A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.
— Demosthenes (349 BCE).
I’ve recently been delving into more websites, blogs and books trying to understand why the believers in psi are so convinced that this stuff is real. After all, if science (real science, that is) had such a miserable record as parapsychology for producing claims that couldn’t be backed up, then science would have folded a long time ago. Imagine medical science claiming that there was now a cure for a particular disease, but people still died from its effects, how much confidence would you have in it?
If you are typical of psi believers, then it wouldn’t faze you; in fact you would go out of your way to make excuses for every failure of a physician whose patients died every time he administered his treatments. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly what happens when quack medicine fails – the excuses are trotted out with mechanical regularity, and the quack takes no blame.)
But this post is about the paranormal – magic, if you prefer. And I have to admit, I get a bit miffed when paranormal proponents tell me that I do not believe in this stuff because I have not read/understood the evidence.
On the contrary, I have studied the best evidence that the pro paranormalists put forward and, like other sceptics, I find it unconvincing. But why do the proponents think they have the proof of telepathy and clairvoyance and so on, but people like me think they are just barking up the wrong tree? Most of the believers I communicate with – whether face to face or on the internet – tend to rely on what they have read by the
usual suspects foremost parapsychological researchers. Names like Dean Radin, Gary Schwartz, Rupert Sheldrake and others are wielded like some kind of weapon: take that, you fool!
Highly qualified people that they are, however, they are up against equally qualified people – Richard Wiseman, Chris French, Susan Blackmore and others – who cannot replicate the supposedly scientific claims of psi. Yes it is; no it isn’t. And while this is going on, what are the rest of us to make of it?
Take as an example Schwartz’s The Afterlife Experiments. This is a book that paranormalists metaphorically throw at me. “There’s the proof. How can you argue with that?” From their point of view, such books are the proof that any reasonable person should accept.
Well, no, not really. Keep in mind first of all that a book is a book, not a scientific research paper that has had to go through the normal peer review system and then been published in an accredited scientific journal that might lead to general acceptance once the rest of the scientific community has gone through the usual process of replication, argument, refinement, further experimentation, etc. Schwarz’s book is a populist book aimed at the general public, not scientists. For a takedown of that particular book, have a look at this analysis.
And the same goes for the other well known parapsychologists who publish books aimed at the lay reader. OK, I know there are “peer reviewed “journals”” within the parapsychology world, but they are not taken very seriously by mainstream science. The big names in the field are side by side with any unqualified, self-styled “expert” who can find a publisher to print whatever appeals to a mass market. And of course, anything to do with the paranormal appeals to the mass market.
I wish that the promoters of the paranormal would just prove that there is something actually going on. Never mind meta analyses and other fine sounding things that parapsychologists come out with. Just do it.
Go back to the middle of the nineteenth century when Michael Faraday found out that moving a magnet through a coiled wire would induce an electric current. At that time there was no theory that would explain it in terms of movement of electrons (they had not been discovered yet). But here’s the strange thing: it worked! And every time the experiment was performed – no matter who did it – it worked again! Faraday had discovered a fundamental force of nature that produced the same effect every single time it was tried. It was a fantastic discovery, even though no one could explain exactly how it worked. The explanation came later with the work of others. (Strangely enough, it was William Crookes – physicist and paranormal investigator – who invented an electrical discharge tube that led to the discovery of the particle nature of electrons around 1869-1875, several years after Faraday’s death.)
And there’s the rub. What’s the state of play with the so called scientific evidence for the existence of anything – anything at all – that is claimed to be paranormal in nature? Paranormal research (the more serious stuff, anyway) has been going on since about the time of Faraday, but there is not a single claim from parapsychology that can be reproduced – especially by independent researchers. Tentative “explanations” for paranormal phenomena seem rather redundant for claimed effects that are never clearly demonstrated.
Consider this: about three or four years ago, I came across a powerful horseshoe magnet that came out of a commercial electric motor. It sat around for a while, but it gave me an idea. I remembered a Ladybird book I had as a child. It showed how to make an electric motor using the same thing, together with a few coils of copper wire and a few other components including a battery. I actually made an electric motor when I was about nine or ten years old, but the memory of it was only revived when I came across this particular magnet, and it didn’t take long, really, to reproduce that experiment, but it worked! It worked in the same way it worked when I was very young, and it worked in the same way that Faraday’s experiments worked, even though he had no established theory.
And this is where all of psi goes askew. Want to claim it’s real? OK, then, do what you claim. Simple. What could be easier? If you are a psychic medium, can I get information about a particular ancestor of mine who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar? My research into my family history has hit a stumbling block there, and I need some information that I can confirm, that will enable my research to go forward meaningfully. I can give you some basic info, but that is all (his name, the ship he fought on, and a couple of other relevant details). What can you do for me that I can confirm under your guidance? All I want is to fill in some missing information that I can confirm and add to my genealogy.
It never happens, though. And that is why sceptics do not accept the paranormal as a real phenomenon. There is no comparison between the real, verifiable findings of science, and the unconfirmable non-findings of parapsychology. It doesn’t matter how many research papers or studies by parapsychologists are produced, each claiming phenomenal abilities of certain psychics, if those “findings” cannot be confirmed, they cannot be taken seriously. Quote as many examples as you like of supposed ESP or clairvoyance or anything else; tell us that the authors of such papers are famous and highly respected. But the answer to all that is simply, “So what?”
In science, a phenomenon might be observed and even confirmed, even though there is no known mechanism (theory) to explain it. But in such circumstances, there is no doubt that something is indeed happening. It is from there that the search starts for the mechanism behind it all. Science usually starts with an observation of a phenomenon; then a hypothesis is formulated to explain the phenomenon, and then the hypothesis is tested. That hypothesis might be confirmed or rejected through experimentation, but if it is rejected then an alternative hypothesis has to be formulated and tested also, until a clear explanation can be found and confirmed.
With paranormal research, however, there is no confirmation other than mostly anecdotes that there is anything special happening in the first place. And that is the crux of the matter. When I built my electric motor as a child I had little idea about atoms and the movement of electrons by electromotive force. It just worked. And I didn’t, at the time, care how it worked. When I built a similar motor years later, I had a much better idea of how it worked and I also had a better knowledge of electromagnetic theory. And it still worked, whether anyone might want to believe it or not. Unlike the paranormal, however, I can prove that there is actually something happening. I can show the motor working. Even if a witness to it has never seen an electric motor before, there will be no doubt that my claim is true.
Now look at the claims of psi. Can anyone really bend a piece of metal with the power of their mind? The anecdotes say yes, but the inability of the person who professes such a power to do it under strictly controlled conditions says no.
There are countless anecdotes that say that psychics can predict the future. But their inability to predict anything important or profound says that they can’t, really. If there is going to be another 9/11 type of disaster in the near future, it’s no use claiming “something terrible is going to happen soon.” We need the details: date, time, what it is that is going to happen. Before it happens.
Instead of demonstrating a clear psychic ability in the way that any physical phenomenon can be demonstrated, the psychics and their defenders have to resort to excuses for failure. (Continual failure, by the way.) How does it go…? Oh, yes – “It doesn’t work like that.”
So how does it work? Ah, that’s the bit we are never told. It is a rare and elusive phenomenon, we are told. The powers can’t just be called up at will, they say (although that doesn’t seem to be a problem for stage psychics who seem to have an endless queue of departed souls waiting in the wings to talk meaningless drivel to a credulous audience).
The presence of sceptics upsets the psychic vibrations quite often, of course. But then again, how is that excuse proven? You would have to prove that “psychic vibrations” exist, first of all, and then show how those vibrations are upset/distorted or whatever. And confirm it. When did any psychic researcher ever demonstrate any such thing? I won’t hold my breath while I wait for an answer to that one.
I’ve noticed, however, that whilst the proponents of psi cannot produce evidence for their beliefs that is any better than anecdotes, they do seem to spend a lot of time attacking sceptics – those people, like me, who would like to see their anecdotes replaced with reproducible evidence. Attacking sceptics is a silly way of going on, though. If the evidence for the paranormal were really as sound as its proponents would have us believe, then they would not be attacking sceptics at all. Rather, they would, like me with my electric motor, be showing it. It would be undeniable if psychics could really solve crimes, or if remote viewers could really find people buried under rubble in the aftermath of an earthquake, or if someone could channel the spirit of Albert Einstein to resolve hitherto unsolved aspects of physics, or if Beethoven could be called up to finally put the finishing touches to that so-far unfinished symphony, or if… you probably get the picture.
But it just doesn’t happen. Coincidences are assumed to be paranormal, even though anyone with some knowledge of probability theory doesn’t get excited at all if they hear that someone has had two, three or even more major lottery wins. Probability theory predicts that such coincidences will happen, although no-one, especially the psychics, can predict who the winners will be, and even more especially what the winning numbers will be. At the moment, a TV news announcer will say, “Tonight’s winning lottery numbers were…” Does anyone really “foresee” the day when the announcer will say, “Tonight’s winning lottery numbers will be…”?
No, it isn’t going to happen. In any case there would be too many paradoxes created. Disasters will continue to be announced after the event, not before; lives will still be lost because no one could foresee a calamity before it happened; people will still be fleeced by conscienceless charlatans; and sceptics will continue to be vilified by believers who just “know” that the paranormal is real, but who will also not produce the phenomenon they claim they have proof of.
If the paranormal is real, just do it; prove it; leave no room for doubt, and I will not worry at all about how it works, I will be satisfied that it does. Show me the paranormal equivalent of a physical electric motor. That will do it for me. Yes, I am a materialist. Show me that something non-material not only exists, but also that it affects the material universe.
Unlike many other sceptics, I am not going to complain that there is no underlying theory that explains psi phenomena. There can hardly be a theory to explain something that no one can demonstrate is real anyway. Psi proponents talk about “transmission theory” for example, to “explain” the interaction between a supposed independent consciousness and the brain. Wouldn’t it be better, though, to demonstrate that consciousness is, first of all, a separate entity? Then formulate the explanatory theories after the hypotheses have been tested? The “transmission theory” is nothing more than unsubstantiated speculation, however; it is not a theory in the scientific sense, it is just wishful thinking. Perhaps it could be regarded as a hypothesis, but until it can be tested, it is really nothing more than guesswork to support other guesswork to explain something for which there is no compelling reason to believe is real. But if it can’t be tested, it is not scientific. The so called transmission theory is meaningless.
No, it doesn’t seem to work like that. (As usual) If the paranormalists want to be taken seriously by sceptics – and especially sceptical scientists – they have to do one simple thing: produce the paranormal phenomenon they claim exists. And no excuses when it doesn’t work!