10 January 2015


Alex Tsakiris. Why Science is Wrong About Almost Everything. Anomalist Books, 2014.

Alex Tsakris, who runs a podcast called Skeptiko, is basically the paranormalists’ version of the typical American shock-jock, who only invites people onto his show who disagree with him in order to sandbag them, berate them and grandstand to the audience. Like the other shock-jocks he is markedly less critical with those who espouse his world view.
Indeed he shows, from this selection of his interviews any rate, no great critical faculty at all, as witness his treatment of psychic detectives, mediums and energy healing. Much of his venom is directed at academic psychologists, and his main agenda seems to be trying to show them up. This may or may not be connected to the fact that Alex never completed his PhD; it certainly suggests that he has had some pretty traumatic experience at college.

As I have argued before, the problem with many parapsychologists is that they are really not interested in investigating potentially interesting scientific anomalies for their own sake, but only in using them as battering rams against scientific modernity. Tsakiris takes this to extremes, with the usual prejudices against atheists and Darwin that are redolent of the American cultural right.

Thus Tsakiris really wants a world in which meaning and purpose is handed to him on a plate rather than having to be thought out for himself. There are the usual whines that in the absence of belief in an afterlife or “non-physical realities” life is meaningless. Needless to say most people do not think this at all, for many it is the very mortality of human life that gives it meaning. Think of how many people faced with imminent death from cancer and the like go on to do amazing things, not because they want to earn brownie points in the afterlife but because they want to make the greatest impact in this world while they have time.

Does belief in the afterlife actually function as a social good? The only such belief that I think could have genuine social utility would be in random reincarnation: help make the world a healthier, safer and more peaceful and prosperous place and you stand a better chance of your next reincarnation being a more pleasant one.

Otherwise the answer tends to towards then negative; the people who flew those planes into the twin towers believed in the afterlife, most of the young men who slaughtered each other in the trenches of the Great War did so also. As Julius Caesar remarked of the Gauls, a passionate believe in the afterlife makes for more reckless fighters, it makes it easier to die in battle. It also makes it easier to kill (kill them all, God will know his own), even to destroy the world in a nuclear war.

Furthermore belief in transcendental realms often has the effect of despising the joy and beauty of this world. Believers in such realms, especially those who aspire to abandon the mortal fleshy human condition for the purity of “smokeless fire” are the ones who end up condemning, art, music, dance, and joy in general. They are also the ones who inculcate negative views of the body and sex, and, it would appear, end up pretty twisted and abusive.

Tsakiris makes much of near-death experiences as evidence for some non-physical reality, but this is a contradiction. One can never get evidence of non-physical realities (if that phrase is not itself self-contradictory). If it leaves evidence, it is physical, it has impacted the environment. What impresses people about NDEs is that people describe events in the operating theatre. This however is a physical process however they acquire that information, and they have to do so with a process that interacts with the external world in order to gain information about it. If this information is acquired by the P factor, using the Q process, then both the P factor and the Q process are part of the physical world and the ordinary quotidian stuff of the physical world must interact with the Q process (or the Z field or whatever)

Furthermore if you think about it the hypothetical P factor must be physical because it interacts with the brain (it kicks the brain, the brain kicks it), and also because it is apparently summoned back from its transcendental realm by a series of physical processes associated with resuscitation. So the transcendental realm has to be part of physical reality. Not only that ascribing consciousness to a P factor doesn’t make the notorious “hard problem” of consciousness any easier, it just looks like it.
And if you want a ‘materialist’ biologically based theory of ethics that most people (at least those who should not be in madhouses) can agree on, it can start from the proposition that it is good to reduce the number of children who die before their parents to the barest possible minimum. It also makes sense for each generation to live long and prosper and from that we can rationally deduce that a world without war, hunger, poverty, oppression, bigotry and ignorance is better able to achieve those goals that one with them. We will disagree profoundly amongst ourselves as to how that happy state of affairs might be brought about, but only the mad or the malevolent would disagree about the aim.

The hated Darwinian evolution shows that all human beings are related to one another and in effect constitute a huge extended family, and that all living things on earth have, to the best of our knowledge, a common ancestor and are part of a great extended kindred. Darwin himself was a great champion of animal welfare and was often accused of unduly anthropomorphising animals. Most of us would think that is an improvement on Descartes view that animals were insensate robots that could be treated with careless brutality.

One can add just a few points: Tsakiris seems unaware that the most ferocious of all CSICOP skeptics, Martin Gardener was a devout theist, or that one of the most prominent supporters of dualism in recent years John Beloff was a noted atheist.

Ultimately reading this book left me with only one mystery, why do otherwise sensible people allow themselves to be sandbagged by this guy? Do they or their agents not have the nouse to look up Skeptico on the Internet and realise that this is someone at the intellectual level of Rush Limbaugh who is not remotely interested in genuine debate? They should ask him the simple question “Do you want to talk about my book/work etc., or just grandstand to the audience, if the latter I have nothing more to say” and slam the phone down on him. He thinks that Patricia Churchland’s embarrassed attempts to politely get off the phone, as she gradually realises that she is dealing with someone who, if not a crank with more than one chip on his shoulder, is giving a damn good impression of one, is confrontational and shows Churchland in a bad light. It isn’t and doesn’t. Confrontational is what you would get from me in those circumstances, sadly the laws of libel, the Malicious Communications Act and our concern for our readers delicate sensibilities mean that must be left to your imagination, it does however include the word “off”. -- Peter Rogerson.


Anonymous said...

You've got to hand it to Mr. Tsakiris in one respect; his choice of title was pure genius! It guarantees that a certain type of reader will automatically buy this book, irrespective of whether they have either the desire or the intellectual ability to follow his complicated without being complex and not terribly interesting philosophical arguments, because the fact that a book with that title exists gives them something to wave while shouting: "See? I told you!"

You've also missed a chance to point out a supremely ironic fact about this book. The foreword was contributed by Rupert Sheldrake, who is not exactly an entrenched atheist materialist Darwin groupie. In his introduction, he unequivocally states that the title of the book he's introducing is just plain wrong, and he himself advised Alex to change it. Which tells us two things. Firstly, Alex Tsakiris is too arrogant to take manifestly sensible advice from someone who, in the field of pseudoscience he dabbles in as best a failed PhD student can, is the equivalent of Albert Einstein. And secondly, Rupert Sheldrake really needed that money.

Tom Ruffles said...

It's 'Skeptiko', not Skeptico.

Ross said...

Gee, if I were you, I would be targeting "laws of libel" and the "Malicious Communications Act" rather than wasting my time on Alex Tsakiris. And they say Muslims are a threat to freedom of speech. What freedom of speech? Pathetic.

Magonia said...

Thanks, now corrected.

Magonia said...

I think intended ironically as a suggestion as to just how far Peter's criticism might have gone!

Ross said...

Alex Tsakiris extends an invitation to Peter Rogerson to appear on his show. (This is for real.) Since Peter has already read Alex's book, he can't be "sandbagged."

Terry the Censor said...

Ross, the full charge is that Tsarkis sandbags those he disagrees with AND goes soft on people who agree with him. That can be disproven by showing that Tsakiris treats everyone the same, NOT by having Alex merely indulge in more of the same (alleged) partisan behaviour.

Please ask Alex to provide examples of him "sandbagging/confronting" paranormal proponents or giving a free ride to materialists.

john browne said...

To the author of this blog and Count Otto Black. You are fools sirs. I'm sure from your false comments you have never even listened to one Skeptiko interview. Dr John Browne (a successful PhD)

cda said...

Why use the term "successful PhD"?
Are you implying that Count Otto Black, or any of the other contributors, is an unsuccessful PhD?

Ross said...

I'm not trying to "disprove" anything. I'm passing on an invitation, with Tsakiris's own observation that he can't "sandbag" Rogerson. Rogerson can decide what he wants to do with the invitation.

Anonymous said...

Aha! Here we have a supporter of Alex Tsakiris jumping to his defense with the unassailable argument that if Peter Rogerson and myself don't agree with everything Alex Tsakiris says, we are fools. And also liars if we claim to have listened to even one episode of his podcast without ending up in total agreement with him.

May I just point out that this appears to confirm what I said in the first paragraph of my previous comment?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ross Many decades ago I made a firm decision never to appear on radio, TV or like media and as I haven't got a book I want to flog I will decline to enter the Venus fly-trap.

If you want to know what we Brits mean by confrontational try watching this from last night's TV http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04yfff3/question-time-15012015

After watching that I wonder if Alex Tsakiris would fancy taking on David Starkey (an ultra-right, semi-absolute monarchist, libertarian gay atheist)

I suspect that after Charlie Hebdo there is going to be a backlash against limitations on free speech (that mag would almost certainly have faced numerous legal problems over here, action likely to cause a breach of the peace is probably what the police would have used against it)


Lynn said...

Thank you for stating what is, to me, the obvious. I quit listening to anything coming from him and his and would be thrilled never to hear this type of thing ever again. The blatant venom is more than I will stomach.

Magonia said...

Peter Rogerson writes:

The main controversy was that surrounding Patrician Churchland’s comments on Pim van Lommel’s study of near-death experiences. The controversy is very fairly summarised here:


The fuss actually seems to have been generated by a botched text in the book. In the first hardback edition this reads:

As neuroscientist Pim van Lommel and his colleagues pointed out, a strong reason for saying yes is that experiences similar to those suffering anoxia following cardiac arrest can be induced by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe and hippocampus, something that may be done in epileptic patients prior to surgery. Similar experiences can also be induced by raising the level of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia, sometimes suffered by scuba divers) or by decreasing oxygen levels in the brain by hyperventilating following the Valsalva maneuver (as when you strain at stool).

But van Lommel isn’t a neuroscientist, he’s a cardiologist

In the second paperback edition Pim van Lommel becomes changed to Dean Mobbs, who is a neuroscientist, but has only one colleague, and the paragraph following has been taken from van Lommel’s paper.

So both references are wrong, and the reference should have read something like “as neuroscientist Dean Mobbs has argued there are strong reasons for arguing that the answer is yes (to their being a neurological basis for NDE); and as van Lommel and his colleagues concede…” which makes perfect sense, whether you agree with her or not.
So what has happened is that two papers; that by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt


and that by van Lommel and colleagues


have become jumbled together. What is also clear is that in the Lancet paper transcendentalist explanations of NDE’s are not pushed “With lack of evidence for any other theories for NDE, the thus far assumed, but never proven, concept that consciousness and memories are localised in the brain should be discussed. How could a clear consciousness outside one's body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death with flat EEG? Also, in cardiac arrest the EEG usually becomes flat in most cases within about 10 s from onset of syncope. Furthermore, blind people have described veridical perception during out-of-body experiences at the time of this experience.1 NDE pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation.

Magonia said...

continued ...

Another theory holds that NDE might be a changing state of consciousness (transcendence), in which identity, cognition, and emotion function independently from the unconscious body, but retain the possibility of non-sensory perception.

Obviously this is being kept deliberately vague as to be presentable in a scientific journal like The Lancet and certainly one that may have been overlooked in a quick read. And of course, it is doubtful that one listener in a hundred to Tsakiris’s podcast would have read the Lancet paper, but they are much more likely to have read his popular book Consciousness Beyond Life (HarperOne, 2010,) in which included the usual mixture of science, possible science, speculation, pseudoscience and new age stuff that one expects in such works. Ironically in that book van Lommel declares himself to be an atheist.

That would not have gone down well with other “anti-materialist” writers, such as Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, authors of the The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul also published by HarperOne in 2007. This work is clearly influenced by Roman Catholic ideology of the traditionalist variety, and approvingly quotes from the noted Intelligent Design wedge activist William Demski. These authors seem less concerned with life after death, and more with a break from the natural world. They oppose views which argue that chimpanzees can tell us anything about human beings, or that they possess nascent forms of human abilities. They are also firmly in the anti-Darwinist camp. They also claim that while moles and humans both have brains, only human brains can sustain a mind. They do not explain how they know this, possibly because Thomas Aquinas told them so.
Their argument, which basically is that moles don’t have souls, puts them at odds with the leading theoretician of the SPR, Frederick Myers. It was his mother telling him as a small child that moles don’t have souls that turned him off conventional religion. In many respects Myers was closer to Darwin than to his critics, in arguing for the unity of the natural world.

No doubt many of these arguments are fuelled by language. Materialism seems to be one of those bugaboo words in America, because of its echoes of the crude anti-communist propaganda of the Cold War (godless atheistical communism, etc.).

There is, I think, a confusion between what one might be called kitchen sink materialism, that at the operational level of the kitchen, forge or laboratory bench, that which manifests to our senses as matter and energy is what we are dealing with, and ontological materialism which argues that the world is made up of little billiard ball atoms. That went out of the window decades ago. No-one knows what quarks, electrons, photons etc. really are, so we have no idea what brains, or for that matter bodies, chairs, computers, cars etc. really are at the deepest level.

A more general way of looking at the world might be unitary naturalism, which argues, by definition, all that exists is an integral part of a unitary nature. This makes no specifications as to what that unitary nature might contain, though it would argue that in some very general sense, all those aspects of it which leave traces on, or acquire information about, the environment are “physical”.

Michael M. Hughes said...

I can weigh in as someone who was very recently sandbagged by Tsakiris. He invited me on his show to discuss "pizzagate," the collection of absurdities collated into a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her operatives were/are running a child sex trafficking ring headquartered in a D.C. pizza restaurant.

The whole sordid tale is here, for those who can stomach it:

But in a nutshell, he opened the show, introduced me, then started yelling and haranguing me. I could barely get a word in as he relentlessly tried to portray me as an idiot. And guess what? He then decided he wasn't going to air the show. Was it because he didn't want his listeners to realize he was a hectoring bully, or because maybe he feared he might get hit with a lawsuit for defaming human beings by accusing them of some of the most horrible crimes imaginable? Guess we'll never know.

To anyone considering appearing on his show: Don't do it.