Saturday, December 18, 2010

Too bad they don't follow it

Turns out that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (whose capacity for skeptical inquiry has historically left me unimpressed) actually has a set of guidelines for proper skeptical criticism, and it's not bullshit!

During CSICOP’s first decade of existence, members of the Executive Council often found themselves devoting most of their available time to damage control-precipitated by the careless remarks of fellow skeptics-instead of toward the common cause of explaining the skeptical agenda.

Unfortunately, at this time, there are no courses on the proper way to criticize paranormal claims. So far as I know, no manuals or books or rules are currently available to guide us. Until such courses and guide books come into being, what can we do to ensure that our criticisms are both effective and responsible?

I would be irresponsible if I told you I had an easy solution. The problem is complicated and there are no quick fixes. But I do believe we all could improve our contributions to responsible criticism by keeping a few principles always in mind.

We can make enormous improvements in our collective and individual efforts by simply trying to adhere to those standards that we profess to admire and that we believe that many peddlers of the paranormal violate. If we envision ourselves as the champions of rationality, science, and objectivity, then we ought to display these very same qualities in our criticism. Just by trying to speak and write in the spirit of precision, science, logic, and rationality-those attributes we supposedly admire-we would raise the quality of our critiques by at least one order of magnitude.

The failure to consistently live up to these standards exposes us to a number of hazards. We can find ourselves going beyond the facts at hand. We may fail to communicate exactly what we intended. We can confuse the public about what skeptics are trying to achieve. We can unwittingly put paranormal proponents in the position of the underdogs and create sympathy for them. And, as I already mentioned, we can make the task much more difficult for other skeptics.

What, then, can skeptics do to upgrade the quality of their criticism? What follows are just a few suggestions. It is hoped they will stimulate further thought and discussion.
  1. Be prepared.

    Good criticism is a skill that requires practice, work, and level-headedness. Your response to a sudden challenge is much more likely to be appropriate if you have already anticipated similar challenges. Try to prepare in advance effective and short answers to those questions you are most likely to be asked. Be ready to answer why skeptical activity is important, why people should listen to your views, why false beliefs can be harmful, and the many similar questions that invariably are raised. A useful project would be to compile a list of the most frequently occurring questions along with possible answers.

    Whenever possible try your ideas out on friends and “enemies” before offering them in the public arena. An effective exercise is to rehearse your arguments with fellow skeptics. Some of you can take the role of the psychic claimants while others play the role of critics. And, for more general preparation, read books on critical thinking, effective writing, and argumentation.

  2. Clarify your objectives.

    Before you try to cope with a paranormal claim, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to release pent-up resentment? Are you trying to belittle your opponent? Are you trying to gain publicity for your viewpoint? Do you want to demonstrate that the claim lacks reasonable justification? Do you hope to educate the public about what constitutes adequate evidence? Often our objectives, upon examination, turn out to be mixed. And, especially when we act impulsively, some of our objectives conflict with one another.

    The difference between short-term and long-term objectives can be especially important. Most skeptics, I believe, would agree that our long-term goal is to educate the public so that it can more effectively cope with various claims. Sometimes this long-range goal is sacrificed because of the desire to expose or debunk a current claim.

    Part of clarifying our objectives is to decide who our audience is. Hard-nosed, strident attacks on paranormal claims rarely change opinions, but they do stroke the egos of those who are already skeptics. Arguments that may persuade the readers of the National Enquirer may offend academics and important opinion-makers.

    Try to make it clear that you are attacking the claim and not the claimant. Avoid, at all costs, creating the impression that you are trying to interfere with someone’s civil liberties. Do not try to get someone fired from his or her job. Do not try to have courses dropped or otherwise be put in the position of advocating censorship. Being for rationality and reason should not force us into the position to seeming to be against academic freedom and civil liberties.

  3. Do your homework.

    Again, this goes hand in hand with the advice about being prepared. Whenever possible, you should not try to counter a specific paranormal claim without getting as many of the relevant facts as possible. Along the way, you should carefully document your sources. Do not depend upon a report in the media either for what is being claimed or for facts relevant to the claim. Try to get the specifics of the claim directly from the claimant.

  4. Do not go beyond your level of competence.

    No one, especially in our times, can credibly claim to be an expert on all subjects. Whenever possible, you should consult appropriate experts. We, understandably, are highly critical of paranormal claimants who make assertions that are obviously beyond their competence. We should be just as demanding on ourselves. A critic’s worst sin is to go beyond the facts and the available evidence.

    In this regard, always ask yourself if you really have something to say. Sometimes it is better to remain silent than to jump into an argument that involves aspects that are beyond your present competence. When it is appropriate, do not be afraid to say, “I don't know.”

  5. Let the facts speak for themselves.

    If you have done your homework and have collected an adequate supply of facts, the audience rarely will need your help in reaching an appropriate conclusion. Indeed, your case is made much stronger if the audience is allowed to draw its own conclusions from the facts. Say that Madame X claims to have psychically located Mrs. A’s missing daughter and you have obtained a statement from the police to the effect that her contributions did not help. Under these circumstances it can be counterproductive to assert that Madame X lied about her contribution or that her claim was “fraudulent.” For one thing, Madame X may sincerely, if mistakenly, believe that her contributions did in fact help. In addition, some listeners may be offended by the tone of the criticism and become sympathetic to Madame X. However, if you simply report what Madame X claimed along with the response of the police, you not only are sticking to the facts, but your listeners will more likely come the appropriate conclusion.

  6. Be precise.

    Good criticism requires precision and care in the use of language. Because, in challenging psychic claims, we are appealing to objectivity and fairness, we have a special obligation to be as honest and accurate in our own statements as possible. We should take special pains to avoid making assertions about paranormal claims that cannot be backed up with hard evidence. We should be especially careful in this regard when being interviewed by the media. Every effort should be made to ensure that the media understand precisely what we are and are not saying.

  7. Use the principle of charity.

    I know that many of my fellow critics will find this principle to be unpalatable. To some, the paranormalists are the “enemy,” and it seems inconsistent to lean over backward to give them the benefit of the doubt. But being charitable to paranormal claims is simply the other side of being honest and fair. The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest.

    We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.

  8. Avoid loaded words and sensationalism.

    All these principles are interrelated. The ones previous stated imply that we should avoid using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms. If the proponents happen to resort to emotionally laden terms and sensationalism, we should avoid stooping to their level. We should not respond in kind.

    This is not a matter of simply turning the other cheek. We want to gain credibility for our cause. In the short run, emotional charges and sensationalistic challenges might garner quickly publicity. But most of us see our mission as a long-run effort. We would like to persuade the media and the public that we have a serious and important message to get across. And we would like to earn their their trust as a credible and reliable source. Such a task requires always keeping in mind the scientific principles and standards of rationality and integrity that we would like to make universal.


As readers of this blog should be aware, this is precisely the kind of thing I've advised for researchers of the paranormal and the fortean. The main difference here is the assumption made by the author of this text that those being debunked are wrong (and that following these rules, consequently, will prove them wrong without giving the impression that they didn't get a fair trial), whereas a good anomalist will strive to be agnostic about the claim being investigated.

Many of the guidelines noted above pertain to reigning in the ego, which is of tantamount importance to anyone who would like to get to the truth (rather than simply convince other people that their existing worldview is correct).

It is telling that these guidelines have until now not been distributed to the Skeptical Inquirer; I personally could not tell you whether the problems I've had with the methods of CSICOP have been due to initiated members with access to this document or with amateur-types reading the SI and being over-anxious about debunking (except in the case of Mr Randi, whose capacity for reason seems terribly impaired even in the most favourable light), but so long as this document is followed by CSICOP members, I cannot foresee having any problems with them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 2011 No-Budget Film Contest

In an effort to fight back against what I saw as the disgusting substitution of money for taste in both big-budget and independent films, last year I held the first annual No-Budget Film Contest. This was a success, and we received two wonderful submissions. With slight clarifications and modifications made to the rules, I announce the second annual contest.

1) Your film must be yours. I won't accept mashups of other people's video (well... I might, but you will have to impress the judges a lot more). Likewise, don't do anything illegal in the films, or pornographic -- I don't want to get in trouble.
2) You must not buy or rent anything specifically for this film (with an exception for a camera, if you don't own one). You also cannot have any paid actors. In other words, no budget allowed.
3) You may do it in live action or animation. Really, you can do it with any method you choose.
4) Submissions start January 23 and end February 13. If you send your submission in outside of this time slot, it might not be considered. You do not need to make the film during this period; any films you have made with no budget and have not yet submitted are applicable.
5) I will announce the winners by March 15. First prize will be $5 transferred via paypal. The top three submissions (judged any way I like) will be posted on this blog, and will get the titles of Best No-Budget Film of 2011, Second Best No-Budget Film of 2011, and Third Best No-Budget Film of 2011. They will also get a picture of a golden coin trophy.

How to submit:
Upload your finished films to youtube or vimeo (or some other streaming video site), and send the link to The films may be of any length, and you can enter as many times as you like.

You can see last year's winners here.

The Zalgo Continuum

Presumably, you have all heard of ZALGO, the 4chan meme (or out-of-control viral marketing test project) who lurks behind the walls has been making the rounds for quite some time. The popularity of internet memes is difficult to attribute, but I will make the argument that this one has survived because it neatly integrates two other long-lived ideas: the cosmic horror and the cosmic schmuck.

Cosmic horror (and its poster-thing, H.P. Lovecraft's posthumous flagship Cthulu) has seen an upshot in popularity lately, perhaps piggybacking on uncertain times or future shock or the generally negative social and political vibes floating around. Whatever the reason, analysts (including Lovecraft himself) generally agree on one thing: cosmic horror derives its power not from the uncanny or from the unknown but from the unknowable. Cosmic horror is a recollectivisation of existential angst: not only are you insignificant (everyone is) and your actions meaningless (everything is), but there are things just beyond your reach that are so utterly alien and incomprehensible that they can destroy your mind just by daring to think about them. Not only that, but even on their much higher scale of existence they too are insignificant and their actions meaningless. Furthermore, cosmic horror is epistemic horror: each of the scholar-protagonists, after great efforts, briefly part the veil of Maya and have a short peek out of Plato's cave, and they quickly realize that everything they ever knew (and everything they ever could know) is wrong. Cosmic horror is, to the individual, what quantum mechanics and relativity were to the entirety of theoretical physics: a fundamental paradigm shift so extreme that it invalidated all bodies of speculation into its domain that had previously existed.

On the flipside, you have the cosmic schmuck. This idea, put forth first (as far as I can tell) by Robert Anton Wilson, is a bit more lighthearted. The cosmic schmuck has a completely wrong model of the universe, unknowingly. He doesn't know that his model is wrong because he hasn't tested the parts of it that are wrong. His quality of life may or may not be affected by the way in which his model of the universe is skewed, but he can't determine that because he doesn't know that it's skewed. The cosmic schmuck can become less of a cosmic schmuck by assuming that he is more of a cosmic schmuck than he thinks he is, because the mark of a cosmic schmuck is his unfounded confidence in his own model of reality. While Wilson attends to the aspect of introspective and epistemic terror involved in becoming less of a cosmic schmuck in Cosmic Trigger I, one still gets the general idea that becoming less of a cosmic schmuck is a good idea -- and presumably it was for Wilson, since he survived it with much of his sanity intact and made a pretty penny selling a book based on his experiences in seeking the Real Shit (which he insists is both plural and mutable).

Zalgo, given its origins (or at least the petri dish from which it eventually sprang, after a long incubation period), is firmly grounded in humour. It is more specifically grounded in what Wilson called the 'put-on', and what the internet calls 'trolling'. The creepypasta, taking copious obvious inspiration from cosmic horror and the Lovecraft style, purports to be true, or at least honest. Those who take it seriously (I am not sure there are many cases of this level of fail, Doctor) are prime subjects for ridicule, or at least identifiable as good targets for more put-ons. Those who pick up on it can play along or repeat the gag in another context. But, arguably, this meme has a ha-ha-only-serious nature embedded in the subtext. Cosmic horror is here in a far more pure form than that of your standard Lovecraft tie-in, and arguably in even more pure a form than the original works, which were still put forth in bindings marked 'fiction'. The Strange Times are upon us, and it is increasingly difficult to determine whether or not any given thing popping up on the internet is plausible, let alone legitimate. Zalgo reminds us that just beyond our mundane sphere of attention lurks things so alien that we cannot imagine them, and that even our most cherished icons of purity are not safe from the unknown and unknowable.

Skepticism and the Sincere Anomalist

The typical group 'investigating' a claim of the paranormal (or anything that could be considered 'high strangeness') is well-known to everyone: half the group is the Mulder camp, and half is the Scully camp. In real life, these two types don't get along as well as they do on television, but they exhibit the same characteristics: the Mulder group insists, regardless of evidence to the contrary, that the phenomenon in question is something strange (if not completely supernatural), while the Scully group insists, regardless of evidence to the contrary, that there is a 'rational' explanation (where 'rational' here goes by some definition known only to pseudoskeptics and kept far away from any apparent consistency). But, again unlike television, these two types (both together and on their own) are almost completely incapable of understanding anything legitimately outside of their existing scope of knowledge: they are both varieties of true believers.

In the fortean community, the Scully type is typically called the 'pseudoskeptic'. This is a reactionary type, living to 'debunk' anything that runs counter to his or her existing model of reality. The 'debunking', upon close inspection, loses its thin pretense of rationality and is exposed as a simple mammalian response to threat. In the case of the pseudoskeptic, the threat is typically conflict with whatever they learned in high school science class, and it highly resembles the response of a religious fanatic when dogma is directly conflicted.

In the skeptic community, the Mulder type is typically called a 'woo'. This type is also a reactionary type, living to 'prove' the existence of something that runs counter to the consensus model of reality. This 'proof', upon close inspection, loses its thin pretense of truth-seeking and is exposed as an application of wishful thinking on a large scale: the 'woo' wants to believe, and will ignore any evidence to the contrary.

These two types are actually not terribly dissimilar. They are both true believers, living to validate their own personal views of the universe. The main difference is that the pseudoskeptic has a model of the universe very close to that of the consensus, while the woo has a model of the universe that is very different. It doesn't matter whether or not the models are correct or have predictive value; truth ceases to matter once belief takes the stage. Despite the cries of the pseudoskeptic, neither of these types are skeptical, either. The skeptic actively questions both assumptions and claims, while the pseudoskeptic merely 'debunks' them.

Fortean anomalism is on the fringe of known science, and can be expected to stay there indefinitely; anomalists seek the fringe of the known, and inhabit the borderland between the mundane and the batshit darkness just beyond it. This doesn't make skepticism less important: it makes skepticism more important, and makes belief even more dangerous. There is a tendency for the mind to see what it expects; the mental model affects perception as much as perception affects the mental model. Since the anomalist deals with the unknown, the tendency to see the expected (be it a weather balloon or a piladean missile defense system) has the ability to completely incapacitate the anomalist's ability to see what's really there. Carl Sagan once said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", but that is no more an excuse for pseudoskepticism than it is for woo: the anomalist seeks what evidence exists, and if the anomalist is handicapped by a need to see something either more or less extraordinary than that which is there, who will find such evidence?