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Scientific Cenobites - Some notes on Skepticism, part 5 of 6

Atheism is Dead now continues with “Some notes on Skepticism” authored by Rochus Boerner as part of the Scientific Cenobites series.

This segment will consider:
Accusations of Selective Reporting (the "File Drawer Effect")
Trying to End the Race when Their Side is Ahead
Theory overrides Evidence
Misapplying Occam's Razor
Dislike of the consequences
Refusal to see the totality of the evidence

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Accusations of Selective Reporting (the "File Drawer Effect")
One of the standard criticisms levered by pseudoskeptics against unconventional research that relies on statistics (primarily parapsychology) is that only successful experiments were reported and the unsuccessful ones were suppressed (by burring [sic] them in the "file drawer"). Unlike the previous criticisms, the file drawer criticism is valid in principle, but I mention it in this list anyway because pseudoskeptics obsess only about the (largely imaginary) file drawers of the parapsychologists while ignoring the large file drawers of suppressed conventional science.

To cite just a few examples of what has been buried in those file drawers: fundamental criticisms of relativity are a priori ineligible for publication in the mainstream scientific journals. That's why most physicists are not aware of experimental evidence that apparently refutes special relativity. Positive results on cold fusion are similarly banned from publication, as are papers that radically question the accepted time line of human evolution. Cremo and Thompson's Forbidden Archeology contains several hundred pages of archeological discoveries that have been left to be forgotten in that particular file drawer. Veteran astronomer Halton Arp, who has been made a persona non grata in astronomy due to his discovery that modern cosmology is catastrophically wrong, describes how most of his own papers ended up in the astronomical "file drawer" instead of the astronomical journals as follows (Arp, Seeing Red, 1998):

"In the beginning there was an unspoken covenant that observations were so important that they should be published and archived with only a minimum of interpretation at the end of the paper. Gradually this practice eroded as authors began making and reporting only observations which agreed with their starting premises. The next step was that these same authors, as referees, tried to force the conclusions to support their own and then finally, rejected the papers when they did not. As a result more and more important observational results are simply not being published at the journals in which one would habitually look for such results. The referees themselves, with the aid of compliant editors, have turned what was originally a helpful system into a chaotic and mostly unprincipled form of censorship."

[This was precisely the point made by Atheism is Dead in the post Atheism and "The Wedgie" Document which mentioned that the biologist Jonathan Wells is blacklisted from peer review journals even when he is writing strictly as a biologist and not as, you know; one of those people, a supporter of intelligent design]

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the file-drawer of medical and other profit-oriented research that has been suppressed due to economic conflicts of interest is at least as thick as the body of published research. The tobacco industry had suppressed evidence that smoking causes cancer for decades, and the chemical industry has likewise suppressed evidence of public-health risks caused by its products. Examples of manipulated drug trials in medicine are legion. On July 25, 2002, The Nation published a special report titled Big Pharma, Bad Science that gives the following devastating assessment of the quality of modern medical research:
"In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement. The editors declared that they were dropping their policy stipulating that authors of review articles of medical studies could not have financial ties to drug companies whose medicines were being analyzed. The reason? The journal could no longer find enough independent experts. Drug company gifts and "consulting fees" are so pervasive that in any given field, you cannot find an expert who has not been paid off in some way by the industry. So the journal settled for a new standard: Their reviewers can have received no more than $10,000 from companies whose work they judge. Isn't that comforting? This announcement by the New England Journal of Medicine is just the tip of the iceberg of a scientific establishment that has been pervasively corrupted by conflicts of interest and bias, throwing doubt on almost all scientific claims made in the biomedical field."

"Unknown to many readers is the fact that the data being discussed was often collected and analyzed by the maker of the drug involved in the test. An independent 1996 study found that 98 percent of scientific papers based on research sponsored by corporations promoted the effectiveness of a company's drug. By comparison, 79 percent of independent studies found that a new drug was effective. This corruption reaches from the doctors prescribing a drug to government review boards to university research centers."

"Increasingly, the industry has converted academic research centers into subsidiaries of the companies. The billions of dollars of academic government funding essentially pays to flush out negative results, while private industry gets to profit from any successful result."

"And the results are expensive and sometimes tragic for the public. Experimental clinical drug trials are hazardous to participants and, more broadly, critical to those with life threatening conditions who need to know which treatments are fruitless to pursue. Yet researchers on industry payrolls end up pressured to suppress negative results. At the most basic level, researchers who defy their corporate sponsors know they may lose their funding."

Writer John Anthony West and geologist Robert M. Schoch have uncovered commanding geological evidence that the Egyptian Sphinx is thousands of years older than conventionally assumed, but their data has been, and is still being ignored by conventional Egyptology. When confronted with this research, Egyptologists have no explanation for it, but they insist that it cannot possibly be correct, because it contradicts their theories.

This site contains many more examples of suppressed and ignored discoveries spanning virtually the entire spectrum of human sciences. By the standards set by the pseudoskeptics themselves, therefore, almost all of science would have to be invalid. Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer writes in "Baloney Detection" (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36)
Watch out for a pattern of fringe thinking that consistently ignores or distorts data.

But "Consistently ignoring and distorting data" is pervasive in physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, psychology, archeology and paleoanthropology. The "file drawer effect", while not uncontrolled per se is therefore in practice an uncontrolled criticism. Due to the broken peer review system and massive conflicts of interest in commercial science, it applies to and invalidates much of accepted science.

Trying to End the Race when Their Side is Ahead:
In any scientific controversy, there will be confirming evidence from some scientists and disconfirming evidence from others. Otherwise, there would not be a controversy. Resolving such controversies takes many iterations of new and better experiments, publication and criticism. In a head-to-head race, the lead will change often. Sometimes, the confirming evidence will gain the upper hand, and then the disconfirming evidence is ahead again. Pseudoskeptics are always trying to end the race prematurely, when they're ahead, and declare victory. As an example, consider Randi's never-ending tirades against homeopathy. If you study his website, you will see that all he ever quotes is disconfirming medical studies, while the ones that confirm homeopathy are conveniently ignored.

Try it yourself. Use Google to search Randi's website for
Madeleine Ennis homeopathy
and see how many hits you get. One. And that one just mentions Ennis' name in the context of discussing a disconfirming study, and calls her a "pharmacist from Belfast." Relying solely on Randi's site, a reader would never know that the woman is a professor of Immunopharmacology at Queen's University, Belfast, and that she and others have produced a ground-breaking replication of Benveniste's seminal work on ultradilutions.

This kind of biased, selective reporting of evidence cannot be excused by ignorance. It is indicative of malice and constitutes intellectual fraud.

Theory overrides Evidence:
The pseudoskeptic holds a firm belief that certain phenomena are a priori impossible, regardless of the evidence. This belief is contrary to the scientific method were theory always yields to the primacy of observation. A theory that is contradicted by evidence must be modified or discarded, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or prestigious it is. If an observation is made that cannot be accounted for by any existing theory, then the observation must be carefully checked and double-checked for errors. If no errors are found, then the observation must enter into the canon of scientific fact, regardless of whether it is explained by theory.

Most pseudoskeptics operate on assumptions about science that are precisely contrary to this principle. Carroll makes a typical argument when he writes about homeopathy:
The known laws of physics and chemistry would have to be completely revamped if a tonic from which every molecule of the "active" ingredient were removed could be shown to nevertheless to be effective.

Indeed they would. This process is known as science, as opposed to the pseudoscientific dogmatizing of the fact-resistant pseudoskeptics.

In his August 6, 2004 What's New column, Robert L. Park delivers the following example of theory-over-evidence reasoning:


If it is, you may want to take cover, or seek professional help. In the August issue of Psychology Today, parapsychologist Dean Radin is quoted as claiming random number generators (RNGs) were uncharacteristically coherent in the hours just before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and again before Madrid. Coincidences like that don’t just happen; "events with worldwide impact focus consciousness and that influences the functioning of machines." Radin heads the Global Consciousness Project, with 75 totally deluded researchers around the world monitoring RNGs to see if they predict terrorist attacks. Are RNGs the only machines that act up? What about elevators and missile launchers? This is scary. No, not the machines, the fact that there are that many researchers that haven’t got a clue about how things are, and people with money willing to fund them.

The argument is simple. Theologist Park just knows "how things are", and no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary can sway him. His argument consists solely of the application of ridicule and the ad-hominem, and is entirely devoid of scientific reasoning.

The pseudoskeptical principle of theory overrides evidence was spelled out explicitely [sic] in an article titled Natural Laws in the September/October 2000 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. It concedes that "some [natural] laws are still 'under construction'-being debated by the scientific community". But then it confidently asserts:
Fortunately, in the macroscopic ('real') world, the subject of this article, physics has revealed to us definite rules by which nature always operates-rules for establishing what is physically possible and for eliminating the impossible. We have confidence in these laws because with all the observations and experiments that have been (and continue to be) performed, no exception to them has yet come to light; that is, they constitute the best explanation of the natural world available to us today.

This argument is breathtaking in its sheer ignorance and circularity. Mountains of anomalous evidence produced by 100 years of parapsychological and other kinds of heterodox research are ignored or rejected by the skeptic because these results "contradict the laws of nature", and because the laws of nature are assumed to be complete, and the completeness of the known laws of nature is in turn justified by the absence of evidence to the contrary! This thinking is so manifestly irrational, it can only be explained as the psychological condition of denial.

Misapplying Occam's Razor:
In science, the simplest explanation tends to be the best. Pseudoskeptics usually insist that this heuristic rule of thumb is an immutable law of nature! In addition, they usually confuse simplicity with familiarity, and explanation with rationalization. For example, given that for over 50 years, observers from all walks of life including university professors, airline pilots, military personnel, policemen, Senators and US presidents have witnessed unidentified flying objects with operational characteristics that far surpass current aircraft designs (such as ability to make right-angle turns at high velocities), that many of these unexplained sightings are backed up by radar observations, photographic, video or physical evidence, and given that UFO pseudoskeptics have to resort to far-fetched logical contortions, highly improbable coincidences and laughable ad-hoc hypotheses to explain away these observations (such as the idea that swamp gas can create the appearance of flying objects in the sky), one must conclude that the hypothesis that some UFOs represent real flying objects is the simplest explanation. The complicated ad-hoc "explanations" (really rationalizations) of the UFO pseudoskeptics cannot compete with the unified explanatory power of that simple hypothesis.

[the misunderstanding and misapplication of Occam's Razor is ubiquitous in atheist talking points and thus prompted Atheism is Dead to post Firmly By The Blade]

Dislike of the consequences:
Sometimes, pseudoskeptics will make the argument that a certain phenomenon cannot be actually occurring because the consequences would be too unsettling. For example, on CNN's Larry King Live, UFO Skeptic Philip Klass once responded to an argument that the alien abduction phenomenon is real by stating that "if these things were true, the social consequences would be intolerable"!

Park's argument quoted above is another example. He finds the research generated by the Global Consciousness Project wholly unpalatable because it scares him. The claim that the correct functioning of sensitive equipment that we entrust our lives to is subject to subtle mental effects is indeed frightening. But that does not refute the claim.

Refusal to see the totality of the evidence:
Any single case of an anomalous phenomenon, no matter how strong, can always be disposed of by claiming that the observer involved is a fraud, or was suffering from hallucination. But when there are hundreds, or thousands of similar cases, this explanation clearly becomes inadequate. There is a low, but nonzero probability that any single UFO sighting is fraudulent, but the combined probability that thousands and thousands of UFO sightings by credible, highly educated observers over five decades are all bogus is next to zero. There is a low, but nonzero probability that a single paranormal researcher might be a fraud, and reporting the results of fictional experiments, but the probability that there is a global conspiracy of scientists who spend whole lives counterfeiting research, which has been going on for over a century, is clearly next to zero.

The pseudoskeptic strictly refuses to appreciate the evidence as a whole. Every time she dismisses a case on the grounds that the evidence is not strong enough (because the probability of chance or fraud is technically nonzero), the pseudoskeptic forgets all about it and approaches the next, similar case as if there was no precedent. Or worse yet, the skeptic dismisses a new case solely on the ground that she has dismissed similar cases in the past! The pseudoskeptical case against cold fusion seems to rest almost entirely on this kind of attitude these days.

Allen Hynek wrote about this pseudoskeptical fallacy:
Probabilities, of course, can never prove a thing. When, however, in the course of UFO investigations one encounters many cases, each having a fairly high probability that "a genuinely new empirical observation" was involved, the probability that a new phenomenon was not observed becomes very small, and it gets smaller still as the number of cases increases. The chances, then, that something really new is involved are very great, and any gambler given such odds would not hesitate for a moment to place a large bet... Any one UFO case, if taken by itself without regard to the accumulated worldwide data [..] can almost always be dismissed by assuming that in that particular case a very unusual set of circumstances occurred, of low probability [...] But when cases of this sort accumulate in noticeable numbers, it no longer is scientifically correct to apply the reasoning one applies to a single isolated case."

F.C.S. Schiller remarked on the same subject:
"A mind unwilling to believe or even undesirous to be instructed, our weightiest evidence must ever fail to impress. It will insist on taking that evidence in bits and rejecting item by item. As all the facts come singly, anyone who dismisses them one by one is destroying the condition under which the conviction of a new truth could ever arise in the mind."


  1. I loved the books involved in this post. I have that large volume "Forbidden Archaeology" (as well as the other books published by the others) sitting on my shelf. It goes a long way to throwing a monkey wrench in the evolutionary time-periods (even thought the authors accept these time-periods).

    Good post.

  2. Marianito,

    You ow me an irony-meter. Especially with the one on "Dislike of the consequences." You love to use that one against atheism.

    A few shades of truth here and there over the 5 parts so far. You, or your source, have chosen to believe that everything not published was legitimate. Tons of "authors" get rejected because of sloppy thinking, or lack of data (take Jonathan Wells for instance). Since people tend to blame others rather than check what they might have done wrong, or what they might be lacking, and there you have it. Books/articles claiming that they are ignored and such.

    Of course, monetary issues have influenced what can be published and what not. Big corporations have ruined some scientific careers. Yet, that does not mean that each and every author who does not get her/hos work published is under the same situation. But the few real problems make good excuses for the mediocre. I bet that, after the mockumentary "Expelled", lots of scientists who did not make it to tenure (it is very competitive, and the rate of success is very low), will turn to some church in order to later on claim persecution for their religious beliefs. Just like other pretend to have such an excellent idea that would shake the foundations of science.

    Just recently we had a visitor claiming that his ideas on evolution were rejected because they shacked the establishment. So, he gave us a few self-published books. It was all so wrong. From his presentation of what the established theories were (all wrong, all authors misquoted, I happened to personally know two of these misquoted authors). He even describes positions nobody holds, and rejection of ideas nobody has rejected, then proceeded with his idea, with no support whatsoever, filled with tautologies and other fallacies.

    However, get a hold on this one. The guy looked quite sincerely convinced. He could not even see his problems.

    I guess many of these mediocre scientists willingly become frauds. Yet, some are not smart enough to note that they are building fantasies around their failures.

    Anyway, yeah, a very few shades of truth, but mostly exacerbated stuff and your choice to believe all those claims, such as those "stats" behind the "paranormal." Seems like you do have a very obvious bias towards believing whatever will discredit science or the scientists. Which makes your notes on skepticism a futile exercise of immersing a little tiny bit of truth into an ocean of bullshit in this little "essay." But you are not alone Mariano. This is a common trick. The few shades of truth make the bullshit appear much more reasonable and creditable. This is the key to successful charlatanry.