The Invisible Dragon I Didn’t Want to See

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. 

– Carl Sagan, “Wonder and Skepticism” 

I always love the Science with a Twist events at the Pacific Science Center. It is an opportunity that makes it socially ok (aka. not creepy) for me as an adult without children to play with all the new exhibits at the science center. Tonight the theme was the paranormal and I was ready to have a couple beers, design a skate park, enter a virtual bike race, and cheer on the same old preach-to-the-choir talk on skepticism.

Well, I did have a couple beers, design a skate park and enter a virtual bike race. But I was also surprised to get a little tune up on using my super-awesome skeptic powers. There was a table among the interactive exhibits where a psychic sat. He was challenging guests to try their hand at telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. I immediately assumed, being at the science center, that this was a skeptic “in character” as a psychic. (I told one of the staff as much and later found out that they tipped off the psychic.) I tried out clairvoyance. I was obviously not taking it seriously, and the psychic asked me to try and visualize what I thought might be on the card rather than guessing at random. This didn’t compute. I tried my best to appear as if I was visualizing while continuing to guess at random. It turns out that my results indicated a possible psychic talent due to getting a “statistically significant” amount wrong!

Later this psychic gave a presentation to what turned out to be a very mixed audience in terms of paranormal belief. I know that skepticism is not about dismissing claims out of hand, but evaluating all claims based on evidence. I took an intellectual short-cut which goes a little something like this: I haven’t taken much time to examine the evidence for every individual paranormal phenomena myself, but the smart people I know who de-bunk paranormal phenomena all agree that it’s a bunch of woo. Therefore, this is a waste of my time; the verdict is already in.

Well, it turns out that I was correct. After this psychic swayed the audience through amazing demonstrations of telepathy and other forms of psychic powers, he revealed that the presentation was a bunch of magic tricks and social engineering well performed by a skeptic. I had the right answer all along, and I fell back on a form of intellectual laziness that marked my more credulous past. Had I approached my observations with a mind open to evidence and poised to apply the scientific method, I would have found ample cause for skepticism and rejection of these paranormal claims. Instead, I stubbornly (and metaphorically) put my fingers in my ears and sang, “la la la, I can’t hear you because I stopped believing in the supernatural a long time ago, and I want to keep assuming it’s bunk because my life is much better this way.” What an opportunity missed not only to practice skeptical thought, but also to observe how people (including myself) process and evaluate paranormal claims!

I did notice that after a positive demonstration of a paranormal ability the average belief of the volunteer evaluation committee went up and after a failed demonstration their belief in the ability went down. This was after one subjective experience with no corroborating research or supporting information. How can I blame them? This standard of evidence is what kept me hooked into the Christian Pentecostal movement for so long. After all, practicing the “spiritual gifts” of prophesy and discernment feel an awful lot like precognition, telepathy, and clairvoyance just with a different flavor.

I originally joined Seattle Skeptics and have stayed involved in order to expand and hone my skeptical tool box, since I knew that it had been underdeveloped in my childhood and youth. Unfortunately, criticism and arrogance tends to be a part of  the culture of any skeptical community. There is no shame in being a student of skepticism. I have not “arrived” as a skeptical guru. And that is fantastic. As skeptics we are asking people to learn a new skill: “Come on over. Learn some critical thinking skills. Listen to how science actually works. Start asking questions. Explore.” How can we invite the general community to skepticism if the social requirement is to skip from kindergarten to graduate school? We cannot. It has to be ok for people to learn and continually practice skepticism at whatever level they are willing to do so.

In conclusion, I was pleased with the psychic presentation as an effective educational tool. A lecture debunking psychic abilities would have been a way to tell people how to connect the dots. In my mind, the performance art that I saw tonight was an effective attempt at teaching people how they might connect the dots themselves (tonight and hopefully in the future) through engineering an opportunity to do so. As I participate in planning for future Seattle Skeptics events, I will certainly be keeping this in mind.

Stepping Through the Looking Glass

I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then. 

– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Today, I wrapped up with my last client of the day fifteen minutes early. I printed out a schedule of drop-in basketball matches that only cost $3 at the local community center and sent him on his way, with the promise that he’d try one out before next week. I had been looking forward to the first bioethics salon put on by the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research. The topic for the evening was to be “Do we have an obligation to participate in medical research?”

This was a question that had never before occurred to me. I was eager to explore the topic and hash out my opinion. What unfolded was a spring of intellectual adventure for my parched mind. There was what I would describe as a refined older gentleman at my table. It turns out that he is a Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Washington and that he is acquainted with the mentors and teachers of most of the scientists at the table. He even knew the CEO of the social services agency where I work! I felt privileged to be in the discussion group with him and felt it important to absorb what wisdom I could whenever he spoke. He told the group that when he started practicing medicine in 1946 there was very little medicine that could be used, notably no antibiotics.

I did not expect to have a professional tie-in to the discussion. However, I found myself bringing up ethical issues relating to recruiting people from vulnerable populations for research studies. If someone has very limited resources and needs an offered monetary stipend to eat for the week or would go without treatment outside of a free study, can their participation ever be non-coercive? This provoked another concern from the group: Can we really say that everyone [in the United States] has an obligation to participate in medical research when everyone does not have the same access to care (and thus) the results of the research? This is certainly a major concern for me on the topic, but I feel that it is too large to address productively in this post.

My number one take away from the night came from the young aspiring med student seated next to me. She compared voluntary participation in medical research to other types of voluntary service, such as enlisting in the military or volunteering time in a soup kitchen. There are varying degrees and ways that we may give back to the greater society and make personal sacrifices for others. It is on the conscience of the individual whether or not to do this and in what manner. This analogy really clicked for me. As a humanist, one of my core values that has driven me forward in life is contributing to human society, specifically decreasing the suffering (and hopefully increasing the joy) of those around me. A lot of people share these values in some way. Millions of people in this country volunteer their time for important causes or give their money to charity, other people go into “helping” careers. I would venture to say that most people sacrifice to some degree for their families or close friends.

After pondering this on my drive home, I have two questions that I want to continue working:

1) How could the research community let people who are interested in giving back to the community know that participating in medical research is one way that they could do that?If a broader population is not aware that this is an option for service along side tutoring kids in low-income neighborhoods or bringing their pet to a senior home, than some people who would want to sacrifice this way, will merely  not have thought of it. My second question would really pertain only to a nation that has its shit together a little better than we do.

2) Given a more equitable healthcare system and research that was less weighted by capitalistic gain, could participating in medical research someday become not a public mandate, but a public value? Something like how many people see their right to vote today. I feel that it is both my responsibility and my privilege to participate in the democratic system. In a system that was not quite so broken, could I come to value voluntarily participating in reasonable medical research to be a civic duty?

Tomorrow, I will go into my office, where I may mention my evening to a co-worker. My co-worker will give me a stunned look and not know how to respond. I will smile to myself, and ponder the insanity of trying to change fields that feel worlds apart. Not because I see my past studies and work as so unrelated from my goal, but because it is so hard to convince everyone else that it is not so strange to trespass the cultural gap between art and science.