In her farewell address to the American Statistical Association last year, outgoing president Jessica Utts, who analysed parapsychological experiments for the US government and concluded that they support the reality of psi, drew attention to the irony that many scientists, in their denial of such evidence, adopt the mind set and methods of pseudoscience. Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction seems designed to illustrate her point. As the subtitle spells out, its aim is to show where science ends and pseudoscience begins. And so it does – but not in the way the authors intend.
At the start of their book, Wynn and Wiggins (W&W), respectively professors of chemistry and physics, both American, list the ‘flaws and problems’ that are the tell-tales signs of pseudoscience. But, in a perfect example of the doublethink Utts describes, they go on to commit many of the very same errors.
As those authors will probably dismiss my criticisms as being those of a ‘believer’, I ought to make my own position clear on matters parapsychological, paranormal and Fortean. Like, I suspect, many readers of this site, I’m one of those who find themselves between what Jeffrey J. Kripal calls the ‘two equally silly extremes’ of ‘denying debunker’ and ‘true believer’. W&W clearly occupy the first extreme (although it’s apparent that, to them, everybody who doesn’t join them there belongs in the ‘true believer’ category, there being no middle ground in their eyes).
This is the second edition of Quantum Leaps, the first having appeared in 2001. According to the preface, it’s chiefly the chapter on alternative medicine that’s been updated, even though there have been significant developments with some of the other subjects covered that should have been included. The book is enlivened with cartoons by Sidney Harris, ‘America’s premier science cartoonist’ according to Isaac Asimov. Lord knows it needs enlivening.
The book is aimed at the lay reader without a grounding in science, to teach them how to distinguish between genuine science and the pseudo variety, on the basis that the latter thrives on its unsuspecting victims’ lack of a proper scientific education, which not only leads them into erroneous thinking but also exposes them to exploitation by charlatans and con-persons.
After outlining the basic approach and methodology of science (the hypothetico-deductive model, Occam’s razor, and all that), W&W devote chapters to what they consider the ‘five biggest ideas of pseudoscience’ – namely UFOs and aliens, out-of-body-experiences and related phenomena, astrology, creationism and ESP/psychokinesis – showing how they don’t measure up to that standard. Along the way they also deal, in a peremptory fashion, with a rather random assortment of other subjects such as Bigfoot, Nessie, Spontaneous Human Combustion and (oddly) Piltdown Man.
Their analysis of these complex subjects is incredibly slight. The whole of the UFO phenomenon, from Kenneth Arnold to abductions and taking in side issues such as the ancient astronaut theory, is dealt with in just 14 pages. The chapter ‘Out-of-Body Experiences and Entities’, which covers everything from OOBEs and Near Death Experiences to ghosts, mediumship, possession, astral projection, the soul and reincarnation (as well as, for some reason, the Cottingley fairies) gets 15. So not exactly in-depth.
Although it comes as no surprise that W&W give prominence to the sceptical position, the lack of the slightest pretence at presenting a balanced picture takes the breath away. For them, all the beliefs and concepts they target are the result of bias, wishful thinking and dishonesty, and everyone who gives them house room therefore either a fool, dupe or charlatan. End of story. There’s little in the way of analysis or the building of a case to refute the claims of proponents of their chosen subjects, W&W rather relying on sweeping statements and dogmatic assertions in a ‘Trust us, we’re scientists’ manner. (‘Makes authoritarian pronouncements’ is one of their tell-tale signs of the pseudoscientist.)
Thus, Uri Geller ‘simply bends the objects when no one is watching’. Evidence? Even the severest of Geller’s critics give him credit for a bit more subtlety than that. Thus again, all psychic readings simply employ ‘social and psychological manipulation’. Supporting studies? W&W don’t, in fact, cite a single scientific or academic publication in support of any of their statements – extraordinarily, there are no references at all!
It’s probably just as well that they don’t provide the reader with the means of fact-checking what they say, as the book is filled with inaccuracies and the most basic of errors – ironic for authors who champion accuracy and precision – which make it apparent they don’t actually know very much about the subjects they’re debunking, or have even looked up the basics as they were writing.
Their summary of the Roswell case, for example, is incredibly muddled and doesn’t square with any of the hypothetical reconstructions, basically because they include (very much alleged) eyewitness accounts that emerged decades after the event as if they were all reported way back in 1947.
W&W’s overview of the alien abduction phenomenon is similarly slapdash. According to them, this ‘emerged in the 1950s’ when ‘hundreds of people began to report that.... alien beings had kidnapped them, taken them aboard their flying saucers, and, in some cases, subjected them to painful medical examinations’ (of course, abduction reports on a mass scale were rather a feature of 1980s ufology). And yet the ‘founding parents of the alien abduction movement’ were Betty and Barney Hill, whose experience took place ‘in 1966’ (actually 1961), while their hypnotically-recovered memories ‘may have incorporated imagery from contemporary movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953).’
W&W have problems with dates in general, for example in their chapter on ESP writing that ‘In the 1960s, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars for psychic research’; the programme in question actually started in 1973. These aren’t isolated slips, but typical of their sloppy research. Still, when you’re dealing with pseudoscience, why bother getting your facts right?
Such a cavalier attitude to the facts hardly gives the reader trust in W&W’s reliability. However, some of their errors are more fundamental to the case they’re attempting to make, calling into question their credibility.
In their chapter on ESP, for example, they make the basic mistake of taking ‘extrasensory’ to mean ‘involving an extra sense’. This leads them to argue that, because a sense necessarily involves a physiological mechanism that links a stimulator in the body to a receptor in the brain, and no such mechanism can be identified for telepathy and the like, then by definition they can’t possibly exist. In fact, the term was coined by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s to mean ‘outside of the senses’, deliberately in order to acknowledge that such abilities don’t seem to depend on any kind of sense in the normally-understood way. W&W build their debunking on an entirely mistaken premise, and thereby mislead the reader unversed in the subject.
Unbelievably, when it comes to laboratory experiments into psi the most recent that W&W discuss are from the early 1980s – making even the first edition of their book nearly 20 years out of date! They trot out the usual debunker’s line that ESP, PK and precognition ‘must remain pseudoscientific concepts until methodological flaws in their studies are eliminated, and repeatable data supporting their existence are obtained.’ And yet, even though this is an updated edition, there’s no mention of research (some of which was published before the original) that does appear to meet those criteria, such as the ‘presponse’ experiments by scientists such as Dick Bierman and Daryl Bem that produced evidence for short-term precognition. Either W&W don’t know about this research, in which case they’ve no business writing this book, or they do and don’t want their readers to know about it because it doesn’t fit their case.
It does, though, tick another of W&W’s warning signs of pseudoscience in action: ‘positive instances are emphasized; negative ones are ignored’. In fact, selective evidence abounds, W&W picking the easiest targets – known hoaxes and flawed studies – and making no mention whatsoever of research that has produced data that’s harder to dismiss. A properly sceptical case should tackle the best evidence, not the worst, and by not doing so W&W again present their readers with an inaccurate, misleading picture.
There’s a similar, quite shameless, selectivity – not to say spin - on the few occasions when they do cite specific studies. For example, while they correctly report that the Hynek Center for UFO Studies found conventional explanations for 92 per cent of the reports it received, they add ‘The balance could not be identified for lack of information’ as if it was the Center’s conclusion rather than their own interpretation.
Similarly, in their chapter on astrology, W&W refer to a study by Michel Gauquelin which found that people are generally bad at evaluating personality assessments based on horoscopes, supporting the view that any perceived accuracy is merely down to misjudgement and wishful thinking. But they make no mention of Gauquelin’s research into the ‘Mars effect’ that – controversially – appeared to bear out some astrological tenets. (Tick: ‘Results that fail to support the hypothesis are discarded’.)
In their zeal, W&W grasp whatever argument comes to hand, seemingly blind to the fact that it sometimes contradicts what they’ve written elsewhere. For example, one of the grounds on which they reject alien abductions is that interstellar travel, requiring as it does faster-than-light travel, is impossible according to the current laws of physics. Yet two pages later they write that it ‘would be a mistake to completely rule out the possibility’ either of ETs visiting Earth or us developing interstellar travel in the future.
With most of their chosen targets, W&W don’t even attempt to take on and deconstruct the arguments of the ‘believers’, dismissing it all from the outset as delusion or fakery, denying that there is anything to study in the first place.
Everything is hung on the hypothetico-deductive (H-D) model, which begins with reliable data on which testable hypotheses can be based. (W&W never use the term, since for them the H-D model is synonymous with science itself, and – as I’ll come to - they don’t want to suggest that there are any other ways of doing science.) However, the limits and philosophical problems of that model - its inapplicability to certain areas of study - are widely recognised within science itself (something you’d never know from reading this book). It’s an important item in the scientific toolkit, but not the only one.
However, W&W apply the model indiscriminately, using it to disqualify the subject under scrutiny before it even makes the starting line. The whole issue of UFOs and abductions, for example, is dismissed as unworthy of study because it’s entirely based on ‘personal anecdotes by untrained observers’. (How could it be otherwise?) Similarly, NDEs are swept away on the logic that since, by definition, they don’t happen under laboratory-controlled conditions all such claims are inadmissible as evidence. (Ditto.)
Where some apparently corroborative evidence does exist it’s summarily dismissed by unsupported assumptions: in those cases in which clinically dead patients seemingly obtained information about what happened around them, ‘It is possible… that the information the patient supplied was obtained by ordinary means, namely through her senses both before and during the procedure.’
It's the kind of logic that makes the job of debunking so much easier, since the debunker doesn’t even have to address the facts (real or alleged) put forward by the other side.
It’s only in the chapter on creationism that W&W put up some hard facts to counter the specific claims of the believers – pointing out the manifest impossibilities in Bible stories such as that of the Flood – rather than dismissing them on technicalities, making it the best-argued in the book. Presumably to avoid appearing anti-religion as such, they limit their target to the beliefs of Biblical literalists (e.g. that God took exactly six 24-hour days to create the world), tolerating what they term ‘gradual creationism’ (‘a tapestry based upon religious faith, but tempered by scientific insights’). I wondered if this chapter was W&W’s real reason for writing the book, because of the political struggle over the teaching of ‘creation science’ in US schools that they inveigh against here, burying it among other ‘pseudosciences’ to make it less obviously their main target.
But W&W don’t only give a distorted view of their chosen pseudosciences, but also present the reader with inaccurate and dubious information about the real thing, too. For example, in their chapter on alternative medicine, in which any apparent successes are, naturally, put down to the placebo effect, they declare authoritatively that such effects are ‘at best small, short-lived, and unreliable’ and that ‘Placebos have NEVER actually “healed” anything’ – which is pure, patent nonsense.
W&W don’t only set themselves up as arbiters of pseudoscience but of science itself, passing off their opinions as if they reflect the unanimous view of the scientific community (and so playing on the very scientific illiteracy they condemn the pseuds for exploiting).
For example, in discussing the weirder aspects of quantum theory, such as the properties of a particle being dependent on how it is observed, they declare that, despite the claims of some, ‘This theory says nothing about the role of human consciousness or mental processes in the physical world.’ Other scientists, of greater stature than W&W, would disagree – the names John A. Wheeler and Sir Roger Penrose spring to mind. True, those views are controversial, but not to acknowledge that they exist at all – within science – is, yet again, giving their readers an inaccurate picture.
Adding to this, but in keeping with W&W’s dumbed-down approach, is a lack of philosophical depth, which is needed when bandying terms like ‘reality’ around. Although they acknowledge in passing that some widely-accepted aspects of real science don’t meet the standards they set out – string theory isn’t open to testing by experiment, for example - they make no attempt to explain why they don’t qualify as pseudoscience. The book misses a discussion of such questions, since they’re bound to occur to many readers.
For W&W, the scientific method - pared down to the H-D model as if that, and that alone, is what science is - offers the only ‘road to reality’, in one of their favourite phrases. Many within academia, including science, disagree, seeing it as only one way of understanding the world. (Given conundrums such as cosmological fine-tuning, and the observer effect in quantum mechanics that W&W refer to, some big names in science even question the assumption that reality can ever be studied entirely objectively - or even that we can be sure it really exists.)
There’s a high-handedness evident from the outset, W&W presenting their way of thinking as the only right way to think, one that the rest of us not only should but must adopt, delivering lofty pronouncements such as ‘it is essential that the general public be sufficiently scientifically literate’, and that believers in pseudoscience ‘invest time that could be more profitably spent expanding their knowledge of reality’. Their big message is that ‘Pseudoscientific beliefs impede progress toward… a reality-based view of the natural world’. No recognition that there limits to science, other ways of understanding reality (if indeed there is such a thing), or that many people just aren’t interested in expanding their knowledge of it.
To drive home how vital it is that we all follow their ‘road to reality’, W&W make wild claims such as ‘the number of people who are able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience is diminishing’ and the ‘increased belief in pseudoscience is a global trend’. Typically, no data is offered for these highly dubious assertions.
All of these criticisms wouldn’t matter so much if this was just a book presenting the ‘anti’ side of the argument, rather than one that purports to teach readers how to discriminate between science real and pseudo. In order to be able to make an informed decision, the reader needs to be properly informed and not, as here, given partial, selective and misleading information.
In the end, this isn’t a book about how to think, but what to think.
W&W end the book with a short discussion of Holocaust denial, as a cautionary tale on how ‘the road to illusion is a slippery and dangerous slope’. Why round off a work on pseudoscience with a digression into pseudohistory? Clearly, it’s to leave the reader with the impression that anybody who has any truck with the beliefs discussed in it are the same as – and as dangerous as - Holocaust deniers. A cheap shot, of which W&W should be ashamed.
To be clear, these criticisms of W&W’s book don’t mean that I ‘believe’ in all the things they debunk, or reject the scientific method. Science is a fabulous tool for understanding the universe we inhabit. Of course there are those who exploit belief in things paranormal (just as there are those who misuse science and medicine), and they need to be challenged. The sceptical position is a valid one, counterbalancing the excesses of the ‘true believers’. It’s just that W&W make such a bad job of it; their case is so flawed that it is, ironically, easy to debunk.
So, to summarise: skimpy research and carelessness with the facts, one-sided presentation of information, misrepresentation of the opposing position, reliance on unsupported statements and dogmatic assertions, selectivity of evidence (especially ignoring contrary data), tendentious arguments… Yep, that’s pseudoscience.
Some of the cartoons are funny, though. -- Clive Prince