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Skepticism 101: Evaluating Weird Claims

Updated on June 3, 2015

Why We Believe Strange Claims

We are genetically programmed to attribute agency to randomness and find patterns in chaos. This is an important evolutionary adaptation that allowed our ancestors to survive and continues to help us navigate daily life. We are prone to making what statisticians refer to as type 1 errors or, "false positives," in a much higher abundance than type 2 errors or, "false negatives." There are good reasons for this.

A thought experiment proposed by Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer runs like this; You are a hominid on the Plasticine of African and you hear a disturbance in a nearby bush. Your day can now go one of two ways. You can attribute the movement in the bush to an intentional agent and swiftly flee. If it turns out that this rustle was merely caused by the wind then you have made your type 1 error; you have falsely attributed a causal agent such as a predator to the situation. As a result you may flee unnecessarily but you ensure your survival. The alternative is to make a type 2 error and attribute the disturbance to the wind when in fact there is a causal agent that is about to make a meal out of you thus taking you and your skeptical temperament out of the gene pool. We are the descendants of those prone to making type 1 errors because they remained alive long enough to reproduce.

In the modern world, divorced from most situations that require split second life-or-death decision-making, this leaves us with some credulous tendencies. These credulous tendencies are the taproot of superstition, religion, and magical thinking. We are all prone to a desire to believe the unsubstantiated and very few of us have absolutely no blind spots in this regard. In other words we all believe in some form of unsubstantiated, "woo," and there are reasonable explanations for this. Even more reassuringly, it is not our own fault.

Some Strange Claims to Think About

Alternative medicine is a term for a wide net of practices that by definition have either not been proven to treat anything or have been proven not to treat anything. This covers things such as magnets, healing vortexes, crystals, reflexology, reiki, faith healing, and homeopathy. For our purposes any treatment that has been proven to work has shown efficacy in a double blind controlled scientific study which has been repeatedly replicated. The unifying tie that make all these, and a number of other treatments, "alternative," is that they have not met this double blind study burden of proof and they have no mechanism of action that is comprehensible to what we currently know about Physics, Anatomy, Chemistry, or Biology. What we do know is that people report feeling better after receiving these treatments. This is attributable to the placebo effect that is enhanced by a seemingly authoritative, knowledgeable practitioner that spends significantly more time and shows more genuine empathy and concern than does an average Western Doctor. Various studies have shown that between 30-60% of the efficacy of real medicine is attributable to the placebo effect. It is only when this effect is controlled for, by randomizing the assignment of participants taking part in a study between a group receiving the actual treatment being tested and a group receiving only a placebo or sham treatment, that this effect can be controlled for and a treatment or a drug can be evaluated purely on it's own physiological merits. In the case of faith healing; the pomp and circumstance of a revival or other such ritual with religious connotations triggers a massive neurotransmitter dump that temporarily relieves pain and greatly elevates mood. The music, showmanship, and religious fervor plays a great role in these short-term effects.

Another category of strange claims involve physic phenomena. Physic ability covers a wide range of phenomena from Medium-ship to ESP, to horoscopes, to aura reading, to palm and tarot card reading. This vast array of, as yet unproven, claims can be entirely convincing to the subjective observation of an honest observer. And, by no means, are all practitioners of such para-psychological feats charlatans. Many fortune-tellers, of whatever stripe they might be, are simply well-meaning and empathetic individuals who are at least vaguely self-deluded. What may be perhaps most important to note here is that all the effects achieved by these, "psychics," can be achieved at least as convincingly by mentalists and magicians who readily admit to trickery and deny any psychic ability. Through the use of cold-reading, skeptics like James Randi and Derren Brown show how Mentalism is achieved. "Cold Reading," is a set of tricks that utilize vague yet specific sounding, "Forer," statements that are generally true for most people. These may be such statements as, "You try to put up a controlled and confident front but have inner worries and doubts that sometimes get the better of you," or, "You prefer a degree of spontaneity but are sometimes tried by the restrictions placed upon you," or, "You find yourself uncomfortably introverted around new acquaintances but are warm and extroverted once you have warmed up to people." They may also be statements that anyone would like to think applies to them such as, "You have a great deal of untapped potential in an artistic en-devour that you can't find time to complete, " or, "You are an independent thinker who does not accept new beliefs without solid reasons." Cold reading also involves close observation for physically observable clues to a person's personal life, linguistic tricks, the careful reading of body language for feedback, and a shotgun style approach to guesswork. If this all sounds a little too simple that's because it is and doesn't take much time to learn to do relatively well. Those who are very skilled at it can produce starling effects. Those who go looking for such paranormal services often are victims of a subconscious effect called the, "confirmation bias," which screens out the misses and highlights the hits. This is again a direct result of our genetic proclivity to find patterns in static and meaning in chaos.

Ghosts, UFO's, conspiracy theories, and Crytozoology are another area of weird beliefs that seem to tap into our need for something beyond banality. We very much do want to believe in things that don't have a rational explanation. Sometimes we see something as grand as the Great Pyramids of Giza and would prefer the story of aliens aiding in their construction to the truth that they were made over decades with the backing-breaking, life-taking labor of thousands of slaves. It is for the same reason that we want the JFK assassination to be an elaborate CIA conspiracy; we simply aren't happy with the story of a lone nobody committing the act. Furthermore, what was achieved, something hugely significant, doesn't seem commensurate with what little effort was needed to achieve it. Quite simply none of these claims withstand even the lowest level of scrutiny. Stories spread about haunted locales and collective delusions that match what is alleged about the location become uniform among believers who visit and quite willingly suspend disbelief. Ouija boards move through a well-documented group phenomena called the ideomotor effect. UFO abductions match the symptoms of something called, "sleep paralysis," which includes hallucinations, the feeling of a weight on the chest, an inability to move, and the experience of bright lights. And to date no dead primates of an unknown variety with excessively large feet have been discovered.

Not Trying to Spoil All Your Fun...

I'm really not, in most cases much of this can be harmless fun but in some cases believing weird things can be quite dangerous and down right abusive. Such is the case when one eschews real medicine for quackery or has their memories of a lost loved one trampled on by a charlatan posing as a medium.

Nothing is anything lost when we discard credulity. The natural world is far more wondrous than we will ever have the time, in a single life, to fully appreciate. The advances in Neuroscience, Physics, and Cosmology should be enough to satiate the most gaping need for wonder. And the natural world has the added benefit of being real!

If any such weird claim is actually proven it will revolutionize an entire area of human inquiry and turn an entire field on it's head. Such are the types of breakthroughs that would make a scientific career. Of course, once this happens it will axiomatically cease to be paranormal but will simply be ushered into the known natural order, even if it is not fully understood. The point is that I, and science in general, are not against seemingly strange claims and are certainly not dogmatically opposed to their veracity, we simply want someone to produce evidence that can be reproduced and studied. This is the simple rule that science operates upon, the same rule that has allowed the technological innovations that have given you the leisure time to read this hub on a computing device hooked up to something called the world wide web.

Hume put it well in Of Miracles, "Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors." Personal subjective experience is wonderful, in fact it is all that we have, but truly verifiable claims must be buttressed on something more. An objective collective data set that validates a proposition to a reasonable degree of certainty is how we always have, and always will, truly progress as a civilization.


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