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The Objectivity of Science
Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Skepticism
by Rochus Boerner
The progress of science depends on a finely tuned balance between
open-mindedness and skepticism. Be too open minded, and you'll accept wrong
claims. Be too skeptical, and you'll reject genuine new discoveries. Proper
skepticism must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Unfortunately, much of what comes out of the "skeptical" community these
days is not proper skepticism, but all-out, fundamentalist disbelief. Such
skepticism can be called pseudo-skepticism, pathological skepticism or bogus
Here are the warning signs of bogus skepticism.
1. The Skeptic has reached her skeptical opinion not after careful research
and examination of the claim, but simply based on media reports and other
forms of second-hand knowledge.
Example: Pathological cold fusion skeptic Robert L. Park revealed in his
March 1st 2002 What's New column that Science was going to publish an
article on Sonofusion, and that even though he had not seen the paper,
talked to the researchers or conducted any personal research in the area, he
already knew that the Sonofusion discovery would turn out to be "a repeat of
the cold fusion fiasco". Park used every bit of influence he had in a
behind-the-scenes attempt to kill the paper. Luckily, the Science editor
didn't cave and decided to publish.
2. Making uncontrolled criticisms. A criticism is uncontrolled if the same
criticism could equally be applied to accepted science.
For example, Park makes such a criticism in his book Voodoo Science (p.199).
In the context of a discussion of an obviously pseudoscientific Good Morning
America report on anomalous phenomena (debunkery by association: as if TV
shows were the principal outlet for reporting the results of psi research!),
Why, you may wonder, all this business of random machines? Jahn has studied
random number generators, water fountains in which the subject tries to urge
drops to greater heights, all sorts of machines. But it is not clear that
any of these machines are truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed
that there are no truly random machines. It may be, therefore, that the lack
of randomness only begins to show up after many trials. Besides, if the mind
can influence inanimate objects, why not simply measure the static force the
mind can exert? Modern ultramicrobalances can routinely measure a force of
much less than a billionth of an ounce. Why not just use your psychokinetic
powers to deflect a microbalance? It's sensitive, simple, even quantitative,
with no need for any dubious statistical analysis.
Where does Park's assessment that effects that are only indirectly detected,
by statistical analysis, are suspect, leave conventional science? Deprived
of one of its most powerful tools of analysis. The cherished 1992 COBE
discovery of minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background
radiation would have to be thrown out, since it was entirely statistical in
nature, and therefore by Park's argument, 'dubious'. The most celebrated
discoveries of particle physics, such as the 1995 discovery of the top
quark, or the results of neutrino detection experiments, or the synthesis of
superheavy, extremely short-lived elements, would have to be thrown out,
since they, too, are indirect and statistical in nature. Modern medicine
would have to be invalidated as well because it relies on statistical
analysis (of double- blind trials) to prove the efficacy of drugs.
For comparison: the American Institute of Physics's Bulletin of Physics
News, #216, March 3, 1995 gives the odds against chance for the top quark
discovery as a million to one. A 1987 meta-analysis performed by Dean Radin
and Roger Nelson of RNG (random number generator) experiments between 1959
and 1987 , on the other hand, shows the existence of an anomalous deviation
from chance with odds against chance exceeding one trillion to one (see
Radin, The Conscious Universe, p. 140).
Park's argument is the quintessential uncontrolled criticism: accepted
scientific methods that constitute the backbone of modern science suddenly
become questionable when they are used on phenomena that don't fit his
3. The Pseudoskeptical Catch-22: "unconventional claims have to be proved
before they can be investigated!" This way, of course, they will never be
investigated or proved.
Parapsychology has been significantly hampered by this pseudoskeptical
attitude. Pseudoskeptics complain that effect sizes are not bigger; but at
the same time, they scream bloody murder if any grant-making agency even so
much considers doing something about it. Radin writes in The Conscious
The tactics of the extreme skeptics have been more than merely annoying. The
professional skeptic's aggressive public labeling of parapsychology as a
"pseudoscience", implying fraud or incompetence on the part of the
researchers, has been instrumental in preventing this research from taking
place at all.
A similar situation exists in the new energy field. Pseudoskeptics like
Robert L. Park are not content just dismissing things like cold fusion; they
put massive pressure on policy makers and government to obstruct efforts to
prove them wrong. Park's successful lobbying of the US patent office to
withdraw Randall Mill's Black Light patent (which had already been
approved!) comes to mind as an example.
4. Evidence of refutal is anecdotal or otherwise scientifically worthless.
Pseudoskeptics tend to accept conventional "explanations" for unconventional
phenomena very easily, no matter how weak, contrived or far-fetched. A good
historical example is the rejection of the crop circle phenomenon.
Doug Bower and David Chorley claimed in 1991 that they had created all of
the British crop circles since 1978 (all 2000 of them). This was an
extraordinary claim of the highest order. Two old men claimed that for over
a decade, they have been creating geometrical designs in crops whose
complexity defies easy geometrical construction, but they were never able to
demonstrate that they can do what they claim they could do. Any true skeptic
would have rejected Bower's and Chorley's claim, since "extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence". Yet, the organized skeptics endorsed the
claims enthusiastically and denounced the whole crop circle phenomenon a
5. The Skeptic rejects a discovery or invention merely because it has been
believed for a long time that such a thing as the claimed discovery or
invention is impossible.
This is the sole basis for the pseudoskeptical claim that, for example, a
perpetuum mobile of the second kind is impossible. Park, for example, writes
the following ignorant tirade in his 9/24/1999 What's New Column:
PERPETUUM MOBILE: BETTING AGAINST THE LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS.
Most free energy scams invoke outlandish new physics: cold fusion, hydrinos,
zero-point energy, gravity shields, antimatter. But there are also
throwbacks to the 19th Century that directly challenge the laws of
thermodynamics. Physics Today carried a full-page ad for Entropy Systems,
Inc. describing a heat engine that runs off ambient heat. It's hardly a new
idea. Two years ago Better World Technologies was touting the "Fisher
engine" that violated the Second Law (WN 18 Jul 97). But it wasn't new then
either--it was the "zero motor," invented by John Gamgee in 1880. It didn't
work then either, but Gamgee sold it to the U.S. Navy anyway.
Park's sole argument appears to be that We Have Always Believed The Second
Law Is Correct, So It Has To Be. Physicists who actually investigate this
question without preconceived notions of what is possible or impossible have
reached very different conclusions. D.P. Sheehan, A.R. Putnam and J.H.
Wrighty of the University of San Diego write in a recent paper titled A
Solid-State Maxwell Demon:
Over the last ten years, an unprecedented number of challenges have been
leveled against the absolute status of the second law of thermodynamics.
During this period, roughly 40 papers have appeared in the general
literature [e.g., 1- 20], representing more than a dozen distinct
challenges; the publication rate is increasing. Recently, for the first
time, a major scientic press has commissioned a monograph on the the subject
and a first international conference has been convened to examine these
challenges. (..) The genealogy of the Maxwell demon thus split into those
that relied on sentient processes (e.g., intelligent active measurement,
calculation, or microscopic manipulation), and those that did not. The
former line has largely died out owing to advances in information theory
, but the latter survived and now poses the most serious threat to the
absolute status of the second law.
Future historians of science may well put the second "law" in the same
category as "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible". An expression
of contemporary scientific prejudice and lack of technological
sophistication, not an eternal law of nature.
6. The Skeptic claims that the claimed effect contradicts the "laws of
nature" (and therefore has to be wrong, since the Skeptic and the scientific
community he presumes to represent have of course already complete knowledge
of the laws of nature).
For example, in a personal note published on James Randi's Website, Robert
Park makes the following statement about the "Motionless Electromagnetic
Generator", a claimed free energy device:
I've been following the MEG claim since Patent 6,362,718 was issued in the
spring (What's New 4 Apr 02). The claim, of course, is preposterous. It is a
clear violation of the conservation of energy.
But Park is only demolishing a straw man. The first law of thermodynamics
states that the energy of a closed system is conserved. But the inventors of
the MEG claim that their device takes energy from the zero-point field of
the vacuum, thereby conserving the energy of the total system (which in this
case would be the MEG and the surrounding vacuum). Whether it can actually
do that is an open question. But the existence of the Casimir force proves
that in principle such extraction of energy from the vacuum is possible
(even though the energy gained from the Casimir force between two plates is
negligible). Therefore, one cannot dismiss claims for free energy devices
such as the MEG on a priori grounds of energy conservation. Since Park is a
physicists, he could not possibly be unaware of this. By stating that the
claimed invention contradicts the law of energy conservation, he
intentionally misrepresents the claims of the MEG inventors. They do not
claim to have found a way around the first law; they merely claim to have
accessed a source of energy not previously accessible to human technology.
7. The Skeptic believes in scientific mob rule. "In Science, the Majority
Consensus is Always Right".
The unfortunate reality is that there is a complex sociology of science.
Scientific truth is frequently not determined by right or wrong, but by ego,
prestige, authority of claimants, conflicts of interests and economic
agendas. Scientists who propose research that threatens the viability of
basic theories on which authorities in the field have built their careers,
and governments and corporations have bet lots of money will find themselves
out of a job very soon. The list of of great scientists who became
scientific outcasts after they published research that contradicts
establishment dogma is long, and includes such names as Peter Duesberg,
Brian Josephson, Jacques Benveniste, and of course Professors Pons and
Rochus Boerner © 2003