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MonsterTalk vs. Skeptiko

by Brian Dunning

November 15, 2011

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Donate 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.

by Brian Dunning

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