Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Irrational Rationalizers

There comes a point when 'rational' thinking can become irrational. I say this because some people are so obsessed with being as 'rational' as possible, they end up becoming irrational in the process. It's not like a measuring stick where the bottom is irrational and the top is rational and you can point to how rational you are on the stick. I think it's more like a hill, where the bottom of hill is irrationalism, and the top of the hill is the height of rationalism.

It's been my observation that the hardened skeptic (in regards to paranormal topics) is so concerned with finding a 'rational' explanation for paranormal topics, they don't stop at the top of the hill of rationalism. Instead, they keep going on down the other side of the hill. Sometimes, they may try so hard to get to top of the hill, they end up tumbling down the other side of the hill!

Michael Prescott recently wrote about an example of what I would call skeptics tumbling down the hill of rationalism. It's in reference to a skeptical analysis of an episode of the psychic John Edward's show Crossing Over.

Here is the relevant piece of the program the skeptical report analyzed:

John: Why is Niagara Falls significant?
Lady 1: We was just there.
John: You were just at Niagara Falls, ok.
Lady 1: Me and my daughter.
John: Did you find a feather there?
Lady 1: Yes, and my daughter…
John: Did you tell your daughter that was from daddy?
Lady 1: Yes.
John: Ok, this is a validation that he was there for you, ok? 'Cause he's showing me the feather. Lucky for you that's my mother's symbol when she communicates with me. I find feathers. So it was a very easy symbol for me to get. But I need to validate for you that is was definitely, definitely him there for her.
Lady 1: Thank you. 
Here is what Prescott wrote about it:

So Edward told the woman that he was getting "Niagara Falls," and in fact the woman had just been there. He then asked if she had found a feather there, and the woman said yes. He then asked if she'd told her daughter that the feather was "from daddy" (deceased). The woman confirmed this, too.

Sounds pretty good to me.

The skeptical report says this about it:

But what of the feather? Isn't that a fantastic piece of evidence?
Not really. According to the 35th Annual Niagara Falls Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 29th, 2001, a total of 101 species of birds were found, and a total of 49,744 birds in Niagara Falls, NY.
There are also quite a few photos on the web from Niagara Falls with birds in them:
[Links to bird photos are given.]
Tons of birds on these ones.
I think we can safely say that it would not be uncommon to find a feather at Niagara Falls.
OK, then: What about Niagara Falls itself?
What does John Edward actually say about Niagara Falls? "Did you tell your daughter that the feather she found at Niagara Falls was from her Daddy?"
No. Previously in the reading, we have learned that Catherine has lost her husband. First, John Edward asks: "Why is Niagara Falls significant?" He doesn't say anything about the nature of the significance. He asks Catherine!
From there, she tells John Edward that she was there with her daughter. Since birds are commonplace there, it would be likely if the daughter found a feather – it is fun for kids to find feathers.
Immediately after, Catherine – tearfully – begins to tell John Edward that "her daughter" – and then John Edward breaks in and asks about the father.
It takes three steps, and after each, John Edward asks a crucial question. It doesn't take a genius to see what is happening here.
Prescott has this to say about the skeptical analysis:

According to this argument, Edward's references to a) Niagara Falls, b) finding a feather there, and c) the mom telling the daughter that the feather was a gift from her departed father were all lucky guesses or obvious logical inferences. Money quote: "Since birds are commonplace there, it would be likely if the daughter found a feather – it is fun for kids to find feathers."
Now, really. I mean, come on.
I have no doubt that there are many birds at Niagara Falls, and it was hardly necessary for SkepticReport to cite bird counts and bird photos to establish this uncontroversial point. (I'd guess that these citations were added to make the article look more "scientific.")
As a matter of fact, there are lots of birds everywhere, except maybe Death Valley. I've lived in several different parts of the country, in widely differing climate zones, and have never found any shortage of birds, even in urban areas.
Even so, I have rarely noticed any feathers on the ground, and to the best of my recollection I have never seen a kid pick up a feather. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it's not the sort of thing you see every day. ("Hey, look, there's another kid picking up a feather. Third time today.")
Moreover, I have never heard anyone tell a child that a feather was a gift from a deceased parent, or anything of the kind. Actually, I don't think I've ever heard been part of a conversation about picking up bird feathers in any context.
The whole "explanation" is an obvious example of rationalizing after the fact. If Edward had said that the woman's husband was run over by a dump truck in Newark, maybe SkepticReport would cite statistics and photos proving that there are many dump trucks in Newark. When you think of Newark, aren't dump trucks the first thing that come to mind? And since people sometimes get run over by dump trucks, it was easy for Edward to guess that the husband had died this way. Why, when you think about it, it's just common sense!
SkepticReport also points out a minor and debatable discrepancy between the show's transcript and the way it's written up in Edward's book Crossing Over.
Read the rest of Michael Prescott's post here.

The skeptic's report on the subject was so ridiculous, it was funny. I actually laughed out loud at the report. This is the kind of 'rationalization' that you can frequently find in skeptical reports on paranormal topics.

It's occurred to me recently that some devout, dogmatic religious believers are more rational than some of the self-described 'rational skeptics'. The reason I say that is because oftentimes, a dogmatic religious believer will tell you that they believe what they believe because of faith. They don't deny their dogmas.  However, the 'rational skeptic' seems oblivious to the fact that their skepticism is result of their own dogmatic beliefs. The problem is, they don't realize that a so called 'non-belief' is an indication of a belief in something else. Essentially, non-belief can be a type of belief in itself.

For instance, let's look at a conversation between a Christian and an Atheist, who we'll call Tom and Dick.

Tom: I believe Jesus is the Son of God because I read it in the Bible

Dick: I don't believe that, I think the Bible is just a bunch of fairy tales.

Tom believes Jesus is the Son of God because he believes the Bible is a credible source. Dick doesn't believe Jesus is the Son of God because he believes the Bible is a bunch of fairy tales. Dick's non-belief isn't just a 'non-belief', it's a belief in something else. In a way, you could say that 'non-belief' is a non-existent. There may be things that you don't believe in, but there is a reason that you don't believe the things you don't believe, and that reason is the belief in something else. Otherwise, why wouldn't you believe it? You question something because you already believe something else to be true.

This is the problem with atheism. Atheists have deluded themselves into thinking they are smarter and more rational than everyone else because they don't believe in things they can't see, hear, or measure. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that they do believe in something. Perhaps they've deluded themselves into thinking that because they don't have a system of rituals or an organized set of beliefs, they are totally open minded and not deceived by anyone. But they do believe something. Their belief is that the physical reality that you can see and hear is all that there is, and anything that doesn't fit into that paradigm must not be true. Sometimes, if you try to tell atheists that their lack of a belief in God or the supernatural is in itself a belief in a physical, materialistic paradigm, they'll typically dispute that and laugh about it and just classify such a statement as something like, 'just another big dumb [insert name of religion] believer trying to cling to their fantasies'. They've become so dogmatic into their own atheistic beliefs, they don't even realize that they are the ones clinging to fantasies of 'what you can see is all that there is'.

One reason I criticize the scientific establishment is because they have seemingly deluded much of world (at least in Western nations) into thinking that they are the highest authority of truth. They are not. They have convinced many people that you shouldn't believe in something unless it gets a thumbs up from scientists. They've convinced some people that if a scientist can't explain "how" something works, then it must not be real. This just isn't the way it should be. You have to understand that the scientific establishment has its own pre-conceived notions and dogmas too. As such, scientific scrutiny should not be considered the be-all and end-all of discussion.

The truth is, I don't think anyone can be completely open minded about everything. I think anyone who would tell you they are 100% open minded about everything is either lying to you or lying to themselves. I would say that a 100% open mind is a blank mind. You have to at least have some sort of foundation to start from. As a result, most research is based on 'proving' what someone already believes to be true, or disproving something they already believe is not true. The key point to understand here is that when attempting to disprove something, a person isn't just trying to disprove it because they are a non-believer, but because they already believe something else to be true. So again, it's based on a belief, not non-belief.

When you read the example I listed earlier from Michael Prescott's blog, I think it's quite obvious that the skeptic is attempting to explain away something he or she clearly does not believe in. Because of that, the skeptic's report has about as much value as a devout Muslim's analysis of a Christian doctrine. If the Muslim already clearly believes the Christian doctrine is wrong, then the Muslim's report is obviously going to be biased. The skeptic's report of the psychic phenomena is not much better. Getting different viewpoints on a subject is what open mindedness is, however, we must not forget that skeptical analysis and scientific scrutiny is in itself an analysis based on particular viewpoint and belief. And sometimes a skeptical analysis needs its own skeptical analysis. J

Some very dogmatic religious people are closed minded because they fear being led astray by conflicting viewpoints. Skeptics are closed minded because they don't seem to even realize that they themselves have their own system of beliefs they cling to. Essentially, they don't even realize they are closed minded!

I guess my overall point here is that people need to learn to analyze things for themselves. I know not everyone has an analytical mind, but people don't need to let someone else do all their thinking. And when you climb the hill of rationalism, you don't want to just keep walking straight. If you do, you end up walking back down the other side towards irrationalism. Instead, the goal should be to walk towards the top, then once you're near the top, begin circling around the top of the mountain. That way, you can hear all the viewpoints and analyze them yourself.

4 comments:

  1. Very well thought out post! We have both ends of the spectrum and I would never like to be in a room with someone whose entire ego is tied in there NOT being anything unexplained and at the same time I would not like to be in the same room who thinks all the answers are in the BIBLE. Both have way way too much to loose if you try to convince them of the other side.

    Honestly, the majority of things out there to be found have not be found yet--there is more unexplainable world than explainable, so skeptics really need to keep their minds open just a little, as do religious zealots.

    There is a difference, however, between belief and knowledge. Religion depends on belief blindly without proof. Science depends on proof to the exclusion of belief. Somewhere between the two are the majority of the population, thankfully.

    There is no way to prove or disprove John Edwards abilities. He shows incredible talent in cold reading and occasional moments of insight, but I don't find much of anything he comes up with of significance, especially the handing of a rose symbol and the message "I love you." Duh! But, there are people who believe him. Belief can supersede commonsense as is seen in fundamentalist religions.

    Skeptics should be commonsense and they should have the grace to say there are some things as yet not discovered or explained and perhaps now and then something falls into that place. On the other hand, religious folks need to open their minds up and say that sometimes things like dinosaurs and how long man has been on earth have some leeway from what their passed down tales in the Bible say.

    Well, hope I got that across. I think the point of it was belief versus proof. Very good post! Very thought provoking and yes, the skeptics sounded like pompous asses (but then so do clergy a lot of times too).

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  2. I don't know a whole lot about John Edward, I didn't watch his show, other than maybe a piece here and there. Back when his show was popular, I was still a bit of a skeptic myself about psychic abilities. But, I now know psychic phenomena does exist, so when I saw that ridiculous skeptical analysis of one of his readings, I just had to laugh.

    And...you mention religious people should open their minds as to how long man has been on the earth, well, I think scientists need to open their minds to it too! The truth is, scientists really have no idea how old the earth is either. The whole 4.5 billion year old thing? That age was determined by radiometric dating, which involves data that is interpreted to indicate that based on a theoretical concept known as Uniformitarianism, which assumes that natural laws and processes have operated exactly the same way throughout time as they do now. In the 1960s they realized that wasn't quite accurate, so they created a set of 'correction tables' and set the 'point of equilibrium' at the year 1950. This is what they use, a theoretical concept, to interpret how old the data suggests something is. It's not a 'fact'. Despite the correction tables, they still get dates that don't 'fit' sometimes, and when they do, they just ignore the radiometric data. In order for radiometric dating to work, you'd technically need to know the whole history of the area you are dating. The problem is, they don't know the whole history. So anything from an era older than recorded history can be difficult to truly date accurately. There are things such as intense heat that can 'contaminate' the rock strata (like a volcanic eruption). Heat contamination can throw radiometric dating way off.

    The real problem here is Darwinism and evolution. These beliefs wouldn't hold up if objects couldn't be dated to being millions and billions of years old. But the scientific establishment believes Darwin's theories, so the science has been interpreted to fit in with Darwinist beliefs. There's hundreds of ancient stories of massive floods, but scientists typically dismiss all of these as myths. The problem is, a massive flood of 'Biblical proportions' would complicate how they interpret radiometric data. Similar to 'heat contamination', the massive flooding would 'contaminate' the strata too.

    But whole generations have been brought up into this kind of thinking now. When somebody mentions the flaws of radiometric dating and the age of the earth like I just did, most people assume you must be some kind of religious zealot. I guess it's easier to label someone as a religious zealot than to consider that the 'scientific establishment' might actually be wrong.

    I don't claim to know how old the earth is, but, as I said in my post title 'Forgotten Civilization' a while back, I have a notion to believe that prehistory is a lot more interesting that what mainstream science has portrayed it as. But I guess that's just me being one of them there religious zealots. :)

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  3. Amen brother! I think you hit everything right on the button...I actually have fun laughing at just about all sides of any of debates like this. Whether it be between skeptic and UFO believer or an atheist and fundamentalist. It just seems at times that everyone wants to believe things are black and white and fail to see the gray area in between or the areas where they are the same, i.e. being stuck on their "beliefs".

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  4. Actually, I think most questions probably do have a black and white answer, however, after years of conflicting viewpoints, deceptions, misinterpretations, and errors, the black and white has been mixed in to form a gray that makes it difficult for us to see the black and white now. The problems we have answering questions now I think tend to result from when someone looks at the gray and tries to pull a black and white answer out of it...they may be looking for the white answer, but they may instead pull out a black answer and then cling to it. It's like a trying to make sense out of some confusion, but sometimes trying to make sense of it may make it even more confusing.

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