More Options

Group News

Group News

John Gaeddert

Skeptical Briefs Volume 15.3, September 2005

A Mind for Murder

Tampa Bay Skeptics Report (Tampa Bay Skeptics), Summer 2005, Gary Posner: Gary Posner takes an in-depth look at “psychic investigator” Noreen Renier’s account of her career. “I found the entire book an entertaining adventure-it’s a page-turner, and the writing isn’t half-bad,” he writes. “But are the author’s ‘psychic’ claims even half-true?”

Posner examines some of her more dramatic cases, such as those of New York’s Zodiac Killer, her predictions that Ronald Reagan would be shot in the chest, and the downed plane she “helped to locate.” In each case, Posner points out flaws or errors in her predictions.

Posner maintains a healthy sense of skepticism throughout the review, not least because he knows the specifics of some of the cases in the book. He has been following Renier’s activities for years-indeed, the book describes him as being on “something of a crusade to discredit [her]"-but he notes that she does not challenge anything he has written about her.

“Noreen Renier’s ability to enchant such an array of law-enforcement personnel, some to the point of praising the value of her assistance despite contrary evidence (as in the ‘missing plane’ case), is nothing short of astounding,” Posner concludes. “But as even a tasty meal begs dessert, A Mind for Murder leaves me hungry for a morsel of compelling scientific evidence to substantiate this sort of ‘psychic’ power as fact rather than fiction.”

A Scientific Test of Intelligent Design

The SORTified News (Sacramento Organization for Rational Thinking), June 2005, Kenneth E. Nahigian: Nahigian wrote about Paul Davies, the “hardheaded physical scientist with a spiritual streak,” popular author, and winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize. In his article, Nahigian looks at some of the “compelling and slick” arguments of the Intelligent Design (ID) advocates, and the scientific facts and theories that counter such arguments.

Simply put, the universe’s “fundamental forces” are thoroughly lopsided-but, were they not imbalanced just as they are, the stars and galaxies would never have formed. ID proponents argue that “some Grand Old Designer, GOD for short, has been tinkering-tuning things just so for [life as we know it].”

But life could well have adapted to these strange conditions; here on Earth, life has been documented in hot, dry deserts; in the sunless depths of the oceans; and even on nuclear control rods. If the universe’s background constants were even slightly different, a very different sort of life may evolve. A second option is that there might be multiple universes, a “multiverse” in which the cosmological constants vary from universe to universe, and we happen to be in a corner of a universe where conditions allow for life.

Davies crafted a test to differentiate a designed universe from a truly random one, by considering all the combinations of parameters and seeing how many are friendly to the development of life. But the majority of our universe does not seem “friendly;” we've only found one planet with life so far, and the life we've found so far tends to be “self-destructive” and inefficient.

“In short,” Nahigian writes, “[life as we know it] seems to live on the edge of possibility, hanging by a thread, tucked into the tiniest interstice, and facing cosmic blackness on either side. So based on Davies’s test, the data do indeed seem to lean towards the ‘megaverse’ or ‘infinite variation’ hypotheses. And away from ID.”

Skeptical of Skepticism

Rational Enquirer (B.C. and Alberta Skeptics), March 2005, Warren Davidson, M.D.: Davidson examines the importance of using “skepticism and critical thinking"-as a regular set of tools, not as a term of self-identification-and some of the difficulties involved. Along the way, he quotes notable thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard, Carl Sagan, Ray Hyman, and Michael Shermer, showing their concerns with this problem.

He notes that while the principles of critical thinking are objectified and abstract, the actual research is seldom so clear-cut: “Many skeptics utilize the ‘scientific method’ as though it were foolproof. In reality, we do not have one universal method of scientific analysis,” he writes. “Rather, we use a variety of techniques and methodologies for investigation. Prevalent factors such as human error, biases, and politics (micro and macro) complicate the rigorous application of the scientific method. Although these concerns do not nullify the scientific method, they remind us that limitations do exist.”

Davidson cites a 1977 study which shows that, all things being equal, people tend to react more favorably to information that supports their mindset-and to examine it less critically-than information that contradicts it. “Many skeptics state that critical analysis must be done in an environment free of bias, emotion, or pre-determined conclusions,” he notes. “They rely on strict logic and analytical thinking to examine issues at hand. Given that these are philosophical and mathematical concepts, they realistically do not encompass the complexity of human behavior.”

To complicate things further, researchers have to deal with other people’s biases as well: “The same scientific mind-set that thrives on high precision and critical thinking may actually hinder research into areas labeled as ‘fringe,’ ‘far-fetched,’ or ‘extraordinary.’ Many serious scientists are discouraged from investigating certain claims out of fear for their reputations. When this happens, who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? Extreme believers?” When mainstream science is afraid to address an issue, it is doomed to remain on the fringe.

Davidson concludes that while skepticism is still an essential technique to use, it must be tempered by an awareness of human shortcomings. “To truly utilize effective critical thinking,” he writes, “one must be honest about one’s own limitations.”

John Gaeddert

John Gaeddert is the former assistant director of Center for Inquiry public relations.