MonsterTalk vs. Skeptiko

Today, Skepticality is releasing a special episode of their show that includes the complete, unedited meeting between the hosts of MonsterTalk and Skeptiko. MonsterTalk quickly became one of my favorite podcasts; its hosts Blake Smith, Ben Radford, and Karen Stollznow take an enlightening science-based look at various monster stories. On the other side of the fence, Skeptiko and its host Alex Tsakiris fiercely promote various paranormal fields. Alex has developed something of a reputation for wholeheartedly embracing just about any type of claim so long as it’s outside of the mainstream; whether it’s psychic powers, conspiracy theories, what have you. The MonsterTalk hosts and Alex have a few outstanding grudges, and so this episode was an attempt to air them publicly.

By writing this, I’m violating my own recommendation, which is that people not engage with, or promote, Alex Tsakiris at all. He’s had a number of skeptics and scientists on his show, myself included, and those I’ve spoken with came away exasperated with his aggressive style of interrupting, dismissiveness, and bizarre interpretation of the scientific method. That was certainly my experience. Since his show is a promotion of pseudoscience and thus a public disservice, I’ve advised people to ignore him, and hopefully not add to his audience numbers.

But I believe that today’s Skepticality episode is worth a listen. It is a teachable moment that perfectly illustrates why scientists should not engage with Alex. Blake, Ben, and Karen gave him all the rope he needed to hang himself. They allowed him to rail against mainstream science, to publicly endorse various conspiracy theories, to constantly rudely interrupt, to lose his temper, and to show off his best skill: evading every direct question.

Alex has two basic ways of answering a direct question, and if you suspect that I’m in any way exaggerating this, listen for yourself:

  1. Condescending laughter and the statement that that question is exactly what’s wrong with science/skepticism/materialism; and
  2. Advising the questioner to listen to his catalog of shows for the answer, or to read the books or papers written by whatever paranormal researcher he’s defending.

I wished that the MonsterTalk crew would have asked Alex the elephant-in-the-room question: How does he explain the fact that none of the paranormal researchers that he promotes as top-notch scientists, doing research of such impeccable quality, have never managed to convince the mainstream that there is validity in their work?

But at one point, Alex did explain why this is, at least in his mind. In his mind, the paranormalists¬†have convinced the experts… in their fields. This is where he truly did reveal why there’s such a disconnect between what he believes and what science has learned. Two of his favorite paranormal researchers, Dean Radin who investigates “global consciousness” and Rupert Sheldrake who thinks dogs are psychic, have indeed managed to convince all of the experts in their fields. Those are the fields of global consciousness and psychic dogs. Alex honestly seems unable to understand why psychic dogs is not just as valid a field of research as, say, mathematics. He speaks of level playing fields and quality of research. I have no doubt that within the circle of psychic dog researchers, Rupert Sheldrake’s work is of matchless quality. But there’s a reason that Radin and Sheldrake have not convinced anyone in the world of real science; and it’s not what Alex suspects — that real scientists are “afraid of new discoveries” — it’s that their work is fundamentally ridiculous and deeply flawed methodologically to anyone who is outside of their bubble. Note that Dean Radin titled his research “The Global Consciousness Project” when he began it; he already had his desired conclusion when he embarked. Alex Tsakiris and Skeptiko want you to accept that this is how science should be done: exactly backwards.

In conclusion, I find that today’s cage fight on Skepticality aptly supports my original point: Legitimate researchers, scientists, science writers, and scientific skeptics should stop giving Alex Tsakiris their attention. He has made his statement, in great big lights, that he is no friend of good science (regardless of how he may see himself), and that continued engagement with him only erodes our mission of science education.

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  1. I wouldn’t call it a cage fight.

    But I HATED it for the exact reasons you mentioned. Besides that, he was totally wrong re: “how science works” on many points. He obviously has not done science. But, man, he sure thinks he knows EVERYTHING about it.

    I agree that he should not be encouraged. I got angry when I heard all the legitimate scientists that have appeared on his show. I hope this is a warning to all that it is not worth your time to be a guest. Do not bring him up to your level by engaging with him on his show. Let him have his audience – there will always be those. But his ratings may tank if no one agrees to play the game.

    That said, it is good that someone made an example out of it as a demonstration of how to be a conceited, rude crank.

  2. Are you sure it wasnt Ben Stiller practicing a comedy routine?

    You know, for once, just once i would be nice to see the defenders of the “faith” use a different schtick!

  3. I agree with all your points, Brian. A lot of which I’ve written about myself.

    Alex has a certain arrogance where he feels like HE knows the “actual way” science “should be” done, and completely ignores reality. It’s that very disconnect that leads to all of his nonsense and until he can deal with that, he’ll always be blind.

    I suspect he has to deal with a LOT of cognitive dissonance in his day to day life. There’s nothing to be gained by interacting with him on scientific topics.

  4. Why does he call his podcast Skeptiko? It seems to be the reverse of skepticism. It comes up when I search podcasts for skeptic ones but it seems to be skepticism about skepticism as opposed to skepticism.

  5. Jonathan, his show is called Skeptico because the original *stated* premise of the show was that Alex would interview skeptics and believers as an impartial interviewer with no prior agenda. That ruse was quickly uncovered as he berated any skeptics that appeared on his show and coddled all the true believers.

  6. I listened to about 30 min of the podcast and could not take it anymore. It was painful to hear Alex and painful to hear the skeptics too. I think the best way to approach believers is through the Socratic method which is used by the correspondents in the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Paraphrasing from the book How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: ” the socratic method involves initially agreeing with the person you are having the discussion -feigning ignorance- while he explains the position held. The next step is asking questions that lead to person to contradictions in his logic or believes. By asking the right questions you will be able to reveal problems inherent in the person reasoning”. Or in other words you keep asking questions until they hang themselves all the time pretending you are buying everything.

  7. When I first read your post, Brian, I thought that was weak.

    But I’m listening to the podcast now, and I understand where you’re coming from. But the problem isn’t Alex. The real problem seems to be that the skeptics on the podcast were caught by surprise when he turned out to be an articulate, experienced well spoken and clever advocate for his positions. You gotta give the devil his due.

    He was able to drive the conversation where he wanted, set the terms for nearly every disagreement and used some very sophisticated techniques to control the discussion. The skeptics seemed to be caught flat-footed by nearly every logical fallacy he employed and they actually employed several themselves.

    It’s much easier to engage side-show psychics or homeopathic dilettantes, but the solution isn’t to not avoid engaging people like Alex, the solution is for skeptics to hone their debate skills so they can hold their own.


    • If you used sophisticated in the original sense of the word, yep.

      I don’t think you can do anything when someone is spouting rhetoric and diatribe. It would be called “interrupting” .

      This is why I made that allusion to Ben Stiller. Alex’s “Zoolander”methodology appears to be tragic. It’s well mimicked amongst many media personalities.

      Lets face it, when you are bereft of any reality and using that reality as a position for special pleading “philosophy”,bluster is your only tool.

      I’ll point out something many of us seem to take for granted when listening to the asides by blowhards .

      Its a privilege to do the incredibly hard work that is required to get an education. Most of us do not get that opportunity.

      Using a PhD program he says he had casually walked out on as a reference to qualification indicates a measure of the man.

      I would posit that he has an anti education bias, an anti authority bias and cherry picks his “authorities” based on his perception when it comes to the easily mangled “truth”‘.

      Lets face it, Fox Mulder dispelled truth as an argument in 1995. Note both the character and the concept in that reference were fictitious for entertainment purposes. Alex is no Fox Mulder nor Zoolander. He needs to do a bit more work creating a credibilty base.

      USA, your petrol stations are safe!

    • Trust me, the MT hosts were not at all caught off guard, they’re all very familiar with his rhetoric. I was told they let him have his way on purpose, knowing he would do it, and getting him on record saying everything they wanted him to.

      I wish Karen had engaged more, but again, it was pointless to do so, since the only thing he does (as you rightly point out) is duck and weave.

  8. The part that really infuriated me is his interpretation of “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

    Alex’s take on that was that this was nonsense because everything should be on a level playing field in science, treated the same by the method, and so people who believe this aren’t playing fair.

    This is a tremendous misrepresentation of what it means. All someone is saying when they say “extraordinary claims,” etc. is that when you make a claim which contradicts a lot of what we already understand and have evidence for, or that would require a major shift in our understanding in some way, you need to be able to back it up with lots of evidence. That is obviously true otherwise every time some anomalous study shows up (like what looks like will be the case with the neutrinos), we’d have to overturn science.

    This level playing field he is talking about exists, but it doesn’t stay that way – that’s sort of the POINT. The playing field is changed by evidence, and so if the evidence has bumped the playing field in one direction, then it’ll take a lot of evidence in the other direction to change the topology. That isn’t different rules for different things, that’s just how science builds concensus. I felt that the MonsterTalk folks didn’t quite go in hard enough on that point (though I’m not blaming them, under the circumstances).

    • I think Alex is doing what Brian described in his post–he’s defining a “field” narrowly rather than broadly, and claiming that what is “extraordinary” is relative to the current state of scientific knowledge in what sociologists of science have called a “core set”–a set of researchers working together on a particular set of problems, where they have specialized knowledge that those outside the core set lack. There is *something* to Alex’s point about disciplinary specialization, but I think Brian’s diagnosis is correct that he’s taking it too narrowly.

      Now, it is the case that sometimes a core set of researchers will work on a problem and solve it, causing shifts in other areas around them. And that’s clearly what some psi researchers and NDE researchers believe will be the case about their work, that they have discovered real phenomena in need of explanatory mechanism. But most outsiders who have delved into their work have been unconvinced (with occasional exceptions like Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem). For such work to actually catch on, it needs to make contact with and shed new light on surrounding fields and disciplines, it needs to be fruitful in producing new problems to solve and explain. But psi research and NDE research seem to me to be “degenerating research programmes” in Imre Lakatos’ terms.

      I think Alex’s perception of consciousness studies and neuroscience is completely off-base–the idea that neuroscience is strongly supportive of mind-brain dualism is the opposite of the truth, neuroscience is strongly supportive of mind-brain *dependence*, and the “transmitter” model of the brain is untenable. We’ve identified too many phenomena that are clearly the result of physical processing of information, based on observing how that processing is disrupted by physical changes in the brain. And in near-death studies, it seems to me that few NDE researchers have properly accounted for Keith Augustine’s four-part critique of NDE research which was published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies–see his related “Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences” article at the Secular Web:

      I thought Ben was a bit tendentious and uncharitable in his interactions with Alex, and his argument about what we should expect from psychics if they are real was a straw man to Alex’s position. Nobody really addressed or even acknowledged Alex’s claim of purported deception by Wiseman. Wiseman’s position is here: But it seems to me that Wiseman’s purported explanation that the dog spent more time by the window the longer his owner was away doesn’t actually account for Sheldrake’s data, as pointed out in Chris Carter’s critique in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research: There have been numerous cases of bad skeptical argument that haven’t been properly addressed by the skeptical community, and it seems to me on the face of it that this is one of them. (A few others may be found in Robert McLuhan’s book, _Randi’s Prize: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong, and why it matters_, but you unfortunately have to dig through a lot of bad arguments in that book to find them.)

  9. I know you say we should ignore his work, which in a way is true but may I listen to him for the car crash value. He does add a certain comedic value to my week.

  10. I’ve not listened to his show, but occasionally I’ll catch a RT from him on twitter – and as far as I can tell, at least he’s on the right side of the vaccine issue (and other alt-med modalities).

  11. This is a debate that needed a correct format and an impartial chair. Tsasiki would then have not been allowed so many interjections. I for one would have employed a loud whistle every time he interrupted.
    Being a skeptic does not make one the best debater and/or orator, despite being right.
    Phil Plait or Steve Novella may well have done better on the fly, but that is purely hypothetical.

  12. Interesting – yes. The bottom line though is it demonstrated that beleivers & skeptics simply don’t think/process the same way.

    I don’t think Alex T. came across as stupid but he did come across as willing to believe anythingwhether evidenced or not and that he was the final arbiter on what constituted evidence.

    He did slide right into conspiracy freak alfully easilly.

  13. Alex keeps calling this a dialogue, but it isn’t a dialogue at all. He doesn’t answer any questions other than using froo froo language. Like an artist who says “the painting eventually paints itself” when they try to explain their motivation for a painting (not that Alex is an artist).

    And the skeptics do nothing to call him out on it. They keep trying to be civil, yet questioning someone’s logic and holding them to explain themselves isn’t uncivil. They just moved on.