DadFiles: Breastfeeding Benefits Overstated

Though there are men who’ve tried (for real), I declined to breastfeed my children. My wife, however, refused to be stopped. I look back at what she EandJ13April2Copyaccomplished, in terms of pushing past pain and the burden on her time, with unyielding admiration. Most women with twins fail to breastfeed past six months. Lisa went for a year. She read the research and believed breastfeeding would better our childrens’ lives, forever. So did I. But I also deferred the decision to her, advising her when I thought she should bag it and supporting her every time she thought different.

Over the years, breastfeeding has been linked to a host of long-term benefits: improved body mass index (BMI); lower rates of asthma, obesity, allergies, illness and hyperactivity; and greater parental attachment. The only thing breastfeeding doesn’t seem to do is cure cancer. That said, breastfeeding may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. So there’s that.

         The problem was that breastfeeding was hard. Our twins, like most multiples, were born one month early, rendering them weak and making breastfeeding a greater challenge. Plus, they were tongue-tied.

My wife also developed two separate cases of mastitis, a breastfeeding-related infection. She grew feverish, shivering and slurring her speech. The episodes frightened me out of my mind. But now the boys are 19 months old, happy and healthy, and a bombshell of a study just dropped.

         Assistant professor of sociology Cynthia Colen, at The Ohio State University, looked at data involving 8,237 children, 7,319 siblings and 1,773 “discordant” sibling pairs. The “discordant” kids category is the important one: These children hailed from 665 surveyed families in which at least one child was breast-fed, while at least one other child was bottle-fed. The children who were differently fed in the same family represented about 25 percent of the siblings in the data.

         Colen looked at health outcomes for these children, at ages four through 14, and found no statistically significant advantages to breastfeeding whatsoever. (In fact, breastfed children were more likely to have asthma.) The study’s conclusion is that the previous literature, extolling the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding on children, was mythical—an illusion brought on by other factors: “Many previous studies suffer from selection bias,” Cohen said in a statement announcing the paper. “They either do not or cannot statistically control for factors such as race, age, family income, mother’s employment – things we know that can affect both breast-feeding and health outcomes. Moms with more resources, with higher levels of education and higher levels of income, and more flexibility in their daily schedules are more likely to breast-feed their children and do so for longer periods of time.”  

         I expect a lot of people who pushed themselves to breastfeed, despite any obstacle, reacted to this study with frustration. But my advice is not to overreact.  

         Even the study author says that breastfeeding has clear health benefits for newborns. The advantages for the mother are also untouched by this new study.

         Our babies stayed surprisingly healthy, even during the period of time when breastfeeding was hard for them and they struggled to put on weight. Given that my wife and I catch whatever colds they get, I can only imagine how devastating a simple cough and stuffy nose might have been for all of us during those first six- or seven months, when the boys still woke up to eat at 10 p.m., 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

         We also need to wait, as we always do, where science is concerned, to see if this data proves to be as authoritative as it seems. I have no doubt there are a dozen or more researchers out there who’ve built their careers and reputations on studies that demonstrate the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding. Chances are, they will go rooting through the data themselves, looking for some flaw, or construct some new study of their own to test these latest findings. This may not sound like science in its ideal form, but I am of the opinion that science is among the many things that rarely proceeds according to its ideals. And in this sense, a healthy dose of “punctured ego” can actually help to vet and validate new science.

         If the results do hold up, I wonder if there isn’t a valuable lesson here in how quick we are to accept a finding as “scientific.” For a decade or more, the medical profession and media inundated us with “data”, and urged new moms to breastfeed despite any obstacle they might encounter because the “gift” of breastfeeding a child would last a lifetime.

And now?

It looks as if the much of the medical profession and science media has been caught out attributing long-term beneficial health effects to the wrong cause. Perhaps breastfeeding, in this instance, was also a good way for all of us to increase our humility.


Books and Babies

EliandJFloorThe last few years of my life are easily my most productive. I wrote and published Fringe-ology, rejoined the staff of Philadelphia Magazine and received a pile of City and Regional Magazine Award nominations, including writer of the year. I also published two e-singles in 2013. Obsessed: The Compulsions and Creations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz came out in late summer (in conjunction with Philadelphia), followed by Gosnell’s Babies: Inside the Mind of America’s Most Notorious Abortion Doctor (Discover). I continued to promote Fringe-ology, when the opportunity presented itself, including an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. And of course, my wife and I also had two babies—fraternal twin boys named Jack and Eli. A good friend told me they are my best work and I don’t disagree. Parents always believe their own children are the greatest. Now I know they’re all wrong because mine are. (You’d be shocked by how many parents take jokes like this seriously.) The little critters are pictured above, with Eli on the left and Jack to the right.

The future is more unpredictable than ever. On a large scale, I’m concerned about this country’s economy and the planet’s climate. But on a micro-scale I am looking forward to the future with more excitement and confidence. I recently asked my editor at Philadelphia Magazine to shift me to a “writer at large” position, allowing me to pursue more outside projects, and I’m sifting through those now. As long as the water doesn’t rise above our heads, the coming years should bring more books, e-singles, articles and some surprises. 

The only aspect of my career I feel bad about is this blog, which I’ve neglected. But no more. I am giving myself more freedom than ever in terms of what I’ll be posting here. I called this blog The Generalist for a reason, and in the coming weeks, months and years I’ll write on an increasingly wide range of topics—from books and writing to fatherhood, science, the paranormal, football, music and whatever else comes up.

Thanks for watching this space.


My Street


The hype surrounding this morning’s snowfall in Philadelphia proved more powerful than the storm itself. But I did get this lovely view along my street this morning. Incredibly, the 10-12 inches called for earlier in the week’s forecasts proved about four times too emphatic. The final snowfall ran just over three inches and was, by 5 p.m., mostly gone.


summer_karly_swingThe boys are big enough now, at one year old, to take out on the town. So the other day, me and Lisa took Eli and Jack to a nearby park, on Washington Avenue, with a bouncy, fall-safe surface and swings that include back support for toddlers.

Lisa has a thing for swings. Throughout our dating and married life, when the opportunity presents itself, she insists on clambering into a swing for me to push her. So the swings were our destination, Lisa pushing Eli, me pushing Jack. I am starting to think I show promise at this dad thing. I am goofy, gentle, goofy, affectionate, goofy, patient and goofy. But my wife is a brilliant mom, and the boys can hardly look at her without smiling. So, while I stood there just pushing Jack she talked and got the boys babbling back. “Whee!” she said as she pushed Eli, and before long Eli started calling, in little gusts of breath, “Wheee!”

He smiled contentedly as he reclined in the swing, repeating “whee,” which now stands up there with “Da-Da” and “ma” as the third word he has ever spoken. And I had to stop myself from crying.

Overall, before the boys were even born, I considered myself pretty lucky in life: I am healthy, I love my job, my wife is my best friend, and I’ve generally felt like, since I turned 30, life got a little better with every passing year. But, prior to the boys, the pleasures of life were largely familiar to me. To be clear, eating a delicious pizza is very different than, say, reading a great book, but they can be measured on the same scale, say, from 1 to 10. When Eli said “whee,” that first time, I started to cry because I was overwhelmed. I’d never felt this much joy, in so concentrated a fashion, and merely by observing someone else in a happy moment. And to put this feeling in perspective, I needed an entirely new scale, a new unit of measurement.

We took a long walk the next day, to get ice cream. I pushed the boys in their stroller, fast fast fast, and though no one else had used the word Eli started to call, unbidden, “Whee! Whee!”

Maybe an hour later, after ice cream and the trip back home, he sat on his butt, playing idly with a pair of rubber blocks, and called, smiling, “Wheee! Whee!”

Just days shy of his first birthday, Eli had learned to apply the third word in his vocabulary not just to the rush of motion he felt on a swing or in a stroller but to moments of happiness. And he was not afraid to use it.

I cried twice that second day, without holding back. And I wasn’t just crying over my son’s happiness. I was crying because I was experiencing something important. Because I was learning that, when we are as unencumbered as a one year old—before we are self-conscious enough to stifle our feelings, before we are buried in responsibilities so deep that we spend most of our time thinking about what’s next as opposed to right now—the pure unfiltered experience of “whee!” is available to us.

I cried because in this little exclamation my son made that experience available to me again. With the little gusts of his breath, he blew all my shit away—my bloated self-importance, my concern with my next appointment, my preoccupation with tomorrow—so that I felt free; so that every time he uttered this one word I simply felt—without any concern, or care, at all.

Valentine’s Day


The New Musical Express just published a boffo write up on how David Bowie’s new video, for “Valentine’s Day,” takes on Charlton Heston and the NRA. I thought there were a couple of odd poses in this video…


Spanking the Skeptics

How the folks at The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe got it all wrong. And why James Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge remains an impediment to progress.  



If you read Fringe-ology, or heard me interviewed on the radio, you know I think the value of paranormal stories often lies in what our reactions to such tales reveals about us.

In researching subjects like telepathy, UFOs, ghosts and consciousness, for instance, I found that the people most vocal about the paranormal tend to resist the unexplained. That statement probably sounds counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain: To the most ardent believers, a UFO report is evidence of alien visitation. To passionate skeptics, a UFO report is evidence of how readily people misidentify Earth-bound phenomenon as exotic technology. The truth, of course, is that an Unidentified Flying Object is just that—unidentified—and nothing more. It should go without saying that a UFO, once identified, ceases to be a UFO.

UFOetIn these terms, skeptics and believers should be able to rally around a common set of cases. After all, listen to alien-visitation advocate Stanton Friedman  or arch-skeptic James Randi speak on the subject and both will acknowledge the vast majority of UFO reports can be explained as mis-identified but well-known phenomena. Only a small handful of cases remain unexplained. But even when the data runs out, skeptics and believers go on arguing for their point of view. Friedman advances the E.T. hypothesis. Randi, or the like, explains that these unsolved cases will likely be answered by Earth-bound explanations—and in any case there is no evidence that aliens have visited; and so this is not a possible explanation we should take very seriously; and—may I add?—harrumph.

In my opinion the conversation about any of these unresolved cases should conclude in the exact geolocation where we really sit: at the edge of a mystery, which might be solved by any number of possible explanations—from the prosaic to the powerfully strange—and which cuts right to the heart of one of the deepest existential questions humankind has yet to answer: Are we alone in the universe? But as I mentioned at the outset, mystery—even if it is reality—is less appealing to the blinkered believer or dogmatic skeptic than the answer they have presupposed.

This is a natural phenomenon—as natural as aliens (if they exist). We all bring some bias to the conversation. We view new information through the lens of what we already believe. And we tend to notice or give greater weight to information that confirms our beliefs, or to interpret the data in some way that leaves us feeling more secure about our worldview.

This phenomenon, dubbed confirmation bias, operates within us all—and overcoming it requires a willful effort. In politics, we either assume our favorite candidate will withstand every scandal or we just flat-out ignore any salacious information that emerges. But we are far less gracious toward our political opponents. Consider: To the farthest right republicans, every facet of Democratic President Barack Obama’s biography seems to hint at his real status as a secret Muslim who hates America. To democrats situated most dramatically left, republican president George W. Bush was a dry drunk with daddy issues who allowed 9/11 to happen so he could invade Iraq.

I argue, in Fringe-ology, that such biases prove particularly destructive in conversations about the paranormal. But I now hold a more intimate understanding of how confirmation bias operates. Because in mid-January, I got to see how I look through the eyes of skeptics disinterested in looking past their own worldviews.

The occasion was a podcast produced by the good people over at the The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. On Jan. 19, the team there compounded lead host Steven Novella’s off-point rebuttal to my critique of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge with a litany of what I can only guess were heart-felt, bias driven mistakes.

I’ll take you through the segment, point-by-point, interjecting as needed. Where I can, I identify the speaker. But there are enough voices chiming in (five) that I occasionally can’t make out who is talking. In those instances, I simply identify the speaker as “SG”, for Skeptics’ Guide. (My comments are preceded by “Volk.”)

 Steven Novella: So Evan, more people are attacking our beloved Million Dollar James Randi paranormal challenge.

Evan Bernstein: Yeah, the latest is by a fella named Steve Volk. Anyone ever heard of Steve Volk?

Novella: No.

Rebecca Watson: Nope.

Bernstein: No. Of course you haven’t. Because he writes about the paranormal.

Volk: There are already a couple of interesting things here. But the most intriguing to me is that Bernstein presumes his skeptical co-hosts wouldn’t have heard of me precisely because I write about the paranormal.

I would’ve thought skeptics might actually consider it part of their beat (in journalistic terms) to familiarize themselves with what people in the paranormal community are writing. But Bernstein and his cohorts casually dismiss the idea. Back to the show…

Bernstein: He floats along unnoticed in the paranormal soup that’s out there with thousands of other like-minded authors. He’s a freelance writer, a journalist, and he’s made appearances on radio shows, usually in the Pennsylvania area, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and he was recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast—

SG: Oh!

Bernstein: He’s been on Coast to Coast so maybe there are a few people who’ve heard of him. In any case, he wrote a book about the paranormal, and it’s called: Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Paranormal—and Couldn’t.

Volk: He misses some small things. The subtitle uses the word “unexplained,” not “paranormal.” I freelance, but I am on staff at Philadelphia magazine. Also, I’m guessing he misspoke but he seems to be saying most of the radio I’ve done has been in the Pennsylvania area. For what it’s worth, I’ve actually done comparatively few media appearances in Pennsylvania, and I’m terribly grateful to have received a lot of national exposure, including the recent Joe Rogan appearance, two interviews on the nationally syndicated Coast to Coast AM and segments on NPR’s Radiolab and MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show. But who cares? These guys are just warming up.

Bernstein: He saw a ghost as a kid and he hasn’t been regular ever since. That’s the gist of the book. And if you think about it, it’s kind of an argument from ignorance, right? “I can’t explain it, therefore it must be the paranormal.”

SG: Exactly!

Volk: The problem, for anyone who knows the first thing about what I’ve written or said, is that the only people arguing from ignorance here are the hosts of Skeptics’ Guide.

For starters, I’ve never seen a ghost. I’ve also never claimed to see a ghost. The Family Ghost Story, as I call it in Fringe-ology, involves noises we could never explain. I had my own, fragmented memories of these sounds. But I never, as Bernstein suggests, conclude these bumps in the night represented an actual ghost. In fact, I write the opposite: “…to leap from an unexplained sound to the existence of disembodied life forms is, well, too great a leap to make, based on the evidence at hand.”

I even spend a great deal of the chapter looking into some ambitious materialist explanations for ghost stories, including infrasound and electromagnetic waves.

ghost I can’t say I was entirely surprised that The Skeptics’ Guide screwed this up so thoroughly. I spent a lot of time researching just how mired the modern skeptical movement can be in its own conceits. And while this is sheer speculation on my part, I can guess at how Bernstein arrived at his mistaken notions. I suspect that whoever researched me looked at the description of Fringe-ology on my website or my Amazon bio and saw that I wanted to “investigate an old family ghost story.” Interpreting this phrase according to their own pre-existing biases The Skeptics’ Guide flew off into a host of pejorative associations. Then they moved on to my blog post.

Bernstein: Mr. Volk has a blog called “Steve Volk: The Generalist,” and let’s see…on January 9th he posted a blog titled “The Joke of the James Randi Challenge: In Defense of Sheldrake.” He dubbed Randi the “cranky elf” of the skeptical movement.

Watson: I think Randi would accept that, actually.

SG: (Laughter)

Watson: I think he would like it.

Bernstein: Volk lets us know in this blog post, he’d like to address what is likely the worst, least credible thing that Randi promotes, which is his long running challenge in which he vows to give one-million dollars to anyone who can prove paranormal claims in a controlled test. He says the Challenge has been muddled by the very boundaries of science* [I write that the Challenge muddles the boundaries of science, but Bernstein can be forgiven for the mis-quote]…allowing Randi-ites—I guess that’s us—to say paranormal claims don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, while conceding—when pressed—that the Challenge isn’t science. I think Volk entirely misses the point here.

Novella: Yeah.

Bernstein: The Challenge is an effort to design a statistically sound protocol for any given extraordinary claim, which greatly minimizes bias and/or fraud.

Volk: Actually, I think the statistical thresholds on the Challenge are set primarily to minimize the chance of luck intervening. But let’s keep moving…

Watson: He seems to want the million dollars to be given to anybody whose results are statistically significant in a scientific sense. Like, if you were to do this, and publish it in a journal, that should get the million dollars. But he forgets the fact that the whole point of the Challenge is to find proof that the paranormal exists and that proof needs to go beyond a reasonable doubt…

Volk: Again, there are a few problems here. Watson suggests I want some paranormal researcher to collect the million. But I don’t want that. I have also never written or said so. Further, the point of the Challenge is not to prove or disprove the paranormal. She is simply, like so many others (as I will soon demonstrate) attributing a power and purpose to the Challenge that it does not hold. Incredibly, she also directly contradicted the nominal leader of the Skeptics’ Guide, Steven Novella, whose written response to me states: “The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon.”

Still, he lets Watson get away with this misstatement. Did he miss it? Or is he simply disinclined to criticize one of his own?

Novella: Let’s look at this another way. Like, if you wanna use a p-value of .05, which is a traditional cut off for statistical significance in a scientific publication, that means Randi would be giving a million dollars to every 20th applicant of the million dollar challenge, which is obviously not practical. So essentially, what Volk says is that [research of the sort conducted by Dean Radin or Rupert Sheldrake] would require years of research and thousands of trials. Again, completely missing the point. The point of the Million Dollar Challenge is not to conduct publishable scientific research. It’s not to look for subtle effects that would require lots of trials…

Volk: Um, actually, that is my point. In other words, Novella seems to miss this entirely, but he and I agree. What I write in my initial post, “The Joke of the James Randi Challenge,” and a subsequent follow-up, “Randi’s Minions and the Million,” is that the MDC is not set up to serve any meaningful scientific aim. There are no papers coming out of it. And the results applicants need to generate in order to achieve victory are far beyond what scientific researchers like Radin and Sheldrake claim to be able to produce. Street corner psychics may claim inerrancy, but the Sheldrakes of the world are looking for much smaller, subtler effects. My criticism is that, too often, paranormal researchers conducting actual science are subjected to questions about why they don’t apply for Randi’s million; or the entire field of parapsychology is somehow cast under suspicion because no one has won Randi’s prize.

To illustrate this, I had—in the very post these skeptics are so ineffectively critiquing—used the new atheist thinker Sam Harris as an example. In his own appearance on the Rogan podcast, Harris claimed that there is “something fishy” about the failure of a scientist like Sheldrake to apply for the million.

In response to Harris, I wrote:

“…There is nothing ‘fishy’ about the disinclination of a scientist like Sheldrake to participate in the Challenge. Statistical significance is built through sheer repetition. In fact, achieving a proper ‘sample size,’ testing an effect enough times, is bedrock science. Conversely, failing to obtain a representative sample size is a hallmark of the Randi Challenge. Scientists like Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Daryl Bem conduct studies that require dozens of people (or more) and take weeks or months or even years to perform. Randi puts on events that occur in a fraction of the time, generally over an evening or afternoon. In conclusion, Randi’s protocols simply won’t allow Sheldrake to conduct real science.”

outgroupBut amazingly, Novella never mentions Harris in his written critique of my initial post. And during this subsequent Skeptics’ Guide podcast, he and his peeps never address the Harris portion of my argument—my central exhibit—either. Readers familiar with my book, or simply alert to the problems associated with group dynamics, might already see what’s happening here. But allow me to explain: Me and the good people at Skeptics’ Guide are talking past each other. They accuse me of “missing the point” of their “beloved” challenge while I keep waiting for them to even make the faintest move toward addressing the point I actually made. The issue, as I see it, is that I am writing from the perspective of someone sympathetic to parapsychology researchers. That marks me as “outside” their group—skeptics—and so they start ascribing to me all kinds of visions (he saw a ghost), motivations (I want Randi to give away his million) and thoughts (can’t explain it, must be a ghost), with a staggering 100-percent inaccuracy rate. Further, because I am defending the group they seek to defeat, I can’t be granted any sort of win—or even traction.

Again, I am speculating. But I can only guess that they essentially back up my chief point—The Challenge isn’t science—but avoid delving into the Harris portion of my argument because they never wanted to string three particular words together: “Volk is right.”

To make matters still worse (for them), by the time this Skeptics’ Guide aired, I had already rebutted Novella’s initial printed response.

Here’s a quick excerpt*:

*Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, has done a bang-up job of addressing the Challenge’s shortcomings. And he has already published a response to Novella of his own. He notes that Harris is far from the only interested party who is unclear on the Challenge’s range and authority. “New Scientist asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi’s million dollars,” writes Taylor. “We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem’s famous experiments (‘Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi’)—an editorial that Novella himself described as ‘the best thing to come out of Bem’s research’—we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon: ‘[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)’”

In other words, there is an odd pattern here, in which really smart people with scientific backgrounds wind up confused about just what James Randi’s Challenge is all about. Given that the resulting confusion affords the Challenge greater standing, skeptics might even be seen to hold a keen self-interest in allowing delusions over the Challenge’s boundaries to persist.

Intriguingly, Harris remarks, in his interview with Rogan, that he had met with Randi and discussed the Challenge. Yet he walked away with a muddled view. And frankly, there are moments in their mid-January podcast when the hosts of The Skeptics’ Guide also seem similarly confused: As I write above, Watson falsely stated that the point of the Challenge is to prove the paranormal exists; additionally, another host (I couldn’t make out which one) said “[Volk] doesn’t get that there has to be a protocol and it has to be difficult or you’re not proving anything”—again falsely raising the idea that the MDC is about proving paranormal phenomena exist; and even Novella himself slips into referring to the Challenge as “the study” and “these studies.” But, as he himself argued, the MDC is not the sort of test that might result in a peer-reviewed scientific publication or even stand as a preliminary experiment; so the word “study”, with all its scientific connotations, is inappropriate.

Slips of the tongue, if that’s what they were, are understandable. And it may seem as if, here at the end, I am being particularly hard on The Skeptics’ ragged use of language. But whether such self-contradictory statements were intentional (I doubt it) or accidental (more likely) is, to me, almost beside the point. What intrigues me is that this segment of Skeptics’ Guide functions less as a critique of my argument than as a kind of unintended support: The Challenge is too often confused with what it isn’t: science. Thanks for that, guys. But even though I am giving myself the win here—hey, maybe I’m a little biased too—I emerge from this entire exchange more disturbed than happy.

The skeptical movement purports to guard the boundaries of science. The slogan employed by the Skeptics’ Guide is “Your escape to reality.” But in this encounter, reality was the victim. And I can only wonder if the population at large is as skeptical as it needs to be of a modern skeptical movement that has so much trouble seeing past its own worldview.

Randi’s Minions and the Million

MinionsSteven Novella, a clinical neurologist and popular skeptic, has published a response to my recent article “The Joke of the James Randi Challenge.” On one hand, I feel required to thank him. He noted my description of Randi as a “cranky elf” is more charitable than most critics would employ.

Still, my chief reaction is disappointment. Novella never properly addressed what I consider the key takeaway from my post: “The Challenge has muddled the very boundaries of science.”

Now, to be fair, Novella quotes this line verbatim. He also recognizes it as the “core” of my criticism. He just never actually confronts the argument I make. But before I get there, let me first bring readers up to speed.

As Novella himself puts it:

“Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is an icon of the skeptical movement. The challenge basically offers $1 million to anyone who can ‘show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.’ So far no applicant has passed even the preliminary test for the million dollars.”

My contention was and remains that the entire field of psi research gets swept up in the fervor this “icon” creates in Skeptical hearts. I centered the post Novella takes exception to on statements made by best-selling author Sam Harris. One of the most prominent “new atheist” thinkers, Harris apparently buys into the Challenge completely—not only to test mediums charging money to channel information from the dead; but as a means of vetting professional scientists engaged in research.

Appearing on the podcast of comedian Joe Rogan, Harris commented

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake

directly on Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a scientist behind experiments on subjects like telephone telepathy. He suggested there is “something fishy” about Sheldrake’s disinclination to take the Challenge. And to this he added the even broader judgment that parapsychologists should be required to prove their claims to skeptics like Randi before they get a wider hearing.

Is he correct? Well, to concede success, the Challenge demands a high accuracy rate (try 1,000 to 1 odds against chance* for the preliminary test) over a small number of trials, usually conducted with one supposed psychic during the course of an afternoon or evening. Sheldrake, or a researcher like Dean Radin, claim they can demonstrate a small but significant “psi” effect after many hundreds of trials employing dozens of research subjects, conducted over weeks or months (at least) of laboratory experimentation.

There is, simply, no fit whatsoever between the event Randi stages and the science Sheldrake practices, yet Harris somehow looked at both and walked away confused.  I used this example to illustrate my argument. But Novella never mentions Harris at all.

There is, however, one point on which Novella and I agree: “The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments,” he writes, “and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon.”

So why, I ask, is the Challenge sometimes held up as a valid test for the work of scientists—even by people, like Harris, who should know better?

Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, has done a bang-up job of addressing the Challenge’s shortcomings. And he has already published a response to Novella of his own. He notes that Harris is far from the only interested party who is unclear on the Challenge’s range and authority. “New Scientist asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi’s million dollars,” writes Taylor. “We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem’s famous experiments (‘Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi’)—an editorial that Novella himself described as ‘the best thing to come out of Bem’s research’—we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon: ‘[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)’”

My own opinion on how such smart people wind up so mistaken about the Challenge is that the James Randi Educational Foundation has done a lousy job of educating the public on this particular topic. Given that the resulting confusion affords the Challenge greater standing, the JREF might even be seen to hold a keen self-interest in allowing delusions over the Challenge’s boundaries to persist.

Novella, though, skips over such issues and instead explores the statistical arguments surrounding the Challenge. He writes, appropriately, I think, that using the standard scientific measure of statistical significance, 0.05, would force Randi to give away his million one in twenty times by chance alone. But in this he misses my whole point: I’m not arguing over what standard is necessary to call Randi a responsible steward of the money entrusted to him. I’m pointing out that the Challenge has become a frequent distraction in the conversation and debate over scientific findings, even though it operates far outside science’s borders.

As Taylor rightly observes, the odds Randi employs are more in keeping with “risk management” than an attempt to ferret out the truth. And it seems to me that something important is lost in this mess.

We are all—skeptics, believers, and the neutral—stuck on the same rock, floating through space. The best tool we’ve discovered for understanding the world around us and developing a shared base of knowledge is science.  Psi, if it exists, might help to illuminate some big, existential questions about topics like consciousness and human capabilities. As a result, I’d like to see more science on the subject. But the Challenge is not only useless in this respect, it’s actually become—as Harris, New Scientist and Wagenmaker’s, et. al demonstrate—an impediment to scientific inquiry.

*Author’s note: In an attempt to avoid repeating everything I wrote in the earlier column, I tried to give people just a taste of the odds Challenge contestants are up against. I also figure people interested in the topic are likely to click on the links above and investigate further. But after an email from Greg at the Daily Grail, I’d better clarify. The 1,000 to 1 odds against chance are evidently what the JREF sets as a standard for its preliminary test. Once that hurdle is jumped, the contestant would face million to one odds against chance for the money.  There is still more to say. But we can no doubt take that up on the comments pages. —Steve


Bowie’s Back


Ten years after he released his last album, David Bowie made a surprise reappearance last week, on his birthday, releasing a pretty, melancholy single, “Where Are We Now?” He also announced a new album to be released in March.

I’m always rather amazed at how differently he’s seen in America than among his fellow Brits. I suspect we Americans are too consumed with notions of “authenticity” to look up from Bruuu-uuce long enough to really give Bowie his due. (Note: I loves me some Bruce.) You can see the full video for Bowie’s new single elsewhere. But in this clip, his re-emergence takes up an entire news segment of lush, British accents. You can feel the excitement, and it sure is hard to image this kind of coverage here.

The Return of the Thin White Duke

Are We But Meat Puppets?

FreeWillCafeI wrote a much longer piece on free will here almost a year ago. But in light of my appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

Last spring, Rogan had the new atheist thinker and neuroscientist Sam Harris on his show. There, Harris briefly restated his views on free will: chiefly, we don’t have it.

We all think we wake up, consciously sift through a variety of options for our day and begin making choices: Wake up and go to work, for example, or call in “sick,” take a mental health day and hit the Cineplex. Skip breakfast altogether; or eat a peach.

Harris’s argument is grounded in philosophical materialism. Our physical brains are the source of all our thinking and behaviors. As a result, all of our brain’s operations—all our behavior—is subject to the laws of physics. Taken to its logical extent, we cannot be the true author of our thoughts, ideas, impulses, conclusions or, ultimately, actions. Where, in fact, could a notion so vague as our “will” become a cause in this chain of physical phenomena? We receive inputs from our senses and our brain spits out responses: Go to church, or join an atheist social group.

In this view, we are spectators to our own lives. Harris calls us “biochemical puppets,”  while biologist Jerry Coyne ups the ante, referring to humanity more brutishly—for all our achievements in art, science and the like—as “meat computers.”

In a sense, neither man needs to offer up any evidence at all to support his view. The neuroscientific consensus that the brain must produce consciousness, and the obvious fact of the brain’s physical, gelatinous existence render “free will” a kind of philosophical non-starter—at least if the materialist worldview holds. The big bang occurred, and if only we could measure every last variable in play, we could—theoretically, anyway—predict our own actions from now till death finds us.

But what does the evidence gathered thus far in neuroscience indicate? In other words, might we find some clue to save our own sense of ourselves as conscious actors in this play—to rescue free will?

Well, I’d argue the evidence is in a sense hiding in plain sight—in the very studies writers like Harris and Coyne usually site as evidence that “free will” is an impossibility.

One of the most famous is by John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the meatpuppetsBernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin.  Haynes used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of his subjects, who watched a succession of random letters appear on a display screen. Then, when they felt the urge to move their “left” or “right” index finger, they were to keep track of which letter was on the screen.

Haynes, in the science media, described what he subsequently found in near-tremulous terms, saying he designed more “sanity checks” into this experiment than any other.

What did Haynes find that was so incredible?

Well, purely by chance, Haynes should have been able to predict which hand his subjects would ultimately use to push a button—left, or right—50-percent of the time. But after reviewing the data, they found they could predict the subjects’ finger of choice—wait for it—with 60-percent accuracy.

Statistically, that is a significant finding. But does a 10-percent above chance finding truly cut against free will?

What about the forty-percent of the time Haynes’ was wrong?

I’d argue Haynes’ findings are really only a threat to free will if, at bottom, you don’t much care for the concept, anyway. Haynes, for instance, told the media he found his findings “unsettling.” He had no agenda to destroy free will. But he also stated his findings made sense to him. They seemed to fit with a deterministic universe—which Harris and Coyne claim doesn’t have room for free will. In other words, no matter how unsettling John-Dylan Haynes found his own findings they fit with his worldview. And as readers of Fringe-ology know, there is abundant evidence to suggest we will generally choose to believe whatever fits with our preexisting worldview.

It is, in fact, predictable that the brain might engage in preparatory behavior or indicate which way our decision-making process is leaning, even seconds before a final decision is made. From this point of view, Haynes’ findings are completely noncontroversial—even expected. (If anything, his 40-percent inaccuracy rate might even open the door to further speculation that free will does exist.)

For Harris and Coyne, however, there could be a more gut-level need to interpret his findings as a strong blow against free will. To them, free will is a holdover of dualism—the belief that mind is somehow separate from brain.

The conundrum of free will, however, remains as sticky and unresolved as ever. And the question raises up a bevy of possibilities. Perhaps our “deterministic universe” somehow allows room for real choice, according to principles we don’t understand? Perhaps something does exist outside the chain of accepted physical causes, which allows for choice?

In any event, I’d hold the position thinkers like Harris find themselves in is more uncomfortable than they might generally acknowledge. Harris has made quite a name for himself elucidating the ways in which religious belief can harm us. But assaults on free will have themselves proven harmful when put to the test.

In 2008, Jonathan Schooler split test participants into two groups, one of which read passages suggesting free will doesn’t exist, the other neutral about what underpins neurological behavior. Both groups were then asked to take a mathematics test. Before beginning the test, they were informed that sometimes a computer glitch caused the correct answer to be displayed. If the glitch occurred, mid-test, participants were instructed to look away and click to another screen to avoid seeing the answer.

What Schooler was really looking for, however, was data on whether or not one group followed his instructions more than the other. And it turned out the group that was exposed to ideas undermining free will cheated more.

A separate study showed that people who were already predisposed to believe in determinism over free will were more likely to perform poorly at work.

As you begin your new year, then, I suggest you go on believing in your own causal efficacy—your own free will—and use it.



The Joke of the James Randi Challenge (In Defense of Sheldrake)

HarrisRandiThe trickiest assignment I assigned myself, for my January 7 appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, was to refute  some things the new atheist thinker Sam Harris said about James Randi’s “1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge.”

I’ve endeavored to crater the myth of James Randi on a number of occasions. Randi, an amateur magician who found fame as an opponent of paranormal claims, has long served as the cranky elf of the skeptical movement. And I believe if anyone looks closely at the details of his career they will conclude, as I have, that he is a poor spokesman for critical thinking and rationality.

You can check out my previous coverage of him by following the link above. Here, I just want to address what is likely the worst, least credible thing Randi promotes: his long-running Challenge, in which he vows to give $1 million to anyonewho can prove a paranormal claim in a “controlled test.”

The Challenge has muddled the very boundaries of science, allowing Randi-ites to say paranormal claims don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny while conceding, when pressed, that the Challenge isn’t science.

Harris touted the Challenge on Rogan’s show, claiming that paranormal researchers should have to prove their case to Randi and his minions at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) before they get a wider hearing. He even claimed there is “something fishy” about the refusal of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake to take part.

Harris gave his opinion on Rogan, But he is in the powerful position, in many people’s lives, of seeming to spout only truths. I myself owe Harris a deep personal debt for turning me on to meditation. But I’d like to clear up some misconceptions he surely furthered by speaking so adamantly in favor of Randi’s authority.

Others, before me, like Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, and Chris Carter, have pointed out the failings of Randi’s challenge. But allow me to summarize.

The Challenge begins with a red herring:

Randi boasts that the protocols of each test must be “mutually agreed upon.” RandiHarrisBut the only terms he agrees to insist that applicants obtain results beyond what would be demanded to determine scientific significance.

The preliminary test, which must be passed before an applicant can try for the million, demands odds against chance of 1,000 to 1. The second test, to win the million, requires the applicant to show results at better than a million to one against chance.

The result is that an applicant can—and did—achieve statistically significant positive results, yet was deemed to “fail” the challenge. Taylor quotes a psi researcher giving the following account:

“In the ganzfeld telepathy test the meta-analytic hit rate with unselected subjects is 32% where chance expectation is 25%. If that 32% hit rate is the ‘real’ telepathy effect, then for us to have a 99% chance of getting a significant effect at p < 0.005, we would need to run 989 trials. One ganzfeld session lasts about 1.5 hours, or about 1,483 total hours. Previous experiments show that it is not advisable to run more than one session per day. So we have to potentially recruit 989 x 2 people to participate, an experimenter who will spend 4+ years running these people day in and day out, and at the end we’ll end up with p < 0.005. Randi will say those results aren’t good enough, because you could get such a result by chance 5 in 1,000 times. Thus, he will require odds against chance of at least a million to 1 to pay out $1 million, and then the amount of time and money it would take to get a significant result would be far in excess of $1 million.”

In light of this, there is nothing “fishy” about the disinclination of a scientist like Sheldrake to participate in the Challenge. Statistical significance is built through sheer repetition. In fact, achieving a proper “sample size,” testing an effect enough times, is a bedrock of science. Conversely, failing to obtain a representative sample size is a hallmark  of the Randi Challenge. Scientists like Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Daryl Bem conduct studies that requires dozens of people (or more) and take weeks or months or even years to perform. Randi puts on events that occur in a fraction of the time, generally over an evening or afternoon. In conclusion, Randi’s protocols simply won’t allow Sheldrake to conduct real science.

Now, other parapsychologists have contacted Randi about applying for the million dollar challenge: Dick Bierman and Sutbert Ertel claim they approached Randi but got nowhere.

In addition, there are other reasons anyone might decide not to apply. JREF requires applicants to grant the rights to all video, audio and written record of the tests to the JREF, and also to waive any legal claims stemming from the challenge. In other words, anyone who ventures into Randi’s lair, seeking to win $1 million, will find their every word and deed therein subject to Randi’s editing and promotional exploitation, without any legal recourse. (Taylor first reported this, providing a link to rules posted at Randi’s website that have subsequently been taken down.)

Given the long odds and Randi’s history of antipathy toward psi research and its practitioners—his woeful “Pigasus” award is a case in point—why would anyone subject themselves to this agreement?

Harris is actually quite charitable (particularly for a materialist atheist) toward the paranormal in The End of Faith, which, in my opinion, remains his most worthwhile book. He is, I’d argue, a potential friend to the psi community. In this sense, his faith in James Randi reveals the little magician’s real talent as a showman—capable of swinging even a free thinker like Harris toward a dogmatic view.