Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Erich Kuersten, Penn Yan, and the quality of evidence

A recent post by noted wingnut Erich Kuersten, "The Zealots of Doubt: Why Skeptics Are The New Cranks" made me feel like I had to clear up a few things.

Kuersten's screed levies a charge at people of my general outlook, one that I've heard many times:
...skepticism no longer means curious or open to new input and has instead become the refuge of the bitter and attention-seeking...  A true skeptic is not swayed either by science or religion or firsthand experience, they are not suckers but neither are they fundamentalist zealots, BUT when you deny any evidence, even if it's just firsthand accounts, because it doesn't fit your paradigm, then you are not a skeptic, you are exactly what you're seeking to expose, a religious nut, only for science instead of God. You're an anti-zealotry zealot.
He gives a few examples of what we skeptics would disbelieve in, if we were just honest and consistent with our approach:
They claim they'll believe in aliens when they can meet one in person, yet the believe in George Washington based purely on anecdotal evidence, at best, firsthand witness reports filtered down through the ages, some sketchy portraits. And if they haven't been to Morocco, how do they even find the courage to trust it's there?
So like I said, I'd heard this sort of thing before, although never from this source.  Kuersten usually spends more of his time demonstrating evidence of his curiosity and openness to new input by claiming that Bigfoots are actually telepathic proto-hominids who were slaves to the ruling aliens prior to the Great Flood of Noah.  (See my post on his ideas here.)  So I'm perhaps to be forgiven for entertaining some doubts about his reliability right from the get-go.

Let's look past that, however, and (as befits a true skeptic) look at his criticisms honestly, with no consideration of what else he's claimed.  Is he right?  Does my general disbelief in ghosts and ESP and the Loch Ness Monster mean that, if I was to apply the same principles to everything, I would also disbelieve in Morocco and George Washington?  Am I, in his words, an anti-zealotry zealot?

Well, predictably, I don't think so, and the reason has to do with quality of evidence.

Let me give you an example.

There's a town in New York called Penn Yan.  Penn Yan isn't very far from where I live, but as it so happens, I've never been to Penn Yan.  I hear it's a nice place, from friends who've visited.  I've seen photographs, and it's in my road atlas, and also on Google Maps, MapQuest, and so on.  Now, let's consider two rival hypotheses:
1)  Penn Yan exists, as advertised.
2)  Penn Yan is a giant hoax designed to hoodwink credulous travelers.
I do not have direct, first-hand evidence for either of these.  Which of these hypotheses, however, would (if true) force the greatest revision of our current understanding of how the world works?  Clearly, if hypothesis #2 is correct, and Penn Yan does not exist, it leaves unanswered several questions, to wit:
What is actually in the place where I had previously assumed Penn Yan was?  A giant hole?
What earthly motive do all of the people who created the Great Penn Yan Hoax have for doing this?
How do you explain all of the photographs, maps, and other "artifacts" that attest to Penn Yan's existence?
It doesn't take much of a stretch to see that that we need a vastly higher quality of evidence to accept hypothesis #2 than we do to accept hypothesis #1.

Kuersten's problem is that he seems to think that skepticism (if only we would be fair about the whole thing) should start out as a blank slate, when in fact the skeptical, rational approach has already given us a rock-solid framework within which to understand the world.  This framework is called science.  We already know a great deal about physics, biology, and chemistry -- so when a psychic claims to be able to bend spoons with his mind, scientists aren't going to begin from the standpoint that this is as likely to be true as not.  We have a fine understanding of forces and energy; we also have a good (although less complete) grasp of how the human brain works.  Neither of these is sufficient to explain how someone could perform telekinesis.  Therefore, if you claim that you can perform mental spoon-bending, you'd better have a far higher quality of evidence than my null-hypothesis ("you're not doing any such thing") would require.  (This concept is at the heart of both Ockham's Razor and the ECREE principle, two models of critical thinking that serve as excellent rules of thumb.)

Kuersten wants to throw every idea -- however counter it is to our current understanding -- into the same pot:
Science admits it's barely begun to explore the 'other' 90% of the brain, all while ridiculing any conjecture about what the unknown 90% may consist of. Telepathy is ridiculous (why? They can't be bothered to ask their superiors for fear of being branded a kook); science admits they've catalogued less than 20% of all the creatures that exist in the ocean, but sea serpents are ridiculous.
Well, first, I'm not sure what "other 90% of the brain" he's talking about, but even allowing that he's speaking metaphorically, all he's doing here is relying on a logical fallacy called "the argument from ignorance."  "We don't know what is out there in deep space, so it could be aliens: therefore aliens exist."  "We don't know if there is an afterlife: therefore ghosts exist."  The problem with all of these claims is that skeptics need something more than the argument from ignorance, especially given that most of the claims of woo-woos like Kuersten fly in the face of one or more established, tested scientific principles.

But nevertheless: could I (and other skeptics like me) be wrong?  Of course.  As I've said over and over in this blog, I will happily revise my views on any or all of the ideas that I've poked fun at over the years.  All I need is solid evidence.  You think sea-serpents exist?  Show me a bone that we can DNA test.  You think telepathy exists?  Prove it in a controlled study.  I'm not going to say that your views are impossible, but thus far, the quality of evidence is insufficient to support them.  And in view of that, the accepted paradigm is a great deal more likely to be true.  And I'd be willing to wager my next month's salary that if I were to get on Highway 14 and head west, Penn Yan would be right there, where the map said it was.


  1. You have to admit it's an unlikely-sounding name for a town.

  2. So a guy who provides instruction on telepathically linking to a Sasquatch, is lecturing people about the proper application of skepticism?

    I'm skeptical that this individual experiences sobriety on a regular basis.

    Discrediting skeptics is a fiscal strategy for those who make a living peddling imaginative nonsense.

  3. I thought you'd be able to tell I didn't mean 'open-minded' skeptics like you Gordon! I just meant the cottage industry of doubters who decry nearly everything science hasn't already made 'self-evident' - no matter how high the mountain of evidence and the principles of Occam's razor.

    As I've said, I only believe in all this stuff about 70%. It helps being a Pisces that I can believe in and not believe in astrology at the same time. You, Gordon, are one of the 'good ones' - exploring these topics the way real scientists should - skeptical but open to new evidence and paradigms. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you, sir... I appreciate your open-mindedness. To me, that's all you need -- a willingness to keep thinking & considering. And thanks for continuing to read my posts! Although we probably find each other on opposite sides a lot of the time, I truly value your ability to keep up a dialogue. Cheers!