Wednesday, July 8, 2020

#2357: Alex Tsakiris

Skeptiko – Science at the Tipping Point is a podcast devoted to deep-rabbit-hole-style pseudoscience, including quantum woo, parapsychology and evolutionary teleology. Alex Tsakiris, who produces the podcast, is of course as far from being a skeptic as you’ll get – he’ll readily endorse anything that seems to support his preferred position without much thought – but he is certainly pseudoskeptic and denialist. The “tipping point” in the subtitle is supposed to express the idea that science is on the verge of an (always imminent) paradigm shift away from materialism. Tsakiris has apparently also written a book, Why Science Is Wrong ... About Almost Everything, which is mostly a defense of psi and the use of psychic detectives and a criticism of what Tsakiris takes to be the materialism of contemporary science – “materialism” is of course nebulously defined, and it is even less clear what Tsakiris suggests replacing it with. There is a good takedown of some of the book’s errors, lies and confusions here. A central source of the problems with the book is that Tsakiris has no idea how science works, how a scientific experiment is conducted, or how data are interpreted, and he seems to be utterly unable to recognize that he doesn’t know this or that other people do. 

Now, Tsakiris has in fact interviewed a number of respectable people on his podcast, though one suspects part of the reason respectable people agreed to participate was that the interviewees were fooled by the podcast’s name: the podcast has no affiliation whatsoever with the respectable Skeptico blog. The interviews themselves are characterized by relatively typical pseudoscientist tricks, such as suddenly changing plans for topics just before recording the talks so as to avoid any preparation the guests might have made about the material, and post-editing interviews with voiceovers when things are not going the way Tsakiris wished they would go. Also in the transcripts of the interviews Tsakiris will readily edit the guests’ words to push his views (such as changing every instance Jerry Coyne said “Newtonian” to “quantum”) and make up entire sentences that he attributes to them. There is a telling account – and an apt characterization of Tsakiris – from a guest on one of his podcasts here.

The Skeptiko forum is itself worth a mention. Previously known as the Mind-Energy forum, it describes itself as “parapsychology and alternative medicine forums,” and heavily promotes the Skeptiko podcasts. The forum posts cover more or less every branch of imaginable nonsense, from angels and levitation to intelligent design creationism, unified by a general disdain for science and its purported “materialism”. Laird Shaw was a former administrator, and the forum’s current co-admin is psychic Andrew Paquette.

A huge fan of Rupert Sheldrake (though it is not entirely clear to what extent even Sheldrake would agree with some of Tsakiris’s interpretations), Tsakiris and Annalisa Ventola were also the founders of the (apparently defunct) website Open Source Science to promote their work on Sheldrake’s psychic pet studies, including completing some ineptly done “experiments” to show that dogs know that their owners are coming home by psychic means. Having an independent, unaffiliated area to carry out such work is of course a necessity due to the vast skeptical conspiracy that is currently persecuting parapsychology fans by asking for evidence or requiring methodological rigor before accepting their claims. 

Diagnosis: Either a con artist or a deeply affected victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect – these are, of course, not mutually exclusive options. Tsakiris must surely be aware of the dishonest tricks and editing he uses on his guests to try to establish the conclusions he wishes to establish? 

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki.

Addendum: As so many others, Tsakiris is very hung up on the “materialism” of science. And in fairness, it is not only pseudoscientists who misunderstand how science works and its relationship to materialism: Claiming that science is committed to some kind of methodological naturalism – that it has to assume that all causes are natural causes and that any phenomena to be studied have natural explanations (whatever that means) – is really a ploy used by defenders of non-overlapping magisteria or other people with a pseudoscientific or religious pet theory to try to ensure that their pet ideas won’t be falsified by scientific investigations. However, the idea has sometimes even been accepted by confused skeptics or scientists themselves. 

But of course science makes no such assumptions. If you have a non-materialist theory of mind, you are entirely free to develop your hypotheses and derive some testable consequences from it. If your theory offers better predictions and explanations than current theories, you’ll have won. What theories we currently accept, is a matter of the evidence we have for our current theories, and the fact that no defender of non-materialist theories have bothered to develop their alternatives in testable detail is telling – and the onus is on them, for instance, to define materialism in any reasonable precise way and then carefully and accurately lay out their alternative; handwavy appeals to spirits or New Age energy just aren’t going to yield any testable consequences and are therefore not taken seriously (not because they are non-materialist, but because they are nebulously handwavy and don't explain or predict anything). Non-materialist theory of mind aren’t taken seriously at present simply because no serious non-materialist alternative has been put on the table that provides any kind of testable predictions

Of course, the lie that science assumes materialism or methodological naturalism is useful for defenders of non-overlapping magisteria or religiously motivated ideas because the defenders of such idea can then claim that they are talking about other ways of knowledge that simply fall outside of the domain of science and are untestable and unfalsifiable by scientific means by fiat (in fairness: this is not what Alex Tsakiris claims, since he thinks that science is wrong, not just incomplete). In reality, what scares these defenders of non-overlapping magisteria is really that a lot of their claims, based on mere dogma, are ultimately testable, and the last thing they want is for science to come in and ruin their cherished beliefs.

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