Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Guide For Paranormal Investigators

Let us be clear about one thing: the existence of anything supernatural or paranormal (including alien visitation and abduction, not to mention magic medicine like homeopathy) has not been proven. For such claims to be true, there would have to be something fundamentally wrong with everything that science has discovered about the world around us and across the whole universe. The laws of nature are pretty well understood, and for the usual claims of the paranormalists to be valid, they would have to demonstrate how their claims do not contravene those laws, or at the very least they would have to show that they have discovered some hitherto unknown law or laws of physics.

It is claimed that telepathy, for instance, is real, but there is no testable hypothesis suggested, and there is certainly no theory (in the scientific sense) that explains how information can be transmitted directly from one person’s brain (or consciousness) to another. The proponents of such claims sometimes talk in terms of a mysterious energy that is undetectable to science (which just happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy), but which is somehow just transmitted and received by certain rare people who also cannot explain it in any sensible way that could lead to objective confirmation.

Parapsychologists, of course, claim they have the proof, but when their claims are tested by others they just don’t work. At least they usually seem to be following scientific protocols, but replication is the acid test for any scientific claim; so far, however, no one else can get the same results, so the paranormal is not taken seriously by science. That’s the way it is.

Quite honestly, however, I would not be bothered by science rejecting, say, dowsing, if those dowsers could actually do what they claim they do in the real world. If a dowser could clear minefield after minefield, I would be convinced, never mind what those “closed-minded” scientists say. My own hypothesis, however, is that the number of dowsers it would take to clear a minefield is exactly equal to the number of mines in any minefield. (That hypothesis is testable, so it is a scientific hypothesis. As a proposed experiment it would not pass any ethics committee, of course, but my other hypothesis is that no dowser would volunteer anyway, so it’s a moot point – unless any dowsers want to travel to any of the many war zones in the world to prove me and science wrong.)

Things get murky, however, because there are a lot of enthusiastic but scientifically illiterate paranormal “experts” who go on various “ghost hunts” and “vigils” and so on, promoting absolute nonsense in lieu of rationality. To put it bluntly, they have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about “energy” but flounder about when asked what, exactly, they mean. Over a year ago, I listened to a local radio station broadcast where a group of ghost hunters were interviewed by an equally credulous presenter. One of the interviewees, a local beauty therapist by trade, “explained” that when someone dies, their energy can’t dissipate. It’s electricity, she said, although she didn’t mention Ohm’s Law, or the relationship between voltage, current and resistance in a circuit, nor did she give any of the basic mathematical relationships between those concepts that would explain why the well-established laws of thermodynamics are invalid within her interpretation of reality. Michael Faraday, et al, did not rate even a mention. I can only assume that she is qualified in her chosen career, and that when her clients leave her beauty salon they are (at least in a statistically significant way) less ugly than when they entered. But I think she should stick with make-up rather than making it up.

In short, parapsychologists are doing it wrong, ghost hunters are doing it wrong; psychics, dowsers and all the rest of them are doing it wrong. If they could get it right, there would be no dispute. So, as an aid for those self-styled experts in the paranormal, and as a public service, I present the Bad Thinking Guide For Paranormal Investigators:

Arse elbow illustration 4

Feel free to use the above illustration for educational purposes.

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Can Skeptics Handle The Truth About The Unexplained?

I got a sudden upsurge of traffic on the blog a couple of weeks ago after my last post. Mike Hallowell’s article claimed that a Neanderthal had been shot dead by time-travelling hunters using modern firearms. The article was picked up for criticism elsewhere, here, for example, so it obviously made an impression.

Since then, Mike has published a follow up article in the Shields Gazette, but rather than accepting that he made several factual errors and had fallen into various logical fallacies he has, in fact, dug himself deeper into a factual and logical hole. Let’s have a look.

The title of his article doesn’t start things off very well. It says,

Some can’t handle the truth about the unexplained

If something is unexplained, then it is unexplained. The only truth about the unexplained is that it is just that. What is the alternative? Maybe the usual, “We don’t know what this is, therefore aliens.” (Occam’s razor would come in useful there, and as it happens I am already busy drafting a post on that very subject.)

Mike starts his article with the statement (I have added bold for emphasis, and my comments are in square brackets):

MY recent article about an ancient animal skull and a human one which appeared to have a bullet holes in them created quite a bit of interest; more than any other column of mine this year, in fact.

That’s not just misleading but flat out wrong, because he stated specifically that it was a Neanderthal; there was no mention of a human being as the subject of the story. (I know from experience that Mike Hallowell will probably now accuse me of accusing him of being a liar, so I will make this as clear as I can for him: I am not claiming that Mike Hallowell is lying, I am claiming that he is contradicting himself; I have provided the links, and even if those Gazette articles mysteriously disappear for any reason, I also have copies of them that I can produce later.) He said in his previous article:

It was, in fact, a Neanderthal skull, and Neanderthal bones did not exactly come ten-a-penny. [Not in Africa anyway, at all.]

And:

As there were no radial fractures on the Neanderthal skull, it was unanimously concluded that the projectile must have had a far, far greater velocity than an arrow or spear. [Concluded by whom? Mike doesn’t say, so it’s not going to be easy for any (qualified) researcher or anyone else to follow up.]

As I pointed out in my previous post, the skull in question is neither human nor Neanderthal, although it is probably an ancestor of both. Although Mike said in his original article that the skull was Neanderthal, he now says he was writing about a human skull. (Pick the bones out of that. (as it were))

Mike’s response to those who pointed out to him that Neanderthals did not live in Africa is:

Really? And they know this how, I wonder? Absence of evidence is not absence of evidence. It is likely that Neanderthals did inhabit parts of Africa. [I think Mike means “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Carl Sagan’s famous quote.]

No, the absence of evidence of any Neanderthals in Africa indicates it is unlikely they lived there, and almost certainly did not. In any case, this is a red herring – the skull referred to in the original story is definitely not a Neanderthal, despite Mike’s original claim, and the main question (perhaps) is whether it was shot at all, never mind whether time-travellers did it with a modern firearm.

Mike says that “even if” the existence of Neanderthals in Africa is unlikely, he says that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean they didn’t live there, just that “…they may not have.” He doesn’t see the need for a positive claim to have positive supporting evidence before it can be taken seriously. That is basically the appeal to ignorance – the idea (whether stated explicitly or implicitly) that if a claim cannot be proven false, then by default it should be accepted or at least be given serious consideration. Then again, no one has found kangaroo fossils in Africa, so should we accept the possibility they evolved there with no evidence for that either? They haven’t found polar bear fossils in Antarctica; what should we make of that? It doesn’t prove they weren’t there, after all.

Mike reckons that sceptics are most upset at the idea that ancient people might have developed technology even more advanced than our own. He asks:

On what logical basis can we say that?

The logical basis is called induction. Archaeology and palaeontology have discovered tools and other artefacts that are associated with mankind’s evolutionary development, from stone axes to more advanced technology through the ages. Nothing equivalent to modern power tools, computers or other technology has ever been found at ancient sites.

Mike says it is extreme arrogance to suggest that no ancient peoples were our equals when it comes to “…their understanding of the sciences”. There are a number of links in the article, but good luck trying to get through to them. For me, all but one went to a “page not found” link, and the one I did get through to is nothing but the usual sensationalist and highly speculative rubbish that has been repeatedly debunked. And no, even if you can find the video of some astronauts claiming UFOs are real (and there is no shortage of them on Youtube), the number of people making an unsubstantiated claim does not make such a claim true. That’s the appeal to popularity – also a logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many people make a claim, it is of little use without corroboration.

(I’ll add a note here about that. A constant refrain from the woo people is that eyewitness testimony is allowed in a court of law, so it should also be “admissible” as evidence of paranormal claims. What they seem to be unaware of is that such testimony in court is subject to cross examination, and is still considered weak at best if there is no corroboration; if sufficient doubt is raised in the minds of a jury, then a defendant must be found to be not guilty, and a Crown Court Judge will tell a jury that that is the law. Sceptics also have their doubts when a paranormal claim is made without testable evidence to back it up.)

Mike then bemoans the fact that sceptics hold science in such high regard. He wants to know why “supposedly intelligent people” deny his claims. He says:

The answer lies in the obsession that some sceptics have with insisting that scientific testing, experimentation and observation are the only reliable means of establishing the veracity of something.

Well, when you can pick and choose your own criteria for establishing truth, and ignore completely such things as multiple eyewitness testimony, you’re on a pretty safe bet, of course.

Whether Mike likes it or not, science is the best method we have for finding out about the universe we live in. A subjective assessment of claims is worthless if you are asserting that a claim is an objective fact. It is the paranormal fraternity who pick and choose their own criteria for “establishing truth,” but they have to be anti-science because science requires testable evidence of any claim made – eye witness testimony is not scientific.

And:

So what do you do with those pesky eyewitnesses who insist they’ve seen things you don’t want to believe in?

Maybe accept that they have just been “seeing things”? Mike believes that sceptics respond with character assassination and various ad hominem attacks, but he does not accept that in fact the various claims made by  paranormal proponents are rejected because of a lack of credible evidence to support them.

He doesn’t help his argument by stating that there are various astronauts who make public claims that aliens are here. As he puts it:

They’re either outrageous liars, or they’re telling the truth, I’d venture.

That fallacy is called a false dichotomy – offering only two alternatives when there are others. Perhaps those witnesses are delusional, or maybe they have been given false information and they truly believe it. I can think of other possibilities, but Mike thinks they should be believed because he sees “…no reason for them to fib.”

Paranormal buffs like Mike criticise science, commonly saying things like, “science is always changing its mind about things.” But look at it this way: someone claims that a Neanderthal skull has a bullet hole and the force of the shot destroyed the opposite side of the skull. That’s a testable claim because the skull exists and can be examined.

Scientific examination of the skull reveals that it is not that of a Neanderthal anyway. It turns out that the “bullet hole” shows signs of healing, so the individual did not die from the wound. Evidence also suggests that it may have been caused by an infection in the overlying tissue. And, despite what he said, the opposite side of the skull is intact, and definitely not showing signs of a bullet’s exit wound.

All of that has been pointed out to Mike Hallowell, but not only will he not admit that he got it wrong, he defends his original article with self-contradictory statements and logical fallacies, and criticises science – the very discipline that could have upheld his claim if only it were true.

So it turns out that the skull in question is not a Neanderthal and it wasn’t shot dead by time travellers using a modern firearm. That’s the truth and yes, sceptics can handle it. There was nothing paranormal to explain n the first place.