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What Skeptics Can Learn From Forteans


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A talk on what skeptics can learn from Forteans, and vice versa. Given at HalvaSunSolvPalooza, Las Vegas, December 13, 2003.

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What Skeptics Can Learn From Forteans

  1. 1. What Skeptics can Learn from Forteans Jim Lippard HalvasonSolvPalooza December 13, 2003
  2. 2. What Skeptics can Learn from Forteans <ul><li>What’s a skeptic? </li></ul><ul><li>What’s a fortean? </li></ul><ul><li>What’s the difference? </li></ul><ul><li>What can skeptics learn from forteans? </li></ul><ul><li>Q&A </li></ul>
  3. 3. What’s a skeptic? <ul><li>Historical skepticism: Pyrrho, Zeno, Sextus Empiricus </li></ul><ul><li>Modern skepticism: Hume (problem of induction) </li></ul><ul><li>Contemporary skepticism: Gardner, Kurtz, Randi, CSICOP, Skeptics Society (scientific methodology and critical thinking) </li></ul><ul><li>Zeteticism: Truzzi (agnosticism: nonbelief vs. disbelief; also a “methodist”) </li></ul>
  4. 4. What’s a fortean? <ul><li>Charles Fort (1874-1932): author of The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.” </li></ul><ul><li>Tiffany Thayer (1902-1959), Fortean Society (1931-1959). Fort refused to join for fear of association with “spiritualists and crackpots.” </li></ul><ul><li>Fortean Times (1973-) </li></ul><ul><li>William Corliss, Sourcebook Project </li></ul>
  5. 5. What’s the difference? <ul><li>Skeptics tend to defend established science; forteans tend to attack it. (Current skeptics are the opposite of those of history; the forteans more closely resemble Pyrrho and Zeno.) </li></ul><ul><li>Skeptics tend to compare theories and look for the best explanation; forteans tend to collect anomalous data and reject theories. </li></ul><ul><li>Skeptics are concerned about Type I errors; forteans are concerned about Type II errors. </li></ul>
  6. 6. Type I vs. Type II Errors <ul><li>Alternative hypothesis (e.g., John Doe committed the crime). </li></ul><ul><li>Null hypothesis (e.g., John Doe is innocent) </li></ul><ul><li>Standard of judgment (e.g., “beyond reasonable doubt”; Alpha level: .05) </li></ul><ul><li>Type I error: Incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis/accepting the alternative hypothesis. </li></ul><ul><li>Type II error: Incorrectly accepting the null hypothesis/rejecting the alternative hypothesis. </li></ul><ul><li>William Blackstone, 1760s: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” (Aside: Alexander Volokh, “n Guilty Men,” </li></ul>
  7. 7. What can skeptics learn from forteans? <ul><li>Don’t believe everything you read. </li></ul><ul><li>It’s more fun, and better learned, when you figure it out for yourself. </li></ul><ul><li>Institutions tend to promote dogma and hypocrisy. </li></ul><ul><li>A diversity of approaches and viewpoints is more interesting than just one. </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t get all your information from one source. </li></ul><ul><li>There are always counterexamples. </li></ul><ul><li>There’s always at least one more place to look. </li></ul><ul><li>A sense of humor is a good thing to have. </li></ul>
  8. 8. Don’t believe everything you read. <ul><li>Taught two ways by Fortean Times: </li></ul><ul><li>Through examples of fraud and error. </li></ul><ul><li>Through the magazine’s content itself. </li></ul><ul><li>Fortean Times is a magazine whose content encourages critical reading—a habit which is then good to apply to everything else. </li></ul>
  9. 9. It’s more fun, and better learned, when you figure it out for yourself. <ul><li>It’s fun to solve, or try to solve puzzles and mysteries. (Major factor in my founding the Phoenix Skeptics in 1986.) </li></ul><ul><li>There are methods of practical puzzle-solving that are learned through doing. </li></ul><ul><li>Forteans tend to present the mysteries without the solutions, or with multiple competing solutions. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Institutions tend to promote dogma and hypocrisy. <ul><li>Irving Janis, Groupthink. Social and psychological factors re “fitting in.” </li></ul><ul><li>Contemporary skepticism is based on scientific methodology being applied to the “borderlands of science,” but what happens when science yields the “wrong” answer? </li></ul><ul><li>“ Mars Effect,” “Some Failures of Organized Skepticism.” </li></ul>
  11. 11. A diversity of approaches and viewpoints is more interesting than just one. <ul><li>Especially in unsettled territory: Current Anthropology, Behavioral and Brain Sciences: “Open Peer Commentary” </li></ul><ul><li>Zetetic Scholar (now defunct), Fortean Times. Occasionally in Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic. </li></ul><ul><li>Often present in local skeptical groups. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Don’t get all your information from one source. <ul><li>Forteans are good about pulling data from anywhere they can find it (and citing sources). </li></ul><ul><li>Skeptics tend to rely on the same skeptical sources (Skeptical Inquirer, Prometheus Books). </li></ul>
  13. 13. There are always counterexamples. <ul><li>History of science is full of examples leading to theory revision. </li></ul><ul><li>Fortean Times is full of counterexamples to current theories. </li></ul><ul><li>Counterexamples may be accomodated by theory revision, may lead to theory rejection, or the counterexamples themselves may be rejected or explained (or explained away). </li></ul>
  14. 14. There’s always at least one more place to look. <ul><li>Induction requires making tentative conclusions on the basis of available evidence, because we don’t have time to look everywhere. </li></ul><ul><li>But we shouldn’t pretend that we have. </li></ul>
  15. 15. A sense of humor is a good thing to have. <ul><li>If you immerse yourself in absurdities and engage in dialogue with people of radically different viewpoints, a sense of humor can defuse potentially explosive situations. </li></ul><ul><li>Having a sense of humor about yourself makes it easier to accept corrections when you are wrong. </li></ul><ul><li>Saucer Smear ( </li></ul>
  16. 16. What can forteans learn from skeptics? <ul><li>Collections of facts don’t speak for themselves: theories are useful things to have. </li></ul><ul><li>Critical review is important. </li></ul><ul><li>Theories are best tested by multiple independent researchers. </li></ul><ul><li>The best theories are those that have survived such testing. </li></ul>
  17. 17. Collections of facts don’t speak for themselves: theories are useful things to have. <ul><li>We use theories to decide where to look for data, for deciding what data are relevant, for deciding how to measure the data, and for organizing the data. </li></ul><ul><li>In order to even get along in the world, you have to have at least implicit theories (though they need not be consciously examined) about the relationship of perceptions to things (or you end up like Pyrrho). </li></ul>
  18. 18. Critical review is important. <ul><li>Very intelligent people, working in isolation, construct theories that are best characterized as “crackpot.” </li></ul><ul><li>No one can be an expert in everything, but the broader the theory, the more things it touches. </li></ul>
  19. 19. Theories are best tested by multiple independent researchers. <ul><li>If a theory is only reviewed by advocates of a particular school or worldview, not all aspects or consequences of the theory may be tested. </li></ul><ul><li>Open source software used on the Internet gets reviewed by multiple eyes, and tested by hostile third parties (hackers). OpenBSD has a better security record than Microsoft Windows. </li></ul>
  20. 20. The best theories are those that have survived such testing. <ul><li>Not that mere survival is evidence of truth—there are other reasons collections of beliefs can survive—but a theory that withstands tests even from people of independent backgrounds, over a long period of time, is more likely to be accurate than one that has not had such testing. </li></ul>
  21. 21. Disorganized Skepticism <ul><li>A diversity of independent skeptical researchers and groups, with different focuses and interests. </li></ul><ul><li>Groups which maintain communication with each other, engage in self-criticism (of other skeptical groups, as well as themselves) and provide each other with incentives to remain honest. </li></ul><ul><li>Groups which maintain dialogue and debate with groups with divergent viewpoints. </li></ul>
  22. 22. Myths of Skepticism <ul><li>Paper by Michael Sofka (Rensselaer Polytechnic; Inquiring Skeptics of Upper NY) </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul><ul><li>Theories cannot be proved, they can only be disproved. </li></ul><ul><li>Science is a self-correcting system. </li></ul><ul><li>The data speaks for itself. </li></ul><ul><li>Extraordinary hypotheses require extraordinary evidence. </li></ul><ul><li>There is one universal scientific method. </li></ul><ul><li>Science is our best method of acquiring knowledge. </li></ul><ul><li>Scientists are more intelligent than average, and better than average problem solvers. </li></ul><ul><li>People may not be perfect with reasoning, but training in the use of formal methods of reasoning, and particularly knowledge of science, improves that reasoning. </li></ul><ul><li>Skepticism makes one less prone to errors of reasoning or illogic. </li></ul><ul><li>Believers in the paranormal are thinking in primitive, childish, misguided, and uninformed ways. </li></ul>
  23. 23. Myths of Skepticism <ul><li>11. Believers in the paranormal don’t want to give up their comfortable belief system. They are afraid to think independently and need the security blanket that all such belief systems provide. </li></ul><ul><li>12. Failure to accept the findings of science, or a general tendency to believe in paranormal or fringe claims is a sign of intellectual weakness, mental illness, or sloppy thinking. </li></ul><ul><li>13. Just show me the data and I’ll believe it. </li></ul><ul><li>14. A skeptic should also be an atheist, or at least agnostic, since belief in a deity is incompatible with the truly skeptical mind. </li></ul><ul><li>15. Being a good skeptic means being a debunker. </li></ul><ul><li>16. Skeptics are defending science and reason from a rising tide of irrationality. </li></ul>.
  24. 24. Q&A <ul><li>Jim Lippard </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul>