The bullshit detector

Why scepticism is a necessary application of the scientific method

The basic idea behind scepticism was perhaps best summarized by the physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” This principle is exponentially more difficult to uphold in the modern era, where information of all degrees of truthfulness can flow without limit. To further complicate things, there are whole industries based on pseudoscientific nonsense that are more than willing to take your hard-earned cash from your gullible hands.

So how do we protect ourselves from the unscrupulous people who brazenly lie to enrich themselves? We need a bullshit detector to separate truth from their profitable claims. Luckily for us, the scientific method provides us with exactly the tools for the job! A brief review: any claim must be backed up with clear, inarguable, and reproducible evidence. Furthermore, this evidence ought to be free of the various cognitive biases that humans bring into the picture unintentionally. This includes conflating correlation and causation or interpreting data in a way that favourably confirms your presuppositions. Although this sounds simple in principle, it is nearly impossible to consistently apply.

In fact, in many situations, we actively wish to suspend these principles of scientific methodology. Magicians, for example, perform very convincing illusions to delight and mystify their audiences, all the while obstructing the methods behind their act. This is entertainment and it is harmless and fun – the audience is in on the lie, paying to escape to a fantasy world. But, a serious problem arises when either party is not privy to the fact that illusions are lies.

In 1913, Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest magician from the 20th century, experienced the traumatic death of his mother. Although he wanted to believe in the ability of psychics to contact the dead – who wouldn’t after losing a loved one? – he realized that so-proclaimed psychics used the same tricks to bluff to their customers as he did in his magic shows. The difference was that the psychics’ customers truly believe that they are contacting their loved ones – and are forking over cash for a service that they are not getting.

Houdini spent much of his career using his knowledge to debunk psychics. The tradition of magicians using their experience in trickery to expose duplicitous frauds continues to this day, most notably with James Randi. He started the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) which says that it’s purpose is “to expose charlatans and help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims”. The JREF puts its money where its mouth is, and offers a million U.S. dollars for any claim that holds up under double-blind testing. The foundation takes every claim at face value, and asks the question: “If this is true, then how can we prove it?”

The JREF has seen hundreds of people attempt to claim the prize, many of whom genuinely believe that they have paranormal powers. Before every test, the JREF and the claimant mutually agree upon exactly what would constitute a proof of their ability, such as successfully guessing cards at a rate above chance. It is this mutually agreed upon starting point that is the true power of the million dollar challenge – it removes the excuse that the sceptics are somehow interfering with the “true’’ powers of the claimants.

The million dollars remains unclaimed, even after being up for grabs for decades. The fact of the matter is: the claimants are con artists (possibly self-deluded ones) preying off the gullibility of people for their own personal gain. If psychics or any other paranormal phenomenon do indeed exist, then the scientific process should be friend and not foe, as it exists to properly identify them.

Those who falsely claim to have psychic abilities are frauds who could potentially to cause great harm. Take the case of Shawn Hornbeck, a child that went missing in 2003. A celebrity psychic named Sylvia Browne told his parents, on national television, that their son was dead. She was wrong, and Hornbeck turned up four years later to parents who had believed their son dead. Browne is also notable for agreeing to the JREF million dollar challenge on the radio, then running away from her agreement. It’s been ten years, and she still hasn’t taken it.

Of course, as an author of dozens of books, videos, lectures, and owner of an exclusive “Inner Circle” with memership fees of up to $50 per year, maybe Browne is not in need of a million dollars. Especially a million dollars that might well expose her money-making “abilities” as a fraud.
Still, her services can offer people comfort. This is the true crux of the issue: is the fact that a person’s false delusions give them comfort sufficient justification to allow predators to take advantage of them? James Randi explains the answer to this in the frequently asked question section of his website: “The potential harm is very real, and dangerous. Belief in such obvious flummeries as astrology or fortune-telling can appear – quite incorrectly – to give confirmatory results, and that can lead to the victim pursuing more dangerous, expensive, and often health-related scams. Blind belief can be comforting, but it can easily cripple reason and productivity, and stop intellectual progress.”