Friday, March 29, 2013

A Devil's Advocate In the Case of the Canonization of Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner vies with others, such as Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz as the "godfather" of the "Skepticism" movement.  Gardner was probably more famous than either of them because he spent many years as the writer of Scientific American's Mathematical Games column.  He was also an early popularizer of the modern style pseudo-skeptical debunkery as a replacement for refutation based on evidence and analysis.  In short, he was a major proponent of political as opposed to scientific suppression of research into parapsychology, all while pretending to uphold and idolizing the highest standards of science.   He relished the use of witty put down in place of methodological and analytical critique, depending on the shared prejudices of his allies and those who could be won over to his program of a priori rejection.   That is what constitutes, by far, the majority of the  journalistic and cultural response to scientific study of parapsychology.   It is far easier to deride that research than it is to understand it.  Gardner openly and explicitly stated that to be his intention when he parroted Mencken's idea that one horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.  Which is hardly the basis on which science is supposed to be done.

Gardner was also not above outright lying, claiming that there was an enormous and decades long body of evidence countering what was published by Rhine and others who conducted research into telepathy and other forbidden topics*.   The experimental record published in peer-reviewed journals is characterized by a methodological and quantitative rigor which was not only unusual for the social science but which surpassed enormous amounts of science Gardner and his allies accepted as valid because it didn't conflict with their ideological programs.   I'd guess that the research about self-deception referred to with extraordinary casualness by the pseudo-skeptics isn't nearly as rigorously conducted as what it is used to debunk.

The extraordinary evidence demanded by "Skeptics" was produced, extraordinary in its ever increasing rigor of method in response to criticism and in the calculated probability of its results.   There is little to no research into psychology that can match the rigor of much of the published research into parapsychology.   There is no area of research which has been subjected to more rigorous external and internal criticism, addressing and correcting the discovered flaws.   As Gardner repeatedly claimed that meager record of opposition research matched that massive record, it simply didn't exist.

When Martin Gardner died the parapsychologist George Hansen posted an online obituary that was the opposite of what Gardner, himself, would have written for a prominent, scientific parapsychologist.   Hansen was fair and charitable, acknowledging the usefulness of some of Gardner's critiques while noting in the most measured terms the less than honest character of a lot of it.    In fact Hansen's critique of pseudo-skepticism is never anything but entirely, at times overly fair. I can certainly appreciate Hansen's measured approach, even if I think he is overly charitable to Gardner.  To contrast Hansen you could read Gardner's comments on any number of serious researchers, replacing valid criticism with ridicule, even posthumous cruelty and in the case of Russell Targ's family, ridiculing them in the face of the fatal illness of his daughter.

I hadn't read what Hansen wrote about Gardner in his book The Trickester and The Paranormal until I followed up a link provided in the online obituary.  As always, Hansen was entirely fair and measured in sizing up Gardner's anti-scientific campaigning, while noting some serious lapses that would be considered to entirely discredit any researcher into parapsychology.  Most shocking were the notable lapses in statistical practice by the Mathematical Games columnist.  Here is what Hansen had to say on that:

A most surprising series of mistakes is found in his comments on the statistics of the Stepanek work. His remarks reveal an ignorance and carelessness entirely unexpected from someone who has written so clearly on probability and someone so honored by mathematicians. For instance, on page 67 of How Not to Test a Psychic he cites a study where Stepanek achieved 2636 hits out of 5000 trials giving a deviation from chance of 136, but Gardner claims that this is very close to chance level. In fact, as the original report states, that score gives a z = 3.85 with a p = .00012 (2-tailed). This is a very significant result, and anyone familiar with these kinds of calculations, even seeing just the raw score, should immediately recognize the outcome to be significant. It is hard to understand how Gardner made this mistake. 

This is not the only such error; on page 98 he cites a series with 225 hits in 400 trials, 25 hits above chance, and he again claims this to be at chance level, which clearly it is not (p = .007, one-tailed). Ironically, in the paragraph immediately preceding this claim, Gardner cites an earlier Stepanek series with 400 hits out of 800 trials. He goes on to say that this “tends to cast suspicion on the reliability of the data” because the result was exactly at chance. He correctly gives the probability of obtaining exactly that score (p = .028). This is of marginal significance at best, and the value is much larger than those p values he incorrectly claimed were at chance. 

This is not an isolated example, and throughout his book, Gardner voices suspicion of any score close to the expected mean and suggests that there may be some problem with the data. Of those instances I noticed, all those of which he was suspicious had associated probability values of .028 or greater and some as high as .09. There were hundreds of runs with Stepanek, the large majority not particularly close to the exact mean chance value. Gardner gives the reader no reason whatever to suspect that the number of scores very close to the expected mean was any greater than chance would allow. He could have made a calculation to address the matter, but he failed to do so. His complaints are simply examples of selective reporting, a well known statistical fallacy.  

 Several places in the book Gardner admits that he had friends do calculations for him. Surprisingly, those were very simple computations that are typically taught the first few weeks of any introductory class in statistics. Ironically, back in 1979, Gardner was interviewed and asked about mathematics in parapsychology. He stated “I’m going to do a column that will discuss this whole aspect of contemporary parapsychology, and the need for a more sophisticated understanding of some of the statistics involved.”

As I said, even a few of the errors and shoddy practices Martin Gardner got away with would be considered as definitively discrediting a parapsychologist, Gardner, himself has attacked Rhine and others on far less than that.   If it wasn't bad enough, Hansen then shows that Gardner's grasp of scientific practice was seriously flawed:

Statistics is not the only area where Gardner is less capable than might be expected. His comments on more general scientific matters also reveal deficits. For instance, he asserted that “There is no way a skeptic can comment meaningfully on the Honorton and Schmidt experiments, because there is no way, now that the tests are completed, to know exactly what controls were in force.”18 In fact, since that statement was made, a number of skeptical psychologists have published assessments of both Honorton’s and Schmidt’s work. Similar evaluations are made in all other areas of science and have been for decades. Journal articles contain a great deal of information that allows assessment, and that is why the details are published. Reviewers frequently contact authors when additional information is required. This happens in all sciences. Gardner was amazingly uninformed about how scientific research is actually conducted, reported, and evaluated. 

He sums up his section dealing with the scientific lapses of Gardner with this:

Gardner is also sometimes beyond his ken when he discusses technical and theoretical issues of parapsychology. He has complained that PK effects in experiments typically rely upon statistical deviations for detection rather than direct movements of mechanical objects. That objection is laden with assumptions about how psi works. Vast amounts of research demonstrate that psi does not act like a mechanical force, and several plausible theoretical explanations have been presented to explain that. Gardner seems totally unaware of them. Yet when parapsychologists respond to his uninformed remarks he replies offering gratuitous comments such as “I find it puzzling that Rao and Palmer cannot understand such simple reasoning.”

That last quote is typical of how Gardner dealt with those who refuted what he said.  He took an imperious tone which was based in his reputation and fame, not dealing directly with the criticism.  There is almost always a slipperiness in what he says, implying, deriding, mocking, which is the opposite of what science and reason are supposed to be.  As with virtually all of the "Skeptical" literature, he relies on appeals to the prejudice of his intended audience, the tone taken by CSICOP, James Randi and even Dennis Rawlins as he exposed the scientific and mathematical incompetence of organized "Skepticism".

The general style of his criticisms is unlike that found in scientific journals. His are often biting, derisive, personal, and peppered with words such as “laughable,” “ridiculous,” with allusions to “youthful indiscretions,” and references to parapsychologists as “Gellergawkers.” He makes liberal use of innuendo. The prestige endowed by his long association with Scientific American, coupled with the low status of his targets, allow him tactics that otherwise would be considered reprehensible. He is aware of it, and he frankly acknowledged that he and his colleagues “felt that when pseudoscience is far enough out on the fringes of irrationalism, it is fair game for humor, and at times even ridicule.”25 Gardner popularized H. L. Mencken’s aphorism “one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms,” using it as an epigraph for his Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, making it something of a motto for debunkers.

Earlier in his study of Gardner, Hansen notes:

Much of his criticism of psychical research focuses on possibilities of cheating. He has an ability to quickly spot methods magicians might use in overcoming controls. His attacks are usually on the mark, but they are not always recognized as such by those whom he criticizes, investigators who typically have no knowledge of conjuring. Nearly all of Gardner’s criticisms have been leveled at reports of individuals gifted with psychic powers. He avoids commenting on experiments that test groups of ordinary people who claim no special abilities, though such studies comprise the bulk of formal parapsychological research. The problem of deception is much less severe in research with groups than with investigations of a talented individual.

Given that most of the rigorously controlled scientific research into parapsychology consists of the study of groups of subjects, analyzed statistically,  Gardner's choices in what to attack is planned to avoid honestly dealing with the results of that research.  By the time Hansen says, "His extensive sarcasm and ridicule should alert readers that something other than detached, dispassionate analysis is involved in his critiques,"  it is pretty apparent that Gardner's enormous reputation was wielded by him for some reason other than a desire to follow evidence, no matter where that led.  This is true of everyone who inserts their ideological program into science.  The most unusual thing about Gardner is that he wasn't an atheist while doing that.  Hansen rather exhaustively deals with that, coming up with theories about his real motives.  As convincing as some of those are, I will just advise you to read the passage he published online and note that I intend to read his book.

* An example is found in Gardner's NYTRB review mentioned in my last post:

For thirty years professional psychologists, using sophisticated modern techniques, have been trying to duplicate the experiments of the parapsychologists, and they remain unconvinced.

But, as Dean Radin noted more than three decades after that:

However, the psi controversy is different in one important respect. The vast majority of skeptics often write about the plausibility of various alternative hypotheses, but they almost never test their ideas. This “armchair quarterbacking” is especially true of the current generation of psi skeptics, the vast majority of whom have made no original research contributions to this topic. 

Their reasoning is simple: If you start from the position that an effect cannot exist, then why bother going to all the time and expense to actually study it? It makes more sense to use every rhetorical trick in the book to convince others that your opinion is correct, and that all the evidence to the contrary is somehow flawed. This may seem like a perfectly reasonable strategy, but it is not science. It is much closer to an argument based on faith, like a religious position. The fact that most skeptics do not conduct counter-studies to prove their claims is not well known. For example, in 1983 [almost twenty years after the review above] the well known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote the following:

How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.

As Honorton points out, "Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptics’ experiments and see what you find.” In addition, there is no “larger group of skeptics.” There are perhaps 10 to 15 skeptics who have accounted for the vast bulk of the published criticisms.

A Field Guide to Skepticism:  From The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin

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