Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review of Schick's How to Think about Weird Things

This is a review of Schick & Vonn's How to Think About Weird Things.  Read it on PDF by clicking here or read it on this blog by clicking "Read more" below.

Selections From Review of Schick & Vonn’s How to Think About Weird Things

                                                W.J. Holly, Ph.D.

                Chapter 2:  Distinguishing between logical and physical impossibility is important.  To say a thing is logically possible is only to say that it is not obviously self-contradictory, not that it is possible in any realistic sense.  But, do the authors confuse these two on page 27 when they say "tachyons are physically possible" ?  I am not a physicist, but this looks a little suspicious to me.  If Martin Gardiner is correct that the existence of tachyons would entail an actual contradiction, then they are not even logically possible.  And the mere fact that you can talk about objects with imaginary mass does not entail that they are indeed physically possible any more than I can say that it is physically possible for some cows to jump over the moon because I can imagine some cows having negative gravity.  Or, try this:  If something were to have negative mass, then the less the force you applied to it, the greater it would accelerate:  I dub such objects "negatons."  Again, it does not follow that negatons are physically possible, and I suspect that the "concept" is incoherent (what happens when you apply zero force to a negaton in all directions?)

                The more serious problem I have with Chapter 2 is one that runs throughout the book.  It seems to me that the authors many times lean over backwards to try to appear fair to the purveyors of idiocy.   Even if tachyons did exist, even if it were possible for them to travel faster than the speed of light since their masses would not increase with acceleration, it does not follow that any of them actually do travel faster than the speed of light.  Moreover, even if there were billions of tachyons travelling faster than the speed of light, absolutely no suggestion is given how this might enable some person to see the future before it happens.  Nor, I suspect, does this story explain what it might mean to say that a super-accelerated tachyon was going backwards in time.  Objects moving rapidly relative to us seem to have slowed time, but from their frame of reference, we are the ones with slowed time.  Would someone on a tachyon space ship travelling faster than light relative to us see us as having processes running in reverse?  Would rotten apples recompose and jump back onto the branch in the worlds where time is running backwards?  If all motions in a Newtonian universe were suddenly reversed to give us a reverse-world, a world in which time seemed to be going backwards, the second law of thermodynamics would not seem to hold.  Enough!  I am no physicist, but the story as yet is too full of gaps to plausibly explain how human precognition could be possible.  It is a total non-explanation that doesn't even make coherent science fiction. It also seems dishonest to refer to Adrian Dobbs as a mathematician explaining physics, when in fact he is a parapsychologist. 

For a positive suggestion here:  In addition to logical possibility, physical possibility, and technological possibility, perhaps the authors should invent a third category, “science-fiction possibility,” to be reserved for the feeble attempts to argue that things really are physically possible by suggesting that there “might” be future discoveries that would change our mind about what is and is not physically possible.  These are things that seem to be things we can imagine (time travel machines, tachyon receptors in our brains that allow precognition, etc.) that are so vague in the details and so dependent on future “possible” scientific discoveries that they do not even qualify as certified logical possibilities, let alone actual, bona-fide, proven physical possibilities.  As such, they are only “science fiction” possibilities, and deserve no more credence than regular science fiction of the worst kind.

                Chapter 6 (used to be Chapter 7) is excellent and is one of the most important, I think.  The discussion of criteria for the adequacy of scientific hypotheses is excellent.  Criticism?  First, I think that the criteria for adequacy should be confined to Theories, not Hypotheses.  Hypotheses can be pretty flimsy, mere guesses.  What science wants to test is Theories, explanatory theories that can predict various things because they help us understand why things happen as they do.  This is a very important distinction that radically undercuts the authors’ lukewarm criticisms of paranormal phenomena.  For example, suppose that a friend tells me that his brother took a course from the Maharishi and saw people levitate.  One hypothesis is that the brother lied, another is that he hallucinated, and another is that maybe people really can learn to levitate.  The authors seem to want to count the last “possibility” here as a theory because it can be tested, but regard it as not very adequate, for example, because it is not fruitful.  But, I say it fails to be fruitful because it does not explain how levitation through reciting mantras is possible.  It is a Molierian pseudo-theory.  To try to explain why people can levitate by saying that they have telekinetic powers is like saying that a drug induces sleep because of its soporific powers. To say that people have paranormal powers is not yet to have a theory that explains how a person could see without eyes, foresee the future, levitate, etc., and that is one reason to view them with maximum suspicion, especially given that such powers would seem to go against the known laws of physics. 

                Chapters 4, 5, and 7 are filled with interesting examples of weird beliefs, and pretty good criticisms.   Again, though, the authors need to be a bit more hard-hitting on some of these things.  Homeopathy and magnetic therapy, for example, are examples of medical quackery, and I see no reason to provide them with such sympathetic “science fiction possibility” apologetics.  These things can cause extreme harm to people, and ought to be labeled as the evil fraud that they are.  When my wife was suffering an acute headache, in desperation I went to the drug store to get some Head-on that I had seen advertised on television.  Luckily, I read the label, saw that it was homeopathic, and knew that it was quack med.  But, there were no warnings on the box, it is legal, it cost 7 dollars, and my wife would have remained in pain had I gotten it.  They sell the same stuff for pets (dogs, etc.) advertised on TV.  That is cruel deception and ought to be thoroughly damned in your book.   Get some passion.

                The illustrations are good, but I miss the illustration of the girls with the fairies that fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Put that story and picture back in!  The boxed material in many cases is entertaining and useful, as are the quotations on the page margins.  Much as I like Dawkins, however, the Mind Virus box can be eliminated without loss - it doesn’t advance Dawkins’ case at all, probably harms it.  I do not understand, however, why several of the boxes seem calculated to increase gullibility and superstition. For example, the Botanical Witness (p 74) recounts Baxter’s stupid story about Plant Clairvoyance and is presented as though it were established fact;  a person who had not carefully read page 73 would have been primed by that box to go on to spread that piece of superstitious nonsense about plant feelings on to others. 

On page 201 (God the Extraterrestrial) you present the stupid Raelian religion as based in fact:  You state that Vorilhon was “moved to create this religion after he was contacted by an extraterrestrial ….”  Here, you use the language of reporting FACT, not just reporting what Vorilhon claimed.  When you do this, you are guilty of spreading misinformation, helping the charlatans to spread their lies. I believe that the authors often bend over backwards, much too far over, in an attempt to appear fair and unbiased.  I think that this is a very, very serious complaint with the book.  If your aim is to inculcate critical thinking, then you need to advance a much harder skeptical line.  In several places, the tone in the book actually increases the tendency to engage in confused, pudding-headed gullibility -- "open mindedness" that is so open that all knowledge falls through a hole in your head, calling all knowledge into question, leaving students awash in a sea of intellectual anarchy and insecurity, superstition, and know-nothingness.  The fact of the matter is that much of the bogus science and superstition that you address in this book is NOT intellectually respectable.  It is intellectual rubbish, nonsense, idiocy and it ought to be called for what it is.

                A good example of how the authors sometimes encourage pudding-headedness is to be found on page 24 and 26, a section entitled "Theories and Things."  The question addressed is whether or not paranormal phenomena are physically impossible or contradict physical law, as some skeptics claim.  Now, it seems to me (and the authors in places seem to agree) that this skeptical attack on paranormal phenomena is very cogent.  For example, if the Maharishi claims to have a mantra that enables us to levitate, the fact that this would violate a basic law of nature provides sterling evidence that he is a fraud.  Of course, if he can demonstrate the efficacy of his word magic in the presence of honest magicians like Randi, then we might have to revise what we think the laws of nature are.  Until that happens, however, the verdict of all prior experience is against the Maharishi, and Conservatism justifies us in requiring that he have extraordinary evidence to support his extraordinary claim that he can overcome the force of gravity with word magic, without exerting any physical force in the opposite direction.

                But what do the authors say here?  Their first remark is that a phenomenon can't contradict a law because contradictions are relations that hold only between propositions, and phenomena (and laws as well, I suppose) are not propositions.  Well, OK.  So, let us be precise and say that the thing the Maharishi claims to be able to do is something that would violate (be contrary to what is possible according to) physical law.  Perhaps this is not a trivial verbal point.  But they next say that we must approach claims of physical impossibility with extreme caution because our theories about physical laws may be false. Their example is that 200 years ago people would have thought it impossible to make yourself heard across the Atlantic, but now we have phones.  But this is just a truncated or faulty analogy.  The mere fact that our ancestors were wrong about future technology or about scientific facts and laws does not show how (or that) we might be mistaken in our belief that there is no such thing as ghosts, fairies, telekinesis, and ESP.

Still, the authors go on to criticize Rothman's claim that ESP is impossible because it violates physical law.  They (p 24) defend Adrian Dobbs, a parapsychologist who argues that “there’s no good reason for believing that ESP signals actually do violate physical law … no evidence that ESP signals do degrade over distance.”  Then a non-explanatory, science-fiction story is given to try to show that ESP “may well be physically possible.”  Why give this science fiction story any credence?  The reason there is no evidence that ESP signals degrade over distance is that there is no evidence that ESP signals exist at all.  Why mollycoddle the purveyors of superstition?

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