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You Have Been Poked By God

by Daniel Loxton, Jun 07 2011

cover of I.AsimovSkeptical pioneer Isaac Asimov (a founder of CSICOP, now called CSI) produced such a staggering library of books (over 500!) that his multiple autobiographies were merely punctuation. I have three Asimov autobiographies in the Junior Skeptic library. Sometimes, just for fun, I pull one down at random, flip it open, and read the first two pages my eye happens to fall upon. Each time I do this, I inevitably

  1. read something funny;
  2. learn something interesting;
  3. and feel a blog post spring ready-made to mind.

This certainly happened when I read Asimov's tale of his personal experience of psychic premonition or divine intervention — in the form of a literal poke on the shoulder.1

As told in I.Asimov,the story unfolds one afternoon in 1990. Asimov was lying asleep in a private hospital room (where he was being treated for serious heart problems). His wife Janet had returned home to take care of chores, leaving Asimov alone in his locked room.

Then something strange occurred. Asimov recalled, “I was sleeping, and a finger jabbed at me. I woke, of course, and looked blearily about to see who had awakened me and for what purpose.”

He inspected the bright, sunlit room. It was empty. The door was locked and chained. The bathroom was empty. There was no one in the closet. It was a genuine, spine-tingling, locked room mystery, much like the ones he often wrote. His mind leapt of its own accord to a solution:

Rationalist though I am, there was no way in which I could refrain from thinking that some supernatural influence had interfered to tell me that something had happened to Janet (naturally, my ultimate fear). I hesitated for a moment, trying to fight it off, and for anyone but Janet I would have. So I phoned her at home.

Thankfully, his wife answered right away. She was fine.

Relieved, I hung up the phone and settled down to consider the problem of who or what had poked me. Was it simply a sensory dream, a hallucination? Perhaps, but it had seemed absolutely real.

Eventually he worked out what had happened: wrapped in his own arms, Asimov had managed to jab himself in the shoulder. Mystery solved.

But suppose, he reflected, that things had gone a little differently.

Now suppose that at the precise moment I had poked myself, Janet, through some utterly meaningless coincidence, had tripped and skinned her knee. And suppose I had called and she had groaned and said, “I just hurt myself.”

Would I have been able to resist the thought of supernatural interference? I hope so. However, I can't be sure. It's the world we live in. It would corrupt the strongest, and I don't imagine I'm the strongest.

Persuasiveness of Personal Experience

It's easy to see how Asimov's viscerally compelling experience of the supernatural could have persuaded him, and Asimov was honest enough to admit it. After all, it happened during a life-threatening illness, close to the end of his life, at a time when he was obsessed with death. (On a related but lighter note, Asimov had a dream around this time in which he arrived, bewildered, in Heaven. After grilling the angel who greeted him about whether there was some mistake in granting admission to an old atheist, Asimov “pondered for a moment, and then turned to the recording angel and asked, 'Is there a typewriter here that I can use?'”2)

Events like Asimov's premonition are a perfect storm for supernatural belief: humans are easily confused, and leap easily to supernatural explanations; experiences of this sort feel immensely powerful; and, the implications of supernatural beliefs can make them deeply, deeply seductive. That's a lot to resist.

As Asimov asked in the Skeptical Inquirer in 1986,

Do you enjoy the thought of dying, or of having someone you love die? Can you blame anyone for convincing himself that there is such a thing as life-everlasting and that he will see all those he loves in a state of perpetual bliss?

Do you feel comfortable with the daily uncertainties of life; with never knowing what the next moment will bring? Can you blame anyone for convincing himself he can forewarn and forearm himself against these uncertainties by seeing the future clearly through the configuration of planetary positions, or the fall of cards, or the pattern of tea-leaves, or the events in dreams?3

Isaac Asimov was a skeptic, a rationalist, and a trained scientist (not to mention “the master science educator of our time, and perhaps of all time,” as he was hailed by Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier4). All the same, a trivial misunderstanding brought him teetering to the edge of supernatural belief — so close that he acted on it. Just in case.

Nor is Asimov's story unusual, even among skeptics. For example, James Randi (another CSICOP founder) once woke to find himself floating at his ceiling, staring down at his body where it lay sleeping on his bed. This experience left Randi not only shaken, but convinced. It was, he said, “a very strong experience for me. I really believed, from the evidence presented to me, that I had an out-of-body experience that matches the description that we've all heard about so many times.” However, he was then shown clear evidence that his astral flight could not have literally occurred, but must instead have been a dream or hallucination.5 Without the fortunate happenstance that the physical facts did not match his perceived experience, “I would now have to say to you that, to the best of my knowledge, I had an out-of-body experience.” But what of those who have such an episode without benefit of Randi's investigative background — or his lucky break? “If they don’t have some convincing evidence to the contrary,” Randi reflected, “what’s to stop them from saying, 'I’m absolutely certain I’ve had an out-of-body experience?' … Please consider that carefully, and don't forget it, because it’s a good example of how even the arch-skeptic could possibly have been taken in.”

Much of my own work emphasizes this same point: it's understandable that so many good, smart people come to believe weird things. In fact, it's more than understandable; it's very often reasonable. For many people in many situations, the paranormal is the best explanation they have for the facts before them.

And when those facts include direct, personal experience with the seemingly inexplicable…. Well, Asimov's words apply to me as well:

“It would corrupt the strongest, and I don't imagine I'm the strongest.”

Not by a long shot.


  1. Asimov, Isaac. I. Asimov. (Bantam: New York, 1994.) p. 14
  2. ibid. p. 337 – 338
  3. Asimov, Isaac. “The Perennial Fringe.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 10. Spring, 1986. p. 212
  4. Frazier, Kendrick. “A Celebration of Isaac Asimov: A Man for the Universe.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 17. Fall 1992. p. 30
  5. During the OBE, Randi interacted with his cat Alice as she lay on his chartreuse bedspread. He was subsequently shown that the cat had been locked outside, and the chartreuse bedspread was in the wash — not on his bed. Randi, James. “A Report from the Paranormal Trenches.” Skeptic magazine. Vol. 1, No. 1. 1992. p. 25. Transcribed from a speech given at Caltech on April 12, 1992.

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58 Responses to “You Have Been Poked By God”

  1. I love Isaac. I find myself doing the same thing – grabbing one of his bios and just opening it up and reading for a few pages. Wonderful.

  2. Jim Lippard says:

    Another fairly dramatic example was atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience in 1988, which he said weakened his conviction that death ends human existence, but he remained an atheist (see, e.g., His story, however, can be found all over the Internet on Christian websites as an argument that even atheists have had near-death experiences that demonstrate the existence of God.

  3. Ticktock says:

    Whether the spirit is literally being lifted out of the body or it’s an artifact of the brain, the experience is still out-of-body in the same way that UFOs may not be aliens but are still “Unidentified flying objects”. I had a similar “out-of-body” experience in college when I woke up from a nap, and I must say that it certainly felt real enough to make me wonder at the time whether I had experienced something supernatural. Even knowing the natural explanation doesn’t change the wonder and fear that I felt after the experience.

    • My inability to “resist the thought of supernatural interference” ended when the neurologists prescribed Carbamazepine. Those of us with temporal lobe seizure disorders float around out of our bodies a great deal of the time. It took many years for me to understand that God wasn’t “poking” me. It’s brain electricity. And I find that much more fun and fascinating than supernatural interference ever could be.

  4. Somite says:

    Boiled down lesson: you can not trust your own senses or thoughts. Always get your beliefs peer reviewed.

  5. oldebabe says:

    Lots of things seem to happen to many people especially in the twilight time between sleep and waking… Interesting, but old news.

    • Somite says:

      This is interesting and well characterized by psychologists. It’s called lucid dreaming. It involves feeling of being awake, sleep paralysis and hallucinations and is very common. I have a friend that frequently sees an old woman and a girl walking around his room.

      • Max says:

        I had that. I realize I’m dreaming, then “wake up” but really I’m still dreaming. Makes me wonder how to tell if I’m really awake.

      • JeramieH says:

        You need a totem. An object only you know.

        Sorry, couldn’t resist…

      • chimpsez says:

        Sorry,neither could i.

  6. Robert says:

    This is a great blog. I just started reading Foundation by Asminov. I’m finding it hard to put the book down.

  7. John Greg says:

    Daniel Loxton, I just wanted to say how glad I am that you are now a poster here. Your writing is always interesting, informative, entertaining, and really well balanced.

    That being said, Yay for Isaac!

  8. Earl of Edmonds says:

    argh….i replied in the wrong post…sorry.

    great post….i tried to share with some folk over at a msg board i troll and had this as a response.

    “not gonna find a chain on any hospital room door….nor will one ever be locked with a heart patient inside.”

    i thought fair enough and hope there could be an answer i might be able to provide.

    here is the thread i shared your post in….hope i did not violate any blogger code.

    • Well, let me share what Asimov describes. He specifies on p. 14 of I.Asimov (reference 1 above) that this event happened in January 1990, adding “never mind why—we’ll discuss it at the proper time.” In telling the story, he specifies “My room, however, had a lock, and the lock was firmly closed and there was a chain across the door too.” This was a fairly fresh memory, as he completed the book, according to Janet Asimov’s postscript, in May 1990 (p. 559). (He also kept a diary, though I don’t know if he recorded this event on the day it occurred.)

      I took the “serious heart problems” from a later chapter from the same book (“Hospital”). Asimov describes a period of general sickness and weariness, which climaxed with a January 11, 1990 doctor’s visit at which Asimov’s doctor “called University Hospital and got me a private room in the Co-op Care section of the hospital, and by dinnertime that was where I was.” (p. 548.) This should be in New York City.

      He was treated for edema and then an infection, before finally being diagnosed (sometime between January 16 and his release on January 26): an existing heart murmur “which was probably due to a congenital weakness of the mitral valve in the heart, had gotten worse in 1989. The valve had given way and sprung a leak. … This cut down the efficiency of the circulation to the lungs, so that I easily got out of breath. What’s more, the heart could not work at sufficient efficiency to help my imperfect kidney’s expel fluids from my body. There was, furthermore, a possibility that the mitral valve was infected and that that was what accounted for its failure.” (p. 548 – 551)

      The line “serious heart problems” is my own inexpert summary, and for much of his stay his condition was not diagnosed. The question of the locks is probably verifiable, if someone would like to pursue it?

  9. For many people in many situations, the paranormal is the best explanation they have for the facts before them.

    I fundamentally disagree.

    If you want to make a list of ‘what constitutes a good explanation’ and on that list is ‘the answer comes to mind fast, ends all thinking, and is culturally embedded such that no further thinking happens’, then I agree that it’s the “best explanation they have”.

    But there are more answers available to everyone who takes but a few more moments to think. Better answers, such that they A) equally capture all the facts and B) don’t raise additional metaphysical questions (that ultimately resolve into contradictions).

    Aasimov (and Randi) both had the option of “it was a hallucination”. In what possible way is “I’m being poked by a supernatural entity” better than “I hallucinated”?

    If the ‘hallucination’ answer raised anxiety about one’s mental health, and the ‘supernatural’ explanation avoids that issue, then that merely makes the ‘supernatural’ more comforting, not better. It’s actually worse, as a hallucination may (especially in a hospital setting) be medically relevant, and ignoring that could impede one’s recovery.

    You’re really going to have to provide some sort of context/background for this “better” comment, because frankly… it’s just empty rhetoric without some sort of justification, and I’m surprised to find it here, and from you.

    • The key distinction here is between “the best explanation” and the “best explanation they have.” Everything that makes you or I feel that “hallucination” is a better explanation than, say, “god” is learned information. For example, you and I may believe that hallucinations and perceptual errors are very common, and also believe that miracles are uncommon. Not everyone shares that frame of reference.

      People work with the information they have. It doesn’t matter that someone else understood genetics during Darwin’s lifetime; he had to struggle along without that key information. Worse, we do not even know what we do not know. The average experiencer of (for example) sleep paralysis has never been taught that sleep paralysis is a thing. They have to seek explanations among the information they have, which very often includes the “facts” that “aliens exist” and “ghosts are real.” Worse yet, even the habits of looking stuff up are learned skills.

      I’ve argued that skeptics are not different in this respect from anyone else.

      Consider two people, Ada and Bee. Both consider themselves critical thinkers. Both walk into a pharmacy looking for headache medication. Ada buys Tylenol, because it has been recommended by people she trusts, because she knows from experience that it works for her, and because she thinks most of alternative medicine is hogwash. By contrast, Bee buys a homeopathic remedy — because it has been recommended by people she trusts, because she knows from experience that it works for her, and because she thinks most of mainstream medicine is hogwash.

      In this case, neither the “skeptical” Ada nor the “credulous” Bee has any medical training. Neither has direct knowledge of the primary medical literature about acetaminophen, nor of the primary skeptical literature on homeopathy. I submit that neither Ada nor Bee should be much applauded or scorned for their beliefs. They’re both just regular folks making regular decisions based on the best information they have.

      In my experience, the top reasons people believe weird things are not only understandable, but identical to the reasons most skeptics believe things: they are persuaded by personal experiences (or by the experiences of a loved one); or, they are persuaded by the sources they have consulted.

      • Max says:

        Arriving at the right conclusion for the wrong reason doesn’t demonstrate scientific skepticism or critical thinking.
        Does Ada think alternative medicine is hogwash because it doesn’t follow the scientific method, or because a homeopath ran over her cat?

      • The key distinction here is between “the best explanation” and the “best explanation they have.”

        I fully understand that, and you are failing to fully examine your own argument.

        What are your criteria for their reasoning being the ‘best that they have’? They want to go with god? Fine: on what grounds did they eliminate Bigfoot? The Tuatha de Danann? Zeus? The Tooth Fairy?

        You want to argue that they simply have the belief that “god is responsible for everything good in my life”? Fine: how is that *reasonable*? If their set of possible explanations consists of one, then I agree that that explanation is (by definition) the “best one available”, but I do not agree that it’s reasonable for them to default to merely having one explanatory mechanism for all possible ‘good’ outcomes.

        ample, you and I may believe that hallucinations and perceptual errors are very common, and also believe that miracles are uncommon. Not everyone shares that frame of reference.

        Please refer back to my post, and you will see that I did not appeal to the frequency of the occurrence of events at all.

        Assume for a moment that we are dealing with someone who has a set of two (2) explanatory mechanisms: i) a supernatural event occurred and ii) I imagined it.

        Even if they believe that i) occurs 10,000,000 times to every single occurrence of ii) they still need to provide a justification for choose i) over ii) in this particular instance. Just handwaving and declaring it to be “reasonable” doesn’t make it so.

        You are confusing several fundamental areas in Epistemology: A) given the limits of my knowledge, what conclusions is it possible for me to draw and B) given the limits of my knowledge, what conclusions is it reasonable for me to draw.

        These two things are not the same. Furthermore, you are ignoring/dismissing all higher order beliefs (with your comment “Worse yet, even the habits of looking stuff up are learned skills”). Many folk (especially in the area of woo) have compartmentalized their research habits: they will spend hours and days researching and memorizing the various houses of astrology, but have zero time for actual astronomy. Or they will spend hours and days learning the football statistics for their favourite teams, but have zero time for actual science.

        Regarding your Ada and Bee illustration: I fully accept the terms of your analogy. Neither of them have made a “reasonable” decision. I agree that both of them have made a decision based on the information that they have on-hand. If your definition of “reasonable decision” means “assuming that information handed to you from friendly sources is correct”, then we fundamentally disagree on the meaning of “reasonable decision”.

        Is this the same kind of decision that self-described skeptics make all the time? I don’t doubt for a moment that it is.

        Tell me: since is an Appeal to Popularity (your readership) an appropriate basis for an argument?

      • *sigh*

        Should be “since when…”

      • Jim Lippard says:

        “Fine: on what grounds did they eliminate Bigfoot? The Tuatha de Danann? Zeus? The Tooth Fairy?”

        The same way we eliminate skeptical possibilities like being in a simulation or being fooled by an omnipotent evil demon–lack of relevance in the socio-cultural context.

        There’s a difference between internal justification (having undefeated supporting reasons in one’s own head), external justification (having objectively undefeated supporting reasons), and knowledge (which adds the condition of being correct). Daniel’s point is that the first of these is possible for paranormal beliefs.

      • Brian Lynchehaun: Most people who have a direct “paranormal” experience have never heard of epistemology, but they are smart. Whether they’ve experienced an accurate psychic reading, seen ghost at the end of the bed, or watched a flying saucer, it’s typical for people to identify one or more alternate explanations — and then often to reject them, at least provisionally, on the basis that they seem not to fit the facts. The thought process Asimov followed is pretty much textbook: “Was it simply a sensory dream, a hallucination? Perhaps, but it had seemed absolutely real.”

        Other common reasoning includes:

        • “That’s too much of a coincidence to believe.”
        • “But I know bears when I see them.”
        • “He knew things he couldn’t possibly have known.”
        • “But I wasn’t drunk or on drugs.”

        …and so on. People typically identify a list of hypotheses, and measure them against the facts they have on hand and the information they’ve been taught. Being people, our perception of our own experience, our science literacy, and our training in critical thinking skills are very often inadequate — but that doesn’t make our reasoning somehow not reasoning.

        Without key domain-specific information (“non-pathological desynchrony of sleep cycles can create the perceptual reality of a ghost choking you without requiring ghosts to exist”) the most reasonable, even most parsimonious explanation for a direct experience is often, “I saw what I saw.”

        Is that good enough? Of course not. The skeptic’s task is to discover and teach the information and skills that people are missing.

      • Is that good enough? Of course not.

        Then I have zero understanding of what you mean by “reasonable”. You appear to be using a non-standard meaning.

      • Then I have zero understanding of what you mean by “reasonable”. You appear to be using a non-standard meaning.

        I don’t believe I am. I mean that assent to a paranormal belief is often a rational conclusion that sensibly follows from the information possessed by the believer. A conclusion can be both reasonable and incorrect. In my opinion, this is common in the areas dealt with by skeptics. Our task is to give people the information they need to reach correct conclusions more often.

        I’m afraid I don’t follow your criticism. Could lay out in more detail what you mean by the word “reasonable”?

      • “I mean that assent to a paranormal belief is often a rational conclusion that sensibly follows from the information possessed by the believer.”

        Then what you are arguing for is a non-standard definition of ‘reasonable’. Essentially, you are arguing that their conclusion is logically valid, and then asserting that that is ‘reasonable’. Meanwhile, the typical usage of the word is that if something is ‘reasonable’, then it is an appropriate conclusion to draw. That it is the type of conclusion that well-meaning, thinking people (i.e. Reasonable people) would draw, given the same information.

        And I fundamentally disagree with your assertion (but I agree that their reasoning is logically valid). Here’s why:

        Zero conclusions follow from data. Conclusions only follow from data + hypothesis. You are currently arguing that if people have data, and an existing hypothesis, then if their conclusion encapsulates both the data and their existing hypothesis, then it is a ‘reasonable’ conclusion.

        This assertion (itself) is logically invalid. You are failing to examine their existing hypothesis to see if it, itself, is reasonable. I would argue that ‘reasonableness’ is essentially an transitive property, that if the base hypothesis is unreasonable, then all further conclusions are (necessarily) unreasonable. Whether they fit the data + hypothesis is an entirely different question.

        Enough abstraction, an example:

        Bob believes that when he is sad, punching his wife in the face is the correct solution.
        Today, Bob is sad.
        Bob has drawn the conclusion that he should punch his wife in the face.

        Now, on my interpretation of your argument (and please feel free to point out what I’ve misunderstood), you would assent to the idea that Bob has reached a “reasonable” conclusion. I’d argue that his conclusion logically follows, but that his argument is unsound, and thus unreasonable.

        You would, perhaps, prefer a less provocative example that more closely fits paranormal beliefs? Sure.

        Yumiko believes that all bad things in her life are caused by a mobile mass of toothpaste that follows here where-ever she goes.
        Today, Yumiko can’t find her keys.
        Yumiko subsequently believes that the mobile mass of toothpaste has hidden her keys from her.

        Would you consider this reasonable? Again, it logically follows from her (completely ridiculous) prior belief + the data (missing keys). Like the other people in your example, Yumiko rejects such notions as “I have misplaced my keys” as simply being less likely than the toothpaste monster hiding her keys. Or she hasn’t heard of ‘forgetfulness’, if you perfer.

        What would I consider a definition for reasonable? That on the balance of probability, to the best current knowledge available (not necessarily immediately available), the premises of the person’s reasoning are ‘good’ or as close to good as we can get.

        Dualism was shown to be nonsense 300 years ago. Any reasoning based on dualism is unreasonable.

        Your argument, as outlined in the way that you have so far, classifies a large body of ‘unreasonable’ conclusion-generation as ‘reasonable’.

        To further clarify: is there any set of beliefs, combined with data, that would yield a logically valid conclusion, that you would consider unreasonable?

    • Leo says:

      As someone who has experienced an OOBE event, I can assure you logic and reasoning fall by the wayside in the midst of your perceptions. Yes, afterwards you can start analyzing what happened but while it’s happening you are in position to doubt and even when all is said and done, and you have dismissed what you went through as just side effects of the brain and body shutting down, you’ll still find yourself thinking at times that it might have been real. Paranormal experiences can be very powerful, and no one is immune to them.

      • I did not (and do not) claim that people don’t do these things.

        I object (and have objected, repeatedly, it’s even in bold type in order to make my position more obvious) to the claim that this is a reasonable thing to do.

      • Reasonable has a lot of meanings. Many people use it to mean “fair” or “understandable.” It can also mean something like “moderate” as opposed to an “extreme” or unreasonable reaction.

      • Mimsys Wallows says:

        Having read all this, I’m with Brian at the moment. He presents a coherent argument that you fail to refute. Philosophically speaking… your move.

  10. Somite says:

    But this is when you add the question of “mechanism”. Science can be descriptive but the best science results in understanding the mechanism behind the observation. Once mechanisms are proposed experiments can be carried out to prove or disprove the mechanism.

    The problem with all pseudoscience is that there is no known possible mechanism that can result in the “observed” claims. In the above example there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy could work. However, the mechanism of action of acetaminophen is well understood.

    As a skeptic, it must be understood there has never been evidence for anything beyond the natural and material world. The first explanation for any observed phenomena must be natural even if it is not immediately apparent.

    • Max says:

      The biggest scientific discoveries were made before a known mechanism: Darwinian evolution before DNA, prevention of scurvy before vitamins, smallpox vaccine before viruses, continental drift before plate tectonics, etc.

      • Somite says:

        Discovering phenomena is important but the higher credit goes to those that can elucidate a mechanism. In your example Darwin is given a lot more credit over Wallace for describing evolution through the mechanism of natural selection. Darwin not only described but modeled and experimented.

        Your other examples were only really accepted or developed as a whole discipline once the mechanism was understood. In the case of vaccination there was initially a simple model of immunity that was later understood with more detail. Maybe Dr. Prothero can comment on how mechanistic was the initial proposal of continental drift.

        Models and mechanisms are an integral part of science, as important as observation or discovery.

      • Max says:

        You can develop high-level predictive models without reducing to a low-level mechanism: natural selection without knowing about DNA, periodic table without knowing about electron shells, Five Factor Model of personality without knowing how the brain works.
        Homeopathy and acupuncture have models too, they’re just not validated by controlled experiments.

      • Somite says:

        But that’s the point. Homeopathy and acupuncture have models that are not supported by known biology or physics. More importantly, there is no evidence for the existence of the phenomena itself.

  11. LD Reynolds says:

    Pardon my “layman-ness”, but I need this thought either shot down or confirmed. My thought is since these so-called experiences happened in that mystical period between deep sleep and consciousness, could the brain simply be misinterpreting the “event” as reality when indeed it was still coming out of that realm of dreams? Sort of a hold-over from that period of unconsciousness where dreams are evoked?

    (I understand this may be a redundant post as oldebabe, somite and max have already touched on this very subject in their replies. I just wanted to ask the question from an un-schooled, scientist wannabe prospective.)

  12. Jerry Tourte says:

    It is completely impossible to have an experience that is outside of your own perception. In whatever state of awareness you are in at the time, most people’s perception will likely tend to confirm the experience as real. For anyone who is not trained or even familiar with skeptical thinking, the explanation will include whatever seems the most likely to them. I doubt that many people would consider the possibility that they are hallucinating. If everyone was rational, there would be no churches.

  13. WScott says:

    Somite wrote:

    But that’s the point. Homeopathy and acupuncture have models that are not supported by known biology or physics. More importantly, there is no evidence for the existence of the phenomena itself.

    Agreed on both points, but the last sentence is the key one. If there was good evidence that homeopathy (or whatever) actually worked,* then the fact that we don’t understand how or why would be a call for more research, not a reason to ignore the evidence.
    The problem with the “there’s no mechanism” approach is that too many skeptics stop there and assume they’ve won the argument. When actually your non-skeptical friend is thinking: “Scientists are so arrogant – they refuse to believe anything unless it fits into their preconceived notions of how the world works…”
    Lack of a plausible mechanism can be seen as putting the burden of proof on whoever is advancing the claim. But once they have submitted what they feel constitutes “evidence”, the conversation should focus on the merits of that evidence.

    * PS: there’s not.

    • Somite says:

      “unless it fits into their preconceived notions of how the world works”

      But this is the problem with religionists and other believers in the pseudoscience. You are not allowed to make up your own “notion of how the world works”. Science is the study of how the world works. If you are not using science, or proposing mechanisms or observations that are scientific, you are doing it wrong.

      This should be the main message of skepticism.

      • WScott says:

        I agree. I’m not saying the view is correct. I’m saying it is very commonly held, and is reinforced by focusing on “no mechanism” rather than “no evidence.”

      • Max says:

        Compare the discovery of the smallpox vaccine with homeopathy.
        Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who caught cowpox didn’t catch smallpox, so he ran with this idea, and it worked extremely well. Preventing disease with disease, it almost sounds like homeopathy.
        Samuel Hahnemann observed that the effects he experienced from ingesting cinchona bark for malaria were similar to the symptoms of malaria, so he ran with that idea, but it didn’t really work. The reasoning is similar. The mechanism wasn’t known in either case. The difference was the validation step.

      • WScott says:

        Exactly. Becquerel accidentally stumbling over radiation is another example; Semmelweis inventing antiseptic procedures is another. (Semmelweis is also a cautionary tale about what happened when the scientific community rejected clear evidence because it didn’t fit the prevaling model.)

      • gdave says:

        Semmelweiss has got to be the type case here. He couldn’t really offer much of an explanation for why doing an autopsy right before delivering a child had such an impact on the rates of death in childbirth (magical corpse-stuff?), or why the physician thoroughly washing his hands with chlorinated lime before the delivery was so effective (corpse-stuff doesn’t like chlorinated lime?).

        All he could point to was the data: wards where mid-wives delivered the children had one-third the maternal mortality rate of wards where physicians delivered children (often shortly after performing autopsies). And when the physicians followed his chlorinated lime regimen, maternal mortality from puerperal fever dropped from 5-30% to 1-2%!

        If homeopaths, or anti-vaxxers, or EM alarmists could point to data like that, even without a plausible mechanism, we’d have to take their claims seriously.

    • James Sweet says:

      Prior plausibility counts, it’s just not the end of the story. See also, Bayes theorem.

      Let’s say I had never heard of homeopathy, it was just some new idea you thought of. And let’s say you showed me two studies, one which showed a slight but statistically significant benefit to a new chemotherapy drug, and another that showed a slight but statistically significant benefit for extreme dilutions, i.e. water. The chemo study would pique my interest, but the homeopathy study would make me shrug and say, “What else ya got?”

  14. Kenneth Polit says:

    A very dear friend of mine, who’s also an atheist, told me that one time when her daughter was very ill, she found herself thinking,”Don’t take her away from me.” She asked me what that was supposed to mean. She said she felt embarrassed that she had sort of prayed at that moment. I told her it meant she was a human being and loves her little girl. When I see lights in my rear view mirror I’ve been known to think,”Please pass me by.”. This is by no means a prayer, It’s just me wishing to myself.
    Her daughter recovered, by the way. Thanks in advance for wondering.

  15. BRETT MCCOY says:

    I just happen to be in the middle of re-reading “I. Asimov” for about the 9 millionth time (I have read the volume autobiography even more times, I think). Even Asimov occasionally fell into a bout of irrationality, like we all do, but always manages to pull himself out rather than succumbing to it.

  16. Shaun says:

    I can’t be the only one who was reading this, expecting a Facebook joke to crop up. Am I?

    • tmac57 says:

      What’s this ‘Facebook’ you speak of?

      • James Sweet says:

        You know that Afacebookists are the least trusted group in America, right? More Americans would elect a homosexual or even an atheist before they would elect someone who wasn’t on Facebook…

  17. drumdaddy says:

    It’s clear to me that Asimov was poked by the walking stick of St. Lucy. Can’t you see?

  18. Atropa says:

    Golden Rule. Keep Occam’s Rasor handy at all times.

  19. James Sweet says:

    So, not anything to do with the supernatural, but I’ve got a story I think is relevant anyway:

    A couple years ago one of my cats died suddenly and unexpectedly. It’s still somewhat mysterious, one morning she was healthy, that evening her kidneys just shut down completely and she was gone — I can only assume she ate something poisonous.

    Anyway, the week before we had ordered some Frontline for the first time (flea prevention treatment) and I was supposed to use it on the cats, but I procrastinated and it sat on a shelf for a couple of days. A few days after the one cat died, I finally remembered to give it to the remaining kitty.

    Imagine if I’d actually remembered to give her the Frontline when it first arrived in the mail! I would be absolutely convinced that either she’d had a reaction to it, or I’d done something wrong, or whatever… I would believe I had killed my cat. And yet it wouldn’t have been true.

    Post hoc’s a bitch…

  20. Malakai says:

    Damn. Reality is perception, and we suck at it.

  21. not so smart after all, are we.

  22. Been There, Done That says:

    I’ve responded to the ‘James Randi’ skepticism model so many times through the years, it’s getting old…and I’ve read almost everything that IA ever wrote…I say ‘almost’ because I’m sure I missed something, I just don’t know what it is. I see IA as fundamentally different from Randi in this respect: Randi is not a skeptic, he’s a Cynic. True skeptics aren’t cynical in their beliefs…they will accept a truth or evidence when such is presented…they just don’t believe or take anything at face value…a necessary trait for any scientist..or in Randi’s case, a ‘magician.’ One who spends his life and work intentionally deceiving, by definition, isn’t going to be easily convinced by simple spoken or written words. I understand that. But Randi goes far beyond this simple definition of skeptic…he actively seeks out and attempts to ‘debunk’ ANYONE who purports to be Psychic, or to have witnessed or had a psychic experience…AND, he appears in most cases to make up his mind well before, and without any true scientific inquiry into their statement. You simply CAN’T be a cynic and at the same time claim to be on the side of science. The two don’t mix. IA was a skeptic and a self-proclaimed atheist, but many times I read an article by him in which he had previously come to rational and ‘scientific’ conclusions based on his knowledge, experience, and training…only to have SCIENCE prove him wrong. He would then read and study the new science, and write a new article based on that, and report that he had been wrong and why. I’m not saying Randi has NEVER done this, I truly don’t know…I don’t follow him because I think he’s silly and wrong in his cynical style, but I challenge anyone to find where Randi has done this. If you have an example, send it to the email attached.

    For myself, there have been far too many psychic things happen in my life to not believe that there is SOMETHING real about psychic phenomenon. Briefly, I’ll explain: James Randi is most famous for his apparent hatred of the psychic Uri Geller. And, I can understand why, because Uri has produced effects that are both unexplainable to science, and non-repeatable by any trained magician, including Mr. Randi. When Uri was a young man, he was on a late-night talk show, and produced several instances of psychic phenomenon that amazed the host and the audience. At one point, he asked for a pad and pencil, and quickly drew a simple sketch. I can’t say whether or not the host or the other guests could see, but I can say that I could not, because I was watching from home. He then said that he would attempt to ‘send’ the image to everyone, including the tv audience. When he concentrated, I had a ‘flash’ of light in my head that was clearly the head of an elephant, with the big ear and trunk. I was so astonished that I jumped up and said to no one (the room was empty except for myself) “WOW, I saw it! It’s an elephant!” And sure enough,when Uri finally put the pad where the camera could focus on it…he had draw an elephants head. Then Uri made a bunch of old watches start to run…and bent a key with his mind. All kewl, but he image he sent that I received in my head was very real and I wasn’t the only one who ‘received’ it…the show was inundated with letters from others who ‘got’ it too. A week or two later, Randi came to ‘debunk’ Uri, and was a complete failure…he couldn’t reproduce a single ‘trick’ as he called them, that Uri had done, and the host was so unimpressed that he was obviously laughing at Randi. So it’s no wonder he hates the man.

    Also, my wife of 15 years passed away in 2000, and we had an eleven year old daughter at the time. When we realized that she was not going to make it, we had many conversations of course, and in one of those, she promised me that if it were possible, she would let me know that she was ‘still around.’ Although I never had more than dreams, others in the family, and even friends, came and told me that she had appeared to them under various circumstances. This happened so frequently for the first few months after her death, that it is impossible for me to write it off as imagination or anything else except reality. Of course, there is no SCIENTIFIC basis for what happened, so there is no PROOF. But science is bearing down on how the Universe works, and if you keep up with such things, it is only a matter of time until there will be ‘proof.’ The healthy skepticism that now separates the scientist from the Psychic is on the way to being dissolved.

    One last thing that happened to me personally: I was driving to work one morning and I was famous, back then, for not wearing my seat belt. I hated them. I had been ticketed more than once for refusing to wear them. This was in Texas in the 80’s. That morning,as I was leaving the feeder and ramping up to the freeway, ‘something’ washed over me. I can’t describe it except to say that a feeling of ‘watch out!’ came over me so strong that I almost pulled over…I slowed down and thought…’what the heck was THAT?’
    As I rolled on, the only thing I could think of to do was slow down…and put on my seat belt. I remember thinking…’must be a cop up here somewhere…’ Not ten minutes later, I came to rest in a work zone, and an 18 wheeler doing 70 mph in a 45 mph zone (according to the cops later) hit the car behind me and there was an 8 car pile up. To make an already long story short, I went to the hospital with minor injuries, but my car was thrown into the air, and if I had not had my seal belt on…well…you get the idea.
    So, what or who gave me the heads up?? Was that a psychic phenomenon or simply imagination? If imagination, how do you explain the fact that it had never happened before, and why at the exact time and place to possibly save my life?? I don’t know, but I’m not a cynic…I think it’s possible that ‘something’ communicated danger to me, by whatever means. It wasn’t my wife, because this happened before her death…all I can say for sure is that SOMETHING real happened, and at just the right time. I didn’t write all this to try to convince anyone of anything…I just think that people like Randi need a counter-weight…until science has had time to ‘prove’ that there is ‘ more in Heaven and Earth’ than we can possibly, as mere humans, understand.

    • James Randi says:

      I wish persons like this anonymous comment poster would trouble to find out what my actual stance on such matters really is, but that would spoil a long rant, I suppose… No, I haven’t the time to go into the errors I found here, except to say that my feelings about Uri Geller are anything but “hatred,” they’re pity and despair that he opted to live a lie rather than being honest. All he got for that was money, but maybe he doesn’t need or want anything else…

      James Randi.

  23. Frances Philip says:

    I am at this excellent blog for the first time and appreciate the level of thoughtful conversation here (including the silly stuff). I was raised to be an objectivist, to expect to find natural explanations for supposedly unnatural phenomena, to be respectful to religious people who were well-meaning but misguided individuals, and so forth. Despite this and some undergraduate sciences I became religious and after some decades as a Christian I still confront the intellectual tug-of-war. Here’s my two-cents worth on the above discussion. Religion is not simply self-delusion, wishful thinking, or the fear of death deferred. It is widespread and persistent in human cultures, even in modern times, even among thoughtful, literate, informed and rational people. Perhaps evolutionarily it has worked for us,like altruism, and perhaps there is a human need for thanksgiving and worship, because we are made of more than dust.
    (Here endeth the lesson!)