Today I thought I might share a short excerpt from my two-chapter “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” on the topic of scientific skepticism’s long-standing focus on testable claims (particularly those related to the paranormal or fringe science). It’s an issue that is in the air at the moment following a fantastic speech delivered by magician Jamy Ian Swiss at the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference last weekend. You can view the entirety of Jamy’s speech on YouTube. (For more on the conference, see Donald Prothero’s post here at Skepticblog.)”Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” was almost two years in the making. As the Skeptics Society has shared it for free, the historical research alone may be worth your price of admission. I do hope you’ll consider delving further into the story of scientific skepticism’s long and proud public service tradition—the work of decades, even centuries, of activism and investigation. But this particular “testable claims” point is so critical to the understanding of skepticism, and so frequently not understood, that I feel that sharing this section from the piece here may be useful. With yet another ghastly news story again raising the question of predatory paranormal fraud, this may be a good time to say once again that the need for this work—the need for clarity, focus, and sustained, dedicated effort—is as urgent as it has ever been. I hope you will support skeptics in doing that work, even if your own primary cause is not the same.
“Testable Claims” is Not a “Religious Exemption”
Skeptics like Steven Novella insist that sticking to the realm of science is “about clarity of philosophy, logic, and definition”1 rather than strategic advantage or intellectual cowardice,2 but some critics find this position unsatisfying—or even suspicious. What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clichés of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.
Nonetheless, it is grade-A horseshit. It’s become a kind of urban legend among a subset of the atheist community—a misleading myth in which a matter of principle is falsely presented as a disingenuous ploy. There is (and this cannot be emphasized enough) no “religious exemption” in skepticism. Skeptics do and always have busted religious claims.
That’s so important and so often misunderstood that I’m going to repeat it: collectively, scientific skepticism has never avoided claims because they are religious in nature—not for political expediency, not to “coddle” anyone, and not for any other reason. As magician Jamy Ian Swiss (founder of the New York Skeptics) explained in a thundering main stage speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amazing Meeting 2012 conference, the notion that skeptics grant religion “any sort of special pass…is not only a weak position, I don’t think it’s a real position. It’s an imaginary one. It’s one I only seem to hear or see as a straw man that atheist activists accuse skeptics of promoting.”3
Let me amplify that still further: anyone who makes the argument that the testable claims scope is a deliberate ploy to “avoid offending the religious” is either unfamiliar with the literature of scientific skepticism, or chooses to misrepresent it.
Now, here’s what actually is true: scientific skeptics investigate claims that can be investigated (religious or otherwise) and we set aside claims that cannot be investigated (again, religious or otherwise). The “religious” part is irrelevant. It comes up on both sides of the testability equation, so just cross it out and forget about it. The only relevant distinction is simply whether empirical evidence is possible. If we can’t collect evidence, then tough—we can’t. If we can collect evidence, then we do, regardless of whom that evidence may offend.
“If someone says she believes in God based on faith,” clarified Michael Shermer, “then we do not have much to say about it. If someone says he believes in God and he can prove it through rational arguments or empirical evidence, then, like Harry Truman, we say ‘show me.’”4
The textbook example of the testable claims scope applied to religion by scientific skeptics is James Randi’s exceedingly public humiliation of Peter Popoff, a popular Christian minister. Popoff’s multi-million-dollar ministry was built on his reputation as a faith healer who received (it appeared) miraculous knowledge about the medical health and personal details of the faithful in the audience.
Where an atheist activist might have railed against the a priori implausibility of these performances, Randi and his allies (from the Houston Society to Oppose Pseudoscience,5 the Society of American Magicians, and the Bay Area Skeptics6) instead took scientific skepticism’s much more concrete path: they broke Popoff’s schtick down to its testable components, and then literally tested them.
This point is worth highlighting. A lot of the work of “scientific skepticism,” such as my own historical sleuthing, is “scientific” only in the broadest sense: it is critical, evidence-based, and works within an empirical framework. But Randi’s 1986 Popoff investigation involved direct hypothesis testing (and, hell, even machines that go beep). Setting aside untestable metaphysical speculations, Randi’s team hypothesized that Popoff’s information was harvested directly from the audience. They tested this by seeding the audience with skeptical activists. Randi explained that before his dedicated group of volunteers distributed themselves throughout the audience,
I instructed them to allow themselves to be approached, and to give out incorrect names and other data whether they were “pumped” by questioners, asked to fill out healing cards, or both. They were told to supply slightly different sets of information to the two data inputs, so that if any of them were “called out” we could tell from the incorrect information just which method had been used.7
Sure enough, Popoff called out Randi’s people by their false names, and fed back their planted, bogus information. Armed with this result, Randi and his colleague Steve Shaw (a skeptic and professional magician who performs under the name Banachek) further hypothesized that this information was passed to Popoff electronically.
When Steve and I saw Popoff dashing up and down the aisles calling out as many as 20 names, illnesses, and other data, one after the other, we knew something more than a mnemonic system was at work. I said to Steve, “You know what to do?” He replied: “Yep. I’ll go look in his ears.” And he did, almost bowling the evangelist over as he bumped up against him to get a good look. Steve saw the electronic device in Popoff’s left ear. When he reported this to me, I knew what my next step would be.9
The following week, Randi, the Bay Area Skeptics, and an electronics specialist named Alexander Jason were ready for Popoff’s performance in San Francisco. The night before Popoff’s event, Jason scanned the radio frequencies active at the same auditorium. With those frequencies saved and filtered out, Jason and Bay Area Skeptics founder Robert Steiner were easily able to dial in to the Popoff operation’s radio frequency.10 Tape rolling, the team recorded Popoff’s wife secretly feeding him harvested information about members of the audience, which he fed back to the audience as an apparent miracle. Popoff was caught red-handed.
Randi revealed this incontrovertible evidence on network television, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, airing videotape from the Popoff event with the secret radio transmission overlaid for the television audience to hear. Ouch. The scandal broke the back of this popular Christian ministry: Popoff declared bankruptcy in 1987. (After a period of humiliated obscurity, Popoff built a new ministry—now even more profitable. Randi reflected in a 2007 Inside Edition interview that this was not surprising: “Flim flam is his profession. That’s what he does best: he’s very good at it, and naturally he’s going to go back to it.”11)
Scientific skeptics accept scientific limits. These limits are not conjured up to annoy people, nor adopted for strategic convenience; they’re simply baked into the nature of science. “If it is not measurable even in principle,” Michael Shermer explained, “then it is not knowable by science.”12
Contrary to common misconception, this empirical standard is not something skeptics apply only to claims that are considered sacred in modern traditions. The exact same scientific/non-scientific distinction applies to all claims, regardless of their content. Steven Novella explained yet again in 2010, “It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts…. Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science.” Novella went on: “The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter —it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever—they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science.”13 Science is not able to demonstrate that undetectable metaphysical ghosts do not exist; only that detectable ghosts appear not to, and that many alleged hauntings have other explanations. We cannot determine whether or not homeopathic preparations are really “dynamized” with undetectable vitalistic energy; we can discover whether they have greater treatment effects than a similarly administered placebo. We can’t demonstrate that we ought to value liberty above the common good, or value security over liberty. We can’t demonstrate that taxation is slavery, or that the means of production should be in the hands of the worker. We can’t demonstrate that there is no afterlife, or that gay marriage is morally good, or that Kirk is better than Picard. We cannot demonstrate that Carl Sagan’s neighbor has no invisible, undetectable dragon in his garage—but only proceed, as a methodological matter, on the basis that we are unable to discern any difference between an undetectable dragon and no dragon at all. Are untestable dragons ontologically identical to non-existent dragons? That’s a question for bong hits in freshmen dorms. Science can’t tell, and doesn’t care.
Individual skeptics may have opinions about all those philosophical matters, but none of these are questions science can answer. As Novella and Bloomberg explained [in a well-known 1999 Skeptical Inquirer article], “science can have only an agnostic view toward untestable hypotheses. A rationalist may argue that maintaining an arbitrary opinion about an untestable hypothesis is irrational—and he may be right. But this is a philosophical argument, not a scientific one.”14
Irrational or not, like everyone else, I hold many strong and (I feel) well-reasoned philosophical opinions. Those are not scientific conclusions—they are opinions grounded in my personal values. I’ll fight for them, but it would be dishonest for me to promote them while waving a “science-based” banner. Skeptics have a word for people who imply scientific authority for their non-scientific beliefs: “pseudoscientists.”
- Novella, Steven. “Skepticism and Religion—Again.” Neurologica. April 6, 2010. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/skepticism-and-religion-again/ (Accessed Aug 15, 2010)
- The accusation that the testable claims criterion is secretly intended to “coddle” religion is very common across the atheist blogosphere. For a specific response to Novella’s thoughts (cited above), see the (as of this writing) 230 comments following his post. For example, one commenter argued that the whole demarcation question arrises because “Skeptics are afraid to be seen criticising religion because religion is pervasive in the US,” to which Novella responded, “my position is NOT due to fear of pissing off the religious. It is a philosophical position that I have defended extensively. If you listen to the SGU and read this blog, it should be clear that I have no fears of pissing off huge segments of the population.” http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/skepticism-and-religion-again/#comment-19298 (Accessed August 18, 2011)
- Swiss, Jamy Ian. “Overlapping Magisteria.” Speech delivered at The Amazing Meeting 2012. As posted on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIiznLE5Xno (Accessed August 31, 2012)
- Shermer, Michael. How We Believe. (New York: W.H. Freeman/Owl, 2003.) p. xiv
- Randi, James. The Faith Healers. (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1987.) p. 146
- Steiner, Robert. “Exposing the Faith-Healers.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 11, No. 1. (Fall 1986.) pp. 28–29
- Randi. (1987.) p. 146
- Shaw was also one of the “Alpha Kids” who, under Randi’s direction, misled parapsychologists into the belief that Shaw and colleague Michael Edwards had genuine psychic powers. See Randi, James. “The Project Alpha Experiment: Part 1. The First Two Years.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. VII, No. 4. Summer 1983. pp. 24–33 and Randi, James. “The Project Alpha Experiment: Part 2: Beyond the Laboratory.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. VIII, No. 1. Fall 1983. pp. 36–45
- Randi. (1987.) p. 147
- Randi. (1987.) pp. 147–148; Steiner. (1986.) p. 29
- Inside Edition. Feb 2007. As posted on Google Videos. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3999472423311387509 (Accessed September 10, 2011) [Link no longer current, but the video is easily found on YouTube.]
- Shermer, Michael. “God, ET, and the Supernatural.” Skepticblog. November 6, 2012. http://www.skepticblog.org/2012/11/06/why-there-cannot-be-a-deity/ (Accessed November 6, 2012)
- Novella. (2010)
- Novella, Steven and David Bloomberg. “Scientific Skepticism, CSICOP, and the Local Groups.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 23, No. 4. July/Aug 1999. pp. 44–46