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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 25

May 5, 2003

"Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice"
--Will Durant

Subscribers 2,064

(Previous newsletters are archived at http://www.skepdic.com/news/)

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This issue of the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter--our 25th--marks our one year anniversary. We've grown from 258 subscribers to 2,064. At this rate, the entire world will be subscribed in about 3 million years. In any case, I am introducing a new feature with this issue: a brief critical thinking lesson (see below). Thanks to all of you for subscribing.

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 The Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

I received the bad news recently that the man most responsible for The Skeptic's Dictionary being published by John Wiley & Sons has been removed from his post as editor of Wiley's general interest line of books due to "reorganization." Jeff Golick supported the book when nobody else was interested in publishing it. He has been my editor for the past year and a half and I could not have asked for a better editor. I will miss working with him. Despite this setback, there will be no change in the publication schedule for the book. We're still looking at July as the month we launch.

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 New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

Since the last newsletter, I have

  • added comments on the difficulty of cloning primates and on the discovery that Clonaid, which supposedly has cloned several humans, has only two employees;

  • added a comment on the use of forged documents by the President of the United States regarding Iraq's nuclear threat;

  • noted that traditional Chinese medicine has been used in Hong Kong for the first time since WWII in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of the SARS virus;

  • noted Maureen Dowd's comments on the Rev. Franklin Graham's appearance at the Pentagon on Good Friday, much to the dismay of Muslims;

  • added a link to a new article from The Straight Dope on graphology;

  • updated the New Books page to include links to James Watson's new book on the history of genetics and Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin (who never got the credit she deserved for her work that led to Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA's structure); Andrew Parker's new book on the role of vision in the history of evolution, and a new anthology edited by Paul Kurtz on Science and Religion. I also include a link to Taner Edis's The Ghost in the Universe: God in the Light of Modern Science;

  • noted the huge recall of "alternative" medicines that led to the loss of license to produce medicines by Australia's largest contract manufacturer of alternative meds;

  • added a link to Skeptic News (UK, from The Skeptic magazine) on my Skeptical Links page;

  • and we've added several new translations by Dario Ventra into Italian.

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Beginning with this issue, I am going to devote a section of each newsletter to a lesson in critical thinking. The first lesson regards the difference between induction and deduction. It was inspired by an article in the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (SI) by Massimo Pigliucci on the same topic. I sent a letter based on the following to SI.

Induction and Deduction: Critical Thinking Lesson 1

Massimo Pigliucci is certainly correct in saying that “it is important for anyone interested in critical thinking and science to understand the difference between deduction and induction” (“Elementary, Dear Watson” May/June 2003). However, it has been several decades since logicians have defined that difference in terms of going from general to particulars or vice versa. His own example of deduction belies the problem. It doesn’t go from the general to the particular but from one general and one particular statement to another particular statement. All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. General statements aren’t needed at all in the premises of some deductive arguments. For example, “Socrates is a stonemason. Socrates is a philosopher. Therefore, at least one stonemason is a philosopher.” This is a valid deductive argument. “Rumsfeld is arrogant. Rumsfeld is Republican. Therefore, all Republicans are arrogant” is also a deductive argument, though an invalid one, going from particulars to the general.

Induction, says Pigliucci, “seeks to go from particular facts to general statements.” That is true sometimes, but not all the time. Jones was late yesterday so he’ll probably be late today is an inductive argument. I admit it is not a cogent argument, but cogency is a different matter.

The general to particular relationship isn’t rich enough to serve as a good line of demarcation between induction and deduction. Any standard logic text today will make the distinction in terms of arguments that claim their conclusions follow with necessity from their premises (deductive arguments) and those which claim their conclusions follow with some degree of probability from their premises (inductive arguments). This distinction in terms of premises either implying their conclusions with necessity or supporting their conclusions to some degree of probability is not without its problems, however. One virtue of the general/particular distinction is that there is not likely to be any ambiguity about a statement being one or the other. But there will be many cases where it won’t be clear whether an arguer is claiming a conclusion follows with necessity. There will also probably be many cases where the arguer should be claiming a conclusion follows with some degree of probability but the language might well indicate that the arguer thinks it follows with necessity. For example, many people might argue that since the sun has always risen in the east, it is necessarily the case that the sun will always rise in the east. Yet, it isn’t necessarily the case at all. It just happens to be the case and it is easy to imagine any number of things happening to the earth that could change its relationship with the sun.

By dividing arguments into those whose conclusions follow with necessity and those which don’t we end up dividing arguments into those whose conclusions are entailed by their premises and those whose conclusions go beyond the data provided by the premises. A valid deductive argument can’t have true premises and a false conclusion, but a cogent inductive argument might. This may sound peculiar, but it’s not. Even the best inductive argument cannot claim that the truth of its premises guarantees the truth of its conclusion. Even the worst valid deductive argument--that is, one with premises that are actually false--can still claim that if its premises were true, its conclusion would have to be true. No valid deductive argument can guarantee the truth of its premises unless its premises are tautologies. (In logic, a tautology is a statement that cannot possibly be false: e.g., “A rose is a rose” or “Either it will rain or it will not rain” or “If Browne is psychic and stupid, then Browne is stupid.”)

So, how does knowing the difference between induction and deduction have any bearing on critical thinking? If you understand deduction, then you should be able to understand why scientific experiments are set up the way they are. For example, if someone claims to be able to feel another person’s “energy field” by moving her hands above the patient’s body, as those who practice therapeutic touch claim, then she should be able to demonstrate that she can detect another person’s energy field when that field is beneath one of her hands, even if her vision is blocked so that she can’t see which hand is over the alleged energy field. If one can detect energy fields by feel alone then one must be able to detect energy fields without the assistance of any visual or aural feedback from the patient. Likewise, if one claims to be able to detect metal or oil by dowsing, then one ought to be able to detect metal or oil hidden from sight under controlled conditions. If one claims to be able to facilitate communication from someone who is retarded and physically unable to talk or point, then one should be able to describe correctly objects placed in the visual field of the patient even if those objects cannot be seen by the facilitator.

On the other hand, the nature of induction should, at the very least, make us humble by reminding us that no matter how great the evidence is for a belief, that belief could still be false.

See also Austin Cline, Deductive & Inductive Arguments How do they differ?

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Responses to selected feedback

Graham McDermott thinks there is an inherent flaw in the approach I take towards topics occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural.

With all due respect, doesn't the very nature of your site preclude the legitimacy of its conclusions? What I mean is that since the skeptical point of view has been decided ahead of time for any given issue, any analysis can hardly be called objective. It is just as silly as creating a website called "The Believer's Dictionary," the purpose of which is to show that all paranormal phenomena are true and legitimate. In science you cannot try to fit the data to support the desired conclusion or your results will be dismissed as biased and invalid. I think the same applies here.

Graham's point has an air of plausibility about only because it is based on two false assumptions. He assumes skepticism is a point of view rather than a methodological approach. And he assumes that I mold the data to fit preconceived beliefs. He also hasn't read my FAQ or the Introduction to The Skeptic's Dictionary. There is no need for a Believer's Dictionary because there has always been an abundance of supportive material for paranormal claims. What is needed is a counterbalance to all that pro-paranormal material.

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Janice Mcgirt wrote about an experience she had with a person she worked with and asked for my thoughts on it.

This women worked with me as a nurse and one night we were talking and she looked at me right in the middle of a conversation and said there was a man behind me laughing at what I was saying (at the time we were in an office alone). I told her my father was long dead but if anyone would be laughing at me it would be him. I then asked her to tell me what he looked like, she said he was pointing to the corner of his mouth indicating to her that was where she should look. I was very surprised at this because the only thing different about my father's looks was he had a deformity in the corner of his mouth. She did not say that she could see the deformity only that he pointed to it after I asked her to describe him. Donna then explained to me that she has always been able to have these visions and she did not like to talk about them. The reason she told me was because she knew me and I felt because she trusted me not to laugh or criticize her. She did not ask for money or had she ever benefited from this ability she has. I just knew her as a shy, somewhat introvert lady who seemed rather embarrassed by what she saw. So my question is could she have been for real? How did she know anything about my father when I know for a fact I never had told her about him?

My thoughts: She didn't know anything about your father. She hallucinated (had a vision) and you identified the hallucination as your father. The idea of a laughing man obviously reminded you of your father. Her hallucination pointed to his mouth. You related this to your father's deformity (rather than to the laughing). You provided all the detailed content to the hallucination. Donna just saw a man laughing who pointed to his mouth. (There are probably dozens of other things she might have seen that you could also have related to your father.) I don't doubt that Donna and many other people hallucinate (have visions). This is not normal and is a sign of some sort of brain malfunction and you were right not to laugh at or criticize Donna. She may think of her visions as a curse, a gift, or a nuisance, but however one looks at them, they are real to Donna. Visions become real to other people when they interpret them and give them meaning or significance, which is what you did by finding your father in Donna's hallucination. Of course I can't prove that Donna didn't see your father, but I think it very unlikely. What you did is something we humans are hardwired to do: find patterns. Something similar happens in sessions with mediums who claim the dead send them messages when they are ready to perform. They throw out the verbal equivalent of Donna's hallucination and somebody in the audience recognizes her father. As with your experience there is a deep emotional element in these experiences, which fortifies and validates them for the subject. The difference, of course, is that Donna doesn't claim to be psychic.

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In the last newsletter, I mentioned a cult called The Pathwork and asked if anybody had ever heard of it. Chris Daniels responded:

My mother was in The Pathwork for a time, and brought me along. It did exist, and I suppose it still does. For some reason, even at the age of thirteen I found it impossible to take them seriously. My mother also did the Seth Speaks thing, Dianetics, Anthroposophy, Gurdjieff and everything else at one point or another. I don't really remember much of it, except that in hindsight it's apparent that they were taking most of her money. My mother was manic depressive and needed medical help. She finally had several severe breakdowns followed by shock treatments.

My mother is dead now, but in the late 70's she began to go to a decent shrink and took medication; she was a much more stable person, though she still acted a little strangely at times. She even began to sing in jazz clubs in NYC, which was a childhood ambition of hers. In the last years of her life, she was content, and she and I were able to make peace with one another a few years before she died.

None of the above-mentioned scams did anything at all for my mother. As far as I'm concerned, they knew all along that they were harming her chances for mental health, and still they took her money and told her their moronic, ruinous lies. Businesses -- for they are businesses plain and simple -- like The Pathwork and Scientology are owned and operated by ruthless predators who are among the worst people on the planet.

Keep up the good work.

We try.

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Useless Stats

According to Alta Vista, there are 6,297 links back to skepdic.com and 2,295 links back to www.skepdic.com (8,592 total). For comparison, Quackwatch (www.quackwatch.com) has 8,597 links to its pages and Michael Shermer's Skeptic Society page (www.skeptic.com) has 4,924. CSICOP has 10,427 back links and James Randi's Educational Foundation has 4,012. Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh don't have 800 back links between them. Maybe the skeptics are more popular than we think! (To find back links for any site at Alta Vista search for link:http//"name of site" (e.g., link:http://skepdic.com).)

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News

I did two interviews recently, one for a Belgian newspaper and the other for an Australian web site.

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CSICOP is sponsoring a conference called "The Skeptic's Toolbox" from August 14-17, 2003, in Eugene, Oregon. I am going to try to attend but the fall term begins for me on August 18 and I am obligated to attend meetings on August 15. The reason I'm interested in attending this conference is that it will be covering exactly the same material as I will be covering in a new course I'll be teaching in the spring of 2004 called "Critical Thinking about the Occult and the Paranormal." I plan to teach basic critical thinking skills while having the students read books like Gary Schwartz's The Afterlife Experiments, Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe, Larry Dosey's Healing Words, and Tom Schroder's Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives. We'll be looking at the claims of each of these people that they have scientific evidence proving life after death, reincarnation, that prayer heals, or various paranormal claims. The CSICOP conference is going to examine a variety of paranormal claims allegedly supported by scientific research. Of course I already have my own ideas about the inadequacies of these studies. Nevertheless, I am sure I would find it beneficial to hear what the CSICOP experts such as Ray Hyman. Barry Beyerstein, and Wallace Sampson have to say about them.

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Thanks to John Renish for his advice and editorial assistance.

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