Predicting Pseudoscience Conspiracy Theories – An Interview with Craig Foster
March 3, 2017
Craig Foster is a professor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Craig presented a Sunday paper at CSICon 2016 titled “Predicting Pseudoscience: Concussions and the Developing Defense of American Football.”
Gerbic: Craig, so glad to get a chance to catch up with you. I’m very excited to talk to you because this was your very first CSICon; in fact, it was your very first skeptic conference of any kind. When we first talked, it was Friday morning and you were just a few hours into this. What brought you here and what did you expect?
Foster: Hi Susan. It’s great to catch up with you as well.
I took over my department’s statistics and research methods sequence almost four years ago. I thought that the course should place greater emphasis on scientific reasoning as an everyday skill. This led me into the area of pseudoscience, a topic that I found, and continue to find, fascinating. I expected that CSICon would provide a crash course in the development of scientifically unreasonable beliefs.
To be perfectly honest, I also was intrigued to see who would attend a conference devoted to skepticism. I wasn’t judging or anything like that. I was obviously aware that I was also a member of this group. I just thought it was interesting. I am a social psychologist after all.
Gerbic: How did that impression change over the weekend?
Foster: CSICon as a vehicle for learning about scientific reasoning and pseudoscience exceeded my expectations. The speakers were incredible. They were clearly well-practiced in conveying important scientific issues in understandable and engaging ways.
My impression of the people did not really change because I didn’t know what to expect. I never expected them to be so friendly. I felt comfortable introducing myself to anybody.
This might seem odd, but I did leave CSICon with a greater appreciation for skepticism as a movement. The world would be a much better place if we could mitigate some of the implausible beliefs that are ultimately harmful. I really admire all those skeptics who try to minimize that harm by addressing misinformation.
Consider, for example, only James Randi’s work on faith healing. How many lives has he saved by exposing the problems underlying faith healing? We’ll never know. Maybe Professor Krauss can find an alternative universe where James Randi neglects his work on faith healing to become the lead singer for Van Halen. Then we’d know.
Gerbic: What were the highlights from the Conference?
Foster: Well, learning about skepticism from Susan Gerbic was one. Don’t edit that out Susan! I really enjoyed meeting Elizabeth Loftus because I admire her important work so much. There were so many other people I enjoyed meeting. There are still more whom I would like to meet. Maybe next year. I brought up the notion of the skeptical superhero in class this semester. I could have used a picture of several people who were at CSICon. (I used a picture of Paul Offit, BTW.)
I really don’t want to highlight any particular talk because they were so uniformly positive. I take that back. I will say that Ron Lindsay’s talk about pseudoscience and conspiracy theories being hard targets rather than soft targets was particularly meaningful to me. As a social psychologist I totally agree. Humans’ ability to elude sensible interpretations of the available evidence is remarkable.
Both of the interviews were outstanding. I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s reflections about science and religion. James Randi was the real deal like always.
One of the best things about the conference though was feeling like I was surrounded by people that would understand my point of view. I don’t need that every day, of course. Skepticism should encourage people to listen seriously to other points of view. Still, I have defended atheism for as long as I can remember, and I take personally the negative and unfair claims that people sometimes offer about atheists. It was kind of strange and really cool to be in a group where I could share my agnosticism, if I cared to, and nobody was going to think that I am some type of amoral nihilist. I also like just being around other people who are interested in learning about science and reason.
Gerbic: Craig, I first met you at CSICon when you approached me when I was sitting at my GSoW table wearing a Medusa outfit. We had a great conversation, but you told me that we already had a “history” because of a Wikipedia edit I had done. Can you please explain what that was all about?
Foster: Sure. United States Air Force officers need solid scientific reasoning. We thought that we could facilitate scientific reasoning by having Air Force Academy cadets experience a pseudoscientific product rather than simply read about such products. We decided to examine Phiten necklaces because they were popular and we could create a useful control condition by covering Phiten necklaces and similar clothesline segments with tape. The cadets wore Phiten or clothesline for a couple of days. Naturally, they did not report any statistically significant differences in terms of their mood at the end of the trial. There is no sensible mechanism to explain how these necklaces would work.
Later, I learned that some glorious Wikiepediatrician had edited the Phiten Wikipedia page on our behalf. Remember, I was still new to skepticism at that time. I never thought to simply go into Wikipedia myself and update the Phiten webpage. Now, when people look up Phiten on Wikipedia, they see the scientific problems underlying these necklaces and other Phiten products. I know that investigating and debunking Phiten necklaces won’t save the world, but I do like to think that we have helped promote scientific reasoning. I would also remind people that $20 is a considerable amount of money for many families in the U.S. and internationally. Phiten also offers more expensive products like the titanium crystal necklace for $390. I wouldn’t want young athletes who don’t have the money to spend on Phiten products to feel like they are at a disadvantage.
Gerbic: You wrote this all up and it appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. From time to time we GSoW editors will do something we call Backwards Edits. That means taking a notable citation (such as your article as it appeared in SI) and then adding it to a Wikipedia page. Most of the time we have no knowledge of the topic beforehand. This is what I did. Then I wrote to Ken Frazier and asked him to let you know. I wanted you notified so you knew that your article was no longer just “speaking to the choir” but was now the only criticism on the Phiten Wikipedia page. This way it reaches out to people who would probably not be normal SI readers. Possibly the media will do a story on Phiten in the future and will now be aware of the test you did.
I’m glad you didn’t go to Wikipedia to make that edit because as the author of the piece you have a conflict of interest. It’s best to leave it to the regular Wikipedia editor. The problem is that we don’t have enough editors. (Shameless plug here for readers interested in joining the GSoW team: we train and mentor; write to me at GSoWteam@gmail.com) By the way, in the last thirty days the Phiten Wikipedia page has received 1,467 page views.
Tell me more about how you are teaching critical thinking to the students in your classes? Are you doing more of these tests?
Foster: Not yet. I have considered a couple of ideas. There are two things that give me pause. First, I would like to examine whether the in-class experiment achieves the learning goals that I believe it achieves. Interestingly, this would create two conjoined studies—one that tests a pseudoscientific claim and another that tests the learning outcomes associated with the test of the pseudoscientific claim. Second, I also want to keep the investigation safely apart from religious beliefs that are not at odds with science. For example, testing Ouija boards would be interesting, but it gets into the realm of the afterlife more than I would like. Maybe I am being overly cautious, but I do need to maintain an environment that is fair to science but not unnecessarily challenging toward faith.
I have tackled this issue from a different angle. I asked some of my coworkers to prioritize what they would want our cadets to learn in a statistics and research methods sequence. This “assessment” was pretty rough, but appreciation for empiricism was clearly at or near the top. Interestingly, our course did not previously spend a lot of time encouraging this appreciation. It is easy to tell students that empiricism is important, but it probably takes more than that to get students to really embrace it. I wanted cadets to immerse themselves in the notion that there are many folk beliefs that are partially or wholly inconsistent with the science of behavioral science. I therefore made this the overarching project for the first semester. Cadets are required to find a behavioral science folk theory that is not supported by science. They need to describe the folk theory clearly and then review the scientific evidence that questions the folk theory. I am hopeful that this experience will help cadets appreciate the need for behavioral science rather than behavioral opinion.
Gerbic: When we first talked, you told me that you were going to be giving a Sunday paper. I asked about your topic, and when you mentioned football I started to protest. You quickly explained that football was just an example; the lecture was more about predicting future pseudoscientific beliefs. After listening to your paper, I was extremely impressed. I not only enjoyed your presentation, but I “got it.” Please tell readers about your paper.
Foster: Thanks. I am grateful to hear that. I thought all of the Sunday presenters were really, really good. I confess that I felt some pride in being included with the others. I also was a little concerned that I had to hold my own in the middle of such competence.
My talk was simple theoretically. Scholars never predict pseudoscience. They always examine existing pseudoscience retroactively. This is understandable because predicting pseudoscience is exceptionally difficult. Still, I think it would be strong science indeed if we could use the known characteristics of pseudoscience to predict the nature of a developing pseudoscience.
There are different ways this could be done, but it came to me one day that the future might bring forth pseudoscience in defense of American football. The public seems to be increasingly aware of American football as a public health problem, but many people remain tremendously passionate about the sport. To be blunt, if American football becomes truly threatened, it is not going to go gently into that good night. A community of athletes and fans will develop formally to distribute scientifically unrealistic or unsubstantiated defenses in an effort to save American football. As I noted in my talk, one can already see the initial elements of this community. I still think that the full-blown pseudoscientific community is yet to come. I am grateful for CSICon and Fort Collins SkeptiCamp for allowing me to share these predictions in this type of public forum. Again, the future is tough to predict. We’ll see how this plays out.
Gerbic: So, CSICon 2016 is over. And one of the reasons we attend these events is to renew that “spark” that keeps us going, to meet new people and renew old acquaintances. It appears from what I see on Facebook that you are keeping busy in the skeptic world. I “introduced” you to a good friend of mine, Linda Rosa (of Therapeutic Touch fame). And then I saw that you presented at the Fort Collins, Colorado SkeptiCamp.
Foster: Thanks for introducing me to Linda Rosa. She embodies the characteristics I love most about skeptics. She is intelligent and insightful, and she uses those skills to try to promote the best possible health practices here in Colorado. She does it because she cares about the well-being of others.
I suspect that CSICon gave me a particularly strong spark because it was my first attendance at a skeptics’ meeting or conference. I found myself thinking that I have been a skeptic my whole life but I only found skepticism a few years ago. To see that there is a community of people who have similar skeptical views was refreshing.
My experience at CSICon has been really useful to me professionally as well. It encouraged me to consider how I can insert skepticism into my department’s statistics and research methods sequence. This has facilitated my thought about how skepticism can be separated from political partisanship and from different aspects of faith. I have a responsibility to promote scientific reasoning in a way that maintains a constructive and respectful environment by balancing these tensions fairly. This isn’t always easy of course. However, I do think we need to “go there” because these tensions won’t change for cadets when they are on active duty. They need to be pro-science and pro-scientific reasoning while also being respectful.
Gerbic: Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, Craig. I know you were brand new to all this and really didn’t know what to expect. Readers, keep in mind that everyone at these events is approachable. There will always be an area where people are gathered. As we get closer to the date, look for the Facebook group that discusses where people are hanging out. Readers, put in your vacation requests now. October 26–29. Las Vegas, Nevada—Excalibur Hotel Casino. Arrive in time to attend the workshops usually held Thursday morning and stay for Sunday Papers. As a longtime skeptic conference attendee, my advice is to just stay till Monday; it’s so much easier, and you can thank me later.