The latest Skeptics' Circle has just been published at The Lay Scientist.
No, it’s not a region in France. Provenance is a thing’s origin or source, and the history of its subsequent owners. It’s important when, for example, selling works of fine art. If you find a long lost Picasso in your granny’s attic you might have trouble convincing the experts it’s real, even if it looks real. If it’s very good, you might be able to sell it for a decent amount of cash, but doubt about its origin will mean you only get a fraction of what a verified Picasso would fetch. But if your granny could prove she worked as, say, Picasso’s housekeeper during the period he produced that type of work, you might get a lot more. The quality of its provenance would make it more likely the work was genuine. Provenance is a necessary factor in the valuation of art – to determine that it is (a) genuine and (b) legally owned.
Provenance is also useful in determining the validity of scientific claims. If the claim is based on earlier sound science – backed by quality evidence – it is more likely to be true. Not certain to be true, of course. But it will at least have scientific plausibility. But if the claim is based on something that was just made up, then it seems much less likely it would be true.
An example of a scientific discovery with provenance would be radio waves. First, a little background. James Clerk Maxwell was the first person to make color photographs from three black and white images. Maxwell developed his ideas about color photography from those of Thomas Young, who had theorized that color vision resulted from only three primary color receptors in the human eye. Using this information, Maxwell took three black and white photographs of the same object, each through a different primary color (red, blue or green) filter. That way, each photographic plate, although only appearing in black and white, would actually contain only the information from one primary color - that of the filter used. (Because a blue filter, for example, only transmits blue light). Maxwell’s technique was to project each of these three plates simultaneously onto a screen, but with each image projected back through a filter of the same color used when taking the original photograph. When all three images were projected in the exact same position, a full color picture was reproduced (see below). It must have seemed miraculous at the time. Of course, we know now that the three primary colors are all electromagnetic radiation, but just with slightly different wavelengths.
Maxwell’s main work was to investigate electricity and magnetism. His first paper on the subject built on Faraday’s earlier discoveries, and in 1862 Maxwell discovered that that the forces of electricity and magnetism were transmitted at the speed of light. Eventually, via experiment, Maxwell developed a set of four equations that could solve every mathematical query to do with electricity and magnetism. Possibly the most interesting aspect of these equations was that a constant in the equations – the equations used to describe electricity and magnetism – was “c”, the speed of light. Clearly, visible light was made of the same stuff as other electromagnetic radiation. And here’s the thing: Maxwell predicted from this that there would be other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves that were actually not discovered until 20 years later, by Heinrich Hertz.
The discovery of radio waves can be traced from the work done by Newton (who split white light with a prism), through Young, Huygens, Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz and beyond. Hertz didn’t just wake up one day and say, “let’s see if I can generate radio waves”, his ideas were based on what had gone before. This meant that radio waves, although not yet proven to exist, were not as extraordinary a claim as they would have been but for the work done by Maxwell and the others. So the evidence for their existence perhaps didn’t have to be that extraordinary. None the less, solid evidence was presented, and is replicated every day by anyone who listens to the radio or watches TV.
Now, compare the provenance of radio waves – the history of gradual increases in knowledge, backed by experiment – with, say, homeopathy. When Hahnemann first dreamed up homeopathy, there was no body of earlier work that showed that like might cure like, or that diluting things might make the good effects stronger (while making the bad effects weaker). On the contrary, Hahnemann really did wake up one day and say “I’ll bet like cures like”, or something very similar (and in German, probably). And when people got sick from taking his remedies (which was quite often), he really did dilute them and just say “diluting makes them stronger”. I’m not referring to the fact that he never tested these ideas by rigorous experiment (although he clearly didn’t). I’m referring to the fact that there was no body of work he was drawing on to reach his conclusions. I’m referring to the fact that he really did just make it up on the fly. While that does not, in and of itself, mean homeopathy is nonsense, its lack of scientific provenance does make it an extraordinary claim. And as I have written before, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. At the very least, this means that we require better evidence than we would demand for things that do have provenance – things that are based on earlier discoveries. But with homeopathy, we are always asked to accept lesser evidence – anecdotes, clinical notes from homeopaths, poorly designed tests.
The same is true with astrology. In my astrology challenge, I explained how Galileo discovered that the planets orbited the Sun and not the Earth - the provenance of our knowledge. I then asked for the similar information about astrology. I asked several leading astrologers actually, and they couldn’t tell me. Astrology has no scientific provenance, it was just made up. (And it doesn’t do what it claims.)
Likewise with psychic phenomena – psi. In pretty soon I gave a brief history of psychical research. But current parapsychology doesn’t depend on a history of earlier successful parapsychological experiments, each one building upon the knowledge gained from an earlier experimenter. On the contrary, the history of parapsychological research of the last 125 years is of experiments failed, psychics or experimenters found to have cheated, avenues of experiment abandoned and new experiments with weaker controls implemented instead. I suppose that’s a provenance of sorts – a failed provenance. Compare Hertz’s successful discovery of radio waves, building on the work of Maxwell, Faraday and Newton, with the dopes on Larry King two weeks ago, insisting that the dreams and “shadows” seen by some imaginative children are actually evidence of contact with people who have died. Claims based on nothing at all – in fact, claims belied by the consistent failure in over 125 years to build anything even remotely resembling a body of knowledge backed by solid experimental evidence.
When examining claims, it’s always good to examine the evidence for them, but it’s also instructive to examine the provenance of those claims. Whether it’s homeopathy, astrology, acupuncture, psychics, religion… woos can never demonstrate the provenance of their claims the way scientists can explain how, for example, radio waves were discovered. In fact, the really remarkable thing about most woo claims is not the total lack of evidence for them, or even the evidence against them, although that is obviously remarkable. What’s really worth noting is that virtually all woo claims were not derived by experiment, but were just made up.
Perhaps it’s not that surprising – if woo claims had to be derived by experiment, there wouldn’t be any woo claims.
Don't you just love those stories about how some criminal found Jesus while in prison, and gave up his criminal ways? No, me neither. But the religious do. Specifically, the Episcopal Church, who converted the convicted murderer James Tramel. Tramel was convicted in the stabbing death of a homeless man in 1985, but apparently he found love for Jesus in prison, to the extent that the Episcopal Church ordained him as a priest. The Church naturally lobbied for Tramel to be paroled, and only four months after his release in 2006, they made him rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
What a heartwarming story. What could possibly go wrong? Try sexual abuse of a parishioner:
It's [at the Church] that the victim said Tramel, who is married and has a young child, took advantage of her during counseling sessions.
"They didn't give an honest depiction of this man," said the victim, a 36-year-old San Francisco resident. The Chronicle does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
The diocese acknowledges that Tramel abused his power and committed sexual misconduct...
So, theists, remind me - where does morality come from, again?
This is another piece of flawed reasoning the religious have been throwing around a lot recently – “it requires more faith to be an atheist than to believe in God.” I guess there must have been a memo sent round or something. Talking points. That’s the only explanation. It’s certainly not because it’s a valid argument.
The usual rebuttal given is that atheism just means no belief in God, and it doesn’t require any more faith to have no belief in God than it does to have no belief in Russell’s Teapot. That’s obviously true but I think it misses the point the theists are trying to make.
I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. The theists quite often mess up the argument further by misunderstanding the big bang, or with dodgy statistics, or with appeals to ignorance of abiogenesis. But that’s the basic argument. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.
Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (God). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.
And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next - it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The placeholder prevents investigation into the real explanation. The theist is the one with the faith – faith that “God” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith.
If you have a friend or family member who still thinks vaccines cause autism, or who is on the fence, you could do worse than to send them a copy of the book Do Vaccines Cause That?!, which, dubious punctuation aside, seems to cover the main points in a logical and easy to read format. The book’s authors want you to:
As well as five chapters on how to weigh the evidence, there is a lengthy section on whether vaccines cause autism, dealing with both the MMR and Thimerosal claims. For example, the Thimerosal section has a very good explanation for the reasons Thimerosal was used, as well as what it really means to have “trace amounts” of the substance listed in the ingredients. It also explains the differences between methyl and ethyl mercury, and how we now know that the latter (which includes Thimerosal) is less of a risk. Also covered are an expose of some of the flawed studies beloved by the mercury nut jobs, such as the baby haircut study and Maddy Hornig’s Rain Mouse paper. It looks like an excellent source of good information on the subject – recommended.
After two false starts (bumped twice due to unforeseen circumstances), Larry King finally had his “Psychic Kids” episode Thursday (Transcript). There were hardly any calls, and so little chance to play Bingo (although there was one chance and it was pretty funny – I’ll get to that at the end). But no evidence of any psychic powers either.
The episode was apparently inspired by the A&E TV show “Psychic Kids” – a show I have avoided watching. With good reason, it turns out. Three children were featured, each one claiming to see dead people, “spirits” or “shadows”, or have dreams where they experience these things.
The first child started experiencing these visions just after she:
“…had just moved into a new house”
The second child’s mother described how her child:
…wasn't able to sleep through the night. She'd wake up about three or four times a night. She said that she heard footsteps following her to bed and she would see things.
And when my mother died, it seemed to increase.
The third child described when her experiences started:
I was six or seven and my parents got divorced and I moved. And a lot of things went on. And then all of a sudden I was starting to see shadows.
Now, I’m not an expert on child psychology or anything, but it seems to me these are just normal reactions from an imaginative and perhaps overly emotional child. Note that the “psychic” experiences all start or get much more vivid immediately after an emotionally stressful event such as their parents’ divorce or the death of a grandmother. Probably not that unusual. The problem is that the adults, instead of dealing with what is really going on, are determined to encourage these children in their fantasies by telling them they are actually seeing the spirits of dead people. Or as Michael Shermer was shown saying in a short video clip (the only sensible piece of the entire program):
These children are just extremely imaginative kids who are just having the normal fantasies and stories in their heads that so many of us had when we were kids. I think the show, the series has more to do with what adults want to make out of these stories than what the kids are making out of them. Having psychics proclaim the kids to be psychics is meaningless, because the psychics themselves have never been proven to be psychic.
True, true and true again.
They brought on one Dr. Lisa Miller, “psychotherapist, professor of psychology at Columbia University Teacher's College”, and co-host of the A&E show. Dr. Miller made a big deal of stressing that these children are not “psychotic”. But it seems to me she was proposing a false dilemma: either the kids are psychotic or they’re psychic. But surely there’s another possibility – they’re just highly imaginative and perhaps over emotional due to stress in their lives? Whether it really is good for these children to encourage them in their fantasies, rather than getting them to deal with their actual problems, is something I’m not qualified to judge. But it’s clear what’s driving Dr. Miller’s actions. A believer in psychics, she sees her role as encouraging and reinforcing the children’s fantasies. Or as she put it:
…I think it's our job to listen to [the children] and support them in really integrating their experience into their on going growth and development.
Listen to them and support them, yes. Tell them their fantasies are real – I don’t think so. Remember, the adults are telling these kids they’re psychic! Not only that - they’re putting them on TV! What kid wouldn’t respond by playing along? I was reminded of the story of little James Leininger, whose nightmares about being in a crashed World War II fighter plane started just after his parents took him to a World War II air museum. In that case, the adults around him decided his dreams meant he was a reincarnated WWII pilot. And in this case too, a woo therapist was brought in to validate the little boy’s experiences and encourage him to fantasize more. With similar results to what this A&E program shows.
I don’t know if any harm is being done to these kids by encouraging them to believe they really are seeing dead people, although I find it hard to believe it’s the best approach. But I am sure we saw no evidence these kids actually have any psychic ability.
And that brings us to the Bingo. Click the John Edward / James van Praagh Bingo link to see the explanation of the Bingo game. There were only three calls, at the end of the show. The first two calls were just vague questions eliciting vague answers. The third call and Edward’s answer was short, but it made me laugh:
CALLER: I had a second trimester miscarriage recently and it's my second miscarriage. And I was just wondering what the future might hold for me in terms of fertility and bearing a child.
EDWARD: I don't know if you've had three pregnancies already or if you already have three children, but they're showing me the number three
BINGO! – “Any number from 1 to 12”
…which to me would indicate there has either be three pregnancies, there will be a third, or there will be three children,
Or three anything. Something happened in the third month (March), or the third of a month. There’s got to be a “three” connection somewhere you will validate as a hit.
but that's what is being shown.
CALLER: I have two living children and I then had the miscarriage, and then just the recent second trimester.
Note TWO children and TWO miscarriages – ie it was a MISS. But she’ll take it as a hit because she wants a third child.
KING: Do you think she'll have a third child?
EDWARD: I think there will be a third. I know this might sound strange, but I see you getting a dog or I see a pet
BINGO! – “Dog or Cat”
It's almost making me feel like there's an opportunity for a new addition to your family with fur.
CALLER: I have one that's like a child.
EDWARD: I feel like there's something new that comes up around that as well. You have a lot of people actually draining on your energy. That's the feeling I have. You're giving out a lot of your time.
She has two kids and a dog, and has had two miscarriages. Yeah, I’ll bet this woman feels like she’s giving out a lot of her time. Thanks for the insight.
In less than about 30 seconds, Edward makes three guesses and a full TWO OUT OF THREE were hits on the Bingo card. Hilarious. Larry – PLEEEEAAASSSSEEEE have Edward on for a full hour. Please. Pretty please.
It's there again - Larry King’s site again says that there will be psychics on tonight:
Some see dead people, others have a sixth sense! Wait until you see what they can do! Plus, John Edward and Char Margolis. It's gonna be a great show. They're predicting it!
… Except they predicted it twice before, but there were unforeseen circumstances. Like the last time the psychics predicted the same thing but were bumped for a story about the Colombian hostage release they didn’t predict would happen. Or the previous time they were bumped for a story about some boy scouts who they didn’t predict would be killed.
Anyway, if they do appear (6.00 pm US Pacific time), we might this time be able to play Psychic Bingo. Print out the cards at the link. Descriptions of the squares, and the techniques these cold readers use, also at the link.
Someone in Wales (UK) recently called the police emergency number to report that he had seen a UFO:
Caller: I just need to inform you that across the mountain there's a bright stationary object."
Caller: "If you've got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It's been there at least half an hour and it's still there."
The police officer dispatched promptly identified the UFO as The Moon.
Larry King’s site again says that there will be psychics on tonight:
Some see dead people, others have a sixth sense! Wait until you see what they can do! Plus, John Edward and Char Margolis. It's gonna be a great show. They're predicting it!
… unless there are unforeseen circumstances. Like the last time these psychics predicted the same thing but were bumped for a story about some boy scouts who they didn’t predict would be killed.
Anyway, if they do appear (6.00 pm US Pacific time), we might be able to play Psychic Bingo. Print out the cards at the link. Descriptions of the squares, and the techniques these cold readers use, also at the link
July 3rd - Edited to add:
Well I missed the show, but according to the transcript the "psychic" show was bumped for the story about the hostages who just escaped from the jungle in Colombia - ANOTHER STORY THE PSYCHICS DIDN'T PREDICT! Sheesh - I'm beginning to think these psychics can't predict anything.