Thursday, February 8, 2007

Gordon Kaswell on Skepticism

It's skepti synchronicity! About a week ago I received the following email from Oregon UFO researcher Gordon Kaswell. With his permission, I've posted his thoughts on skepticism below:

This email is about something that keeps popping up in controversial science issues: Carl Sagan's famous dictum, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Just this evening, I heard a psychologist on the Discovery Channel use this phrase regarding the question of whether or not "Bigfoot" exists. (Hardcore skeptics of the "paranormal" love to atack those who maintain that the creature might actually be real. It's really not a paranormal question at all, by the way-- only a crypto-zoological one.)

But back to Sagan. His comment about "extraordinary claims" sounds reasonable. It seems to be saying that we must have very high standards in scientific inquiry.

And indeed we should have high standards. But not a double standard. There is really no way to objectively and quantitatively determine the "extraordinariness" of a scientific claim. Therefore, there is no way to objectively say how "extraordinary" the evidence must be before we accept the claim. "Extraordinariness" is essentially an emotional consideration, not a scientific one. If you've done good, careful, science, your results should be taken seriously. If those results overturn previously held beliefs, that's just fine. Indeed, that's how science is supposed to work. Thomas Kuhn's book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is an excellent discussion of how science advances in fits and starts, as new data and viewpoints are ignored, resisted, and ultimately embraced.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Another way to put this might be:

"Adjust your scientific standards to fit you emotional needs."

--Doesn't sound so reasonable now, does it?


Alfred Lehmberg said...

Sorry to sound like such a mutual congradulator... but this was brilliant.

Similarly, I wrote:

...We all know that Dr. Shostak busily touts the specious Saganic rubric that "...extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence...," but that shopworn rubric is too often used as a "think cloak" to "preclude progressive thinking," actually, and provides for a "receding evidentiary horizon" in the same way one might put the requirements for evidence finally accepted... at the end of a skepti-bunkers two-color rainbow (Van Gemert).

That is to say that no evidence would ever be good enough for the Doctor. That's a dodge of a coward, frankly.
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Michael said...

I'm reading Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger III right now, and a couple of chapters ago he tore Sagan a new one, explaining very well why Sagan was a scientific charlatan who took advantage of his leverage as a popular media figure to say a lot of basically stupid stuff, without fear of being contradicted.

Alfred Lehmberg said...

Yeah! Here it is:

The normal is what everybody else is and you're not.
-- Star Trek: Generations
My mind is going. I can feel it, Dave.
-- 2001: A Space Odyssey

If anybody possesses all the qualifications necessary for a fully ordained Expert in America today, Carl Sagan certaintly has that dizzying eminence. Through frequent appearances on TV and in Parade (a news magazine circulated through hundreds of newspapers in their jumbo Sunday editions), Dr. Sagan has issued Expert verdicts on every possible controversial issue in science, and in politics, and even in theology, for three decades now. And, like the Experts who authenticated hundreds-to-thousands of Elmyrs, he has never once admitted he ever made a mistake. You may wonder how a man who only has qualifications in astronomy can also function as an Expert on everything in general. Well, I think it requires Sagan to have a lot of raw courage, in the first place, and a strong, well-founded confidence that those who don't believe his dogmas have much less access to the media than he does; if they answer him back, however effective their arguments, very few of his large, gullible audience will ever hear about it. Let us see how Expertese works, by examining Dr. Sagan's long series of polemics against Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky. First of all, in every page Sagan has written about Velikovsky, he never once calls him "Dr. Velikovsky" as I just did. Thus, most people who know Velikovsky only through Sagan's attacks have never learned that Velikovsky had scientific training* . The contest thus seems a struggle between "Dr." Sagan, the learned scientist, and "Mr." Velikovsky, the ignorant layman. Little tricks like that go a long way in deluding the naive, and Sagan never fails to use every dirty trick he knows. In what follows, I reverse this process, just for the hell of it. Sagan I will call Sagan and Dr. Velikovsky I will call Dr. Velikovsky. Sauce for the goose can serve, after all, as sauce for the gander. Sagan continually states bluntly, and falsely, that Dr. Velikovsky intends his cosmic catastrophe theory to revive the old-time religion.: "It is an attempted validation of religion"....." Velikovsky attempts to rescue not only religion but also astrology." (Brocca's Brain, p 126) We can only conclude that Sagan either reads very carelessly or engages in deliberate lying. Any close reading of Dr. Velikovsky shows numerous expressions of skepticism about both religion and astrology. In addition, Dr. Velikovsky's theory of cometary near-collisions offers a naturalistic, scientific explanation for many events or alleged events in ancient history, which the religious prefer to explain supernaturally, as miracles. Nobody who suggests a natural explanation for allegedly supernatural events offfers real support to religion, in either the judgement of the religious themselves or of those of us with agnostic disposition. Only Sagan -- and a few others, who seem to never have read Dr. Velikovsky and obtained their "knowledge" about his works from Sagan -- think of the comet model as "validating" religion, since Dr. Velikovsky uses a hypothetical comet to replace a hypothetical god in explaining huge reported floods, and other catastrophes. Most of us think of Dr. Velikovsky's theory as one which, if proven, would knock one more leg from under the edifice of Bible Fundamentalism. Nobody seems likely to worship Dr. Velikovsky's comet, but millions still worship the Bible's god. In the 30 years or more that Sagan has engaged in diatribes against Dr. Velikovsky, somebody must have pointed out this fundamental confusion to him -- mis-identifying a naturalistic theory with a supernatural theory. Evidently, he has a lot of trouble hearing or remembering such corrections. You become a leading Expert by acting as if everybody else's opinion deserves no attention and never even deserves the courtesy of an answer. For instance, to leave Dr. Velikovsky for a moment, consider Sagan's hilarious theory of "nuclear winter."* Briefly, Sagan's theory holds that nuclear war could result, not just in the horrors we all know, but in a freeze that would probably abolish all life on this planet. (He published this notion in Parade, where his mass audience could see it and gasp.) His refusal to accept valid criticisms of this sci-fi story led to the following summary in Science, official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "News and Comments" section, Jan 16, 1987:
Sagan's refusal to acknowledge merit in the NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research]'s analysis -- known as "nuclear autumn" -- sends some people up the wall. One wall-climber is George Rathjens, professor of political science at M.I.T...."(Sagan's) claim that the original nuclear winter model is unimpeached [he says] the greatest fraud we've seen in a long time"....Russell Seiz, a fellow at the Harvard Center for International Affairs...gibes at [Sagan and his co-authors] for mixing physics and advertising.
Most scientists I have spoken to about Sagan share this dim view of his use of publicity to represent his pet notions as Scientific Truth even when -- or especially when -- a large segment of the scientific community has severe doubts about these notions. (Similarly, in Brocca's Brain, Sagan rejects data on so-called "out of body experiences" among near-dead patients because -- he says -- nobody in that state has reported anything they couldn't have heard while unconscious. But the literature of OOBE has hundreds of cases of such reports, including numerous incidents in which the subjects reported things in rooms far away from the operating room. Once again, we can only wonder if Sagan habitually lies through his teeth or just doesn't read any of the literature on the subjects upon which he claims Expertese.) But returning to Dr. Velikovsky, and Sagan's crusade against his ideas: Sagan likes to quote a "distinguished professor of Semitics" who told him no Semitic scholars take Dr. Velikovsky seriously. Like the "intelligence officer" who told Newt Gingrich about dope in the White House, this "distinguished professor" remains anonymous, and thus Sagan's hearsay about him would get thrown out of any civilized court. Three distinguished professors of Semitic studies, however, have all shown cordial support for Dr. Velikovsky: Prof. Claude F.A. Schaeffer, Prof. Etiene Droiton, and Prof. Robert Pieffer. Look them up in any Who's Who of Semitic studies, archeology and Egyptology. They have a lot more prestige in those fields than Sagan's Prof. Anonymous, who doesn't have a single entry under his name anywhere in the scholarly journals (although elsewhere he receives credit for many olde ballads and almost all bawdy limericks.) Another choice bit of Sagan's Expert testimony: he accuses Dr. Velikovsky of believing that ancient cultures had a calendar of ten months of thirty days each and 360 days in the year. Of course, 10 x 30 = 300, and this gives Sagan a chance to gibe at Dr. Velikovsky's inability to handle simple arithmetic. Very good, wouldn't you say? The only trouble with this brillaint analysis consists of the simple fact that, once again, Sagan has either consciously and deliberately lied or accidentally revealed again that he doesn't read carefully. Dr. Velikovsky says specifically "the month was equal to thirty-six days" (Worlds in Collision, p. 344.) 10 months of 36 days each = 360. See? According to Dr. Velikovsky's model, the year changed to 365 days (plus a few hours) after the cometary near-collision. Whether he has proven that or not, he did not make a crude mistake in arithmetic. Sagan either made a crude mistake in reading, or followed Elmyr's formula for Expert-ness: "sheer bluff." Consider next the high temperature of Venus (4800 C.) As Dr. Roger Wescott and others have pointed out, Dr. Velikovsky predicted a temperature in this range for Venus when astronomical orthodoxy believed that planet much, much colder. Sagan tries to avoid giving Dr. Velikovsky credit for this confirmation of his model by claiming "many" had predicted a high temperature before the Venus flyby. Actually, he only names one other who had made such a prediction, Dr. Rupert Wildt, and Wildt's work did not win general acceptance. (Others try to get around Dr. Velikovsky's correct estimate in this and other instances by describing him as a "lucky guesser." That seems mere cage-rattling to me. One could as well call any scientist who made many correct predictions a "lucky guesser".....) As Harry H. Hess, president of the American Geoligical Society wrote in a published letter to Dr. Velikovsky:

Some of these predictions were said to be impossible when you made them. All of them were made before proof that they were correct came to hand. Conversely, I do not know of any prediction you made that has since been proven to be false.
But the final joker came on page 153 of Brocca's Brain where Sagan writes (and this really deserves caps):

First, Sagan claims that Dr. Velikovsky does not deserve credit for predicting high temperatures on Venus because everybody knew it, although historical fact shows that only Dr. Wildt had made the same prediction before Dr. Velikovsky. Then Sagan either tells a double lie or else suffers an alarming memory lapse that may require neurological consultation, claiming that neither Dr. Wildt nor Dr. Velikovsky had made this prediction (which they had, and he had noted earlier) -- and then he brazenly claims he had originated it himself. Quite a performance, wouldn't you say? Now do you know how to become an Expert? Keep a straight face and make sure the mass media gives you more coverage than it gives those who try to correct your mis-statements. I could go on and on, for hundreds of pages, but instead I refer you to Ginethal's book listed at the end of this chapter. Ginethal does spend hundreds of pages documenting one fallacy after another -- literally dozens and dozens of them -- in Sagan's smear campaign against Dr. Velikosky. I will conclude only with the most dramatic, and funniest, of Sagan's goofs: In several places, Sagan has published a mathematical proof that several near collisions between a comet and a planet have odds against them of "a trillion quadrillion to one." (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.) Sounds pretty damned improbable, doesn't it? The problem here lies in the fact that Sagan considers each near-collision as an isolated or haphazard event, thereby ignoring gravity. In fact, any two celestial bodies, once attracted to each other, will tend to contine to approach each other periodically, according to Newtonian laws unmodified by Einstein. This periodicity will continue until some other gravitational force pulls one of the bodies away from the gravitational attraction of the other. Ask any physics or astronomy professor about this, if you think I'm pushing too hard here. As Dr. Robert Jastrow of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies wrote (New York Times 22 Dec 1979)

Professor Sagan's calculations, in effect, ignore the law of gravity. Here, Dr. Velikovsky was the better astronomer.

Robert Bass wrote, even more harshly,

This Sagan assumption [ignoring gravity] is so disingenuous that I do not hesitate to label it a deliberate fraud on the public or else a manifestation of unbelievalbe incompetence or hastiness combined with desperation (cited by Ginenthal.)
Well, I always had doubts about Sagan's ability to pronounce verdicts outside astronomy. When he does calculations inside astronomy and then ignores or forgets gravity, I begin to wonder about his competence in general....
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R. Lee said...

Michael,thanks for stopping by. I love Anton Wilson, I was sorry to hear of his passing. The Triology is great; we still have the three paperbacks from way back.

It'd be fun to read those again; it's been some time. Those books had a lot to do with my getting into all this: UFOs, anomalies, etc.

R. Lee said...


Thus, most people who know Velikovsky only through Sagan's attacks have never learned that Velikovsky had scientific training* . The contest thus seems a struggle between "Dr." Sagan, the learned scientist, and "Mr." Velikovsky, the ignorant layman. Little tricks like that go a long way in deluding the naive, and Sagan never fails to use every dirty trick he knows.

Absolutely, and this is a tactic that is used all the time by the mega-skeptic.

Fantastic article, thanks for reposting it here.