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304 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 2013
We experience the out-there as if we are a tiny homunculus gazing from holes in our heads at a world that is flooded with light, music and colour. But this is not true. The things that you are seeing right now are not out there in front of you, but inside your head, being reconstructed in more than thirty sites across your brain. The light is not out there. The objects are not out there. The music is not out there. A violin has no sound without a brain to process it; a rose petal has no color. It is all a re-creation. A vision. A useful guess about what the world might look like, that is built well enough that we are able to negotiate it successfully. (p 106)
If you buy a standard ‘30C’ dose of any homepathic treatment, it means the active ingredient has been diluted thirty times, by a factor of 100. That might not sound like too much, until you realise that your chance of getting even one molecule of the original substance in your pill is one in a billion billion billion billion. In his influential book Bad Science, Skeptic superstar Dr Ben Goldacre explained that you would have to drink a sphere of water that stretches from the earth to the sun just to get one solitary, pointless molecule of it. (p. 129)
Everything we know starts as electrical pulses, incoming from our senses [signals into our brains]. These pulses combine to construct a best-guess but distorted recreation of reality....We are creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own...secret worlds.
I will try to remember, though, that as right as I can sometimes feel, there is always the chance that I am wrong. And that happiness lies in humility: in forgiving others, and in forgiving myself.
Stories work against truth. They operate with the machinery of prejudice and distortion. Their purpose is not fact but propaganda. The scientific method is the tool that humans have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.
I am surprised, for a start, that so few of these disciples of empirical evidence seem to be familiar with the scientific literature on the subject that impassions them so. I am suspicious, too, about the real source of their rage. If they are motivated, as they frequently insist, by altruistic concern over the dangers of supernatural belief, why don't they obsess over jihadist Muslims, homophobic Christians or racist Jewish settlers? Why this focus on stage psychics, ghosthunters and alt-med hippies?
During our conversation, I asked Randi if he has ever, in his life, changed his position on anything due to an examination of the evidence. After a long silence, he said, 'That's a good question. I have had a few surprises along the way that got my attention rather sharply.'
'What were these?' I asked.
He thought again, for some time. 'Oh, some magic trick that I decided on the modus operandi.'...
'So you’ve never been wrong about anything significant?'
'In regard to the Skeptical movement and my work...' There was another stretched and chewing pause. He conferred with his partner, to see if he had any ideas. 'No. Nothing occurs to me at the moment.'
For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree...
This monoculture we would have, if the hard rationalists had their way, would be a deathly thing. So bring on the psychics, bring on the alien abductees, bring on the two John Lennons – bring on a hundred of them. Christians or no, there will be tribalism. Televangelists or no, there will be scoundrels. It is not religion or fake mystics that create these problems, it is being human. Where there is illegality or racial hatred, call the police. Where there is psychosis, call Professor Richard Bentall. Where there is misinformation, bring learning. But where there is just ordinary madness, we should celebrate. Eccentricity is our gift to one another. It is the riches of our species. To be mistaken is not a sin. Wrongness is a human right.
Over the last few months, John E Mack has become a kind of hero to me. Despite his earlier caution, he ended up believing in amazing things: intergalactic space travel and terrifying encounters in alien craft that travelled seamlessly through nonphysical dimensions. And when his bosses tried to silence him, he hired a lawyer. He fought back against the dean and his dreary minions. He battled hard in the name of craziness...
The Skeptic tells the story of Randi the hero; the psychic of Randi the devil. We all make these unconscious plot decisions...
We are all creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own secret worlds.
I think ‘the probability that a model or a hypothesis is true’ is generally a meaningless statement except as noted in certain narrow albeit important examples..)
I am concerned that I have overstated my argument. In my haste to write my own coherent story, I have barely acknowledged the obvious truth that minds do sometimes change. People find faith and they lose it. Mystics become Skeptics. Politicians cross the floor. I wonder why this happens. Is it when the reality of what is actually happening in our lives overpowers the myth that we make of themselves? Are we simply pursuing ever more glorious hero missions?...
This is an imperfect system, as it relies on many secondary sources. Moreover, I do not declare myself to be free of the biases that afflict any writer, and I'm certainly not immune to making mistakes. If any errors are noted, or if new findings supersede claims made in the text, I would be very grateful to receive notification via willstorr.com, so future editions can be corrected.
The only thing I don’t like about Engber’s article is its title, “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which means science is broken.” I understand that “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real” is kind of a joke, but to me this is a bit too close to the original reporting on Bem, back in 2011, where people kept saying that Bem’s study was high quality, state-of-the-art psychology, etc. Actually, Bem’s study was crap. It’s every much as bad as the famously bad papers on beauty and sex ratio, ovulation on voting, elderly-related words and slow walking, etc.
And “science” is not broken. Crappy science is broken. Good science is fine. If “science” is defined as bad articles published in PPNAS—himmicanes, air rage, ages ending in 9, etc.—then, sure, science is broken. But if science is defined as the real stuff, then, no, it’s not broken at all.