Saturday, August 09, 2008

Scooby Syndrome

Remember the classic episodes of Scooby Doo before they torched the series' premise? The monster of the week was always Old Man Backoff (Back off!) trying to scare the locals away while he did something illegal, and so forth. In short, every spook was a guy in a costume. Only exception I recall was a shut down amusement park with some wacky inventor's robot actually being a robot.

Despite having that solid track record and the precedent that should have come with it, the cast usually acted as if they believed just this once, it'd be a real ghost. Doesn't cast my predecessor in the best light, does it? Anyway, I often wonder if believers in psychics end up go through the same thing. If they ever catch on to a particular psychic's trickery, somehow, I doubt all of them are soured to the next claimant waiting in line. The same thing goes for a lot of other woo. I've seen ufologists, ghost photographers, and so forth get embarrassed by having the real cause of the weird lights they saw being found, and immediately pleading "well, what about THIS?" and moving on to similarly shoddy work of a marginally different kind.

Somehow, though, they never, ever arrive at the real thing by process of elimination. My guess is that they've really firmly rooted down in their culture of being nonjudgmental and relativistic towards each other, that disaffected John Edward fans who've moved to Sylvia Browne won't confront JE fans, and vice-versa. I don't hear about all that many rivalries, and when I do, it tends to be of the dogmatic sort. Back when I dealt with twoofers more often, for example, those sort of things were resolved with ban hammers, not evidence. The standard hushabooms would ban no-planers. The no-planers would ban the standard hushabooms. And they'd all ban the skeptics for wanting to talk about evidence and the laws of physics. Whoever they'd ban, they'd accuse of being shills for all the evil people and that at four o' clock, we'd all be two feet tall. TWO FEET TALL.

Okay, I'm getting weird. Back to my point: The thing that binds woos together is an unwillingness to investigate. They want their belief to be eternally available to believe in, so to set up Scooby Doo syndrome, they make it so they have an infinite chain of failure points before questioning their belief. There'll always be more people out there claiming to be psychic. It's true that psychic powers won't be falsified by finding out any one psychic is faking it, but shouldn't repeated failures and disagreements get them to at least question it? Even if that happens, though, the mindset involves working backwards: Instead of requiring that we debunk all the illions of claimants who have countless convenient excuses for failure, they should show us ONE psychic who's the genuine article and can pass a test designed to prevent cheating. Shouldn't it be easier to do that than require us to debunk each and every one?

I used to wonder if psychic powers existed, though I thankfully never tied myself down to any psychic claimant, especially since I saw Randi expertly take down Uri Geller on a TV special at an early age. I kept it vague for a while until oddly enough, a beloved TV show got me thinking: Star Trek: The Next Generation. Deanna's mother stopped by for an episode and was having some psychic troubles. Dr. Crusher mentioned her "psylocinine" levels, some brain chemical involved in telepathy. That got me wondering: HOW would psychic powers work if they were real? They've been investigating psychic powers and such for decades. Shouldn't they at least have working hypotheses? That was the beginning of the end for my potential belief in psychic powers. People like Randi investigated psychics, knew all sorts of tricks they could do, and they could gain headway by devising tests a trickster would fail, but a psychic would pass. All failures.

At the same time, paranormal institutes had been at "work" forever, and they still had nothing to show. Almost two decades later in my life, and I'm seeing the same thing, but now with less effort being put into it. Along with screams of bloody murder if I ask a woo to endorse stepping things up a few notches.

Woos who have fallen into Scooby Syndrome have a problem far more fundamental than belief in a particular woo-promoter: They've engineered easy excuses and dodges so that they can go on to believe what they like, no matter how much evidence there is. That's why I think, as an outspoken skeptic, we need to focus on bringing attention to the fact that they're approaching the problem backwards: You don't assume something is true until it's all debunked, you assume it's false until you have an example to prove you wrong. That's what makes science so exciting for me: Being wrong is a wonderful thing. It means there's a new part of the world to find out about. For the woo, however, being wrong is a character flaw.


Anonymous said...

The latest research in physics gives skeptics even more reason to dismiss so called paranormal events as nothing more than coincidence.

If there are a googol number of universes around, as physicists are suggesting, then even an event that has one in a billion chance of happening is almost certain to happen somewhere (the probability for this being 1 minus (0.999999 to the power of googol) - on the reasonable assumption that one in a billion is an average probability across all universes).

So any unusual woo event which does not seem to fit with established scientific theory can easily and most parsimoniously by explained by the fact that we just happen to be in the universe where that unusual event has occured.

Bronze Dog said...

I wouldn't go with that rationale, but unlikely events do happen. Problem with using it that strongly is that it can explain just about anything. If some real psychic shows up and passes several well-controlled tests with one-in-a-million odds, I think it'd be more rational to accept that something odd is going on, rather than dismissing it all as dumb luck.

Apply the same rationale to other hypotheses, and you'd never accept anything.

Anonymous said...

Well if it's good enough to explain the amount of dark energy in the universe and other aspects of the so called "fine tuning" of the universe for life, I think by extension that it can also rationally be applied to other coincidences.

Skeptico has a good article on the parsimony of the multiverse:

Bronze Dog said...

It's not the multiple universes thing I have a problem with. It's the ability to chalk anything up to coincidence that you're using it for.

Anonymous said...

Seems valid to me.
But I did realise that an adjustment is necessary to the calculation I made before in relation to average probablities across universes, to account for fine tuning.
If our universe is "fine tuned" for life say to the extent of 1 in a billion, then the probability of a 1 in a billion (in our universe) event happenning somewhere in the multiverse is 1 in (a billion times a billion).
This may seem remote, but if there are a googol number of universes out there, then such an event is still likely to occur trillions of times across the multiverse.
So if something unusual happens, it's more than likely because we just happen to be in one of the trillions of universes where it happened.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, no it isn't.

It works for life only because we're only going to be IN universes where life is capable of existing. It doesn't work for seemingly psychic randomness because there's no ontological demand that we be IN a universe where that event occurs.

It's no different than explaining it away by saying all those molecules just happened to shuffle to the left at the same time. The fact that there's a multiverse involved doesn't really do anything to the odds.

Let me put it this way. If there's just one universe and you roll a million 20 sided die and a psychic predicts all of them accurately, that's a pretty strange coincidence and very accurate. Certainly the idea that the psychic is actually psychic is worth considering over the idea that it's just a coincidence. If there are infinite multiverses, this changes nothing. What are the odds that we would find ourselves in that ONE universe where the psychic predicted everything accurately? The fact that a universe HAS to exist where that occured does nothing to affect the odds. It's the same odds either way. As a result we still have to consider it far more likely that the psychic actually has the abilities claimed than that we managed to, by coincidence, end up in that universe.

Saying it's another universe as an explanation is identical to saying "it was a really huge coincidence" as an explanation. The ONLY situation that helps to explain is "fine tuned for life" universes and that's only because life can only ask the question of how the universe is fine tuned in those universes that allow it to exist. Beyond that, a case where odds would be stacked perfectly in favor of us ending up in one of those universes, there's nothing that would stack in our favor of extremely unlikely events, which I'd say explains pretty well why we don't SEE totally unlikely events all the time.

Anonymous said...

Good point. I'm going to have to think about that some (but i have to finish my math assignment first).
I understand what you're saying re the "ontological demand" about life, but can't see how it bears on the likelihood that coincidences are best explained by coincidences in the multiverse, rather than supernatural explanations.
E.g. Richard Dawkins says that if all the molecules of a statue of the virgin Mary happenned to shift to the left so that she waved, the best explanation would be coincidence.

Bronze Dog said...

Doesn't quite sound like Dawkins to me, so you may want to give us a citation. No offense, but I imagine he can probably put it more elegantly than you can, so it'd be nice to see his exact wording.

Anonymous said...

I think the statue waving thing is in the “Blind Watchmaker” (which I don’t have right now). You’re probably right that he was making a more complicated point than the way I phrased it.

Re the multiverse argument , I don’t see why “The ONLY situation that it helps to explain is "fine tuned for life" universes and that's only because life can only ask the question of how the universe is fine tuned in those universes that allow it to exist.”

It seems to me the only difference between the life situation and the unlikely dice predictions is that one has happened and the other hasn’t. An explanation of why a psychic had an unlikely run of correct guesses (if this ever did happen) would only be needed in a universe where that unlikely run of correct guesses did occur.

Because it has never happened and probably never will, a multiverse argument has never been needed for that situation. Only difference with life is that it has happened.

But that is the sort of reasoning that IDiots criticize as being post hoc. An IDiot would say Goddidit is jut as likely an explanation for the universe being fit for life as the psychic having abilities is in your example - assuming the odds are the same in each case.

Of course, Victor Stenger has shown the universe may not in fact be fine tuned for life anyway.

Anonymous said...

I think you're getting hung up on the difference between prospective probabilities and retrospective probabilities.

The probability of last week's lottery numbers being whatever they were is exactly the same as the probability of correctly guessing next week's numbers - but only one wins you the jackpot.

It's the difference between the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy and actually being a really good shot.

Anonymous said...

I agree re the equivalence between retrospective and prospective probabilities - which is why I see the equivalence in applying mutliverse reasoning to things other than the fine tuning of the universe for life.

But having read the comments here and some other stuff by Laurence Krauss, I'm now not so sure that the multiverse theory is all it's cracked up to be (for explaining fine tuning or anything else). As Krauss puts it "a theory that can explain anything, in a sense, one might say explains nothing."

In fact i'm suprised that Dawkins endorsed multiverse reasoning in the God Delusion (which is what got me stuck on this dead end track in the first place) - maybe he should stick to biology.

Of course, if you reject multiverse reasoning then that could leave you open to the blatherings of IDiots that the universe has been designed for us by God etc etc.

But I think there is a way out of this. Other than the dark energy/ cosmological constant problem (which supposedly is fine tuned to 1 in 10 to the power of 120), all the other fine tuning examples are fairly easily explained by Stengers. In relation to the cosmological constant, Stengers refers to another theory called"quintessence" (which has not yet been tested) which gives a naturalistic explanation for this.

Stengers makes the point, which I agree with, that:
" As long as science can provide plausible scenarios for a fully material universe, even if those scenarios cannot be currently tested they are sufficient to refute the God of the gaps."

Here is the link to Stengers paper:

Bronze Dog said...

What's getting me is how you're using it to dismiss the paranormal, implying that there's some reason we can use the argument for dismissing woo but not for dismissing anything else.

Anonymous said...

Changed my mind about that. Now I don't think it's a good explanation for woo either

Anonymous said...

I agree re the equivalence between retrospective and prospective probabilities - which is why I see the equivalence in applying mutliverse reasoning to things other than the fine tuning of the universe for life.

The point is that they're not equivalent. Throwing a dart at a blank wall and circling the point you hit is not the same as throwing darts at a target and hitting the bullseye.