Sunday, January 28, 2007

Too many numbers

Upon witnessing Mozart's first Viennese opera, "Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail," Emperor Joseph II reportedly offered the famous criticism, "Too many notes, my dear Mozart." In a recent review of Entangled Minds on, I am admonished with a similar criticism. The reviewer writes, in part:

When I bought this book, I was fully ready to accept every word of it. But, as I read, I found Radin's numbers, especially his quantitative statistics of probabilities, rather ridiculous. 35 trillion-to-one against chance?? Come on. Mr Radin says his experiments gave a 56% rate of success (with 50% being chance). Come on. Chance is not hardcore. Sometimes chance is 42%, sometimes it's 56%. 6% over chance is not scientific evidence of anything. Come on ...

And so on, in a similar vein. What comes to mind is the Emperor's suggestion (from the movie Amadeus), that Mozart "just cut a few [notes] and it will be perfect." To this Mozart responds, "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?" In the present case, the reviewer's complaint arises because she mistakes effect size for statistical significance. Without going into what that means, all I'll say is that Entangled Minds assumes that the reader has at least an elementary understanding of basic statistics, and at least an inkling of what scientific experimentation is all about. Without that knowledge, the book may well appear to have "too many notes."


How can someone who is not deeply immersed in all facets of a scientific controversy begin to understand it? For most such controversies, the knowledge required just to understand the nature of the debate may take years of specialized training and practice. I'm not just referring to psi, but rather to the much larger number of intense controversies that are constantly being debated within the pages of all scientific (and scholarly) journals. This intellectual fomenting is what scholarship is all about, and one of the primary strengths of science is the freedom to violently disagree on technical issues or matters of interpretation, but then go out and have a friendly chat over a beer. By contrast, strong disagreements within religion or politics often have more serious consequences.

A new website called Skeptiko is now devoted to addressing how the scientific debate proceeds among more controversial topics like psi, where the friendly nature of disagreements sometimes break down. The Skeptiko site aims to provide a "balanced discussion of new scientific discoveries and the methods for validating them." I was recently interviewed by the owner of this site. You can reach the site and the mp3 interview by clicking here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On militant atheism

An op-ed on AlterNet takes author Sam Harris to task. Among other things, the author of the op-ed, John Gorenfeld, writes:

The thrust of Harris's best-sellers is that with the world so crazed by religion, it's high time Americans stopped tolerating faith in the Rapture, the Resurrection and anything else not grounded in evidence. Only trouble is, our country's foremost promoter of "reason" is also supportive of ESP, reincarnation and other unscientific concepts.

Later Gorenfeld continues:

Another book he lists is The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. "These are people who have spent a fair amount of time looking at the data," Harris explains. The author, professor Dean Radin of North California's Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is not accredited for scientific peer review, proclaims: "Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments."

Gorenfeld's statement that IONS "is not accredited for scientific peer review" is not merely wrong, it is meaningless. The mistake suggests a bit of motivated inattention.

Gorenfeld presumably added his meaningless clause in an attempt to reduce the credibility of IONS, and by association the credibility of my book. While it is true that institutions providing academic degrees can be recognized by various educational accreditation organizations, IONS does not provide degrees and so accreditation is irrelevant. In addition, "scientific peer review" is not something that institutes do, rather it's what journals and granting institutions do. The IONS research staff has published numerous articles in scientific journals and have been awarded many research grants, including from the National Institutes of Health, so on that score our work is certainly vetted through scientific peer review.

But all this aside, what I find amazing is that some militant atheists, including Gorenfeld but not Harris, equate belief in religion to belief in psi. The fallacy of this belief is that the former is based on an unquestioned acceptance of dogma, whereas the latter is based on a rational, scientific evaluation of empirical evidence. One would think that atheists would support all efforts to understand the world through scientific means, regardless of controversial status. But apparently this is not the case.

But what about ...?

I sometimes receive comments via email and on this blog along the lines of "What do you think about the criticisms of skeptic X on web site Y?"

The answer is "Not much." In most cases I've found it to be a waste of time to respond to long-winded, free-ranging critiques appearing on blogs and in magazines. Articles published in journals aren't perfect either, but at least they provide a first-pass verification that the critiques seemed reasonable to a few referees. One hopes that the selected referees were knowledgeable about the topic at hand, which is not always the case, but compared to the level of discourse one sees in most op-eds, journal articles are a far superior way to debate controversial topics.

So my response to most web critiques is this: If the author of a detailed critique is confident about their opinion, then they should publish it in a journal. Sometimes when I run across a comment on a web page that is flat wrong, and it's easy to correct, I may comment on it here.