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Discuss the note to the TED community on the withdrawal of the TEDxWestHollywood license.

For discussion: http://blog.ted.com/2013/04/01/a-note-to-the-ted-community-on-the-withdrawal-of-the-tedxwesthollywood-license


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    Apr 4 2013: In the interest of making certain we're all on the same page with this concept, here's an article from Scientific American, published under the auspices of the AAAS. Note that neither science nor pseudoscience is defined by its practitioners, but by its qualities.

    What is Pseudoscience?

    Wikipedia's current list:

    List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
    • Apr 4 2013: Michael Shermer, nyet comrade. Wikipedia, nyet comrade.
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        Apr 4 2013: So much for any consideration of the argument on its own merits.

        That's one of the most succinct examples of an ad hominem fallacy I've seen in this discussion.


        The allusion to Soviets makes it an association fallacy as well. A twofer!

        Steve, you're on a roll.
        • Apr 4 2013: That was just my conclusion - not my argument. Thus no fallacy. If you want the argument why neither is a particularly reliable source on this issue I would be happy to provide details.
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        Apr 4 2013: But you've been pestering me for days to judge arguments on their own merits, not on the basis of their sources. That sounds like hypocrisy to me. Looks like a three-in-one.
        • Apr 5 2013: Well Wiki's list is simply a list of things that have, at one time or another, been called pseudoscience by someone or other. Complete waste of time - hypnosis is on the list for example. Re Shermer, in that article he is merely putting forward his suggestion for a criterion and not anything to be taken as a formal statement of what we should be using here. That's the specifics, this is the general: Wiki is very poor on almost any controversial subject because so many ideologies are battling for control, and Shermer is a well-known anti-science advocate who is committed a priori to the falsity of certain empirical propositions. Thus both are not ideal due to general problems and both have specific problems in this particular case.
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        Apr 5 2013: I'm curious and quite earnest, Steve. Could you (or anyone else in this discussion) answer this for me?

        Do you believe in pseudoscience?

        If so, what are your criteria?

        If not, what's your rationale?

        If either so or not and you reject rationality, feel free to state non-rational and irrational reasons, too.
        • Apr 5 2013: I think (because it's true) that nothing is first and foremost pseudoscience. That is, everything, whatever it is, is better described as something else first. Moreover, it is used primarily as little more than a term of abuse, like woo, and not as any kind of objective label. Thus I have little use for it, and people who do use it, I have found, use it as someone might use a cross to try to ward off a vampire. That is, if we can get the pseudoscience label on it I don't need to think about it at all.

          Re rationality, I don't really know what it would mean to reject rationality.One point where I do differ in this respect is that I think rational judgments can often occupy a spectrum rather than there being one definite rational position per issue. For example, re psi, I might say about the following general categories of belief:

          1. Absolute belief - not rational given the available public evidence (but possibly rational for an individual with particular personal experiences).

          2. Tentative belief - rational given the evidence.

          3. 50/50 - rational given given the evidence.

          4. Tentative disbelief - rational given the evidence.

          5. Absolute disbelief - not very rational given the evidence.

          6. Absolute disbelief to the extent that anyone of the view that (1) or (2) is considered mad or stupid - totally irrational given the evidence.
        • Apr 5 2013: I find pseudoscience a rather difficult term to describe anything and prefer to either talk about science or not. Science for me demand a methodological framework which, by a set of ideas, construct a justified belief (episteme) of a certain experience or observation at hand.

          A methodological framework does not conscise of quantitative methods alone, but include qualitative and historical methods as well. This means that if a person experience something anomalous, the person can not be rejected this in the name of science because the case is a qualitative one. What may be rejected are ideas which attempt to explain the reason behind the person's anomalous experience which does not have a justified philosophical framework; this as a result that science is founded upon philosophy.
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        Apr 5 2013: Thanks. One could also argue that nothing is first and foremost evidence, but you have made evidence a significant criterion.

        When you say "the evidence," what kind of evidence do you mean? Only "scientific" evidence? Also "pseudoscientific" evidence? Only material evidence, or also the evidence from intuition, dreams, and encounters with spirits?

        Do you believe in evidence?

        Are there rules of evidence for evaluating science and pseudoscience? If so, what are they or what should they be?
        • Apr 5 2013: I think every case is different. Psi, UFOs, bigfoot, etc., all very different. So certain questions follow: what kind of evidence could we hope for and how does what we have compare with that? Re psi, there is obviously personal evidence which could be (could be) a decisive factor, but this is only really available to the individual in question and I might need to talk to them for quite a while to decide whether I thought they were being rational. Then there is the sheer quantity and persistence of reports - not conclusive but something to think about. Then there is the scientific evidence which in the case of psi is very puzzling and nobody can really explain it away. Nonetheless, psi is a fairly radical proposition and thus caution is needed. But, on the other hand, given how little we know about consciousness and the nature of reality it would be, in my mind, foolish to rule it out completely. Thus the only two positions I regard as irrational are absolute belief in the absence of overwhelming personal evidence, and absolute disbelief to the extent that anyone differing is consider a fool. It is also, however, irrational to believe in what might be called constant widespread super-psi since bookmakers and casinos still exist.

          I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.
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        Apr 5 2013: Thanks. I agree on every point except your first. I do not think they are all very different. My criteria for evaluating a hypothesis should be the same if I am testing whether a burglar, an extraterrestrial, a bigfoot, my daughter, or some unknown entity took the cookies from the cookie jar. Each case is not different. The criteria should be consistent, even in the elimination of explanations.
        • Apr 5 2013: Well it depends how abstract your criteria are. It's hard to see how the kind of meta-analyses conducted on psi research would help you much with the UFO issue. I don't see a lot of point though in making such abstract criteria just for the sake of the consistency of how you describe what your doing. There are just such differences in the type of evidence that the criteria actually used will be different even if you call them by the same name.
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        Apr 5 2013: I'm not clear on what you mean by the meta-analyses conducted in psi research, but basic criteria such as quality of experimental design, use of adequate controls, reduction and accurate measurement of errors (including susceptibility to hoaxes), accuracy in reporting, consistency of data with interpretations, parsimony, predictability, falsifiability, reproducibility, etc. all apply to evaluations of scientific and other evidence for both psi and UFOs. Do these imply abstract criteria?
        • Apr 5 2013: Well quality of experimental design can't possibly apply in any similar specific way for setting up a Ganzfeld and trying to photograph a ufo. Indeed, I don't even understand what experiments you might conduct in the case of ufos. Perhaps you could put out some cheese and see if they'll come down for that, and then if not after a week or so you could move on to other foods. So yes, I think terms like that are abstract until you just about get down to how you're going to move your hands.
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        Apr 5 2013: You have a limited understanding of these things, Steve. Experimentation is often a critical contribution to evaluating claims about evidence for UFOs, especially photographs and videos. It has also been used in evaluating the claims of supposed alien abductees. And then there are the experiments on alien corpses in Area 51...

        Suzanne Taylor (organizer of the TEDx West Hollywood event) can also tell you about how scientific experiments are done to evaluate crop circles (whose creators are thought to be extraterrestrials, although beings from a parallel universe have also been suggested), including the determination of which are "hoaxed" and which are not.
        • Apr 5 2013: And you have a limited understand of my point otherwise you would have addressed it. Experimentation, call it what you will, it's no different from saying "play sport" as if playing sport was just one type of thing. Completely abstract until we get down to the actual sport in question. And similarly "experiment" doesn't come close to picking out only one or two things. There are thousands and if you want to generalize and say "good experimental design" you haven't really said anything yet anymore than "play sports well" - this is just a pep-talk of sorts with no real content.
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        Apr 5 2013: I don't have any problem with what you've said. However, the phrase "play sport" is meaningful as something distinct from just "play." If there's a sport--in the sense that applies--there's an implication of the existence of competition, standard rules, playing spaces, equipment, referees, scoring, and even the assumption that *something* determines wins or losses even if the sport is unsoecified. These are all abstract, as you would probably agree, but their existence helps distinguish "sport" from "not sport." The idea that there is "good experimental design" is analogous to the existence of a "good rule book." If either is bad, sloppy, or incomplete, the attempt at science or sport may be a futile exercise. You seem to imply that there would be different rulebooks for research on psi, UFOs, bigfoot, and the like, but the issue of "science" vs. "peudoscience" would still be like "sport" vs. "just messing around".
        • Apr 5 2013: Yeah, of course it's meaningful but it gets us no further because the issue here isn't whether we can distinguish experiments from examinations from evaluations, of course we can, the issue here is how we are going to use those specifically to test whether psi, or UFOs are real. And of course we're going to try to do it well. What's the point in saying that.
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        Apr 5 2013: Because, of course, not everyone is trying to do it well and many who are trying to do it are not doing it well. In addition, there has always been a certain amount of fame (or infamy) for those who can persuade ignorant, gullible, credulous, naive, inattentive, or sympathetic and motivated audiences that they are doing it well when in fact they are not. There are many rewards for doing pseudoscience well, occasionally surpassing those for doing science well. They are one of the reasons we're having this discussion.
        • Apr 5 2013: Yeah, and I am happy for you to describe what you are doing as "doing science well" or some such thing, but don't let that fool you into thinking you've found some similarity between psi and ufo research that is specific rather than abstract. The devil is in the detail and in such cases the detail, and the devils therein, will be very different. Thus you can have all your abstract general criteria be identical, but just know that when it comes to actually doing something in the world, what you do in the different cases will be very different - as different as, say, playing football is from playing snooker. So play well, absolutely, that doesn't change my point that psi research isn't really like ufo research which isn't really like cosmology, which isn't really like soil biology, which isn't really like paleontology.
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        Apr 5 2013: You have a point there. Those areas of investigation are all quite different. Scientific research done well in each of those areas is quite different in its details.

        However, the flaws of pseudoscience in various areas are often quite similar in its details. Graham Hancock, for example, makes the same errors whether he is writing about archaeology (in "Fingerprints of the Gods"), extraterrestrial intelligence (in "The Mars Mystery"), or psi (in "Supernatural").
        • Apr 5 2013: Hancock wasn't arguing for psi in Supernatural. His use of "supernatural" was in reference to the "supernatural realm" which humans have encountered throughout our history. His point is that these realms do exist, even if they are only inside out heads. His point is that these are the realms of visionary experience and, as is our intrepid explorer's wont, he sets out to investigate first hand. A must read, five stars.
    • Apr 5 2013: I like Willingham's 10 Questions http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2012/11/08/10-questions-to-distinguish-real-from-fake-science/ though I think they are give too much weight on condemning passion.
      • Apr 5 2013: They're not bad, but the focus is mainly on medicine.
        • Apr 5 2013: These 10 (looking at source, agenda, kind of language used, testimonials, exclusivity, conspiracy, money trail or a passionate belief, scientific processes, and expertise) is a good way to evaluate any claim. Had TED bothered to apply them to Meyers, they'd have recognized him as pushing pseudoscience. More mention of "lack of specifics/vagueness" would make it better. Too, she writes with her own bias, saying about "bias-detectors" that, "Journalists, by nature of training and their work, often seem to operate theirs on full power." which is absurd given the pervasiveness of corporate journalism. But compared to TED's vague standards (also on display in the unspecific reasons given for canceling support of WestHollywood), or the weak scientific american article and wikipedia list, it is a good gauge.
    • Apr 5 2013: A scientist's response to a pseudosceptic's woo:


      Hackery/Quackery in Scientific American

      "An essay in the January 2005 Scientific American by professional skeptic Michael Shermer criticizes the surprise hit film

      What the #$*! Do We Know? ("Whatthebleep?") and the scientific underpinnings of quantum consicousness, namely the Penrose-Hameroff model. I wrote a reply but thus far at least Scientific American has turned a deaf ear. Here are Shermer's piece and my response." Stuart Hameroff
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        Apr 5 2013: The fact that the producers of "What the Bleep" were students of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment and the appearance of Ramtha himself (a 30,000-year-old warrior from Lemuria as channeled by J.Z. Knight) in the film, presented as an authority, are just some of the reasons I have significant problems with its credibility. Masaru Emoto's sentient water is another. I'll take Shermer over Ramtha anyday.
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      Apr 5 2013: Hi John,

      I think that the notion of pseudoscience is an important concept to tackle.
      The most interesting part of it is the focus on the notion "belief".

      There seems to be a flaw in our understanding of belief through which many exploitations are inflicted against our perceptions.

      From the standpoint of neural network behaviour, the notion of belief is quite clearly the same concept as perception - in a brain, all is belief, it does not do anything else.
      What it can do is to adapt these beliefs according to accuracy of resulting agency - essentially, trial and error. It follows from that: anything which is not available to trial must be treated as error - or, at least, irrelevant.
      The big problem with all that is that one usually hasn't enough time to test everything, and a certain amount of untested belief must be tolerated.
      Here is where we must rely on ethos. The scientific method seems reasonably good to assist with grading the veracity of assertions. Not perfect, but useful.
      Pseudoscience seems to be typified by correlation of one or more untested beliefs. This is unavoidable in a world-view composed of largely untested assumptions.
      Correlating beliefs is not a bad thing - it is the core of imagination and curiosity. Many great discoveries have been made this way. However, it is useful to pursue assumptions to the limit - understanding that limits will be reached. Such limits then form the frontier of further investigation, and some appear to be untestable.
      Ayahuasca may represent such an investigation. Even the appearance of a female deity might reveal some underlying principle.
      Is it a priority?
      Hancock seems to think so.
      But the pursuit of assertion beyond the untestable seems to be the recourse of exploiters. One must examine agendas.
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        Apr 5 2013: Indeed.
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          Apr 5 2013: The Hancock thing is a good talking point.
          My own conjecture is spurred to consider that there might be some dynamic in the affect of ayahuasca on the mechanism of focus-of-attention. There are already a few papers on this subject identifying various parts of the brain.
          Having some data on this would be useful to help develop a field framework applicable to the theory of mind. Specifically the field of perception.
          The conjecture follows an assumption that ayahuasca broadens focus to include all of subjective world view and life experience. This would be a very useful trick for making long term decisions for individuals and communities. It could be said that this is a valuable function ascribed to shamen - an enhancement of cultural function.
          All that said, I support TED in its action to define what is science for the sake of TED publication. It can be a fine line, but Mr Hancock's suggestions might be better served in a more appropriate forum. Essentially the issue is ethos, not logos.
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        Apr 5 2013: I concur.
      • Apr 5 2013: Your post itself is surely a perfect example of psuedoscience. Sciencey sounding words pressed into the service of some quasi-evolutionary socio-psychological mish-mash.

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