In the 1970s and 1980s, belief in the paranormal was the most common target of skeptics. Topics such as extrasensory perception (ESP), astrology, and faith healing were at the top of the list of skeptical concerns. In the past thirty years, skepticism has evolved quite a bit, and while we never stopped being watchdogs on paranormal beliefs and other pseudoscience, they did mostly fade into the background. Other topics, such as science denial and the rise of fake news, took center stage.
But history has shown that there is often a cycle to such things. Interest in UFOs has waxed and waned over the years, for example, never going away completely but fading and then rising again to prominence as a new generation discovers the topic.
Still, we do like to think we are making some progress through exposure and education. We have tried to interact frequently with the press so that at least the skeptical point of view will get better exposure when such topics are addressed. One solid victory was when the BBC announced they will no longer follow a pattern of false balance when dealing with science denial—putting a crank up against the consensus of scientific opinion as if they were equal.
A recent segment of CBS’s Sunday Morning about ESP, however, was worse than false balance; it was a throwback to the early days of credulous reporting about the paranormal with only token skepticism. Not that token skepticism is gone, but it has become more rare, especially from a major network or news outlet.
The piece, by Erin Moriarty, is a complete journalistic fail. It was the kind of piece we used to see thirty-plus years ago before the skeptical movement had any traction. It is a perfect example of what we call token skepticism—a piece that is utterly gullible except for a very brief talking head skeptic who says something generic, such as, “There is no scientific evidence to support this.” The token skepticism is immediately negated, however, by some response from the true believer, a response the skeptic is never allowed to respond to in turn.
This is the kind of piece I used to complain about to reporters or producers, who would then respond, “We are just going to let the audience decide what to believe.” In other words, we are going to completely misinform our readers/viewers, give them a profoundly misleading overview of the topic, and fail to provide any scientific information and just let them be their own skeptics, which in turn is just a face-saving justification for, “We are going to brazenly pander to beliefs we know are not true because it’s better for ratings.”
Here are some specific examples of Moriarty’s utter failure. She opens her piece with Uri Geller, the famous spoon bender from the 1970s. She shows him performing his various “psychic” parlor tricks. Then, in what she probably thought was “balance,” she mentions that his powers were “unreliable,” showing that famous clip from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson when Geller completely failed.
This is the classic defense of ESP true believers—evidence that ESP is not real is instead presented as evidence that ESP is simply quirky and unreliable, which is already part of the ESP narrative and is hardly taken as a criticism. What Moriarty failed to show is that James Randi, who knows how Geller does his parlor tricks, told Carson how to arrange the demonstrations so that Geller could not cheat.
The Carson segment was not evidence that Geller’s powers were unreliable but evidence that Geller does not have ESP at all and instead uses simple magic tricks to fake ESP. You would not know this from watching Moriarty’s hack piece, however.
The main part of the segment covered “Project Stargate,” a U.S. government program to test whether or not ESP could be used for espionage. To tell the story of Project Stargate Moriarty goes to … Dean Radin. That’s right, a crank true believer in ESP. Going to a crank outlier as the expert is an absolute hallmark of this type of gullible reporting. Radin predictably states that the program “worked.”
What Moriarty fails to inform her viewers is that the project was in fact deemed an utter failure. She just notes that it was “shut down” but does not mention that it was shut down because after a decade and millions of dollars, they had nothing to show for it.
The project did not work—it was a complete failure and, in fact, is good evidence that ESP either does not exist or is so weak and unreliable as to be useless.
The project focused mainly on remote viewing because that is what spies would like to do. The “gifted” people they examined could not produce results that were distinguishable from chance. It is one thing to do a demonstration in a controlled environment where you can cheat; it is another to produce real-world, actionable results. Any “hits” that they had were rare and random, the kind of chance hits you would expect from a decade of research.
But of course you can focus on those random hits as if they are representative and let the alleged psychics be the ones to tell their own gullible story. Focusing on the hits, ignoring the misses, and failing to put the data into any scientific context is what pseudoscientists—and pseudojournalists—do.
Moriarty ends with a demonstration with Dean Radin in which she looks at pictures, some emotional and others neutral, to see if her pupils dilate prior to seeing an emotional picture, which Radin claims is evidence of precognition. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Moriarty is psychic, and her pupils dilated five seconds prior to an emotional image.
This is a great noisy setup for generating false correlations. Just keep collecting data until you have a chance correlation, then focus on that. These setups are also easy to p-hack if you want to get published. Real rigorous controls, however, always make any alleged effect disappear.
The whole piece was profoundly disappointing. It’s not as if there isn’t an entire community of skeptics out there with useful information and insight at their fingertips. This is all really old territory.
I don’t know if Moriarty is a true believer. What is most likely is that she is just an old-school journalist who thinks of paranormal pieces as “fluff” pieces that don’t require journalistic rigor. You can just lazily let the cranks and believers make their sensationalist claims, have a token skeptic for plausible deniability, add a little superficial disbelief of your own to put yourself in the role of “skeptic,” and you’re done. This identical piece could have aired literally thirty years ago with no change.
But there is one thing that is clearly different today. At least we now have social media (for all its ills) to call out journalists when they produce such dreck.