Photo by Karl Withakay
James Alcock is a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is also a fellow and member of the Executive Council for the Committee for the Skeptical Inquirer and one of the original faculty lecturers with the Skeptic’s Toolbox.
Susan Gerbic: Hello, Jim. It’s great to get a chance to catch up. We first met in 2002 when I attended my first Skeptic’s Toolbox. That was one of my very first experiences doing anything outside of reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine and various skeptic books. The Internet and social media sure has changed things now, but I still value the things I learned at each of the Toolboxes. They provided hands-on learning, focused on one topic, which is an incredible way to retain information. I know you and the rest of the faculty will be doing a full-day workshop at CSICon 2017 on Thursday, October 26, from 11:00–5:00. Can you tell readers a bit about what they can expect? By the way, I need to mention that attending the workshops requires a separate admission ticket not included in the conference registration.
James Alcock: Basically, this is a “hands-on” session, where the attendees are divided into five or so groups and each group is given an assignment that involves analysis of a research paper leading to the preparation of a summary that is presented to the entire workshop at the end of the day. Ray Hyman will open the session by laying out some guidelines and each of the four other instructors, including myself, will make brief introductions and then be available for consultation throughout the session.
Gerbic: I just watched your 2016 CSICon lecture “Believe It or Not: Can We Always Make a Choice?” That was really enlightening for me. I enjoyed the Isaac Asimov part where his father tells him after a walk in the park that he (Isaac) had learned nothing about trees, only about the labels we give to trees. You said, “Just because we apply a label does not mean we understand it; it hides ignorance.” Can you expand on this thought?
Alcock: Sure. It often feels as though we have explained something when we can label it. Take the example of where someone is thinking about a vacation that she took three years ago with her partner and, without any conversation beforehand, her partner asks her just at that moment if she remembers the little restaurant they went to when they were on vacation three years ago. This is of course a striking coincidence, and they are unable to think of any normal explanation, and so they decide that it must be an example of mental telepathy. However, that is not an explanation although they accept it as one. Since mental telepathy is defined only in terms of “communication that takes place without any known channel of communication being involved” and has no independent meaning and cannot be directly measured, then it explains nothing. Their explanation becomes: we thought of the same vacation at the same time and it was a communication that took place without any normal channel of communication, which must be an instance of “communication that takes place without any normal channel of communication.” This is completely circular, and the label, which seemed to them to be an explanation, is just a label. This is different from saying that the light came on when I flicked the switch “because of electricity that flowed when I completed the circuit.” This is an explanation because “electricity” has meaning independent of the label.
Gerbic: You wrote a terrific article in 2011 about Daryl Bem’s research, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.” Your response was called “Back from the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair.” It’s hard to believe, but from time to time I keep hearing Bem brought up as having proved something and done good science. What’s the latest on this?
Alcock: That research was so poorly conducted that it does not bear glorification by attempts to replicate it. However, replication attempts have been made without success. For example, the same journal that published Bem’s research has since published an extensive (failed) replication attempt (Galek et al., 2012, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 103, No. 6, “Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi”).
Gerbic: In 2003, you published “Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi,” which talks about parapsychologists not considering that the null hypothesis is a valid consideration. You talk about how they fail to take it seriously, which leads them to excuse failures and to make excuses for the outcomes.
Alcock: The pursuit of science should be directed at seeking explanations, whatever they are, rather than searching for preferred explanations. Parapsychology is directed at finding evidence that paranormal phenomena exist, rather than at explaining the strange, anomalous experiences that people have from time to time. Parapsychologists show little interest in normal explanations for those experiences because they are committed to finding evidence of the paranormal. Their commitment is such that failures to replicate, rather than suggesting that perhaps there is “nothing there” (the null hypothesis), the failures are reinterpreted in terms of some made-up “effect.” Therefore, they will say, if one parapsychologist cannot replicate an experiment carried out by another, this does not suggest to them that there is perhaps nothing there or that there are problems with their procedure; instead, they take this failure as evidence supporting their “experimenter effect.”
Gerbic: You’ve been in this game for a while, Jim, and can look back on our history with more perspective than someone who just found this thing called “organized skepticism.” What do you think? Are we making any difference? What should we be focusing on to make a difference?
Alcock: When CSICOP began, and I was fortunate to have been invited to the initial conference where the organization was formalized, there were virtually no sources of critical commentary with regard to the paranormal that could be consulted by the public or media. The scientific world paid virtually no attention to the paranormal, and so newspapers were filled with one-sided accounts of parapsychological breakthroughs. This led to such crazy things as “spoon bending parties” among some American congressmen, the use of “biorhythm analysis” by some companies with regard to vetting their employees, and even at one point the use of horoscopes to help a judge decide on terms of punishment. The world was awash in supernatural/paranormal belief masquerading in the mantle of science. CSICOP/CSI and the Skeptical Inquirer brought about a sea change which led to the development of a large network of skeptical organizations around the world and many publications and books that have focused the cool light of reason on paranormal claims. Yes, this has made a very significant difference. Now, it is very often the case that television reports and newspaper accounts of paranormal claims involve at least some consultation with skeptical, critical sources. In future, we need to try harder to reach the impressionable minds of children, not to teach them what to think, but to help teach them how to think in a critical manner.
Gerbic: On Richard Saunders’s podcast The Skeptic Zone, one of his guests, Chris French, said your 1981 book was instrumental to him. French said, “I kind of fell into this trap myself….I used to be a believer, a true believer until quite well into my adulthood. And it was reading one particular book by James Alcock, called Parapsychology—Science or Magic? that made me realize there was another way of explaining all these unusual experiences, and one that actually made a lot of sense to me! … I can turn ’round to him [James Alcock] and say, ‘You are the bastard that got me to where I am today! You’ve got a lot to answer for!” Chris French is one of the skeptic bulldogs who has gone on to do amazing things. Who inspired you, Jim?
Alcock: Martin Gardner and his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
Gerbic: I’m very much looking forward to seeing you and the rest of the Toolbox faculty this October.
People, this conference has limited seating and it will sell out, so get you tickets right away, make sure to fly in on Wednesday in order to take full advantage of the Thursday workshops. And I would strongly suggest flying out again on Monday after breakfast, where you will find myself and the other “survivors” sleepily eating our scrambled eggs. For more information about the after-hour doings, follow the CSICon conference Facebook page.