An Introduction to PhACT and Skepticism

Facing Fiction with PhACT

by Tom Napier

Astrology, Channeling, Crashed saucers, Dowsing, Free Energy, Homeopathy, Precognition, Psychic powers, Telepathy. All these have two things in common. Firstly, between a third and two-thirds of the population believe in them, and, secondly, there is no evidence at all for their validity. Despite this, most people take them for granted.

Those who question such beliefs are called skeptics. Contrary to popular opinion, skeptics are not knee-jerk nay-sayers. We don't prejudge issues, we simply ask to see the evidence. Until there is evidence, we think it reasonable to reserve judgement and to maintain an open mind. Skeptics apply Occam's Razor, not as it is so often misquoted, but in its original form, "Do not introduce unnecessary factors." That is, if something can be adequately explained by natural causes we do not postulate paranormal forces or entities, however much we would like them to exist.

So skeptics don't run up their phone bills talking to psychics. We expect psychics to specify what powers they have and then to demonstrate those powers. Skeptics don't risk their health on alternative remedies. We rely on remedies which have been shown to work by proper double-blind studies. When a huckster comes by offering to install free energy machines, we hang on to our money. We know the laws of physics say there is no free energy.

It is not the skeptic's duty to prove a claim wrong. It is those who make an unusual claim who must prove it right. Claiming that something could be true is not the same as showing that it is true. Eyewitness reports can be mistaken, incomplete or downright untrue. Anecdotes are not evidence, neither is the claimant's own conviction, however sincere and heartfelt it may be. Skeptics know that if something is true, there must be some way to prove it. This is how science works, and for over three hundred years science has been the most successful human enterprise ever. Of course the truth may not be what we expect; like other people, skeptics can be wrong. Unlike other people, we accept that and we can change our minds.

We often hear the complaint that we haven't studied a subject in depth so we aren't qualified to comment on it. (Only believers' opinions count!) We usually counter this by saying that we have examined the evidence presented by those who have studied the subject and we have found it unconvincing. If a farmer shows you the best apple in his crop and it turns out to be rotten, you need hardly examine all the other apples.

Thus skeptics don't feel the need, for example, to research thousands of UFO sightings. They ask the UFO proponents to say which sighting represents the best available evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial spacecraft. Then we research that case. If it turns out to have a mundane explanation we needn't concern ourselves with the other cases. Of course this never satisfies the UFO proponents; they can always find some other case and say, "You can't possibly explain this." To which the answer is, "We don't have to. It is you who are claiming the cause is extraterrestrial. Prove it."

Astrologers claim there is a correlation between a person's character and the exact time and place of their birth. In the classical experiment, four horoscopes are prepared for each subject, one for the correct birth time and three for other times on the same day. The subject does not know which one is which and thus cannot give the astrologer any unconscious clues. Professional astrologers assert that, given a chance to talk to someone, they can pick out the correct horoscope every time. This experiment has been done many times. Astrologers pick the correct horoscope 25% of the time. In other words, they do no better than chance. No one has ever done an experiment which demonstrates that astrology has any scientific value.

Skepticism has a practical value. You can save yourself from making bad life decisions by seeking out information. If you are unskeptical you may lose money to scams. When ill, you may seek alternative treatment rather than effective treatment. But why should skeptics care about what other people believe? Well, most of us dislike seeing others being taken in and don't like to see people making money from fraud. More importantly, how our tax money is spent and what research is funded depends, ultimately, on what people believe. This controls the government they vote for, what sort of measures they support, and what pseudosciences are tolerated. The CIA spent $20 million trying to read Soviet secrets using psychics. These days getting a job no longer depends on your age, gender or race, but, if your horoscope is unsuitable, you may never even find out about it much less have a case to take to court.

Unfortunately, the media encourage belief in the paranormal. What appears on TV and what books and magazines you can buy depends on what sells. The truth is often seen as dull and uninteresting but mysticism and the paranormal seem fun so people buy them. Bookstores devote three times as much space to New Age or Occult as they do to Science. Besides, there are vested interests at work. Uncritical believers make the best customers for TV commercials. For every skeptical TV program there are hundreds such as Unsolved Mysteries whose producers are on record as rejecting the true explanation since it spoiled a good story.

In 1976 a group of concerned scientists founded CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, to make a stand against pseudoscientific nonsense. The members of this committee mostly have academic credentials and are experts in the fields being investigated. It also includes magicians, since many of the claims they encounter are based on conjuring tricks and it takes an expert to spot these. CSICOP publishes the bi-monthly magazine, "Skeptical Inquirer", and acts as an information resource for the media. It also sponsors weekend conferences at the local, national, and international level, with keynote addresses from the likes of Leon Lederman, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Carl Sagan.

CSICOP encourages skeptics around the country to form independent local organizations; there are currently about 40 of them. In 1988 some skeptics in the Philadelphia area formed the Delaware Valley Skeptics. It ended up being pretty much a one man operation and faded out after only two years.

In March of 1994, CSICOP held a seminar in Philadelphia. Some of those present got together to form a new group. We formed a Council and worked out the details of the organization for nearly a year before going public. We called our group the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking since it said what we advocated and had the nice acronym, "PhACT." We started recruiting in May, 1995, and now have over 160 members in the Philadelphia area.

PhACT's mission is to investigate fringe-science claims and to educate ourselves and the public in science and in critical thinking. Since our members embrace a variety of faiths PhACT has a policy of not addressing the truth or falsity of religious beliefs. However, we will investigate paranormal claims even if the responsible agency is alleged to be supernatural.

PhACT holds monthly meetings which are open to the public. Speakers have ranged from local members describing their research to nationally known experts such as UFO guru Philip Klass, magician, skeptic and TV star James Randi, Dr. Stephen Barrett from the National Council Against Health Fraud, and Pamela Freyd, the director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

PhACT publishes a bi-monthly newsletter, Phactum, which contains news, meeting reports, and articles on skeptical subjects. Copies are circulated to our members, the media, and to other skeptics' organizations all over the world. PhACT maintains a Web site at www.phact.org. This has information about PhACT and skeptical subjects. It maintains links to both skeptical and pseudoscientific Web sites. See our mailing address at the bottom of this page.

We offer our services to educators and the media as a source of information on unusual claims. If there is something we can't handle locally we know where to find the national experts on the subject. For example, we helped the Philadelphia Inquirer to investigate therapeutic touch and I appeared as the lone skeptic on a public radio debate on the Roswell Incident.

We have assisted the producers of two TV programs to prepare segments on the Free Energy scam. One of our members was interviewed on free energy by a TV station in Pittsburgh. In what must be a rare event in television history, the presenter apologized on the air for his former support for this scam. We estimate that our publicity has kept over a million dollars of peoples' savings out of the hands of hucksters.

Naturally, PhACT investigates local paranormal events. Two of our members surveyed local police departments to see if they used psychics. Their report revealed that psychics had offered lots of help and had even been called in by the police themselves but that they had not been of any practical assistance. We have an ongoing investigation into the new fad in nursing, Therapeutic Touch. In this supposed therapy, someone runs their hands around about four inches from your body. This is supposed to smooth out your energy field and remove negative energy. (If a human energy field existed tampering with it could be very dangerous. In effect, practitioners are carrying out unauthorized experiments on human subjects.) We could only find one practitioner willing to feel this field for us. When she could see the patients she could tell the difference between an injured wrist and a healthy wrist ten times out of ten. When the patients were hidden, her score dropped to 11 out of 20, just what you would expect from guessing. We concluded that this experiment had shown no evidence for a human energy field. Despite the James Randi Educational Foundation offering to pay $1 million for a successful demonstration, we have been unable to find a volunteer for further testing.

To wrap up, we skeptics want people to lead less fearful, happier, and more productive lives. We are fighting the people who take your money and give nothing practical back: the telephone psychics, the astrologers, the channelers, the people who write "alien abduction" books, and the producers of junk TV shows. We are fighting the people who risk your health: the faith healers, the psychic surgeons, the homeopaths, and the peddlers of worthless cancer cures. We know that not all these people are cynics out to make a buck. But, however sincere the others may be, the harm they do is just as real.

On a personal note, I have found among skeptics both intelligent company and a shared outlook and aim. And it doesn't hurt to know that what we are doing is a real help to other people.


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