What Counts As Evidence?

Carl SaganIf some good evidence for life after death were announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote…. Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.
— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.

What would it take to convince me – a sceptic – of the reality of paranormal phenomena? Confirmable evidence would do it, but what evidence is there, really? None that I can find. And yet I am constantly being accused of being closed minded by the believers.

On the other hand, when I ask a believer what it would take to convince them that they are wrong about their own particular belief about psychics, ghosts or anything else, the common reply is always along the lines of, “Nothing will ever convince me that psychics (or whatever) are not real.”

Who is being closed minded there?

The problem is that every believer also believes they have the evidence that proves the existence of whatever strange ideas they have, but the most common evidence is cited in the form of anecdotes – often referred to as personal testimony. And there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence.

Personally, I wouldn’t accuse any of those people of lying. Most of the people who have recounted their paranormal experiences to me seem perfectly genuine and truly believe they have had such an experience. The problem is, however, that anecdotal evidence is useless when trying to establish the existence of any paranormal claim. It cannot be tested, and no matter how honest a person is, there is the likelihood that something experienced is not necessarily what they think it is. Take UFOs, for example. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such reports made each year. Although many of them can be easily explained, the small number that cannot be explained are assumed to be the real thing.

The fact that some sightings of so called UFOs have not been explained does not imply that they really are extraterrestrial visitors. Failing to positively identify a phenomenon and then claiming it is from outer space is just bad thinking. And it’s no use just saying, “What else could it be?” If you want to make the claim, then it is up to you to prove it. But if you can’t, then don’t be surprised when sceptics dismiss it.

When you get down to it, though, almost anything counts as evidence. The trick is in deciding which evidence is worthwhile, and how strong that evidence is. Science doesn’t accept anecdotes as useful evidence, but then again, an observation of something unusual might first surface as an anecdote and might justify further investigation. That investigation is what might produce tangible evidence. The anecdote itself does not prove anything.

A lot of the paranormal promoters I have come across do, however, make reference to the fact that anecdotes (testimony) are allowed in a court of law. That, however, is rather misleading. Even though courts of law expect proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the number of miscarriages of justice due to mistaken testimony should illustrate the dangers of accepting anecdotes as reliable evidence. In any case, science is not decided in a court of law.

For me, evidence of the paranormal would have to be self evident. It would have to be testable and confirmable. Although many of the best known parapsychologists do produce evidence that is presented in a scientific manner, those examples of their research come in for close scrutiny and criticism from sceptical scientists. And the arguments get no further forward.

Are sceptical scientists and sceptics in general really just working to an almost hidden agenda to prevent the existence of the paranormal from upsetting their world view, as many pro paranormalists claim? It seems highly unlikely to me. The rewards for finding some hitherto unknown laws of nature would be huge for anyone who could prove the existence of “psychic energy,” or anything else that comes with the claims of psi. Clairvoyance, telekinesis and so on are all unproven claims, but whoever can prove it will have the world at their feet.

I don’t believe the paranormal is real, but my mind can be changed – if someone can just demonstrate the paranormal claims they make, without making excuses for failure. If a psychic could pinpoint the mines in a minefield for clearance, for example; maybe a remote viewer could guide rescuers to people missing in the rubble after an earthquake; perhaps even the classic – predict the lottery numbers, that would probably do it. The evidence needs to be clear and unambiguous.

None of that could reasonably be argued with if it were ever to be proven. But I don’t think it is going to happen. The arguments will continue for a long time yet (and I make that prediction without any psychic powers whatsoever).

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4 responses to “What Counts As Evidence?

  1. Experience. That is what provides the foundation for scientific research into anything that sceptics question. Epistemology is the key. That is the study of knowledge. To know that one does not know is the beginning of wisdom, and to assume that one knows is a serious error (Socrates). For true scientific evidence to support the hypotheses of telepathy and a spirit realm one must study the research findings of Frederic Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychic Research. To ignore, refute or deny his findings is a serious misjudgement, but a misjudgement that may be corrected by subjective experience. Help is at hand by Dean Radin in his ‘The Conscious Universe’ (1997) ‘Entangled Minds’ (2006) and ‘The Noetic Universe’ (2009).

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  2. Terence –
    Experience is necessary, but I don’t think subjective experience equates to objective knowledge.

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  3. I’m with Terrence on this one. The dismissiveness of experience by many skeptics is an understandable sore spot with a lot of people who know what they have experienced. Deep-experience near-death experiencer’s are a prime example. Many of them have experienced hallucinations in their lives, and insist that what they experienced in their NDE was no hallucination. If anything, it was “realer than real”, i.e., this is more like a dream world, and their NDE was more “solid”.

    To counterpoint Richard Wiseman, If my wife tells me she saw a red car parked in front of the house, of course, I would believe her. But what if she told me she had seen a UFO that has subsequently disappeared? I might balk and check her facial expressions and body language for humorous deception or mental illness, but if she absolutely insisted, and everything else about her seemed normal, I would believe her. You might think she was nuts, but I know her eccentricities and faults quite well, and she knows mine.

    Convincing the rest of the world is another matter, though.

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  4. RabbitDawg –
    I won’t deny that people know that they have had an experience. But the question is: Is that experience what they perceived it to be?

    How can it be tested?

    People can have a genuine experience of something – seeing what they think is a ghost, say – but what we perceive is not necessarily what really happened. Does a magician really saw his glamorous assistant in half? Or is it possible that we saw something that did not really happen, however real it seemed?

    When someone tells me they have had a paranormal experience, the experience might be good (or vivid) enough for it to be real for them, but this is where sceptics and believers part company on the issue. I do not assume that my senses are good enough on their own to confirm extraordinary experiences that even I, too, have had. The believers do.

    Stay tuned, though. There are some experiences I have had that others would claim to be paranormal, but turned out to have a normal explanation (but only after some extensive investigation). I will detail some of those experiences in future posts.

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