Saturday, April 18, 2009

Skeptic-KO? An Interview with Alex Tsakiris doesn’t go as expected.

Over the past few months there has been an ongoing discussion/investigation between Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer and Alex Tsakiris, host of podcast Skeptiko. This week the “conclusion” of that discussion, or of at least one particular part of it, has reached the net. I was not involved in the investigation but Ben shared some of his findings with me and I tried to assist in getting some of his interviews switched from analog tape to a digital format. Because of this, I got to hear the unedited interviews between Tsakiris and Radford.

Briefly, Alex and Ben discussed Psychic Detectives. Ben’s position seemed to be that Psychic Detectives are useless because their predictions are vague when accurate, and that they don’t solve crimes. Alex’s position was that their predictions are remarkable and that they are helpful in the same way as Criminal Profilers. [This led to me doing a bunch of research on Criminal Profilers where I discovered that they, like Psychic Detectives, have never led to a crime being solved and are regarded with widely varied opinion among law enforcement types. (see]

The two argued and finally it came down to Ben asking Alex to pick a “best case.” That would later become an “adjective of dispute” but Alex did pick the case. The case in question was that of self-described psychic Nancy Orlen Weber and her investigation of the murder of Amy Hoffman. You can go check out the Skeptiko podcasts to get the background, and if you want more detail on Radford’s extensive investigation I will post links to those when they come online. But a very short summary would be this: Two detectives and Weber remember a series of remarkable predictions from 1982. Alex thinks this is strong evidence that Weber is psychic and that her information was useful, but politics kept it from solving the case. Radford focused on each particular prediction, found that there were discrepancies between the detective’s memories in some details, and concluded that over time the detectives have remembered the hits and forgotten the misses – and that the particulars are not that remarkable. Furthermore, he argues that if Weber had made all the specific predictions she claims, the detectives would have easily solved the case in 1982. The crime was actually solved when the killer called the police making rather bizarre claims and diligent officers noted similarities to his car and that reported in the crimes.

When I listened to the audio of Radford and Tsakiris hashing out their findings I couldn’t help finding myself surprised. As a skeptic Radford’s case made perfect sense to me – the phenomena of “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses” is so well established among skeptics, that I figured everybody was familiar with it. It is argued that this is why we remember the time a clown came into the convenience store with us, but not every single trip to the store. Or why we remember the times when we’re thinking of someone and they call – but don’t remember every time they call. We’re born to find patterns and remember novelty; obvious stuff - to skeptics.

After hearing the disconnect between Radford and Tsakiris, I felt a need to ask Alex some questions. I contacted him because I really wanted to know how he approached these cases. Confession: I have only heard about a dozen episodes of his show. The majority of them were with believers, and his interviews were, for the most part, friendly to the guest. So I reached out to talk with Alex and we scheduled an interview.

It was not what I expected.

Alex was a high-tech entrepreneur, until his company (Mind Path Technologies) was bought by projector maker InFocus. He was also a PhD candidate when he dropped out to do business. In other words, he’s a clever guy. Over the course of his shows he’s talked with a variety of people who claim to have psi-powers, as well as those who study those claims. One thing’s clear to me: Alex doesn’t think that the parapsychologists have been given a fair shake. Alex Tsakiris is very interested in the unknown, but he seems to have a strong focus on psi effects.

It became clear as we started talking that Alex had as many – if not more – questions for me as I did for him. He passionately wants people to see what he sees – to admit to the wondrous mysterious world that allows for psychic dogs and psychic detectives and for an afterlife. Meanwhile, as we’re talking, I want Alex to see what I see – a world where truth can be identified through experiment and evidence – and where reproducible results and statistical significance are law and where claims that can’t meet those requirements are ignored until they do so.

Alex sees skeptics like Radford as “debunkers.” And this is a term that most every skeptical scientific investigator will eschew – for a variety of good reasons. If we’re not talking about psi-effects, or ghosts, or claims of the paranormal – then an investigator probably won’t be called that. The folks who compare car manufacturer MPG to actual road MPG aren’t called “debunkers.” And the word by itself dismisses the findings of the investigator – “Oh, of course he disagrees with Sheldrake – he’s a debunker.”

But Alex has a point – even if it is just one of PR. When dealing with claims of the paranormal, a skeptical investigator is extremely likely to be a debunker. S/he is probably going to find that there is a scientific explanation, a flaw in the study, a trick or hoax was used, or any number of explanations before concluding that, whatever the phenomena was, it demonstrated “paranormal activity.” And why would a science-based investigator ever detect “paranormal” anything? The tools we would use are developed from rationalist naturalist approaches – where things like “object moved across room” always come down to (a) did it really? And (b) what was the physical source of the force that moved it? We never stop and say, “Ghost!” before packing up our stuff. “Ghost!” is no kind of explanation – we don’t even agree what that word means.

As he calls my hobby “debunking” I try to find out more about his point of view. Does he understand “set theory?” Does he agree with, or is he familiar with, the idea of “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses?” Does he self-identify as a believer? What does he think it would take to convince Radford that something “psychic” happened? [By the way, Joe Nickell took exception to the use of "hobby" to describe the kind of thing I do. He says "avocation" is a better word because it doesn't have that "trivialization" connotation. Still - until I get more of my own investigations completed and published...]

I point out to him that he and Ben should have agreed ahead of time what kind of evidence it would take to convince the seasoned skeptic of something “paranormal.” I tell him that I don’t know ANY skeptic who would be convinced by anecdotal evidence over twenty years old. Frankly, I don’t know any skeptic who would be convinced by anecdotal evidence – period. The best most would agree to would be that the claimant believed what he or she was saying.

Alex says he’s familiar with “set theory.” After a long discussion it comes down to this. Alex thinks that Weber’s predictions were right. It doesn’t matter if they were specific or general – to him the conclusion is that she made a string of remarkable predictions. He doesn’t agree that she probably made a ton of wrong predictions, now lost to the failings of human memory. And he wants me to agree with him that this is remarkable.

If he were correct – if Weber made eight correct but vague predictions, in the fashion she claims (no info from radio or newspaper), and she didn’t also do a shotgun litany of misses – then those predictions would indeed be remarkable to me. Would they make me think she was a psychic? More likely they would make me think she knew the killer and was afraid to just say who he was.

Still… Alex’s questions do have me thinking.

What is the role of the skeptic? What if we are debunkers? What is the value of refusing to accept hearsay, relying on science, and diligently filtering as much information as one can before accepting it? And as skeptics – I mean hard-core skeptics – aren’t we left with a dearth of certitude? Is that any way to live?

Well, speaking for myself, I find that it leads to a life less fearful. I think I wasted too much time being afraid of the unproven, the unlikely and the unknown.

Still, Alex has levied some charges against skeptics. He says the Sheldrake experiments were mischaracterized by Wiseman. And he’s none too happy with the way that Dean Radin’s been treated either. To help rectify this he’s setup “Open Source Science” where interested parties can try and reproduce some of these experiments.

Alex is interested in many aspects of the paranormal – and while I try to get him to talk about how he thinks about these matters he wants to know what I think about a variety of phenomena which I don’t feel well versed enough to discuss. Especially the NDE stuff. Alex wants me to give him an explanation for NDEs – after all, I think they’re some kind of natural phenomena in the brain. He says they can’t be because there is no electrical activity in the brain when they happen. I don’t know if he’s right about this – but he certainly sounds confident. What I do know is that I don’t know enough to properly represent “TEAM-SKEPTIC” in this interview. I try as hard as I can to make him hear that I don’t know but he wants me to guess how it might work. I finally say something lame about how maybe the process is the chemical but non-electrical process of the brain shutting off or on. He slams me with a “No! That’s not it!” kind of response. That was about as ungentlemanly as it got – but it irked me a bit.

Truthfully, Alex doesn’t know me. I mean he doesn’t know who I am, what I’ve done – anything except that I claim to be a skeptic and that I wrote him asking some questions. Am I even qualified to represent skepticism? (Answer: I’m only qualified to represent ME.)

Alex asks me if I will look into some of the hot topics on his show and comment on them.

He wants me to look into NDEs, and Psychic Dogs, and other mysteries – and to comment on the skeptical POV. Truthfully, I want a qualified response from the skeptic community and as I’m able I’ll do the level of research I think is needed before talking to Alex again. But if you know a good neurologist skeptic who might be able to talk to Alex about NDEs <cough-cough-Novella -cough> Oh! Excuse me. That’s quite a cough I’m getting…

Additional Background Material:

I use the shorthand “believers” in this article for those who accept the existence of the paranormal and “skeptics” for those who use rigorous criteria for accepting any claims. These words can have connotations, but it is useful shorthand.

As I prepared for my call with Alex I discussed with him via e-mail how to record SKYPE calls – and did a test run with a hardware solution that was successful. But in the 90+ minute call we had at some point one of programs crashed and I’m left with a chopped-up partial recording of Alex along with a pristine copy of my own side of the conversation. After this fiasco I followed Alex’s advice and bought a copy of PrettyMay to record the SKYPE with.

Why was I concerned with Set Theory when talking with Alex? Because to me it seemed he missed the significance of the difference between "the South" and "Florida" in the psychic readings Weber produced. And also the difference between "Eastern European" compared to "Polish." I figured a familiarity with Set Theory would have made obvious the difference between {Florida} and all the states south of New Jersey {Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, etc...} likewise with all the Eastern Europe countries that aren't Poland. But as you hopefully see from this essay, the differences weren't about Set Theory but something a level or two above that with how one evaluates ALL data related to a topic.

1 comment:

Jim Lippard said...

On NDEs, check out skeptic Keith Augustine's four-part series of articles on the subject in the _Journal of Near-Death Studies_, which are accompanied by responses from some of the top NDE researchers, and Keith's reply. Keith has not only engaged at a deep level with the research, he did so in such a way to be invited to participate in that forum by JNDS editor Bruce Greyson.

Keith is at work on an anthology of articles on the evidence against immortality from across disciplines, including neuroscience.

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