Nothing short of pathetic: The Skeptical Inquirer's "review" of my ideas

Sometimes it's difficult to know whether to laugh or yawn.
It has been brought to my attention that the Skeptical Inquirer magazine is publishing a "research review" of my ideas in its January/February 2019 issue, which is already available. I did a search online to learn more about this magazine and, according to Wikipedia, recognizable figures such as Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Daniel Dennett and Steven Weinberg are counted amongst its past and present fellows.

It's hardly a secret that I am highly critical of some of the figures above, but I have much respect for some of the others too. So I assumed that the "review" would at least provide a thoughtful look at my work and offer substantive criticisms I haven't faced or addressed before. I thus decided to pay the required fee and download it. What I then saw made me concerned not for my work, but for the good name of science itself. Allow me to elaborate on this apparently exaggerated claim.

The "review" focuses solely on a Scientific American essay I wrote with two psychologists, which offers a very brief summary of how psychological dissociation could provide a solution to the so-called 'decomposition problem' in philosophy. It is a brief overview of a much more extensive academic paper published in a leading journal.


It's abundantly clear from the Skeptical Inquirer "review" that its author did not read the academic paper. The main problem, however, is that he didn't properly read even the short Scientific American essay itself. For instance, he claims that "it wasn't long before quantum physics [was] tossed in." Our essay, however, doesn't touch on quantum physics at all; the word 'quantum' never even appears in it. The Skeptical Inquirer author seems to have entirely hallucinated it out of thin air. He also seems to assume that we were endorsing panpsychism, while our essay is in fact highly critical of it.

He proceeds to criticize a third-party academic paper on Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), published in a highly respected journal, which we cited in our Scientific American piece. The criticism, however, centers on a basic issue of experimental design that is certain to have been considered during the peer review process. Going further, the author then criticizes another third-party study we cited: one in which researchers realized that, when a blind dissociated personality was in control of an MPD patient's body, the visual cortex activity normally associated with vision would disappear, even though the patient's eyes were wide open. The author tries to dismiss the "patient's subjective claims of blindness" as mere "functional blindness" or "conversion syndrome," both of which are psychological conditions of a subjective nature, related to suggestibility, stress and inner conflict. He seems to have somehow entirely missed the one point of our claim: that objective EEG measurements were performed, which failed to detect visual cortex activity when a blind personality was in control, even though the patient's eyes were open. These same EEG measurements then detected the appropriate visual cortex activity the moment a sighted personality assumed control. Somehow the significance of this result seems to have completely flown over the author's head, even though it's rather obvious to any mildly attentive and educated reader, this being the reason why the result received significant media attention (see e.g. this extensive Washington Post report).


Clearly, what the author thinks we claim in our essay—and now I have to stop myself from laughing as I write these words—is that one has to have MPD in order to understand life, the universe and everything! No, really, this is nothing short of hilarious. Not even an average high-school student would have misunderstood our point so pitifully.


Be that as it may, most of the "review" is dedicated not to attacking the original ideas discussed in our essay, but third-party, peer-reviewed research on MPD instead. This may have to do with the fact that the author is some retired psychiatrist from Iowa, but the dissonance between claim and substance is striking. As a matter of fact, the author never actually even says what our original ideas are, or how they relate to MPD! Dedicating a single sentence to it was apparently considered unnecessary in an article that claims to review my philosophy.

Interestingly, the author does find it worthwhile to dedicate a significant part of his "review" to emphasizing that MPD patients suffer severely from forms of cognitive impairment and emotional distress. This, according to him, "contradicts the foolish notion that MPD would ever help anyone make sense of life, the universe, and everything" (the title of our Scientific American essay is "Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?"). Clearly, what the author thinks we claim in our essay—and now I have to stop myself from laughing as I write these words—is that one has to have MPD in order to understand life, the universe and everything! No, really, this is nothing short of hilarious. Not even an average high-school student would have misunderstood our point so pitifully.

To his credit, the author himself confesses to not having understood our Scientific American essay: he writes that "several paragraphs ... could only be described as incomprehensible" (for such a short essay, several paragraphs means that he didn't understand perhaps most of it). I can only point out that, if something is incomprehensible to him, it doesn't necessarily make it incomprehensible to the rest of us, attentive and educated readers. (On a side note, what kind of psychological disposition makes one feel entitled to publicly criticize something one has admittedly not understood?)

If the author is reading this post, let me take the opportunity to help him out a bit: Sir, the point of the title of our essay is that MPD, as an observable psychiatric condition, provides hints to something in nature that could help one address the so-called decomposition problem in philosophy. A philosopher who studies MPD is thus in a better position to solve the decomposition problem, without necessarily having to suffer from MPD themselves. Clearer now? You're welcome.

How can a magazine with ambitions to "promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason" publish this kind of juvenile garbage? Where were the editorial controls? This "review" does no harm to me, but to the magazine, its readers and science in general (more on this below).


Here is someone who obviously has no clue of what he is talking about, and yet talks about it proudly. What a peculiar spectacle; what a dramatic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


What makes the profound ignorance betrayed by the "review" even worse is the conceitedness and pretentiousness that oozes through it. The cognitive dissonance between the two makes the "review" come across as somehow both hilarious and sad; maybe 'pathetic' is the right word. The conceited tone seems to be an attempt to 'play to the crowd,' appeal to some kind of mob mentality by throwing bones to what the author seems to assume are his readers' gullible prejudices. He talks of an "illogical leap into New Age Philosophy" when we argue that MPD can be literally blinding, even though we substantiate our claim with peer-reviewed research. He talks of 'consciousness,' 'panpsychism,' 'cosmopsychism' and 'idealism' as if these terms referred to woo (I am sincerely curious about what goes on in the conscious mind of someone who thinks that 'consciousness' is woo), instead of ontologies discussed in some of the world's most respected academic journals. Here is someone who obviously has no clue of what he is talking about, and yet talks about it proudly. What a peculiar spectacle; what a dramatic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

If I were a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, I would feel offended by this "review." I'd feel that it treats me as someone who has surrendered their personal capacity for critical thinking to mob mentality. I'd feel that it treats me as a gullible participant of a political rally, eager to blindly cheer to shouted slogans, as opposed to someone who expects substantial and informed analyses.

Needless to say, the "review" reflects very poorly on both its author and the magazine that published it. And yet, one might point out that there are countless other examples out there of people proudly—though cluelessly—displaying the limitations of their intellects for the world to see. So why make an issue of this one instance?

Well, if this were all there is to it, I wouldn't have bothered to publish this post. But here we have a magazine that publicly associates itself with some of the most recognizable figures in science. At the very least, these figures are allowing this to be done and, by implication, allowing the image of science itself to become associated with such publications. To me, this is a serious problem. If the public begins to associate science, reason and critical thinking with the kind of "review" I've commented on above, we risk blurring the crucial difference between science, reason and critical thinking on the one hand, and the lunatic ravings of the fringes of our culture on the other. Once that crucial boundary is blurred, we're lost as a civilization.


My ideas may be controversial from the perspective of the current cultural ethos, but they are carefully and exhaustively substantiated. I have published many academic papers in respected journals elaborating on every facet of them. And now, I am publishing a 312-page book painstakingly making my case from an academic perspective. Let this work be my reply to my "critics."
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19 comments:

  1. Hi Bernardo... sorry to see you put thru the ringer like this... and maybe some sort of response on yr part was necessary... but I can't help but feel that yr lending a certain degree of legitimacy to folks that don't deserve it. Isn't this a rerun of the ol' James Randi "trust me because I'm a good liar" shtick?

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    1. Hi Alex. Yes, maybe you have a point... But I couldn't resist it... :-)

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    2. Ad hominem = Skeptiko. Skeptical criticism is far more complicated than "It's Randi!".

      Bernardo: Skeptical Inquirer remains the main vehicle for published criticism of paranormal claims. You should certainly write a letter to the editor (Kendrick Frazier) and the author of the piece will be asked to respond. The letter will need to be short, to the point. If not, it won't be considered. See https://www.csicop.org/publications/guide

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    3. I've sent the following letter to the editor:

      --
      "Dear editor,
      "The article Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe, and Everything? by Robert Stern, published in the January/February 2019 issue, tarnishes the image of this magazine and of skepticism.
      "While attempting to criticize an essay of the same title by me and others on Scientific American, Mr. Stern admittedly fails to understand the essay or even discern what it does and doesn’t claim. For instance, he states—embarrassingly—that we illegitimately bring quantum physics into our argument, while the word ‘quantum’ doesn’t even appear in our essay. He criticizes one of the papers we cite as being based on subjective claims, while somehow missing the point that the paper’s thrust is precisely the use of objective EEG measurements.
      "Most embarrassingly of all, Mr. Stern believes our central claim to be that having Multiple Personality Disorder helps one understand life and the universe, and then dedicates most of his article to countering this straw man. It’s hard to see how any minimally attentive reader, who read beyond the title, could misinterpret our essay so pitifully. Our claim, of course, is that the observable psychological dynamics underlying a dissociative disorder can help a philosopher who studies the disorder tackle the so-called ‘decomposition problem’ in philosophy of mind. The philosopher does not need to have the disorder himself in order to attain this insight.
      "Beyond a failure of skepticism, Mr. Stern’s article betrays an embarrassing lack of basic understanding of the issues addressed. Your magazine deserves better.
      "Bernardo Kastrup, Eindhoven, The Netherlands."

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  2. Hi Bernardo. I think your work is important and valuable, regardless of one's own position on these subjects. And I understand your frustration since many people don't take you seriously simply because you don't operate in the mainstream paradigm of our age.

    However, I think you are doing yourself disservice by letting your justified frustration guide your words and actions. It's just a fact of life that the overwhelming majority of people completely confuse the socially accepted paradigm of their time with objective truth and even sanity. If you are going to take on the archetypal role of Giordano Bruno then don't be surprised when you are being treated like he was.

    All you can aspire to is convincing a small minority of people which might eventually create some sort of snowball effect. Throwing insults on your reviewers is not going to help you achieve that, no matter how justified your insults are. I think many "on-the-fence" people will conclude, after reading this, that you talking about the "lunatic ravings of the fringes of our culture" is in fact a massive projection.

    You can be sure this is not the last tribally motivated hit piece you'll receive, in fact it can be taken as a metric of success. That way it's less likely to bother you. :)

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    1. I'm not really bothered, just not missing the opportunity to point out stupidity when I see it ;)

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  3. The word 'skeptic' gives thetgame away: their primary interest is to debunk for approval from their particular in-grouo, and that's never going to require comprehension. As Alex suggests, you just give them credibility: paddle your own canoe.

    For me, psychological dissociation and MPD don't cut the mustard. I'm uncomfortable with arguing a general case from a few outlier examples, but nevertheless looking forward to the new book.

    Merry Crumble!
    Rich

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  4. Yeah dude, atheistic scientists are pretentious. We dunno what's outside of minds, if anything is. We dunno where we all came from, where we're going. We dunno why existence is there. Or why awareness of existence is there. YET, they claim to know everything ever (what you'd need to proclaim death is becoming nothing). It is offensive man. They're shills, honestly, of the system. If it's not a conscious agenda. They're victimizing minds, like Terence McKenna said: reclaim your mind from cultural institution. Can't stand how they put mine and everyone's souls down. I mean shit, this is referencing MY soul. It's kind of something that makes me raw offended anymore. That they think they can project a worldview and make everyone suck up to it. Nope, my soul, my mind, you don't touch that shit with ideological construct (like Deepak knows). We're the good guys. They shit on all of us everyday, with physicalist ontology. It's assumptive/inferential. Honestly, I hate to be so blunt in this post. But it's a crock of shit, that they think they know anything outside of the experiential. Looooooooooool.

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  5. When the high priests of materialism and their sycophants target you in this way, it really goes to show that you're doing something right. Every single time they attack you, you show them to be fools. Well done, Bernardo.

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    1. Thanks, Andy. I doubt, though, that these are the high-priests of materialism; I think the latter can do a lot better than this "review." What we have here is simply and merely a clueless display of raw ignorance and stupidity.

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  6. Some are innovators, some are visionaries, and those who can neither create nor envision must be content to be critics. Given the raison d'etre of the Skeptical Inquirer, one must wonder what aspect of you essay met their fringe science or paranormal criteria? From the reductionist perspective, since the qualia of consciousness cannot be easily explained with their models, it seems their best tactic is simply to ignore and marginalize. On the bright side, any publicity is good publicity. I might not have become aware of your essay were it not for your tweeted response to the review. And now that I have had the chance to read your awesome essay, I am enriched. Well done.

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    1. It's tough dealing with the wilful stupidity of these dogmatic and un-enquiring people. If you discover a method please let us all know. I have concluded over time that only one in a hundred academics give a damn about dispassion and honesty. The rest would rather have an opinion that suits them and that they can cling onto like a comfort blanket. They do far more damage than religious fundamentalists because lay-people respect the letters after their name. Thank goodness for the internet and open access to information.

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  7. I subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer when I was a college student in the late 1970s. I soon came to realize that much of what they were publishing had very little to do with actual scientific inquiry. As an example, SI cited a famous study of Astrology (I believe it was this one): https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/1097-4679%28197604%2932%3A2%3C258%3A%3AAID-JCLP2270320211%3E3.0.CO%3B2-O

    as proof that Astrological personality profiles had no basis of accuracy when any intelligent reading of the study clearly indicates that it's results are a measure of the beliefs of the individuals in the study (i.e. their willingness to believe astrology) while not actually providing any information regarding the efficacy of astrological profiles in describing qualities of personality. As with their critique of your work, the purpose of their article was to further a predetermined agenda rather than to make any meaningful statements regarding the topic of a given article.

    Upon further research in to James Randi I discovered that as a young man he had been enthusiastic about religious faith healers. Upon attending a revival he realized that the "faith healer" was using a variant of the "one ahead" trick where the "healer" would use use trickery https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billet_reading
    to create the appearance that he was able to engage in mind reading. Not surprisingly, Randi leveraged his trauma to initiate what would become a life long crusade against purveyors of a non-mechanical view of the world. Much of the work of SI is a reflection of this crusade & any resemblance to actual scientific inquiry is purely coincidental.

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  8. If anything, I find the Skeptical Inquirer's basic approach to matters dealing with psychic phenomena, the afterlife, and, yes, philosophical idealism to have nothing to do with any kind of rigorous analysis. It's entirely an exercise in sarcasm and other kinds of dismissive comments that have little to do with the actual matter at hand. If anything, the Skeptical Inquirer is, in and of itself, one of the best arguments AGAINST physicalism/materialism. I say to them, that all ya got?...

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  9. If only the general public understood the deceitfulness and dishonesty of university philosophy. This month's issue of Philosophy Now has a wonderful description of academic philosophy by Professor Raymond Tallis entitled 'On how not to be a philosopher'.

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  10. Skeptical Inquirer long ago went all in on hard core physical reductionism. At that point they lost all objectivity - and my respect.

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