Monday, December 01, 2008

How skeptics work

This is a wonderful talk by Rupert Sheldrake on the tactics, rhetoric, and in many cases, the hypocrisy, of prominent skeptics.

Download the mp3 audio file here. Or a higher quality version here. Both are on Rupert Sheldrake's website.


Fifi said...

Downloading it right now. Thanks to Rupert for creating this, and thank you for posting it.

Pamela said...

Hello Dean. Am wondering what is going on with the Global Consciousness Project display dot and graph at

As of 12:30 PM on Tues, 02 Dec 08, it seems that the display malfunctioned during the night and that the coherence in global consciousness is somehow phase locked in a non-coherence state. Looks very strange and unusual compared with previous outputs. Any explanation? Thanks.

David Bailey said...

This is an extremely interesting talk (which I had discovered already). Rupert is describing documented instances in which skeptics have misrepresented his work or tried to debate the subject in an absurd and unscientific way.

Randi, Lewis Walpert, Wiseman, Peter Atkins (an Oxford chemistry professor), and Michael Shermer all feature.

Tor said...

David Bailey said:

Randi, Lewis Walpert, Wiseman, Peter Atkins (an Oxford chemistry professor), and Michael Shermer all feature.

Peter Atkins is the co-author of my favourite physical chemistry book, so when I first heard the radio debate between him and Rupert Sheldrake I was disappointed. It just goes to show that being rigorous and scientific in one field doesn't necessarily carry on into another. Especially not if it clashes with strongly held beliefs.

Pramod said...

Hello Dean can we see the status of when the Mumbai terror attack happened in India

Deni said...

Excellent talk, thanks for posting, Dean! The wastebasket approach of skeptics regarding research into the paranormal is getting ever more much-needed constructive criticism....

Pramod said...

Dean have you done any research involving plants(or do you know of any other research) like

Atheistic Mystic said...

Speaking of how skeptics work, you all might be interested in this recent exchange with James Randi.

Neil' said...

One of skeptic's worst fallacies is the idea that the negative claim ("there isn't X") is somehow more inherently logically privileged than the affirmative claim. But that's a false conflation of "positive" (as in, assured affirmation) with the positive/negative in the other context of yes/no. Another is the wretched "Occam's Razor", breezily imposing a "simplicity" on the universe that isn't even rigorously defined, and from a Medieval philosopher of all things, at that!

SellCivilizationShort said...

Just listening to that lecture was stressful, because I would have been absolutely indignant if I had been through what Sheldrake endured. I can only say Sheldrake has demonstrated amazing levels of patience and willingness to discuss matters calmly.

Zetetic_chick said...

"One of skeptic's worst fallacies is the idea that the negative claim ("there isn't X") is somehow more inherently logically privileged than the affirmative claim"

Absolutely true, Neal. In fact, that common skeptic's fallacy shows the irrationality and lack of logical thinking of many of these people.

In any logic's handbook, any person can read that a negative claim has the same logical properties than a positive claim (at least, regarding the burden of proof).

If I prove that "X is true", at the same time I'm proving (conclusively) that "Non-X is true" is false.

If I prove that Dean Radin was born in US, I'm proving that he wasn't born in China or Russia (because he couldn't be born in all the 3 countries at the same time). The positive evidence for X, has probatory logical implications for non-X (negative claim).

As argued by philosopher Steven Hales (a materialist skeptic of psi and afterlife) in his paper "You can prove a negative": "It is widely believed that you can’t prove a negative. Some people even think that it is a law of logic—you can’t prove that Santa Claus, unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, God, pink elephants, WMD in Iraq and Bigfoot don’t exist. This widespread belief is flatly, 100% wrong. In this little essay, I show precisely how one can prove a negative, to the same extent that one can prove anything at all."

Skeptics often pride themselves as rational thinkers, but actually many of them are pretty irrational and illogical.

A real skeptic is characterized by doubt, not by negative claims. When he doubts, he doesn't have to prove anything, because a doubt is a psychological state, not a claim. But if the "skeptic" makes a claim (positive or negative), he isn't skeptical of that specific claim anymore, and logic demands he offers evidence for his claim.

When a skeptic says that a positive psi result is product of fraud or statistical flaws, he is making a positive claim (of fraud or statistical flaws), and he has to offer specific evidence for his claims.

In that sense, many self-proclaimed "skeptics" aren't real skeptics, but pseudo-skeptics: They deny (not doubt) the existence of psi, and positivaly assert that psi phenomena are impossible, or that are delusions, frauds, fantasies, etc.


Neil' said...

Thanks for good follow up, ZC. Also, even in cases where one can't prove a negative, that wouldn't mean one should get a special pass on being able to assume he negative anyway. If there's a logical principle that you should have to prove X in order to have grounds to believe it, then not being able to prove X would detract from your grounds to believe it, rather than being an excuse not to have to prove X. That would go for X being "a negative" as well. But skeptics falsely think that their not being able to prove this or that negative actually relieves them of the need to have to!


Bharat said...

Wow, we have some clear-thinking philosophers in the house. ZC, I think your position as the Hume of this blog is now under challenge. ;)

Neil, good job on proposing a $10,000,000 test for many worlds/many minds. By the way, I hate to derail this thread (as I normally do) but have you two heard of this idea that MWI is actually *simpler* than Copenhagen? If so, could you please enlighten me as to the logic (if there is any) behind this?

Sheldrake is incredibly patient, still. I'm amazed that people like him, Dean, Marilyn Schlitz etc. still continue, I couldn't. A drink to all you guys this evening.

Neil' said...

Bharat, the enthusiasts say MWI is "simpler" by not having a collapse that inconveniently picks out one of the possible alternatives (dead cat) and makes the other one vanish. The MWI proponents believe that the superposed components of the total wave function (live + dead cat) continue to exist, but are relegated to separate "worlds". They don't really explain how that can be. I have an objection: two worlds per split doesn't give the right odds if the chances are unequal, like 7:3 instead of 50/50. But then, how many worlds to get accurate probability? If a given number n, that is clunky and arbitrary, if "infinite" then you can't make proportional comparisons of infinite sets (see Cantor.)

MWI enthusiasts sometimes use "decoherence" ideas to pretend to explain "collapse" and to support how MWI happens. It's a bogus concept, as I explain at my blog and at

David Bailey said...

I sometimes wonder if enthusiasts for multiple worlds push its reality to the back of their minds. After all, every quantum decision going on now in our universe (say N of them) is going to split the universe in two, making 2^N universes, and this process has been going on since the big bang! That just has to be a mathematical abstraction.

BTW, I saw a reference somewhere to the question of unequal probabilities in relation to multiple worlds - I didn't follow it up, but there is supposed to be a way that this works out - perhaps Dean can enlighten us - I mean, how does the universe get duplicated with a .7/.3 probability ratio!

Neil' said...

David, I would greatly appreciate if you could remember/find that reference about unequal probability of branching (like, quantum experiment with two possible outcomes at 70/30 chances.) I don't see any way to get around having effective representation of the chances without some clunky contrivance like "1,000,000 worlds per each split which is close enough to get the proportions about right." - clunky from needing an arbitrary number like that.

But infinite sets won't work, as you may know from that math issue. So if someone ever had it clue how to get around it, it must be good (not that I want them to succeed, it's rubbish IMHO. But I do get a kick out of "other universes", I just want them to be weird realms of magic etc. and not a gross compendium of every possible happening.)

David Bailey said...


Here is a reference to a paper (that I have not yet read) by David Deutsch - who seems to think quantum probabilities are possible in a multiverse:

I think possibly the idea is that the observer finds himself more often in the universe with greater probability!

Of course, all this assumes QM is exactly right - which it can't be because it is inconsistent with general relativity (unfortunately I have to take the word of better maths brains on that!) Maybe the real theory alows branches to reconnect to form a sort of network - much more interesting!

Tor said...


There is a paper by Henry Stapp on the MW issue that you might find interesting.

The Basis Problem in Many-Worlds Theories:

In this paper he argues why MW still doesn't solve the basis problem (choice of a basis, reduction of the wave function etc.). As far as I have seen, there hasn't been a refutation of this paper, only loose non-substantial talk by MW supporters.


Neil' said...

Quick takes, maybe more later and thanks for the responses:

David, I perused the Deutsch paper which gets too technical veering off the standard QM tropes. But so far, I don't think he actually addresses the issue of how many multi-worlds or how to get the probability.

Tor's offering from Stapp is more readable, nearly a philosophical essay with few equations. Stapp makes the good points against glib MW indulgence. The basis problem is not quite identical to my complaint about hashing out probabilities, but Stapp's points lead to the same challenge: MWI really can't handle producing our experience of specific probabilities (even if "we" imagine ourselves as each of the branching version) given what frequentist probability consists of: proportions of outcomes whether all in the same world or combined from different worlds.

You can put thoughts up at a thread on this at my blog also:

Happy "X-mass" folks (X for the unknown, since we don't really know the mystery behind it all ...)

David Bailey said...

Neil wrote:

"David, I perused the Deutsch paper which gets too technical veering off the standard QM tropes. But so far, I don't think he actually addresses the issue of how many multi-worlds or how to get the probability."

I think you are right - and the basis problem is quite stunning. Naively, one thinks of an electron in a magnetic field (say) splitting the universe in two with wave function bases defined by the direction of the field - but does that field - which could be very tiny - preclude another universe corresponding to another choice of axis - say at 45 degrees?

This is all getting a bit too technical for me - but it adds to my original hunch - which, of course you share - that MW is just a mathematical abstraction.

I guess MW has become popular despite its absurdity, because it gets consciousness out of physics - which has dubious value, since some physical systems are conscious!

Neil' said...

Yeah "MW"I doesn't look like a go. To be fair, the MWI/decoherence proponents say there really aren't separate worlds, that the wave function doesn't collapse but the different states "can't interfere with each other any more." (See for example the exasperated remarks of Chad Orzel at, but he keeps repeating himself too ...) But I think their scheme is doubletalk, since if both states continue "to exist" but "I" observe only one of them, what happens to the other one if "the entire WF continues to evolve and there is no collapse"? If that isn't a "world" then what is it?

I think many scientists just hate the fact that the way things work in the quantum universe doesn't make sense, and they'd rather imagine something that wasn't "paradoxical" (like inexplicable collapse that picks out one of the superposed states) even if that something was IMHO kind of a snow job.