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Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Skepticism
by Rochus Boerner
The progress of science depends on a finely tuned balance between
open-mindedness and skepticism. Be too open minded, and you'll accept wrong
claims. Be too skeptical, and you'll reject genuine new discoveries. Proper
skepticism must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Unfortunately, much of what comes out of the "skeptical" community these days
is not proper skepticism, but all-out, fundamentalist disbelief. Such skepticism
can be called pseudo-skepticism, pathological skepticism or bogus
Here are the warning signs of bogus skepticism.
1. The Skeptic has reached her skeptical opinion not after careful research
and examination of the claim, but simply based on media reports and other forms
of second-hand knowledge.
Example: Pathological cold fusion skeptic Robert L. Park revealed in his
March 1st 2002 What's New column that Science was going to publish
an article on Sonofusion, and that even though he had not seen the paper, talked
to the researchers or conducted any personal research in the area, he already
knew that the Sonofusion discovery would turn out to be "a repeat of the cold
fusion fiasco". Park used every bit of influence he had in a behind-the-scenes
attempt to kill the paper. Luckily, the Science editor didn't cave and
decided to publish.
2. Making uncontrolled criticisms. A criticism is uncontrolled if the same
criticism could equally be applied to accepted science.
For example, Park makes such a criticism in his book Voodoo Science (p.199).
In the context of a discussion of an obviously pseudoscientific Good Morning
America report on anomalous phenomena (debunkery by association: as if TV shows
were the principal outlet for reporting the results of psi research!), Park
Why, you may wonder, all this business of random machines? Jahn
has studied random number generators, water fountains in which the subject tries
to urge drops to greater heights, all sorts of machines. But it is not clear
that any of these machines are truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed
that there are no truly random machines. It may be, therefore, that the lack of
randomness only begins to show up after many trials. Besides, if the mind can
influence inanimate objects, why not simply measure the static force the mind
can exert? Modern ultramicrobalances can routinely measure a force of much less
than a billionth of an ounce. Why not just use your psychokinetic powers to
deflect a microbalance? It's sensitive, simple, even quantitative, with no need
for any dubious statistical analysis.
Where does Park's assessment that effects that are only indirectly detected,
by statistical analysis, are suspect, leave conventional science? Deprived of
one of its most powerful tools of analysis. The cherished 1992 COBE discovery of
minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation would have to
be thrown out, since it was entirely statistical in nature, and therefore by
Park's argument, 'dubious'. The most celebrated discoveries of particle physics,
such as the 1995 discovery of the top quark, or the results of neutrino
detection experiments, or the synthesis of superheavy, extremely short-lived
elements, would have to be thrown out, since they, too, are indirect and
statistical in nature. Modern medicine would have to be invalidated as well
because it relies on statistical analysis (of double- blind trials) to prove the
efficacy of drugs.
For comparison: the American Institute of Physics's Bulletin of Physics News,
#216, March 3, 1995 gives the odds against chance for the top quark discovery as
a million to one. A 1987 meta-analysis performed by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson
of RNG (random number generator) experiments between 1959 and 1987 , on the
other hand, shows the existence of an anomalous deviation from chance with odds
against chance exceeding one trillion to one (see Radin, The Conscious Universe,
Park's argument is the quintessential uncontrolled criticism: accepted
scientific methods that constitute the backbone of modern science suddenly
become questionable when they are used on phenomena that don't fit his
3. The Pseudoskeptical Catch-22: "unconventional claims have to be proved
before they can be investigated!" This way, of course, they will never be
investigated or proved.
Parapsychology has been significantly hampered by this pseudoskeptical
attitude. Pseudoskeptics complain that effect sizes are not bigger; but at the
same time, they scream bloody murder if any grant-making agency even so much
considers doing something about it. Radin writes in The Conscious
The tactics of the extreme skeptics have been more than merely annoying. The professional skeptic's aggressive public labeling of
parapsychology as a "pseudoscience", implying fraud or incompetence on the part
of the researchers, has been instrumental in preventing this research from
taking place at all.
A similar situation exists in the new energy field. Pseudoskeptics like Robert L. Park are not content just dismissing things like cold fusion; they put
massive pressure on policy makers and government to obstruct efforts to prove
them wrong. Park's successful lobbying of the US patent office to withdraw
Randall Mill's Black Light patent (which had already been approved!) comes to
mind as an example.
4. Evidence of refutal is anecdotal or otherwise scientifically worthless.
Pseudoskeptics tend to accept conventional "explanations" for unconventional
phenomena very easily, no matter how weak, contrived or far-fetched. A good
historical example is the rejection of the crop circle phenomenon.
Doug Bower and David Chorley claimed in 1991 that they had created all of the
British crop circles since 1978 (all 2000 of them). This was an extraordinary
claim of the highest order. Two old men claimed that for over a decade, they
have been creating geometrical designs in crops whose complexity defies easy
geometrical construction, but they were never able to demonstrate that they can
do what they claim they could do. Any true skeptic would have rejected Bower's
and Chorley's claim, since "extraordinary claims require extraordinary
evidence". Yet, the organized skeptics endorsed the claims enthusiastically and
denounced the whole crop circle phenomenon a proven hoax.
5. The Skeptic rejects a discovery or invention merely because it has been
believed for a long time that such a thing as the claimed discovery or invention
This is the sole basis for the pseudoskeptical claim that, for example, a
perpetuum mobile of the second kind is impossible. Park, for example, writes the
following ignorant tirade in his 9/24/1999 What's New Column:
Perpetuum Mobile: Betting against the laws of Thermodynamics
Most free energy scams invoke outlandish new physics: cold
fusion, hydrinos, zero-point energy, gravity shields, antimatter. But there are
also throwbacks to the 19th Century that directly challenge the laws of
thermodynamics. Physics Today carried a full-page ad for Entropy Systems, Inc.
describing a heat engine that runs off ambient heat. It's hardly a new idea. Two
years ago Better World Technologies was touting the "Fisher engine" that
violated the Second Law (WN 18 Jul 97). But it wasn't new then either -- it was
the "zero motor," invented by John Gamgee in 1880. It didn't work then either,
but Gamgee sold it to the U.S. Navy anyway.
Park's sole argument appears to be that We Have Always Believed The Second
Law Is Correct, So It Has To Be.
Physicists who actually investigate this
question without preconceived notions of what is possible or impossible have
reached very different conclusions. D.P. Sheehan, A.R. Putnam and J.H. Wrighty
of the University of San Diego write in a recent paper titled A Solid-State
Over the last ten years, an unprecedented number of challenges
have been leveled against the absolute status of the second law of
thermodynamics. During this period, roughly 40 papers have appeared in the
general literature [e.g., 1- 20], representing more than a dozen distinct
challenges; the publication rate is increasing. Recently, for the first time, a
major scientic press has commissioned a monograph on the the subject and a first
international conference has been convened to examine these challenges. (..) The
genealogy of the Maxwell demon thus split into those that relied on sentient
processes (e.g., intelligent active measurement, calculation, or microscopic
manipulation), and those that did not. The former line has largely died out
owing to advances in information theory , but the latter survived and now
poses the most serious threat to the absolute status of the second law.
Future historians of science may well put the second "law" in the same
category as "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible". An expression of
contemporary scientific prejudice and lack of technological sophistication, not
an eternal law of nature.
6. The Skeptic claims that the claimed effect contradicts the "laws of
nature" (and therefore has to be wrong, since the Skeptic and the scientific
community he presumes to represent have of course already complete knowledge of
the laws of nature).
For example, in a personal note published on James Randi's website, Robert
Park makes the following statement about the "Motionless Electromagnetic
Generator", a claimed free energy device:
I've been following the MEG claim since Patent 6,362,718 was
issued in the spring (What's New 4 Apr 02). The claim, of course, is
preposterous. It is a clear violation of the conservation of energy.
But Park is only demolishing a straw man. The first law of thermodynamics
states that the energy of a closed system is conserved. But the inventors of the
MEG claim that their device takes energy from the zero-point field of the
vacuum, thereby conserving the energy of the total system (which in this case
would be the MEG and the surrounding vacuum). Whether it can actually do that is
an open question. But the existence of the Casimir force proves that in
principle such extraction of energy from the vacuum is possible (even though the
energy gained from the Casimir force between two plates is negligible).
Therefore, one cannot dismiss claims for free energy devices such as the MEG on
a priori grounds of energy conservation. Since Park is a physicist, he could
not possibly be unaware of this. By stating that the claimed invention
contradicts the law of energy conservation, he intentionally misrepresents the
claims of the MEG inventors. They do not claim to have found a way around the
first law; they merely claim to have accessed a source of energy not previously
accessible to human technology.
7. The Skeptic believes in scientific mob rule. "In Science, the Majority
Consensus is Always Right".
The unfortunate reality is that there is a complex sociology of science.
Scientific truth is frequently not determined by right or wrong, but by ego,
prestige, authority of claimants, conflicts of interests and economic agendas.
Scientists who propose research that threatens the viability of basic theories
on which authorities in the field have built their careers, and governments and
corporations have bet lots of money will find themselves out of a job very soon.
The list of of great scientists who became scientific outcasts after they
published research that contradicts establishment dogma is long, and includes
such names as Peter Duesberg, Brian Josephson, Jacques Benveniste, and of course
Professors Pons and Fleischmann
Rochus Boerner © 2003
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