Sunday, June 17, 2007

Confidence by ignorance

In a Newsweek excerpt of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson's new book, Death by Black Hole, Tyson waxes eloquently about the wonder of our senses. Then he raises the question of the sixth sense and dismisses it with, "... the persistent failures of controlled, double-blind experiments to support the claims of parapsychology suggest that what's going on is nonsense rather than sixth sense."

Such a confident statement will no doubt impress some, but as readers of my blog know unfortunately this is an opinion borne of ignorance.


David Bailey said...

Nobody can specialise in more than a tiny sliver of modern science. Outside of that specialised area, their knowledge is gleaned in digested form from magazines such as Scientific American.

It seems to me that is where the 'skeptics' are playing such a negative role - because they know there is research out there, but more or less lie about the facts to a broader audience which includes people in other disciplines, such as astrophysics, who then duplicate those lies into their work.

Book Surgeon said...

Dean, I hope you'll write a letter to the editor of Newsweek setting them straight in no uncertain terms. This kind of arrogant ignorance is damaging to parapsychology and very misleading.

Dean Radin said...

It's probably not very useful to write to Newsweek, because their editors no doubt agree with Tyson.

I don't think most skeptics deliberately sidestep the truth. I think they just perceive the world differently and interpret what they see as confirming that the evidence for psi is negative.

The double-edged sword of "we see what we wish to see," otherwise known as theory-laden perception, is one of those dirty little secrets in science. For extremely robust effects the dirty secret can be ignored without doing much damage, but the biasing effects of a priori expectations permeates all of science, all the time.

Phronk said...

That does indeed sound like ignorance. I have no problem if a scientist disagrees with the interpretation that parapsychologists have of their body of work. But to imply that every single parapsychology study ever performed is a "failure" or "nonsense" only shows that they probably have not even looked at the research. That's simply dismissive, and demonstrates a lack of scientific spirit.

I think the most reasonable skeptical position is doubtful confusion rather than mere dismissal. If it read something like "people have looked for this 'sixth sense', and found an effect that is perplexing and looks a lot like the sixth sense, and although I can't explain their findings, I still have doubts about their interpretation as showing a sixth sense"... well, I'd be cool with that.

Personally I'd rather be a bit confused than 100% confident in something I know nothing about.

ianto said...

I agree with David Bailey's comments about opinions based on the "official line" churned out by the magazines. This becomes especially apparent when you read the blogs and postings of amateur skeptics. Much of this is just parroting what someone else has said elsewhere, there's not much original thought. Many of the "refutations" doing the rounds are out of date, but the ease with which information is spread on the Internet means that all this old stuff stays in circulation for much longer than it should.

Andy said...

As a person who experiences a form of psychic phenomena, I find Tyson's comments very frustrating. It just leaves me wondering what his agenda, for lying like this, could possibly be. I often wonder what it would mean to their worldview, if people like Tyson knew what I knew. Are they afraid it would be suggestive of a more mystical view of reality? Rightly so, if they are, as it probably would embolden all the mystics out there.

It's just too bad. If you dismiss something outright, that tends to stymie the possibility of ever experiencing it. I suppose though, even if psychic phenomena are (incorrectly) dismissed by popular science, that physics will inevitably make it clear that such things should be possible, if it hasn't already.

Dean Radin said...

Tyson isn't lying. He's just echoing what is accepted as common knowledge by many scientists. Science is a social enterprise, and as such one cannot drift too far from the accepted norm and also maintain one's credibility (to say nothing of one's job!). So rather than trying to learn everything yourself, it's easier to simply adopt mainstream prejudices, because they won't get you into trouble by repeating them.

One hopes that science writers will check their facts before committing to print in national magazines, but this is often viewed as unnecessary when simply repeating what everyone knows to be true.