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."