August 07, 2008

Extraordinary Claims: Jesus vs. the Psychics

Answer: No, you aren't.I stumbled across a story in today's St. Petersburg, FL Times about the Tampa Bay Skeptics, a group of empirically-minded investigators of paranormal claims working in a place where they're sorely needed. The story contains a humorous recounting of the reaction of a supernaturalist named Virginia Levy, a self-proclaimed psychic who failed a double blind test of her abilities rather spectacularly.

Tampa Bay Skeptics: true believers in the truth
By Emily Nipps, Times Staff Writer

Virginia Levy walked into the library downtown to prove she was psychic. A group of doubters called the Tampa Bay Skeptics questioned the claims of people like her and had set up a challenge. Levy came to meet it. There sat a row of boxes. Could she guess which contained crystals? She was given seven chances. Seven times she failed. It wasn't inability that did her in, she said recently, the bitterness still evident in her voice. It was the bespectacled host of the project, Gary Posner, an unbeliever who she said patronized her, creating an atmosphere filled with negative energy. She purposely chose the wrong box each time, she said, then left in a huff. Today, she lives in Arizona...

Levy, the psychic who took the $1,000 challenge at the library, knows the feeling.

"They called it a double-blind test," she said by phone. "What I called it was a scam."

The group's negative and mocking attitudes hampered her abilities, she said.

"What they're doing is using the laws of attraction," Levy said. "They're actually using the same powers that psychics use, except in reverse."

The experience was appalling, she said, adding that the Skeptics are "working on behalf of the dark side."

She still believes in her powers. Today, she organizes spiritual journeys and "vision quest adventures" in the Arizona desert...
Levy's explanation for why her alleged powers failed her is one that is frequently used by the purveyors of woo. More to the point, it demonstrates that there is no way to convince someone dedicated to preserving a falsehood that makes them feel distinguished in some way that what they believe is nonsense. When someone's identity is wrapped up in tall tales, they're never going to let go of their investment. Nobody enjoys an identity crisis.

The whole point of the Tampa Bay Skeptics and of skeptics in general is summed up in the statement that TSS uses as its motto: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." We needn't even go that far, though. Extraordinary claims could be validated even by the most ordinary proof, the more unembellished and simple the better. Someone claiming the power of remote sensing, as Levy did, could prove their claims by doing what should be an ordinary thing, no more extraordinary than someone who claims to be able to see would do. If I state that I can see the color red, all I need do to prove it is pick a red object out of a lineup. If I claim to be able to see the color red from ten miles away, then all I need do to prove the claim is to pick a red object out of a lineup ten miles from my current position. Levy couldn't find the box of crystals, so her claim to special power lacks ordinary proof and a rational person, rather than inventing convoluted explanations about "negative energy" and "laws of attraction" would say, "She's lying." That should be the end of the story.

Except, of course, that it isn't. Levy is still a believer in her possession of magical powers and makes a living by accepting money from the credulous to put her hocus pocus to work for their benefit. Mind you, Levy's own explanation of why she failed that test in Florida itself demonstrates her reliance on the unthinking credulity of others; skepticism itself is a magical force capable of disarming her otherwise astounding abilities. Those who wish to fork over their cash in exchange for her dubious services must make some profession, no matter how veiled so long as Levy herself is aware of it, that they will not engage in any examination of her claims. They must approach her from an attitude of full belief in her psychic emanations before they've had any demonstration that would support their existence in the first place.

Levy is not some isolated perpetrator of irrationality on the public, however. She is part of a long tradition of shamans, wizards and priests that has made a living out of extraordinarily unsupported claims for at least as long as mankind has had the ability to keep track of its own history. In this regards, she is no different from the priests of ancient Egypt or the Vatican of today. If a claim of the ability to sense the contents of a sealed box is something not to be taken at face value by the reasonable, how much more unreasonable is it to accept uncritically the notion that jackal-headed spirits guide the immaterial shadow-doubles of the deceased before scales that balance the weight of their hearts against a feather plucked from a vulture? How much more bizarre is the claim that an individual returned from the dead, stepped out of a rock tomb and thereby changed the nature of all reality? There are claims made in the name of religion that make Virginia Levy's assertion of her powers pale into insignificance.

I could pick out any religion to demonstrate this point, but several other news items today demonstrate the lingering need for skepticism as regards Christian claims and, more to the point, speak to the weakness of critical thinking among those who we should hope should embrace it. These are people upon whom a special onus falls to embrace reason and, indeed, seek out at least ordinary, if not extraordinary, support for outlandish claims.

For instance, there's William Reville, a professor of biochemistry at University College Cork. In a column in the Irish Times regarding the current effort to date the shroud of Turin by Oxford University researchers, Reville makes some rather unskeptical and self-contradictory statements:
...if the TS is a forgery, how was the image formed? One hypothesis is that the image was made by a medieval photographic process. This would involve hanging a linen cloth in a light-proof room in one wall of which is a quartz crystal lens. The cloth is impregnated with silver salts. Outside, a body is hung in strong sunlight. The lens is opened and over several days the image is exposed on the cloth. Then the forger must enter the room without letting light in and fix the image using urine or ammonia. Experiments using this technique have reproduced many but not all of the TS's image properties. However, it seems highly unlikely to Wilson and Schwortz that a medieval forger could have invented in one go a process that was later invented in several steps over an extended period.

What if the TS really is the burial cloth of Christ? The Gospels record that the disciples found the tomb empty and the linen cloths left lying there. The Gospel account of the resurrected Christ is that he was entirely different to a physically embodied Christ - able to pass through walls, and to appear and disappear suddenly. What if his resurrection involved nuclear events in his dematerialisation? Dr August Accetta, California, has carried out a fascinating experiment in which he injected himself with a radioactive compound used in medical imaging to show up internal organs. He then assumed the pose of the man imaged on the TS and a gamma camera imaged the radioactivity emanating from his body. The results astonishingly replicated most of the features of the image on the TS...
In the first paragraph cited, Reville remarks that it is unlikely that a medieval forger invented a photographic process, yet in the following paragraph he seems to be supporting the idea that a being with supernatural powers rose from the dead in a manner involving nuclear reactions and cites an experiment in which a researcher produced something "astonishingly" like the shroud of Turin by injecting himself with radioisotopes. Why is the first circumstance any less likely than the second? Reville cites no evidence to support claims of the supernatural, let alone supernatural claims involving natural processes. That someone else found a means employing radiation to produce a shroud-like image doesn't imply that it's how the shroud image itself was produced. There are numerous distinct ways to produce an electrical charge, too, but unless we have some evidence to support a particular hypothesis, we can't say that a given charge was produced by one mechanism or another. In fact, August Accetta himself is hardly an impartial investigator (he's a true-believer himself and the founder of the Shroud Center of California, which isn't exactly objective in its approach to the alleged relic). In fact, Accetta's process also used chemicals to make the linen in his experiment sensitive to radiation, just like the example that Reville cites in the first paragraph. If the first example is "highly unlikely," so is the second, and for exactly the same reasons. If Accetta had absorbed enough radiation to produce burn marks on a piece of cloth without the aid of photosenstive chemicals, he wouldn't have survived the experiment. Why Dr. Reville finds the radiation explanation plausible but the merely photographic one implausible, then, is down to his own a priori beliefs.

In this instance, Reville is doing exactly the same thing as Virginia Levy. He's clinging to explanations and selectively citing mechanisms that support a belief rather than critically evaluating and presenting evidence to accept or reject a hypothesis. Levy at least has the excuse of not being a scientist.

Still, such oddball claiims show up in even more disturbing places. It may seem trite to cite a statement by US President George Bush in this context. Most of the planet's population has figured out by now that he's not exactly a sharp, critical thinker. Nonetheless, great responsibility does come with great power. With the degree of power exercised by a world leader (at least a nominal one) comes the highest degree of responsibility, and one aspect of this charge is the evaluation of arguments in light of empirical data rather than mere personal belief. Thus, when one of them makes a statement like
You should not fear religious people in your society as a matter of fact, religious people will make your society a better place that you ought to welcome people being able to express their minds.

Bush Urges China to Improve Human Rights
New York Times, Aug. 7, 2008

a skeptical examination of the claim that the more religious a society the better it becomes is certainly worth pursuing. Is there evidence that such a claim is true?

Bush made this claim in reference to China. I am no fan of China's approach to free speech and I, too, disagree with its active suppression of religious freedom. It is worthwhile to conquer the gullibility fostered by religious belief through reason and argumentation; it is inhumane to prevent its free exercise by force. People have the right to think anything they want to, even when they've wandered as far from rationality as has Virginia Levy, provided that they are not causing harm to others in the process. Nonetheless, China has certainly had its problems with religious militants in the shape of Islamic extremists who have themselves made their voice in society heard recently by blowing up commuter buses. Having more of these "religious people" certainly isn't making China a better place.

Beyond China's borders, though, there are numerous other examples of societies in which religious people have a negative impact. While Protestant vs. Catholic violence seems to have finally subsided in Northern Ireland, certainly faith-motivated conflict remains a perpetual problem in Lebanon. Has a large religious presence fostered greater free speech in Iran or Saudi Arabia? One would be hard pressed to defend the position that it has. Even in the USA itself, arguably the most religious nation in the industrialized world, religious individuals have perpetrated brutal murders and are demanding that science education be watered down to suit their faith rather than acknowledge constantly-increasing volumes of data to the contrary. One could easily mention the recurrent strife in republics that were formerly part of Yugoslavia (Kossovo, Serbia, etc.) One certainly wonders if the gullible saps in Porterville, CA who are so convinced that an angel is appearing in the window of a flooring store is the real thing that some of them threatened a convenience store manager with personal harm if he turned out his lights at night, making their angel disappear, are doing something that betters our society.

Again, what we have in Bush's statement is very much like what we have in Virginia Levy's claims of extraordinary powers. In fact, religious belief per se doesn't seem to make a society better or worse overall. Reason can do so, and certainly empathy does so, but religion does harm at least as often as it does good. Bush could as easily have said that it is unreasonable to use force to counter belief, and China is in the wrong for doing so, but this isn't at all what he claimed. All he's done is to assert his own identity; he thinks himself a better person for having become religious after an early life spent largely intoxicated, so based upon his own identity he asserts that others should do as he's done. He takes this, as do many believers as common sense and neither provides nor, in fact, has any evidence that what he's saying is true. Throughout his tenure as president, in fact, he has made policy decisions based upon that belief. Religion, he believes, straightened him out, so the whole country can be straightened out by providing funding to religious organizations — and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was born.

Perhaps when Bush leaves office next year, he and William Reville can take a trip to Arizona together and have a nice, long talk with Virginia Levy. I think they'll find that they have a lot in common.

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