From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 15 No. 1
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep --Stephen Stills
New essay: Top Ten Harmful Beliefs 2015.
New reader comments: New Age energy & scientific illiteracy and psychic surgeon Stephen Turoff claims another victim.
Forever Family Foundation & Afterlife Science
The stated goal of the Forever Family Foundation (FFF) is "To further the understanding of Afterlife Science through research and education while providing support and healing for people in grief." The actual goal is to reinforce belief in an afterlife and to promote the kind of inept science practiced by Gary Schwartz in The Afterlife Experiments, which I review elsewhere. In short, Schwartz validates alleged mediums by how accurate he thinks they are in their readings. Psychologist Ray Hyman, an expert in subjective validation, has demonstrated how everything Schwartz thinks is evidence of real communication with dead people can be explained by cold or hot reading. Psychologists Richard Wiseman and Ciaran O'Keefe have also demonstrated that Schwartz's method of validating mediums is hampered by his lack of understanding of subjective validation, cold reading, and hot reading. I summarize Schwartz's inadequacy in my review of how he validates mediums:
One reason we should distrust Schwartz's evaluation of anyone's psychic ability is his persistent revelation that he has little or no understanding of how subjective validation works. His naiveté is exemplified by the way he interpreted [Allison] Dubois's statement "I don't walk alone" to mean "confined to a wheelchair." The reason Dubois and others like her seem to have psychic powers is because their statements, phrases, words, even utterances of nothing more than initials, are given meaning by others. In a classic experiment that has been repeated many times in many different contexts, Bertram Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student an "evaluation" he had taken from a newsstand astrology column. He asked his students to rate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated many times with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2. We might translate this to mean that it is quite common for people to be given strings of statements that are not based on any knowledge of the person and yet they commonly rate the statements as about 80% accurate. Similar experiments have been done with phony biorhythm charts, graphology readings, and astrological charts.
The Forever Family Foundation does not limit itself to validating and certifying mediums, however. It also dabbles in near death experiences, instrumental transcommunication (ITC), electronic voice phenomena, ghosts and apparitions, reincarnation, and psi research, all subjects I've evaluated elsewhere and will not repeat here. Suffice it to say that what FFF thinks of the evidence from these studies in afterlife science does not harmonize with my evaluation. I consider the evidence so woefully inadequate that my main concern with it now is to try to understand why anyone would believe this evidence supports the probability of either psychic experience or of life after death. The simplest and most obvious answer is that people desire to live forever, they desire to be with their loved ones again, and they hope that this life and the world of natural laws as discovered so far by science are not all there is. These desires and hopes are too strong to overcome the confirmation bias and what better way to build up one's belief armor than to form a group of like-minded people to meet and reinforce each other's hopes and desires? It is not surprising, either, that FFF considers itself supporting "open minded thinking" and derides skeptics as close-minded.
FFF was started by Bob & Phran Ginsberg who found that they and others in their grief-counseling group wanted to discuss spirit communication with their dead loved ones but the counselor blocked such conversations as unproductive. (Phran had a premonition and their children were later in a terrible car accident.) Bob Ginsberg describes how FFF grew out of discussions in the parking lot after counseling sessions among those who wanted to pursue spirit communication.
Currently, FFF is active in six states with afterlife discussion groups and has its own radio show (Signs of Life). FFF is not a religious organization. The group claims it "is interested in scientific evidence that supports the premise that we are much more than our physical bodies and do indeed survive physical death. Although such evidence remains unknown to the majority of the population, it is compelling and plentiful." The evidence is not unknown to this skeptic, however, and I must say that I haven't found it compelling. FFF may consider me close-minded, but I wonder how many of these folks who consider themselves so open-minded have read the critiques that I and other skeptics have made of the "plentiful" evidence for the afterlife? My guess is that we are dismissed without investigation or we are simply ignored.
FFF claims it is "where science and spirituality work hand in hand to find answers for the world and bring comfort to the bereaved." I'd say that the main function of FFF is to encourage bad science to support the beliefs, desires, and hopes of those who are unable to accept the fact that consciousness is inextricably tied to the brain and when the brain dies so does consciousness along with the illusory self it created. Sorry, materialism has not ended despite the wailing of advocates of afterlife science. I'm not claiming to know with absolute certainty that there is no afterlife. I'm claiming that there is no good reason to belief in any such thing.
I'm not going to quibble about afterlife science being pseudoscience or just plain bad science. It's empirical, doesn't use proper controls even when that is feasible (as in testing mediums), doesn't consider the null hypothesis or naturalistic explanations when it can appeal to psi or spirits, sees no problem with the inherent ambiguity in the data it interprets as due to psi or spirits, makes feeble efforts to control for trickery and fraud, is prone to ad hoc hypotheses and special pleading whenever data doesn't seem to go its way, relies heavily on anecdotes, is hell bent on proving its hypotheses rather than testing them, and invents words like "superskeptic" to deride anyone who criticizes its methods, interpretations of data, and conclusions. On the other hand, in my quarter century of studying afterlife science I have found most afterlife investigators to be sincere even if incompetent, too enthusiastic and biased to trust, and too quick to dismiss criticism. In my view, the attempt to turn metaphysics into an empirical science has been proved a failure again and again. I don't expect this latest crop of investigators to do any better than Sir William Fletcher Barrett and Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick did in the 19th century with the still-existing Society for Psychical Research (SPR). That is, I don't expect afterlife science (or psychical research or whatever else one wishes to call these investigations) to prove a single spirit exists or that anyone can so much as move a pencil one millimeter using only his thoughts.
Some readers may know that I have incurable metastatic pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. A few of you may wonder if this fact has altered in any way my beliefs about gods or the afterlife. The short answer is no. I still see no good reason to believe that any gods exist or that consciousness survives the death of the brain. Belief in such things may bring comfort or fear to some people, but it holds no attraction or influence on me, either on the basis of reason or emotion. Of course I would love to see my parents again and be reunited with friends and relatives who have died. Call me crazy, but the last thing I desire is to live forever, in whatever form, worshipping a being who allegedly created this universe. I suppose my fellow citizens should be pleased that I have no desire to harm them and do not believe that the only reason I shouldn't harm them is because I'm afraid of some god who will punish me in some sort of afterlife, maybe by depriving me of the pleasure of worshipping him forever. Worse, I could believe this god wants me to harm others unless they agree to conform to some ancient code.
I'm content to consider myself very lucky to have come into existence as a perceiving being after an eternity of non-being and it does not bother me at all to consider that there will be an eternity of non-being for me after I die. I don't know how rare conscious existence is but there are infinitely more non-beings who never had a chance at living than there are those of us who have been fortunate enough to have lived, laughed, and loved.
If Pigs Could Fly We Might End Tribalism and Paranoia
I was amused by President Obama's senseless regret in his state of the union address "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better" during his presidency. Even more amusing was the president's speculation that "no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide." I don't think so.
I recently read Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton and am sure that Mr. Obama knows our political history has been the history of rancor and suspicion between the parties since the rise of the Federalists and the Republicans after President Washington left office. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Hamilton and their party comrades loathed and published or encouraged the publishing of venomous diatribes against those on the other side. From the beginning of political parties in this country, each side has considered the other as enemies with malicious intentions rather than opponents with disagreeable views.
Mr. Obama surely knows that the current paranoia that has crowned him a socialist dictator and secret Muslim openly faking mass murders as an excuse to take away our guns and establish a Muslim theocracy is nothing new in American politics. In case you didn't know, Obama plans to let in a million Muslims and is setting up concentration camps in Texas as part of his plan to round up those who oppose him. Many still consider Obama's predecessor as the conspirator-in-chief behind 9/11. The first Republicans like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe feared that the Federalists, whose main spokesman was Hamilton, aimed to establish an American monarchy. The Federalists feared the Republicans were traitors whose goal was to see the end of the United States of America. Washington, a Freemason, had to defend the Masons against the charge that they were part of the Illuminati cabal. After reading about the paranoia of members of both parties in chapter after chapter of Chernow's entertaining tome on the leading Federalist and founder of the U.S. treasury department, the relentless saga continued with the opening sentence of chapter 32:
The period of John Adams’s presidency declined into a time of political savagery with few parallels in American history, a season of paranoia in which the two parties surrendered all trust in each other.
Yes, our political discourse has been rancorous and indecorous from the beginning. No Lincoln or Roosevelt could have worked with the current batch of Republicans in the Congress, especially the Tea Party folks. And it belies our history to imply that Lincoln or Roosevelt bridged any such gap in their own time. The presidents during the Civil War and the Great Depression and World War II had many admirable qualities and achieved many great things but they did not unite the country. Yes, under Lincoln the secessionist states were forced back into the union, but the people of the United States were not unified by the defeat of the rebels. The great divides that separated our citizens at the founding of our nation have never been bridged: racism and distrust of immigrants, a strong federal government with its own army and navy vs. independent states and their state militias, a bank and taxation system to support a strong federal government vs. those who believe that taxation on just about anything is a sign of creeping monarchy and dictatorship of the hated British type, and many other divides too long to list here.
The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before Congress passed and John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Obama may regret that he was unable to quell the paranoia and rancor of the Democrats and Republicans, but he surely did not expect to have done something that hasn't been done ever by anybody anywhere. Paranoia and fear are in our DNA. We evolved to be mistrustful of strangers, of anyone different from us, of those who don't think like we do, and who don't believe what we believe. We are hardwired to mistrust the motives of our adversaries. We evolved in tribes and those tribes survived and multiplied by not assuming other tribes or strangers were friendly and had good intentions. [Even the role of groups in evolution is debated with rancor and indecorum by some scientists.] The old saw about fight or flight is an accurate summary of one of our most basic instincts. Living in cities is obviously unnatural compared to where most of human evolution took place. We now have to combine the trust needed for any tribe to survive with restraint regarding strangers. Most of us have adapted: most of the time we act as if we were following the rule I'll neither avoid you nor harm you unless you show me that your intentions are hostile toward me or my tribe. But there are still large minorities of our citizens whose default mode of thinking and discourse is to distrust others while wrapping themselves in the mantle of righteous indignation and ranting about the Sodomites and Gomorrahmites at the gate.
I think Obama's characterizing as 'cynical' those of us who see no hope for the parties working together is wrong. Democrats will continue to see Republicans as the party of the rich, supporting a plutocracy masquerading as a meritocracy and exploiting the poor whenever possible, and Republicans will continue to see Democrats as the party of the poor, supporting a welfare state of freeloaders and malingerers masquerading as fairness. Obviously, unchecked paranoia has consequences, some of them dire, e.g. McCarthyism, anti-vaccinationism, and global warming denialism. But we would be mistaken to think that the rest of us are free from paranoia and unjustified fears simply because we aren't able to cause significant trouble to others the way McCarthy, the anti-vaccinationists, and global warming deniers have. The only lone paranoids are those who see threats everywhere aimed at them and them only. The rest of us see threats everywhere but not against us in particular. We see threats against our tribe, our religion, our well-being, and what we consider our "rights." It's only natural. It's also only natural that we consider those threats as the intentional work of malevolent people rather than the beliefs of honest opponents who disagree with us. So, I don't think it's cynical to expect rancor and paranoia in our disagreements regarding politics, religion, and just about every other area of discourse (including the areas skeptics consider their territory). We should expect that such disagreements will continue to be couched in terms of bad persons rather than bad ideas. I think expecting the paranoia and rancor to continue is reasonable and ought to be addressed with a response significantly deeper than regret.
Is there any hope for a more cooperative tomorrow? Maybe. If we educate the next generation to understand how the brain works to deceive us about almost everything we believe and how numerous cognitive biases driving our beliefs is the price we had to pay to evolve into the thinking, rational, deluded, paranoid beings we are. In the meantime, take a look at The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories blog. One of the bloggers, Rob Brotherton, has recently published a book on the topic: Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. I suggest Mr. Obama read it and send a copy to every member of Congress. There are real threats to our security and well-being. Our survival may depend on getting better at distinguishing them from the phantoms we are fed daily by journalists, celebrities, politicians, the media, the Internet, so-called pundits, and talk radio hosts.
The JREF's New Focus
Randi may have retired from the James Randi Educational Foundation, but the work goes on. The new focus of the JREF is on education and giving grants. Several education modules are now available on YouTube. Harriet Hall, M.D., retired family physician and former Air Force flight surgeon, has a 10-part series called "Science-Based Medicine." Her lectures define SBM and distinguish it from evidence-based medicine and several alternatives to SBM. Ray Hyman, Ph.D., has a 10-part series of lectures on How To Think About Dubious Claims. Those interested in learning more about subjective validation might enjoy Lecture 8: Personal Validation, Subjective Validation, and the Contribution of the Observer. For younger audiences, there are educational modules on astrology, esp, the Cottingley fairies, and dowsing.