Monday, 19 January 2009

Weird Science Review

Almost exactly one year after the inauguration of the Committee for Inquiry (CFI) - London branch, they organised a one day lecture meeting on Weird Science. They had four speakers the morning comprised of the psychologists and TV skeptics Richard Wiseman and Chris French and the afternoon we had Bad Science Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre and the Provost of CFI London, philosopher Stephen Law.

Richard Wiseman and Chris French are a great two man team to represent skeptical issues in the public domain. Wiseman has the advantage of being a former professional magician and so both knows how to work the audience and demonstrate his arguments using slights of hand and mind right in front of us. Still French has a few tricks up his sleeve - even if some were not planned - once he accidentally managed, as a well known skeptic, to be spoofed (or not, you decide) - by pseudo-psychic (yes, there is such a thing! Granted a distinction to all self-proclaimed "psychics") Shirley Ghostman, in what is rated is the 59th Funniest Moment in British TV history! Still there are very few people who could follow on from Wiseman's highly amusing presentation and French is certainly one of those few.

Wiseman (see Investigating the impossible: A skeptical approach (Updated) ) focused more on testing psychics - both well known and obscure - and showed how they repeatedly failed any methodical tests yet still insisted on believing in their abilities, using ad hoc explanation as to why they had failed. French (see Eight Years of Weird Science at Goldsmiths (Revised)), on the other hand, focused more on granted that these claimants to do not have the abilities they think they, to show why they think they do. His backwards Stairway to Heaven is a classic demonstration of how we can be primed to hear what is not there. Wiseman still thinks it is worth pursuing testing the abilities of the general public and that the results of the AutoGanzfeld are still somewhat unclear.

The audience turnout was probably about 300 people and Stephen Law reckoned that "my lot" - the skeptics (in the pub) - were about about a third of this. There were no real believers in the audience and a surprisingly few number of London talk circuit cranks (apart from the usual communist nutjobs). So this was very much preaching to the...ahem...converted (unconverted? deconverted? - must find a better expression). Still one thing that is repeatedly demonstrated in Skeptics in the Pub and was on show here is that, contrary to caricatures by believers, how amusing and how much fun it is to be a skeptic and to be lectured - maybe not quite the right term they were both far more engaging than usual lecturers - by the two most prominent psychologists of skepticism (okay, that is the USA spelling I know) in the UK.

Fitting in quite nicely with this was the last talk of the day by medical doctor, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science, Ben Goldacre (see Listen up flakes). He has been highly active in leading the challenge against the poor quality of science news reporting and presented some - yet again highly amusing - examples of his work. He was challenged by a member of the audience as to why his column being called "Bad Science" as he did not cover issues other than (mostly) medical "journalism". (The scare quotes are appropriate since Goldacre argued, correctly IMHO, that this is really mostly reporting of PR releases - without any real investigation of the claims made). He had previously quoted how science reporting had changed over the last 50 years - in the past being about future technologies but now mostly about health. Now although there are many other issues that concern or should concern us like global warming (he emphasized that he is not a global warming denier) which could be covered under the term "Bad Science", I think that most peoples' direct interaction with such bad science is through health issues, and this is the best way to help people wakeup in general to better understand science. So, in my view there is no need to change either the title of the column nor the subjects under investigation, "Bad Science" is the perfect label to reach to the widest audience, help them recognise snake oil salesmen masquerading as scientists and to better understand what science is really about.

Stephen Law's talk (see Is creationism scientific? (Revised)) was very different, apart from the fact that he is a philosopher, not a scientist, he focused on a quite different topic - at first glance - from the other three - this being Young Earth Creationism (YEC). This did balance out the talks from being too... ahem.. conventionally skeptical - well this was called Weird Science after all. Now what is interesting here is that, I am guessing, the majority of the audience has probably given scarcely a thought to such an issue as YEC compared to the topics presented by the other three speakers. After all this is a USA issue, is it not? Well, scarily no, Law has discovered reports that show that 12% of UK students believe in YEC not just as fact, but as scientifically proven fact! (I will explore this data in a future post). Law's basic criticism of YEC and Flood Geology was that it relies on the pseudo-scientific argument of the the "Fit" theory of confirmation, but this means that any theory can be made to fit the data. Real science makes surprising, clear and precise predictions that have shown to be true, such as the tens of thousands of tests of evolutionary biology across a range of disciplines, whereas YEC has made exactly zero.

A slight weakness here, inadequately brought up by a member of the audience, is over falsifiability (another topic I need to post on), I would modify Law's argument as real science makes makes surprising, clear and precise falsifiable predictions that have not yet been falsified (although that also is too simple, but remember who we are addressing the YECs of this world). Still I would say this is a minor quibble given the underlying thrust of Law's talk. This was the most interesting talk since only Law brought to our collective attention a new threat, that we would be naive to ignore.

It was pleasing to see that the audience were relatively young and that women were just as interested in these topics as men. With all due respect to the SPES, who hosted the talks in their splendid Conway Hall, they claim to be the oldest ethical society on the planet and this I think is confirmed by the number of original members who are still present :-) ;-) The CFI, whilst long established in the USA and in other countries, has been late coming here and is a new initiative here that is definitely appealing to a new demographic and this can only be of benefit in fighting the growing forces of unreason to which the UK is certainly not immune.