This is a letter I wrote to the Skeptical Inquirer.
If they actually publish it, I'll report that here. - Don Watson
December 17, 2002
To the Editor:
re: Ray Hyman's review of The Afterlife Experiments, SI, January/February 2003.
Ray Hyman's review of Gary Schwartz's book is well worth readingvery carefully. It reveals much about the quality of what often passes as "skeptical" criticism today.
In 1987, Hyman provided several scientifically valid suggestions for criticism in his article, "Proper Criticism" (reprinted in SI, July/August 2001). Ironically, Hyman disregarded many of his own suggestions in his review of Schwartz's book.
Having stated, "We have a special obligation to be as honest and accurate in our own statements as possible," Hyman advised, "You should not try to counter a specific paranormal claim without getting as many of the relevant facts as possible."
Ignoring his own advice, Hyman left out many relevant facts in his review of The Afterlife Experiments. Had he disclosed all the facts, he would have nullified his core arguments.
Perhaps this wasn't deliberate concealment. Perhaps Hyman was simply ignorant of the facts he omitted. If so, he could have easily remedied his ignorance by following his own advice to "Do your homework" and "Try to get the specifics of the claim directly from the claimant."
Many of the facts he omitted were right before him, stated plainly in the book he was ostensibly reviewing. If he missed those facts, he could have provided Schwartz with a draft of his review and asked for feedback. If he still had questions, he could have phoned Schwartz for clarification or additional information. Had he done his homework in these ways, he might have been too embarrassed to submit this particular review for publication.
In "Proper Criticism," Hyman signaled that he intentionally conceals facts by revealing his real purpose. "We want to gain credibility for our cause," he wrote. "In the short run, emotional charges and sensationalistic challenges might garner quick publicity. But, most of us see our mission as a long-run effort. We would like to persuade the media and the public that we have a serious and important message to get across. And we would like to earn their trust as a credible and reliable resource. Such a task requires always keeping in mind the scientific principles and standards of rationality and integrity that we would like to make universal."
In fact, Hyman's ignoring his own advice exemplifies pseudoscience, because he corrupted "scientific principles and standards of rationality" by pretending to apply them to a non-scientific objective. The purpose of scientific language is to facilitate obtaining knowledge and understanding, not to "gain credibility for our cause" and to "persuade the media and the public."
Persuasion and gaining credibility are the goals of marketing, advocacy, and public relations. They are the universal wishes of lawyers, politicians, administrators, hawkers, and other dogmatic advocates of "causes" and "missions." Clearly, such advocates are not committed to disclosing the whole truth.
Advocacy methods oppose scientific methods in fundamental ways. Advocates liberally employ half-truths. This is appropriate for adversarial goals, where winning the case, not finding the truth, is the objective. But in seeking scientific goals, half-truths are whole lies.
I'll not list specific examples of Hyman's disregarding his own advice here, because Schwartz does this exhaustively in his rebuttal of the review. In case you don't publish his rebuttal in SI, your readers can find it on my website:
True skeptics, i.e., those who do not claim certain knowledge, can learn much from reading Schwartz's critique of Hyman's review. On the other hand, theory-blindness will likely prevent dogmatic advocates from seeing his point.
Donald E. Watson, MD