A discussion about Skeptical Testingby Don Lacey on May. 14, 2012, under Critical Thinking, Ethics, Freethought Events, Logic, Materialism, Reason, Science, Skepticism
Later tonight at the Skeptics of Tucson Meetup, we’ll be discussing Skeptical Testing. It won’t be about doing a controlled double blind experiment. That kind of testing is important, of course, but what we’ll be talking about is the kind of test you should apply when faced with an outlandish claim.
In general, Skeptics are materialists that inquire in order to get closer to the truth. Materialism is defined as, “a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.” In other words, everything can be explained without resorting to paranormal explanations. As our species progresses and we find mundane explanations for the mysteries in our lives, we find it easier to adopt materialism. In theory, a person that is well grounded in materialism should be more difficult to fool. That person understands that there is no such thing as magic and looks for material instead of paranormal explanations. There is a problem though. How do we know who to trust and who to take seriously?
That’s where the Skeptical Test comes in. There are a few varieties of tests out there. One rather famous example is the Baloney Detection Kit. Michael Shermer made the video but the idea was inspired by Carl Sagan. There is plenty of baloney out there and we need some way of sifting through it. The Baloney Detection Kit has 10 questions but Ian Bryce, a chief investigator from the Australian Skeptics, believes in his Three Legged Stool Test which only requires 3 questions.
1. Is there a scientific theory that makes the claimed effect possible?
2. Is there real evidence that the effect actually exists?
3. Does the claimant’s track record establish their credibility?
For now, consider the Ian’s test. Ian Bryce was faced with the responsibility of determining for Mr Dick Smith, an Australian entrepreneur, whether he should invest $200,000 with Andrea Rossi, the Italian inventor of the E Cat power generating machine for further development. The E Cat machine is purported to be a low temperature device that generates power through nuclear fusion. It has been demonstrated to apparently produce nearly 3 kilowatts of power from 400 Watts of input power. Several scientists observing the demonstrations were impressed by the results and there was no obvious way that the results could have been faked.
Ian Bryce had to determine if the E Cat was a good investment. In the end, after applying his Three Legged Stool Test, he told his investor to hold off. There were more questions to be answered. At this point, there is no evidence of fraud but questions remain. It’s a bit like watching a magician do his act. You may not see how the trick was done but you’re not going to assume that what you saw is real magic since your previous experience informs you that real magic is highly improbable.
At the meeting, we’ll be discussing these tests along with a few others. Since our meeting is primarily a discussion meeting, attendees will have an opportunity to express their views on these tests and propose their own “Skeptical Tests.”