Over a year ago, I conducted a series of interviews with thinkers/scientists/artists who were pushing on the boundaries of our world views. I planned on releasing these interviews as part of a podcast. I decided to scrap the podcast (maybe I’ll work on another one sooner or later), but the interviews were just hanging out on my computer. So I’ll be posting them periodically on here.
Alex Tsakiris is author of Why Science Is Wrong…About Almost Everything and host of the Skeptiko podcast, where every week or so, he has a conversation with near-death experience researchers, skeptics, debunkers, neuroscientists, philosophers, conspiracy theorists, UFO investigators, and other people in the great cultural battle over the shape and worth of science. Almost everyone who comes onto Skeptiko is pushed on (sometimes pushed on quite hard) to confront their own assumptions, prejudices, and holes in their logic. It’s sort of like a how-much-can-you-endure reality show for thinkers.
Many critics of the show point out that Alex can misunderstand science, that he can be a bully, that he “sandbags” his guests. You can listen to the episodes and see for yourself whether or not you think that’s true. I certainly don’t agree with all of Alex’s positions, nor the thinkers he sometimes champions. Often, while listening to the show, I’ll be yelling out loud to no one like a crazy person – But why didn’t you say THIS, Alex? My disagreements inform my own thinking, but are irrelevant to my enjoyment of the show, or what I find so valuable about it.
The value of Skeptiko isn’t that Alex is correct all the time. Sometimes he is, sometimes he isn’t, and sometimes I don’t know how to tell which is which. What’s valuable is that, each week, Alex confronts his own assumptions and prejudices. To listen to Skeptiko is to hear Alex’s world view changing and his understanding of science refined, little by little. This display of personal growth is inspiring, particularly since he’s constantly talking with people who are deeply attached to and embedded in their own perspectives. A shift in world view, without some serious trauma, is a slow and grueling process. Alex exposes himself to this shift with every conversation, subjecting himself to the revealing and sometimes painful Skeptiko mission statement, “Follow the data… wherever it leads.”
Conner Habib: What are the red flags for you when you’re talking to people in paranormal/spiritual communities that you’re not getting a consistent story or rigorous investigation?
Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s challenging on so many levels because when you get into the paranormal there does get to be this degree of strangeness no matter where you start. You walk in and you wind up in this very strange spot. I guess I’m kind of an idealist in that I’ve always felt like I should get a straight answer. I’m upfront and I should get the same back.
I have to say, when I first encountered the skeptical crowd and found out the deception that was going on and how they’re not consistent in any kind of logical way, I really felt compelled to push on that because it directly contradicts the front that they’re putting up that they are interested in critical thinking, that they are interested in the scientific method.
Take Hazel Courteney (author of Countdown to Coherence on Skeptiko episode 136) for example – I love her message, and I think her topic is extremely important – this spiritually transformative experience that totally knocks someone on their butt. I think those things happen and I think they can be a real distressing moment – an extremely unsettling part of someone’s life. People right now are locked up in mental institutions in a very dark place all over the world because they’ve had some kind of amazing transformative spiritual experience and they’re unable to orient that with in a way that our culture can understand and accept. So I feel challenged when someone like Hazel goes through that experience. You better be on your game! Don’t go through that and start mixing it up with some other new age mumbo jumbo. You have an important story to tell and an important job to do, go do it!
I want to hear the message, but I want to hear it’s coming from someone who’s applying good critical thinking skills.
CH: How is that different from science proceeding from a series of wrong pathways and wrong alleys and having its foundation resting on something that’s not correct?
AT: My point is: There’s a standard that all of us that are seeking this higher degree of truth need to hold to. And it’s not some sort of impossible standard. It’s just common sense.
We all bring our personal credibility to the table, and we also bring our process to the table. I love being public in the way that I am. I love doing posts and putting my name on them, and then you (the audience) are my fact checkers.
CH: Skeptics do things the other way around – they investigate individuals under the shadow of dismissal. You’re saying, I talk to each person and try to get a feel for what they’re doing and how true what they’re saying is. I wonder if there are any phenomena where you think, “I don’t think so. This doesn’t seem to be true to me at all as a phenomena,” from the outset.”
AT: That’s a tough one because I feel like I’ve been proven wrong so many times. I’d say “no way that that’s true,” and then six months to a year later…
CH: In materialistic science it’s the same thing, where so much seems crazy and then I realize, whoa, that’s true!
But for me, it’s sort of backwards – I’d say a materialistic universe isn’t possible.
AT: I agree! That’s off the table.
CH: Interpretations can seem wrong to me. Retro-science UFO stuff, that UFOs built the pyramids, stuff like that.
AT: I’ve been digging into the UFO stuff and like you was pretty dismissive and really if you look at the evidence, it’s just overwhelmingly convincing that there’s a real phenomena there.
And the government cover up has been completely outed. You have thousands of documents from the FBI after saying for years they had no documents. CIA, army, navy – thousands of documents where you have lie after lie after lie.
What you really have to do then is step back with that as a base and say if the deception is that well-orchestrated and complete, then where do we draw the boundary on what’s really happening here?
On all this stuff, you have to consider the deception.
Without knowing the motives, you just have to look at the data.
The same is true with scientific-spiritual stuff. Like near-death experience (NDE). If you look at study after study, it’s backed up. But then these insignificant little studies that seem to refute NDE data, suddenly become hot topics. Why? It’s so easy to look at the refuting data and say it doesn’t amount to anything. How could that really stand up to any of the data in favor or NDEs?
CH: I think that’s something scientists and scholars of science have trouble seeing – power structures in the scientific community, and then beyond that power structures of intentional deception.
There are power structures in science itself as well. I wanted to talk about one of those –
I want to talk about how people in power in certain positions in discussions about science what the argumentative moves are made. Because when I hear your show, I hear those moves again and again.
It’s not just between skeptics and believers. It’s between people in science and other people in science. The best example I can think of is this debate between my teacher Lynn Margulis – who is pretty much a naturalist/materialist – and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has a meager body of scientific work – not many people know that, of course.
So Lynn had a different theory of evolution based on symbiosis called symbiogenesis. I don’t want to get into all the details of symbiogenesis and its merits or problems, but let me go through a debate she had with Dawkins. It was at Oxford and you can hear it at Oxford Voices.
So Lynn was invited there to be a professor, and she’s debating with Dawkins and other neo-Darwinists.
The challenge starts when Lynn says during the debate,
“You give me any example, documentation either in the fossil record, in laboratory cages or in the field, any case where it’s documented from the beginning to the end: this is one species, these are the events that are the accumulation of random mutation and this is it transforming into another species.”
This is a direct challenge, and the first move Dawkins makes is interesting to me. He doesn’t respond, because he can’t. He realizes that he has no documentation. So what he does is he moves into a sort of dismissive I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I assumption. He says, “Well you don’t have the documentation either!” (It’s interesting to note here that he is admitting there is no documentation).
So she responds with details. She says, no, this isn’t a guess. She gives one example of flatworms that show beyond any doubt that new species arise from symbiogenesis. The example is established and irrefutable by any scientist. So she gives these well-documented and concrete, observable examples of how her model works.
So then the next move Dawkins makes – since she does have documentation – is to say, “Why on earth would you want to bring symbiosis into this when we have a perfectly good theory over here?”
Notice here it doesn’t do anything to substantiate his own theory.
I love her response. In response to why would you want to bring symbiosis into it, she laughs! And she says, “Because it’s there!”
So it’s there – can you (Dawkins) incorporate this into your model or not?
So then Dawkins is forced to contend with it being there. So then he says – and I hear this move from skeptics on Skeptiko a lot – that she’s using a really isolated example.
“Once in a blue moon!” Dawkins says.
No, she says, it’s multiple examples. And she then proceeds to give multiple examples. Example after example of how it’s true.
So the debate goes on, and as she’s talking, he chuffs and says, “We don’t want another anecdote!” Anecdote? She’s providing verifiable scientific evidence. And who is “we” here?
So now all evidence is anecdotal.
And then the final move, which is the most interesting to me: Dawkins goes on to detail his version of evolution, and instead of talking about organisms you can see or concrete examples, he gives this long story about fire and a blue flame jumping to another patch of fire and he creates this completely imaginary example. It’s powerful, but totally imaginary. And he says that that shows how neo-Darwinism could completely work. So in the end, he overturns all the concrete evidence by presenting an imaginary example. And that’s supposed to trump what’s really there.
You’ve interacted with these moves all the time in your show.
AT: There’s a lot to pull apart there. I love the final bit – we have to pull it apart from the psychological aspect of the individual and the sociological angle and the political angle…
As far as the moves, one of the things I’ve come to understand – and it’s comforting in a way – is how different people seem to be wired for how much change they allow in their worldview.
My worldview is pretty open to reinterpretation based on the evidence. Encountering people who aren’t that way is comforting to me in a way, because it helps me understand how the world really works.
There are people who will just not change no matter what the evidence will do.
The moves you’re talking about in a lot of cases are often basic psychological tricks people are playing with themselves to preserve their ego. The real goal is: Please don’t require that I change the way I think!
I think we have to look at that whole phenomena differently than the higher power structures – whether there is someone nudging things this way or that way. I think a lot of these people are useful idiots. They’re doing the bidding of other folks without even realizing it.
For example, when you connect our society with materialism, you step back in awe and you think, “My gosh, all our power structures are based on materialism.” And I used to say, “materialism? you mean scientific materialism, not consumer materialism,” until someone said “no, they’re both the same!”
And they are; there’s no one without the other. So if you see materialism and how totally enmeshed we are with it, then you start to see just what’s at stake, and why it plays out the way that it does. Those are the ideas that will be advanced in science, in academia, regardless of the data. And then you’ll have the players that emerge on their own and play out these little scripts. Like Dawkins: No one has to wind-up Dawkins. he just goes on his own. You just identify who these people are and promote them through the ranks. It becomes a self-sustaining system.
CH: The “selfish gene” is in complete lockstep with the economic system. So you don’t have to have a vast conspiracy, you can just have people who are participating in capitalist economic systems seize onto this version of evolution because it’s so much like the rest of their lives. So this is the version of evolution that gets the most airplay. It just seems right because it matches up with buying stuff and cost-benefit analysis. So there is that level of it.
It’s so clear that from the beginning that Darwin completely stole the idea of evolution. If you go look at the time stamp when Alfred Russell Wallace sent the letter to Darwin and then Darwin says, “I didn’t get it for six months later!” and then he sends another one and Darwin says, “that one was delayed by 18 months!” as well… You know, fool me once!
The point is here’s Wallace, who unlike Darwin, from the beginning stated the obvious: survival is more of a group function; survival of the fittest is survival of the fittest group.
But you can understand what the political and social implications of survival of the group. Oh that’s socialism, communism! We don’t want that! Survival of the individual, that’s individualism, capitalism.
Let me say, I have benefited greatly from the capitalist system, and if I look at capitalism, I sure as heck would choose that over socialism just in terms of functioning of a society. But as you’re saying, and as I’m saying too, we have to separate that from the best evidence we have for a scientific theory. It just doesn’t match up. And this neo-Darwinism does seem like a script to sell us a political and economic idea, which it doesn’t need, because I think it has merits on its own.
CH: That presents us with a challenge. As these more spiritual, less materialistic ideas start to filter into science there’s a certain point that we’re going to have to filter those out. It’s not like we get over that hump. We’re going to have all sorts of new challenges – whether it’s Dean Radin’s work or whoever, the people you talk to. How do we separate them? I think it’s important to always be vigilant and not forget once we have this one victory.
AT: Right, I think it gets back to the old axiom: Science is a method, it’s not a position. If you just hold to that, then it’s a method of discovery and to that end, you’ve got to look at skepticism too. One of the things that I’m exploring more and more is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that skepticism has a place in science. A key place in science. What if it doesn’t? What if that’s a false thing we’ve been sold?
I can credit Dr. Peter Bancel (experimental physicist on Skeptiko episode 102) who was working on the Global Consciousness Project. He said, “Look, science is about asking questions, and we just continue asking questions. Skepticism doesn’t really come in other than it’s another question. Oh you did this experiment? Did you apply this control? Was your method better done this way or that way?”
It’s about questions, not the idea we’ve been sold about skepticism, that you have to be skeptical, which is an idea that’s come about to support the atheistic materialistic skeptical community that really extends way beyond the James Randis and Michael Shermers. It’s really entrenched.
CH: Something I hear you banging your head against sometimes is the scientific method itself. I wonder if you’ll begin to question the method itself in the way it’s practiced now. I remember when you interviewed Tom Clark (Skeptiko episode 24) and he said that with science, “the method isn’t a moving target.”
In fact, that’s not entirely true. The method and the way science has been practiced over the centuries has drastically changed and has become something now that it wasn’t always.
So with Peter Bancel he says, “we’re supposed to keep asking questions,” well that to me seems like a way that science isn’t practiced now. That would be the of gathering data first and letting conclusions arise on their own, rather than blocking everything off by a framework of assumption. That blocking things off is the way a lot of people practice science now.
other geniuses practiced science, and that’s not what he did. He just observed and observed and observed.
And then there’s this other component that the skeptics leave out completely, which is that Goethe included his inner experience of his observation of the phenomena as part of the data he gathered. So it was, I was thinking this when I looked at it, I felt this when I looked at it.
In other words, laying everything bare that was in the interaction, and observing his own interaction with the phenomena he was studying as part of the science. Sometimes he’d do that to get some truth about the phenomena from those observations of himself, but a lot of it was just to wave away the clouds. Skeptics don’t do that at all. The skeptic line is, “I’m going to be objective, I’m not interacting with the thing I’m studying, and I have a detachment from it.”
AT: I love your quote from Tom Clark, the naturalism guy, because I think you’re spot-on, I hadn’t thought of it quite in that way. To say, “science is not a moving target”? Yeah, it is a moving target, and I love the example with Goethe because it really gets us back to the whole consciousness thing. Because we know with quantum theory that we are totally enmeshed in what we are observing and that the observer is affecting the outcome. It also gets back to what we were talking about before (the interview started) – this whole game is being played in what we call consensus reality.
You’re observing the green in the trees, well it’s not really green, it’s just we get together and collectively say that those photons hitting us makes green, and well that poor guy is colorblind it’s not green to him, but hey for the most part it’s green and that’s how we’ll go. That goes on over and over again. And it’s just a game, it’s a convenience we use. And I think you’re right to extend that to science, it’s a game, it’s a rule, and we’re trying to nudge ourselves a little closer to a better understanding that helps us sleep better at night.
CH: And there probably is a reality to green, to use your example, but we have to understand our inner reaction to green to be able to bring the reality of it out.
AT: But it would be an individual reality, right? Because otherwise I’d say, “see that bug outside my window crawling on that green leaf, he’s not saying, ‘wow, this is green!’”
CH: I mean that it’s not an outer objective reality, but it’s a shared inner experience. Can we talk about that shared inner experience as well as the “objective” outer reality in our science? That’s something that doesn’t really happen, so the shared inner experience is just sort of left out. But in fact, the inner experience is what’s connecting us in consensus, we just pretend it’s the outer phenomena.
AT: I think that touches on a really important word, “experience.” Look at what a challenge it is for science to deal with it.
You asked me earlier what’s a red flag. A red flag for me is the wholesale dismissal of a large body of human experience.
Using the anthropological example – that really struck me (before the interview) – when you said “look at experience, experience, experience” in cross cultures. When I see that, I say, “there’s something there!”
People having the same experience, well that’s a reality. I think that’s so important, because you look at the issues we wind up spending a lot of time fighting about, which we really shouldn’t because they’re obvious.
So: near death experience? Come on! There are too many people experiencing that to dismiss it. Deathbed visions, medium experiences, ghost encounters: Too many cases to wholesale dismiss it. I don’t have to pin it down or say what’s causing it, but don’t tell me it’s an illusion, it’s delusion, or give a stupid explanation. It just doesn’t fit.
CH: As I was delineating Dawkins’s moves before, it’s like that. Before they’d say, “that’s not real!” And now a lot of people say, “well we all admit the phenomena is real.” Like they always admitted that which we know they hadn’t.
CH: And at this point, we’re at the move of, “we don’t need another anecdote.” All of it is supposed to be an anecdote somehow, it’s not evidence. On an even grander scale than just dismissing experiences of individuals in present time, what science as it’s practiced is doing now is dismissing literally all the experiences of every culture that existed before this Western materialistic culture, and all the ones that exist now aside from that. And that to me is just preposterous. You really think that every one is history and every other culture was and is wrong? Really?
AT: Good point!
CH: When you talk to Tom Clark or James Randi, there’s this funny assumption that people bring to the table, when they say, “anything paranormal that’s explained would suddenly be ‘normal’ if we could explain it.” And that’s something else I want to talk about with the moving target of science. Because if we could begin to talk about this so-called paranormal world, wouldn’t that raise the normal world up into it? It wouldn’t be “normal” in the way we think of it now.
I wonder if you have a vision of what would happen as these phenomena become more and more accepted.
AT: It kind of irks me a little bit when even people I like and respect in the paranormal are quick to say, “well this won’t really change things too much. It’s gonna be business as usual, we’ll just have to tweak this or that.”
No, I don’t think we should say that. One of the things that comes to mind is what you were mentioning – the different conceptual consciousness frameworks that different groups might have. If we look at it from that standpoint, an anthropological standpoint, and look at our own cultural bias, we think, “wow, the limits are even lifted up higher in terms of what that new knowing might mean for us.” That goes beyond a little tweaking of our scientific model.
At the same time I don’t think we have to worry about that too much, I don’t think that’s our job. I think our job is just to push forward with what’s on our plate right here and kind of let that stuff happen.