Point vs Counterpoint

,Point -- The Skeptic

1. Skeptical "expertise"

A small furor arose in skeptical circles about an observation made by Rupert Sheldrake describing a workshop for dedicated skeptics on "Communicating Skepticism to the Public" featuring James Randi, Dr. Michaeal Shermer, Andrew Mayne and Jack Latona. Skeptics were upset at Sheldrake's claim these leaders were essentially promoting a content free skepticism. He indicated the workshop leaders said:

"Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not."

It isn't surprising this disturbed proud skeptics because it is a claim that they need no expertise, no information at all. They need only make pronouncements; just play the part. Naturally they took offense.

2.  Fundamentalist skepticism on Wikipedia

In some controversial topical areas, a few individual editors have taken upon themselves to ensure that the skeptical point of view is dominant. Here is a sample of the hostile attitude as described by a correspondent:

I'm sorry to tell you that I've decided not to continue with the edits to GCP as I've suffered harassment from one of the skeptical editors. I apologise if I've raised your hopes that the GCP article could be made a fair representation of the project. Being involved in heated debates is something I can deal with, but being "stalked"/harassed is not.

Following is an excerpt from my own experience in the Discussion section of the article on the GCP. It is probably like what my correspondent experienced:

Rogunnar (talk · contribs) appears to be a single-purpose account created in response to the recent cleanup of a variety of deeply flawed parapsychology articles, as seen here. I don't know why he signed his sig using rdnelson (talk · contribs) an extant, but unused wikipedia account which likely has some implied connection to roger nelson. That sort of rather suspicious and transparent subterfuge makes me think that it might be good to keep an eye on this user.Simonm223 (talk) 12:22, 27 October 2009 (UTC)

3. Richard Carrier on Presentiment experiments:
In re: Brain Response to a Future Event?

I find the studies reported to be highly dubious. You'll notice none of them appear in any real peer reviewed journal except Bierman & Radin 1997 and Lang et al. 1998. The rest are in parapsychology and alt-med front journals that, like creationist journals, only have "believers" peer review submissions (hence their actual peer review process is a joke). This blog article, for example, seeks to impress you with the shear number of articles in these bogus journals (plus parapsychology conference papers, which aren't peer reviewed at all), hoping you won't notice that they have utterly failed to convince actual scientists that they've even used proper methods, much less gotten scientifically credible results. If they had, they wouldn't be publishing in propaganda vehicles. They would be publishing in real journals.

This is confirmed by what happens when you look at the only real science papers they cite: you don't find what they claim. Lang et al. 1998 doesn't even document presentiment ...  They do not arrive at any conclusions as to cause but call for further research.

But as they show signs of realizing even in that one- page report (yes, it consists of a single page), if you randomly show sexy and boring images, the brain starts to anticipate the pattern based on frequency estimations
(as, IMO, any mechanical computer could be programmed to do) and thus starts anticipating the sexy images better than chance (for example, if you were
asked to "predict" rolls of a 6 on a die, you would start to guess better than chance due to the obvious frequency pattern: 6's turn up on average every six rolls). All this means is that our brains are really good pattern
recognizers, which is not anything we didn't know, nor anything unlikely on metaphysical naturalism. Notably, the effect does not work unless there is a sequence (and thus a pattern to detect). Actual presentiment should work better than chance without any run-up sequence to pattern-match. Thus the clue is the existence of a pattern to match, which supports naturalism, not supernatural 

Most suspiciously, the blog article you refer to was written in 2007, yet fails to mention the more detailed follow-up study of the same effect by Bierman & Scholte in the Journal of Parapsychology ... and found the effect vanishes with larger sample sizes and only appears when individual cases are cherry-picked, which is congruent with standard statistical (not paranormal) anomalies. They still claim there are some effects still residing, but admit their results are inadequate to confirm this and further study is needed. I can already predict what the results will be.

That effects disappear with trials has been the case so often before. ...  I don't see any reason to expect any different result here.

But as with all fringe claims in science, the responsibility is on Radin and others to convince the actual scientific community. Until they do, we have no more reason to believe them than any other scientist with a fringe unconfirmed claim.

4. An article on "precognition" by Daryl Bem roused lots of attention, for example articles in the New York Times, at
and one in New Scientist at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19712-is-this-evidence-that-we-can-see-the-future.html
A number of skeptical articles have been written, and at least one, by Wagenmakers, et al., will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to accompany the original article by Bem.

Counterpoint -- The Scientist

1. Caught in the act

As you can read in a skeptical blog, in which the blogger himself expresses embarrasment, it is not the skeptics who have the right side of the dispute. Sheldrake tells the truth without exaggeration or froth. This is from the manual distributed at the meeting:

Part Three: The Media Skeptic. Encouraging a Skeptical Media Attitude. 

How to be a media authority

Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not. I could be one of the leading experts on 19th century Bavarian Monkey Chess up until the moment I say something that totally contradicts what you know about this noble and lost game of strategy.

2. Wikipedia's damaged goods

Here is my response. I also told my correspondent that I knew exactly what he was talking about because I had encountered the same hostility from self-styled skeptical editors. It is unfortunate for Wikipedia.

I am very sorry to hear that, not so much because of hopes the article would be improved, but because it is a direct cause of distress for you. Thank you for the efforts you have made.

You may not want to pursue it, but this sounds like something that the people who are responsible for the integrity and value of Wikipedia should know about.

And my response:

I don't expect to spend much time on it, but given Simonm223 (talk · contribs)'s performance and expressed attitudes here, I am faintly curious what the "recent cleanup of a variety of deeply flawed parapsychology articles" looks like. For the teminally suspicious, one reason I created a new account is that I forgot the password for rdnelson (too long too busy to do any Wikipedia editing) and have not been able to get the system to send a new one, despite its promises. Oh yes, do keep your eye on me. That'll be really edifying. rdnelson (talk · contribs) 5 January 2010

This is not a battle I would expect to win. But, sadly, it is one that Wikipedia is so far losing, and that means it will be damaged as an encyclopedic resource.

3. Carrier's argument was posted
to a psi discussion list with the annotation: "I stumbled on this:
which contains an astounding howler about patterns that supposedly make it easy to get better than average results when guessing when, say, a 6 will be rolled with a die."

A researcher responded:

By my latest count 24 presentiment experiments have been reported, of which 23 were in the predicted direction and about half were statistically significant. Two of those studies involved animals as subjects.

Complaints about lack of publications in "real" journals is a common critique, but it ignores that there are thousands of specialty journals out there, and all those journals are a necessity to provide genuine peer review given the many specialties in science. It also ignores real editorial prejudice, which as we've all seen creates a Catch 22 for anomalies work that is virtually impossible to break.

On the criticism about anticipatory effects, those of us who have conducted these studies have uniformly shown that anticipatory models based on statistical counting (a la gambler's fallacy) do not match the actual data. The presentiment anomaly does not appear as a gradually increasingly physiological arousal. It appears suddenly, just before the emotional or target stimuli.

As for convincing skeptics, I've given up on that long ago. It's a waste of time because it is based on the assumption that skeptics can be convinced rationally based on examination of better data, and that is clearly not the case. I'm far more interested in forging ahead and diving into the phenomena in new ways. I'll continue to archive my work in publications that are accessible in mainstream online bibliographies, and let history sort out who's right.

My current work is looking at brain dynamics in presentiment using a 32 channel EEG. I'm working with a mainstream EEG analyst who is independently examining the raw EEG data in a study just completed with 27 subjects (some of which are meditators and some controls). He is finding highly significant presentiment effects in our data using analytical methods considered state of the art in cognitive neuroscience, results that are much stronger than I had found using my own, home-grown analytical approach. I asked my colleague if he thought this outcome could be published in a neuroscience journal and he thought it could in terms of methodology and results, but whether it would was another matter. Editorial prejudice about psi within the neurosciences is entrenched and not likely to change just because of new experiments.

And from another researcher with high-level credentials in psychology who does psi research as well:

... to add to [this] account, I presented briefly at Bial a data reanalysis of erp data with ptsd and non-ptsd groups where we found cross interaction according to group for a presentiment effect, and most recently at our lab in a study with high and low hypnotizables we (DT is the PI for this) found again the presentiment effect, so make that 26 studies, ... a much larger replication rate than I find typically for many psychology studies.

4. For the last two decades, skeptics have
attempted to make the case that frequentist statistics which produce probabilities against chance for the null hypothesis are inferior to Bayesian statistics. The fact that two well-developed statistical perspectives on the same problem ought to give similar outcomes seems not to be recognized or accepted, at least by the skeptics who apply the Bayesian procedures to "disappear" evidence for anomalies such as those found by Bem. An excellent article on the issues that may underlie the mismatch of the two statistical approaches has been written by Bem and two statisticians, Jessica Utts and Wes Johnson, who is a prominent Bayesian himself. It is worth your time, and contains references to the original papers. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8290411/ResponsetoWagenmakers.pdf