Selected articles from
VOL. 21  NO. 4  SPRING 2009


Global Warming and the "Confirmation Bias"

By Terry A. Smiljanich

The print version of this newsletter carries an extended "confessional" by founder Gary Posner, who admits to blasphemous skepticism concerning the alleged adverse effects that humanity's activities are having on the global climate, a skepticism that seemingly puts him at odds with the great majority of the scientific community (or at least the most vocal members of that community).

As Gary points out, there is ample reason to doubt the sometimes strident voices predicting imminent doom for mankind unless drastic and expensive steps are taken to reduce immediately the release of man-made carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Former Vice President and Oscar-and-Nobel-award-winning Al Gore, standing on a crane and illustrating the contemporary huge increase in greenhouse gases, is emblematic of this posture.

At the same time we are confronted with these voices, however, we also hear the likes of Rush Limbaugh crowing every time America or Europe experiences a cold snap, or we get e-mails sending us the latest evidence that this past winter was one of the coldest ever. Take that, global warming doomsayers!

Gary's article illustrates the fact that the jury is still out, and that there are qualified climate experts who question the certainty of man-made global warming (MMGW). I myself tend to credit reports that global warming is real and that mankind is a viable suspect. I have good friends who are scientists convinced that MMGW is supported by the better evidence.

But I'm not a climate expert and neither are you, the reader. As we encounter conflicting reports on a subject such as MMGW, how should we sift through them and come to any conclusions, tentative though they may be?

We should remain cautious of falling into the "confirmation bias," which is the common tendency to give more attention to data that confirms what we have already come to believe or suspect as true. It's hot in Oregon? See, the ice caps are melting! It's cold in Georgia? See, there's nothing to worry about.

We naturally tend to give greater credence to reports that confirm a belief we currently hold. We are all guilty of this. When I read yet another account of a failed ESP experiment, I smile knowingly. When I read one about a seemingly positive ESP result, I frown and look for the flaws.

There's nothing wrong with this to a point, as long as we remember that the extraordinary claim should be treated with greater skepticism. Gary has pointed out to me that though his "critical thinking" mentor, UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass, died in 2005 (so we can't query him), today's two leading UFO skeptics, James Oberg and Robert Sheaffer, both view the "MMGW crisis" hypothesis as the more extraordinary climate claim.

Though I disagree with them, we need to maintain the requisite open-mindedness to consider views contrary to our own. That is what differentiates our mindset from that of, say, a 9/11 conspiracist who leaps on any and all stray bits of information to confirm his fevered imagination.

On a subject such as MMGW, a topic of which few of us are experts, we should always be on the lookout for any tendency to fall into the "confirmation bias." Let's remain skeptical, but let's not selectively seek out evidence that confirms our initial positions.


Don Addis cartoon

Though the news coverage has been pitiful for such a potentially monumental discovery, NASA scientists have announced the detection of substantial quantities of methane gas being essentially belched (or flatulated) from beneath the surface of Mars, in specific areas and at specific times. "We believe this definitely increases prospects for finding life on Mars," according to Michael Mumma of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "No other discovery has done as much to increase the chances of finding life." Not even the photographs of Richard Hoagland's "Face"? And how on earth (so to speak) could organisms survive under such inhospitable conditions? Researchers have recently found microbes in a South African gold mine that derive their energy needs from the radioactive decay of rocks, and compared to that environment, Martian soil, in combination with deposits of ice, seems downright homey.

(Washington Post via St. Pete. Times, Jan. 16)

Harrison J. Schmitt, the Apollo 17 geologist-astronaut who famously exclaimed his discovery of "orange" soil in the moon's Taurus-Littrow region, has resigned from the Planetary Society. Co-founded by Carl Sagan to promote space exploration, the nonprofit organization has taken a position blaming global warming on human activity. In his resignation letter, Schmitt, who also served as U.S. Senator from New Mexico, said that the "global warming scare is being used as a political tool." In later comments, Schmitt added, "It's one of the few times you've seen a sizeable portion of scientists who ought to be objective take a political position, and it's coloring their objectivity."

(A.P. via the Internet, Feb. 15)

Scientists have long blamed climate change for the sudden disappearance of North America's Clovis people and extinction of the continent's massive animals (mammoths, mastadons, saber-toothed cats, etc.) 12,900 years ago. But a new hypothesis, bolstered by the recent discovery of "nanodiamonds" deposited in the sediments of that age, suggests that the calamity may have been precipitated by a cometary impact. Though controversial, "This is a big idea," says Doug Kennett, an archeologist at the University of Oregon and lead author of the paper in the journal Science.

(Washington Post via St. Pete. Times, Jan. 2)

Stanton Friedman lectures at Tallahassee science museum

The following item is taken from the January 10 issue of Jim Moseley’s Saucer Smear newsletter:

A Florida State University physics professor named Paul Cottle wrote an angry letter to his local newspaper in advance of Stanton Friedman's booking for a UFO lecture at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee. He bemoaned "the threat of pseudoscience undermining scientific literacy in our state," called Friedman a "well-known charlatan," and questioned his credentials as a nuclear physicist. He accused the Museum of undermining efforts to "improve the scientific environment in Tallahassee."

The executive director of the museum quite rightly sent in a swift reply, defending Friedman's scientific credentials (an M.S. from the University of Chicago followed by 14 years as a practicing physicist). Said she, "UFOs and dinosaurs attract people of all ages to (we hope) seek truth, learn more, and perhaps be entertained while being inspired."

In any case, Friedman apparently lectured twice in a row at the Museum, as planned, to a packed house each time. Hopefully he skipped the increasingly archaic "Cosmic Watergate" stuff. Egads!

TBS's YouTube video of Virginia Levy
elicits confrontational viewer comments

By Gary P. Posner

TBS's two-hour video of "psychic" Virginia Levy's 1998 unsuccessful "$1,000 Challenge" attempt, which we posted on YouTube late last year in response to an August 8 St. Petersburg Times article containing false and defamatory allegations from Levy (see last issue), has elicited several fascinating comments on this page posted by viewers -- including Levy herself. One offers, "She's . . . just another 'no talent/no skill' spiritual huckster." A second person points out to Levy, "You were 0 out of 7 . . . delusions of a malignant narcissist."

To another's similar comment, Levy responds, "Do you realize you're agreeing with [the second person above] who's a sexual predator and a sociopath, who's been stalking and harassing me now for nearly 10 years? . . . I trained him and expelled him from my school for using his spiritual gifts for evil! He has hurt a lot of innocent people! Including my family!" And she once again falsely claims, "I purposely threw the Challenge when I saw that I'd walked into a trap!" Our video shows her agreeing it was a fair test and trying hard to win. But it was a "trap" of sorts, in the sense that winning required the presence of genuine "psychic" ability.

Letter to the Editor

Editor:  I have psychic abilities and can prove it. I can describe any person dead or alive when someone is talking to me about this person. I can do it over the phone or in person. But I do believe to pass the test I would need you to get a person that is open to psychic abilities and not a total disbeliever.

You can reach me at 770-377-xxxx [redacted].

--[Name not given]

Gary Posner's e-mail reply:  That is too vague a test to be of interest to us. Too many people share similar traits, and almost anyone, with a little practice, can learn to do convincing readings like that (the technique is known as "cold reading").

Claimant's response:  You don't understand the depth of the description, but that is your choice. There are a lot of others interested in what I can do. This is not a practiced skill, it's a gift.

Posner's e-mail reply:  We need to know precisely what you claim to be able to do. For example, if you could correctly divine the person's name, age, birthplace, and profession (or just 3 out of 4), that would be convincing. And why do you need to be talking with someone else about the person, as opposed to looking at the person's photograph, unless the purpose is to obtain feedback to help guide your reading, as in the parlor games "Hot and Cold" and "20 Questions"? That's how the famous TV "sprit mediums" do their acts.

Claimant's response:  Loved your response. But you don't have a clue and I'm sure a total non-believer. I don't ask anything about the person's habits, hobbies, or routines, nor age, until I know what they look like. When a person speaks of their friend or family member I get a clear picture of that person, dead or alive.

Posner's e-mail reply:  I'll try one last time: We need to know precisely what you claim to be able to do. "A clear picture" is nebulous and worthless as far as conducting a scientific test. You contacted a scientific organization that conducts scientific tests. For an example of the degree of specificity required in conducting a scientific test, as opposed to a parlor game, see

Claimant's response:  You know what, forget it. You're looking for a scientist, not a psychic.

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