Some People Don’t Like Science

Promoters of the paranormal, the supernatural, quack medicine and every other off-the-wall claim all seem to dislike science, and as far as I have discovered, there are two main reasons they offer:

  • Reason 1: Science is dogmatic and unchanging. (That’s why it won’t accept “new” ideas like the existence of the paranormal.)
  • Reason 2: Science is always changing. (Science doesn’t really know very much; if it knew about the world, then it wouldn’t need to accept new ideas.)

You might see a contradiction there, but the woomeisters don’t seem to notice it.

Science doesn’t accept the paranormal as real, of course, because it is mostly untestable, and many of its claims have been soundly refuted anyway. The burden of proof is on those who make claims for the paranormal, but even those parapsychologists who think they have proven its existence have only demonstrated that they have, at best, observed something anomalistic. It doesn’t follow that there is some kind of psychic energy at work.

On the whole, parapsychology has no theory that can be tested or exploited, and that is why science rejects it. Speculation about some alleged mysterious force that cannot be be detected or measured objectively is simply not scientific. And because it isn’t scientific, it cannot become part of science.

Answering the two points above, I would say this to the paranormalists:

Make your mind up. If science were as dogmatic as the believers in the paranormal, then no scientific progress would be made. Science changes in response to new discoveries; it formulates new theories to account for the new facts it discovers; it modifies old theories to accommodate new findings; sometimes it discards old theories altogether when they are discovered to be wrong (even though the old ideas “worked” quite well within the old framework). You can hardly accuse science of being dogmatic at the same time you accuse it of always changing.

The paranormalists are the people who are dogmatic. They hang on to the idea of “psychic energy,” for example. They can’t demonstrate this force that they believe exists within (or even outside of) the universe, and they just make excuses for their failures. That’s why it can’t become part of science.

Try this thought experiment:

I claim that electricity is real. So I invite you to my home where I claim that I can merely flick a switch and the whole of my living room will be bathed in light. So you come around one evening at about dusk, just as the daylight is receding and the moment of truth comes: I confidently flick the switch, and… nothing happens!

What do I do? If I tell you that it failed because the vibrations aren’t right, or that, as an unbeliever, you have disrupted the “power” (as it were), or if I told you that electricity is a rare and elusive occurrence that can’t be called up at will, or if I gave you any number of excuses equivalent to the excuses given by the woomeisters when their claims fail objective tests, you might be rather sceptical, dare I say, about the claims I have made.

Then again, I might ask you to wait while I replace the light bulb, because it could have burnt out. If that didn’t work, I might check the consumer unit and replace the fuse or reset the circuit breaker. If that didn’t work, then I might check the switch itself for a loose connection. And so on. In other words, I could go through a logical process to identify and then correct the problem, after which I would throw the switch and prove to you conclusively that my claim about electric light is true. Not only would I have proven my claim, but I would also have demonstrated that there is an underlying (testable) theory of electricity. I would not be making a claim I could not prove, and I would also not just be making excuses for failure.

The believers, and their heroes (those high profile parapsychologists who cannot get their research published in reputable scientific journals), complain that science somehow just “shuts them out” because of its intransigence and dogma. They laud their most prominent researchers (that they like to describe as mavericks), and complain bitterly that it is scientific dogma that will not allow them onto the scientific stage.

On the other hand, scientists (and sceptics) regard some of those paranormal researchers not as mavericks, but as cranks. Can it really be true that the whole of science is wrong, as opposed to woomeisters who cannot demonstrate the simplest claim they make, about a force they cannot present, and which when it fails (as it always does when properly tested), can only be accounted for by excuses they cannot prove, either?

Over many years, I have met people who claim to have various psychic abilities. Some of those people are even members of the Spiritualist religion and claim to be able to contact the dead. But their claims always fail. Unlike my example from the reality-based world of a claim I might make about electricity, their own claims never hold up. Those claims always fail objective tests, and excuses just won’t do.

Ask a clairvoyant to tell you what next week’s lottery numbers will be (I know that’s a cliche nowadays, but cliches gain that status because they tend to be based on truth). The answer is always along the lines of: “It doesn’t work like that.” So you won’t get the lottery numbers, but your clairvoyant will not be winning the lottery next week either, as he or she did not last week, this week or anytime in the near future. (I’m not discounting the possibility that your average psychic couldn’t win the lottery just by pure chance, but to be credible in a claim that it was their psychic powers that did it, it would have to be repeatable, and that’s another reason why you can’t accept a single, dumb-luck outcome as evidence of anything paranormal).

The bottom line is really straightforward: Science is not dogmatic; science changes in response to new discoveries. And that’s the way it should be. It’s why science advances, and parapsychology doesn’t. 

All the paranormal people have to do is to prove their claims. Right now, science does not accept the paranormal is real, but that will change if the paranormalists prove what they claim, without making excuses for constant failures. If any paranormal researcher makes a true breakthrough and demonstrates conclusively that any aspect of the paranormal is real, will they complain if science “changes” its “dogmatic” viewpoint and accepts it? We’re into Nobel Prize territory here, after all, so any scientist will be interested in proving the existence of some hitherto undiscovered law of nature.

The claim that science is dogmatic but always changing is a logical contradiction; it is also bad thinking, as well as simply a case of sour grapes.

Personally, as a supporter and defender of science over superstition, I find it rather satisfying and reassuring to know that there are many examples of science being forced to re-evaluate itself when something has come along to upset the apple cart, so to speak. Yes, some of science’s hypotheses and theories have had to be amended; sometimes they have had to be discarded altogether. Over time, however, science is not kidding itself that it “knows everything.” Science leaves that claim to the woomeisters and the religious.

For the benefit of those who believe that science is dogmatic, at the same time as they believe science is always changing, I offer this advice to keep in mind as they pursue their research:

Arse elbow illustration 3

Learn that distinction and you’re on your way to understanding what science is all about.

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7 responses to “Some People Don’t Like Science

  1. Hi, I had originally started to write a comment here but it got longer so I’ve written it as a post on my blog here: http://hayleyisaghost.co.uk/bad-thinking-blog/

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  2. Science is not dogmatic, *scientists* are dogmatic.

    *Scientists* (not science) don’t accept the paranormal is real, not because it’s untestable, but because of the new way of thinking inaugurated by the mechanistic philosophy heralding the birth of modern science in the 17th Century. So anything disobeying this philosophy is deemed an extraordinary claim.

    The existence of consciousness has no theory either. Indeed it cannot *in principle* be explained by science, at least not as science is currently conceived. Do you also disbelieve in the existence of consciousness?

    Why is the web full of dimwitted “skeptics” pontificating on stuff which they clearly have no knowledge or understanding of. And I include the likes of Hawking, Krauss, Dawkins and other top scientists, who might be good at science but should leave philosophy well alone.

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  3. “The existence of consciousness has no theory either. Indeed it cannot *in principle* be explained by science, at least not as science is currently conceived.”

    Ian you are being dishonest. There are many theories of consciousness and a great deal of research in modern neuroscience on this subject:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_correlates_of_consciousness

    Just because science does not understand everything about consciousness, there is no need to put magic in the gap. Regards.

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  4. The two comments above expose the irrational thinking that this post seeks to repudiate.

    Dealing first with Hayley Stevens and her blog post. There is a very good reason why paranormal claims fail to make it into accepted scientific circles; lack of evidence. The whole area of the paranormal is littered with extraordinary claims, not one of which has survived scrutiny. She refers to Professor Richard Wiseman, and he has successfully debunked many paranormal claims. Not every one of course, but that’s simply because many just don’t warrant detailed investigation. And the point about the claims isn’t that they may be true. Yes they could perhaps be true, but if there is an alternative explanation, as their appears always to be in properly researched instances, then it is wrong to assume that the paranormal explanation is the true one. The first scientist to prove a paranormal event will become world renowned and would probably win a Nobel prize. So if and when science confirms a paranormal event then you can be sure it’s real. Up until then I’m afraid it’s a no show.

    As for Ian Wardell, I’m afraid equally shaky ground. Scientists who are dogmatic aren’t proper scientists. A dogmatic scientist is one who will very quickly be refuted, exposed as being second rate, and rapidly consigned to the scrap heap.

    I’ve dealt with the paranormal comment above so won’t repeat.

    But the consciousness comment is just plain uninformed. Have you not read anything recently on evolution? What on earth do you mean that ‘consciousness has no theory’. There are many theories, it’s just you seem not to have checked them out. We evolved from very primitive life forms, into what we are today. Consciousness is clearly part of that process.

    Lastly your comment about philosophy. I actually think you mean ‘metaphysics’, and I think you’d find little support for your ideas from any scientist, never mind Dawkins or Hawking. Philosophy is needed when you need to decide on something where science has taken you as far as it can; for example, abortion, the death penalty, or immigration policies. Metaphysics is pretend science that says paranormal claims should be treated as proper science. Fine, then let them stand the test of observation, testability, repeatability, and all the other things science requires.

    Actually scientists have shown themselves to be more than able when it comes to philosophy. Indeed, whereas it is virtually impossible for a lay person to engage in meaningful debate with a qualified scienctist on matters of science, in matters of philosophy it is easy for an intelligent person to engage in any debate. For example, in theology the only real qualification is perhaps the history of religion and the languages of original texts, and it is frequently the case that ‘qualified’ theologians struggle with the actual philosophy when debating with people they would regard as not qualified.

    Scientists are more and more challenging the status quo of the established philosophically accepted cultural mores. Indeed Jerry Coyne has recently moved the debate on in a most profound way in his book ‘Faith versus Fact’ which challenges the accommodationist idea that science and religion are compatible. Oh no they are not.

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    • “There is a very good reason why paranormal claims fail to make it into accepted scientific circles; lack of evidence. The whole area of the paranormal is littered with extraordinary claims, not one of which has survived scrutiny”

      When I read claims like this, I recognize someone who either has not actually read the relevant studies, or who views every scientific success as real success by honest people, and without evidence regards every successful parapsychological study as an unproven exercise in collusion, conspiracy, and cheating by the participants. Some people don’t like science when it disagrees with their preconceptions.

      http://www.deanradin.com/evidence/evidence.htm

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    • Geoff Benson

      Sorry Michael D, but you are distorting the arguments. Paranormality studies have not succeeded in providing evidence of anything paranormal; indeed metaphysics generally is a redundant term. You are right that people don’t like science when it disagrees with pre-conceptions but, and this is the point, proper science has no pre-conceptions. Don’t confuse reasonably held conclusions, reached via evidence, with pre-conceptions. So to claim that science is wrong to refuse to acknowledge the evidence of paranormal phenomena is lazy; bad thinking, to quote the title of the blog. If it wants to be accept as science then it needs much better evidence than so far it has provided.

      As for Dean Radin….oh dear

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Dean_Radin

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  5. Hayley,

    I think you missed the point of the post, so let me see if I can clarify my position for you.

    I call my blog Bad Thinking because the promoters of, and believers in, the paranormal rely on various reasoning fallacies to support their beliefs. The example I focused on in this post was a contradiction that is hardly uncommon.

    Personally, I have no disagreement with people who are doing research into what they believe to be paranormal phenomena; if any of them can prove the existence of any aspect of their research, that’s fine by me because it would open up a whole new field of science. I’m all for that, and I wouldn’t begrudge any of them their Nobel Prize for discovering a hitherto unknown force of nature.

    In the meantime, they will have to produce evidence that stands up to scrutiny; claiming that they can’t get a foothold in mainstream science because science is dogmatic and unchanging, whilst also implying that science is wrong or doesn’t know much because it’s always changing, is not good reasoning. Actually, it is Bad Thinking.

    People who believe in ghosts and suchlike certainly don’t like science, at least when science rejects their unsubstantiated beliefs. I don’t think it’s patronising to point that out. But the believers are dogmatic, and their beliefs are strongly resistant to change; pointing that out is not an insult, it is a fact – even if some of them see it as an insult.

    You say that parapsychology is “only rejected by those who dismiss it a priori.” Talk about generalising! But you are wrong; I don’t reject parapsychology a priori, I reject it a posteriori. Parapsychology infers the existence of the paranormal simply on the basis that it can’t find a natural explanation for anomalistic phenomena. It certainly has no theory (in the scientific sense of the word), and researchers like Richard Wiseman and Chris French, that you mentioned, have been unable to replicate any of the claims made in that area. At best, parapsychologists have shown that there is maybe, perhaps, sometimes, possibly, at some level, if you want to go along with it, something anomalous going on, but they have not demonstrated the existence of anything like “psychic energy,” or whatever they want to call it. I recommend that you read Chris French’s book, Anomalistic Psychology – it’s very good (I know it’s good because I reviewed it for the Association for Skeptical Enquiry’s magazine, The Skeptical Intelligencer).

    When I said that science is not dogmatic but changes in response to new discoveries, I was referring to science as a whole, without reference to individual scientists. Some scientists and some sceptics have let the side down, but they don’t get any special concessions from me. In fact, I wrote a post here about fraud committed by a scientist and a well-known sceptic:

    https://badthinking.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/skepticism-science-and-ethics/

    But I have never said or implied that parapsychology is wrong because of a few examples of fraudulent research either; I think that parapsychology is just barking up the wrong tree. In any case, there is still not a single thing parapsychologists have produced that has become part of mainstream science and, yes, they still claim that’s because of scientific dogma. Or because science is always changing because it can’t make its mind up.
    Choose whichever excuse suits you.

    As you say, all that matters is that the science is good, open to replication and that personal biases are not able to influence it. I already know that, but I think you should be telling that to the paranormal researchers.

    You think I’m judgemental? What do you think you are, by the way?

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