rate of change of functions – there is no obvious logical connection. Their relationship to one another becomes clear when we look at the somewhat simple proof, but from the outset we have no idea that this will be the case. In other words, if we have no previous knowledge that these two concepts are related we must proceed by intuition alone in order to know what mathematical laws to use in applying our logic. When this creative insight is achieved, only then will we have an idea of what direction in which to attempt the proof. Most scientists would still like to believe that the process is completely logical, however, since they do not realise that creativity is not a logical process, they almost never realise that all of their scientific logic also has its own initial assumptions in which to proceed from. The fountainhead of creativity springs from the unconscious mind regardless of the subject matter, although modern science, with its logically positivistic bent seems intent on denying this simple fact.
Modern science is continually plagued by this dilemma: the people who do science usually do not know what assumptions about the world they hold, so they can not make an accurate analysis of the limits of their knowledge. The result has been a dogmatic acceptance of a cynical scepticism without realising the basis of that dogma, and whether or not it is worth accepting. Until this realisation occurs, science will not be able to make any real humanitarian progress and will continue to be a ruthless and senseless pursuit of a group of facts which ultimately say nothing and mean nothing and which poison the search for true understanding. For example, mathematics, the Queen of the Sciences, is really a branch of philosophy. The changing of only one of Euclid’s original postulates from the Elements will result in an entirely different type of geometry – the type that makes relativity theory viable. All types of science need their axioms from which to start and there is no way to tell whether these initial axioms are necessarily true. This may bias the logic. For example, we may take as a starting assumption about the world that all animals are green. Based on this, we can safely assume that if we see a cow it will be green, since all cows are animals. But cows are not green. The logic is impeccable, but the initial assumption about the world is incorrect. In this case, we can easily tell what is wrong with the above statement, but in many cases the error is not so apparent, For example one of the founders of The Committee for the Scientific Investigations of Claims Of the Paranormal, has taken it upon himself to become a “debunker” of fraudulent psychics. This would seem to be a good idea; but the problem with his approach is that his starting assumption runs thus: all psychics are fraudulent – there are no such things as true psychics, so he assumes that members of SPR and other research institutions are all liars without bothering to attempt unbiased research. With an attitude like this it becomes apparent that even if he ever ran into a genuine psychic, he would assume that he was a fake, whether it was true or not, and then he would proceed to “expose” the psychic by mimicry of his feats on stage, In other words, his assumptions come before the evidence and remain impervious to any contradiction, since they are the basis of his logic. Thus he is able to write a book “exposing” Uri Geller, but he remains oblivious to the fact that he never proves anything, but merely suggests that it is possible to do many of Geller’s feats by trickery as well as, or instead of, using paranormal abilities. The mistake that he remains unaware of, the same mistake that he makes in every one of his books, is the same as the error that Thor Heyerdal makes in Kon Tiki, namely that assuming that something is true and knowing that it is true are two completely different things. (I suppose it goes without saying that once a paranormal event is proven to be true, it is no longer considered to be paranormal.) The end result of taking this approach is that one does not attain new knowledge of the world, but that one continually vilifies one’s own previously held opinions. Whenever I finish reading one of his books, I get the feeling that if he ever went to the Olympics and he happened to see an athlete lifting a heavy barbell, he would assume that it was faked (since people can’t do things like that), and by the end of the week would have developed a way to duplicate the act on stage, thereby “proving” that it was faked to start off with. I wonder how he would prove that seven- year- old W.A. Mozart faked writing his first symphony? Or perhaps we shouldn’t believe that because he doesn’t personally believe in child prodigies? We could easily concoct a “theory” as to why child prodigies cannot exist, our theory may be perfect except for the fact that it would not be true. He made the same mistake when he studied dowsing – he assumed it was all faked even though when Arthur C. Clarke looked at the accuracy of the water diviners he placed the odds against such a score at one hundred to one in favour of the dowsers on his World of Strange Powers television show. It reminds me of how Descartes – “proves” the existence of god – it was never a real proof, since he orchestrated it to turn out the way that would agree with his own beliefs. So he can easily offer a reward for the proof of any “supernatural” event, since no amount of evidence will ever be sufficient for him to acknowledge its reality. How much should we trust his judgement when he is no more discerning than the most gullible spiritualist? For me to take him seriously, he must make serious attempts to battle his own biases as well as those of his subjects. It is not scepticism per sé that I have a problem with; genuine scepticism is a necessary part of science – but it is the certainty with which the sceptics proclaim their opinions to be true – it strikes me as being closer to dogma than to genuine inquisitiveness. For example, H.G. Wells in one of his books states the fact that the moon was once part of the earth and that the Pacific Ocean is now the crater that was left when an asteroid hit the earth, the resulting matter that was knocked off became the moon. He accepted this as fact because it was a commonly accepted scientific view at the time. As time passed, however, most scientists came to the knowledge that this theory was wrong. Wells assumed that his scientific assumptions were fact when they were not – scientists are always making this mistake. As Colin Wilson notes inThe Geller Phenomena, it is disturbing to notice how blatant a disrespect for logic such sceptics show when their long-cherished beliefs are threatened. In an article about the orgone, Martin Gardner goes to great lengths to discredit Wilhelm Reich, but although Gardner claims to be the voice of science, not once does he suggest to his readers to actually perform any experiment to test Reich’s theories. On the other hand, one orgonomist whom Gardner attacks, James DeMeo, does suggest building an ORAC and testing it for yourself. The man who claims to be standing up for science is the one who is blatantly refusing to do science, but rather chooses to resort to slander to prove his point. For example, he came out and said that DeMeo was most likely involved in orgone research in order to make money; while this is undoubtedly partially true, he does not mention that Gardner himself makes money from his books on debunking. So if Gardner’s insult can be applied to imply that DeMeo is not being honest, shouldn’t we also apply the same argument to Gardner himself? Suppose he is “debunking” myths that he knows to be true just to sell his books? I really don’t believe this to be the case, but it shows the unfairness with which he deals with those he distrusts. Needless to say, all of this considerably weakened his position in my eyes. He was being hyporcritical through his actions, or rather, his lack of actions, I do not suggest that Gardner was intentionally trying to insult his opponents, but simply believed in his own position so steadfastly that he chose not to bother testing it, or suggesting to others to test it. This is what pseudoscience is all about – scientific pretenders claiming knowledge which they do not and in some cases, cannot have, For example, one sceptic who happened to be a debunker of haunted houses remarked that “You won’t ever see a ghost unless you believe in them first – there are no haunted houses, only haunted people.” Does the statement also apply if we turn the first part of it around, i.e., “You’ll never see a ghost if you don’t believe in them first.” In other words, could the disbelief in ghosts cause an investigator to misinterpret ghostly phenomena as something else! Is there a double standard that exists here? What this man was really saying was that it can’t exist because he didn’t believe in it. When a new phenomena is noticed, it should be studied even if it doesn’t fit into the framework of any of the currently accepted scientific theories, this is science. To do otherwise is religion. In fact, do blanket statements like these ever say anything about anything, other than the sceptic’s personal beliefs? When some scientist says that there is positively no such thing as NDE’s, how can he be so sure? At the very least he should admit that if they’re only hallucinations, then we can never be sure of it – no more than we could ever absolutely deny the existence of god. Although some such claims may be impossible to verify, this is not evidence for their non-existence. When an absolute statement is made by someone who cannot be sure about what they are claiming to be sure about, I must wonder about their motives and their honesty in making such a claim – is it real knowledge that he is using or simply his priest-like authority that comes with his doctorate? Does his Ph.D. really give him the authority to make grand pronouncements on the nature of existence without giving valid reasons for his opinions?
Even famous scientists like the Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman make these prejudgements. In an article he wrote entitled A Visit With Uri Geller, Feynman attempts to critique Geller’s abilities by using scientific scepticism, which is fine, but he doesn’t question whether his assumptions are fair to start with. For example, he goes into the experiment with the pre-conceived notion that Geller was a trickster. This may be acceptable if it is not allowed to cloud his judgement, but from the outset it was clear what Feynman’s opinion would be: if Geller was successful, he was a fake; if not, an incompetent fake. With notions like these, there is no room for the possibility, however minute, that the great Feynman could be wrong about something and that there really was something to Geller’s abilities. Consider this: if Geller was really telepathic, he may have been adversely affected by Feymnan’s disbelief, but this never occurs to the professor. When Geller is starting to get a vague impression of “circles”, he is assumed to have been cheating by the most improbable of means (“he saw the pencil move”), and Feynman is then disappointed since Geller is not the “superstar magician” that he had supposed. But he does not stop to think that Geller may have been telling the truth; if he was any kind of magician, he would easily have been able to fool Feynman. But Feynman is so smart that he realises that he can be fooled. So there would be no possible way of success. After only one trial, Feynman saw fit to publish a paper on the subject! Would he do the same if he were studying quantum electrodynamics, I wonder! I do not wish to take all of Geller’s failures and use them as evidence for his authenticity – that would be ludicrous; and I can’t make any definite comments on his alleged abilities – I’ve never met him, but I can say that I would be willing to treat his claims as fairly as I am able, unlike some. But at the very least, I would expect a man like Dr. Feynman to be more objective; he could have at least mentioned some of the things that I have; otherwise he stands the risk of outsmarting himself. (I suppose that Feynman didn’t bother doing previous research on his subject either, in The Geller Papersby Charles Panati, it was discovered by scientists working at SRI that Geller’s brain patterns changed when he did his “tricks”. How Geller could have faked this remains a mystery.) Wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson who once said to a couple of scientists that “It is easier for me to believe that two Harvard professors would lie than that stones ‘fall from the sky?” when presented the evidence for meteorites? He was only one of the many incorrect know-it-alls of the past. What the know-it-alls never seem to realise is that close minded science can never produce anything new, since everything that there is to know is assumed to be already known. I’m not in favour of blind gullibility, but I cannot trust a sceptic who is sceptic of nothing more than the sanity of those who disagree with him. The point is this: the world is a very complex and marvellous place – if it turns out not to fit your current worldview, do you change your world-view, or do you attempt to force the world into your own conception of the way it should be? In Broca’s Brain, Carl Sagan mentions how ridiculous all claims of odd phenomena are, and then he goes on to give examples from known science which are even more improbable-sounding. (He also suggests that Mr. Geller should be tested in front of a group of magicians rather than scientists, so that they could fathom all of his tricks. In other words, he would ask Geller to show his powers only to people who are positive that they don’t and can’t exist. It would be like asking an evolutionary biologist to give a lecture to a group of fundamentalist Christians. There would be no chance for impartiality, but Sagan doesn’t think of this angle.) Furthermore, when someone says that something is “improbable”, what are they really saying? Simply that there is nothing in their past experience that allows them to make a decision in favour of some idea. But is there anything in our everyday experience that is similar to general relativity or quantum physics? Do male creatures get pregnant (if you think the answer is “no”, read up on seahorses)? Are male creatures needed for reproduction (read up on parthenogenesis)? Our limited experience of the world amounts to little more than tunnel vision, and therefore, it is not a valid basis for judging everything else unless we have absolutely no other yardstick with which to compare it. Probability arguments are of no use when you cannot know what the true probabilities are. If I were to say “The probability of life on earth is one to fifty trillion against”, is this an argument against life on earth? No, it’s not. For this to be considered as any sort of evidence for anything, you would need to provide how it is that I arrived at such a number (I just made it up, if you must know). So even this can be a tactic used to justify previously held ideas, true or not.
I’m not a strong believer in “popular occultism”, but what I am forced to wonder is this: while it is undoubtedly true that most paranormal phenomena are rubbish, how many gems are contained in that pile of rubbish? When we dismiss it all, aren’t we risking throwing the baby out with the bath-water” To make a bold proclamation to the effect that all paranormal events are illusions is to assume that one already knows everything – and how can that be? I can scarcely imagine the conceit that it takes to make such a claim. If what we are researching already lies within the sphere of known natural laws, then we can make no more discoveries – and who honestly believes that today? A certain overbearing man once suggested over a hundred years ago that the patent office be shut down since ‘everything that could possibly be invented had already been invented’ the same attitude pervades science today. Think about this, everything we presently know was at one time not known – it may have been observed, but not explained adequately. This is the essence of all things paranormal. Once it becomes explained, it becomes science, as fire-walking did when the Leidenfrost effect was discovered and later applied. But before a known fact is explained, it seems to have no natural explanation, and is therefore among these “paranormal” subjects. Electricity was once an “occult” subject, as was relativity theory and numerous other notions that are readily accepted as facts today (but which should always be open to revision pending new scientific developments.) I’ve always been a lover of science and knowledge, but it must be true science that seeks the truth of all things even at the expense of taking unpopular stands, although the Society for Scientific Exploration has been known to do just that. Most scientists abhor the thought of teleology in nature, but it does appear as though humans have evolved in a very strange way – why are our brains so large? Other animals survive nicely without such an evolutionary “advantage”. Is it really an advantage? Does my love of opera really contribute to my species’ continued existence? What pressure were we responding to when we became weaker physically instead of stronger? How does consciousness develop? If biological machines (i.e. animals) are really the same as mechanical machines, at what point will my terminal say to me “no, Randy, I’m afraid you can’t see the file because I don’t like you anymore”? Could that happen? If yes, how; if no, then how did humans develop an awareness of ourselves to the extent that we have? Where do freaks like our young Mozart come from? How is someone who can’t yet read able to write music that is so compelling that it remains a popular tune more than two centuries after his death? If there is a subconscious mind, is there also a “superconscious” mind? Could that explain young Wolfgang’s freakinshness? And why should people want to hear his music? Could “will” have played a part in our evolution? No? Why not? If I will my leg to rise, it does; so if I will my genes to change in some way, would some of them be changed in some way? Some small way perhaps? The phenomena of “stigmata” is usually explained by the power of the mind over the body; if some of us have such a large amount of subconscious control over our bodies, is it really all that improbable to think that we could have influenced the history of the human race by willpower? Could human consciousness and will play a part in the reason we have become so “advanced”? Could our wills play a part in human teleology? Could we perhaps affect our future evolutionary development through meditation or biofeedback? Since it is widely accepted that people’s behaviour’s vary with the phases of the moon, is it possible that any other heavenly bodies could also correspond to changes in human behaviour? But scientists know better. How? They just do, that’s all: because they are scientists, they are not to be questioned. Am I missing something here? Why did civilisation burst out in many different places all around six thousand years ago? Where did homo sapiens come from – we seemed to show up in the fossil record pretty quickly, you know, a bout forty thousand years ago. These questions are ignored because they seem to cast doubt on the basic doctrines of scientism; but are they really baseless? If I am ignored or called a superstitious crank by some, then it just proves my point. All I’m advocating is a greater level of objectivity on both sides of the issue -keeping an open mind about things that we don’t completely understand rather than denying them and implicitly thinking, in our arrogance and conceit, that we already have the whole world figured out. I have no real faith in astrology, but I also have few preconceived opinions about it to cloud my judgement, should I ever have a mind to study it. Even if the scientists turn out to be completely right (which is rarely the case), it is no excuse for not keeping their minds open to new possibilities of knowledge. So when I hear the likes of John Wheeler declare that all “occultists” should be thrown out of the ivory towers of scientific thought, I have to think that it takes a mighty big ego to think that Sir Isaac Newton, an alchemist (who also went down regarding his interpretation of the book of Daniel as his greatest achievement), should be dethroned from his place of respect in the edifice of modern scientific thought. Not so long ago, electricity was thought to be among these “paranormal” subjects – and what use have we Naciremans for electricity now? All this is not to say that we should take everything on faith, but we must guard against modern day inquisitions, regardless of which camp they issue from. Most sceptics often tend to overlook that most people who believe in UFO’s and the like do not necessarily believe in their literal existence, but use such ideas as an outlet for the mystery and wonder of life which modern science likes to de-emphasise. Much of the modern obsession with the occult and paranormal may be understood in this light – it may very well be a reaction against establishment science having turned the world into a totally indifferent, mechanical process, with humans being of no intrinsic value or importance. People have no trouble being scientific today – they do, however, sometimes have trouble being unscientific, and that, I think, is where the extreme interest in these subjects comes from, apart from the compelling nature of many of these occurrences. It follows that the harder the sceptics try to stamp it out and replace magic with dull fact, the longer it will last. I do not wish to imply that all of what I have been describing can be attributed to wishful thinking, but it is important to realise that these subjects have emotional impact to both sides as well as being of intrinsic interest. If scientists would put forth a concerted effort to be objective, they may yet be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
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