Although I haven’t blogged very much in the last year, I have been keeping up to date with what is going on in the world of woo. The paranormal folks continue to claim that the only reason sceptics don’t accept the reality of the paranormal is that they have not read or studied the evidence, or that they are just trying to maintain some mythical scientific status quo, but that is simply not the case. Nowadays, for me, anyway, I spend much more of my time looking at woo websites than I do studying sceptical sites and blogs. The reason for that is pretty simple: I am looking for any evidence they have that will support – or even prove – the existence of any paranormal, supernatural, UFO or any other weird claim that is out there.
What I have found so far is that there is absolutely nothing new in terms of evidence supporting any afterlife, precognition, dowsing, telekinetic, poltergeist [etc. …] claims. What there is an abundance of, however, is a lot of moaning about, and attacks upon, sceptics and scepticism. There are websites and blogs that seem to be dedicated to criticising scepticism in general, and some of the more well-known sceptics in particular, but offering absolutely nothing (or at best, very little) by way of evidence to support the assertion that there is anything real about any paranormal or supernatural claims.
One theme I seem to come across often is the idea that those awful sceptics, if they were truly sceptics, should be good enough to be sceptical about their own position before they have the temerity to criticise others. Nice try, woo folk, but scepticism is not a belief system. Anyone who doubts a claim made by someone else (and it doesn’t have to be a paranormal claim, it can be anything) is simply doubting that assertion, whatever it might be. He or she is merely sceptical about something that perhaps contradicts their own experience, knowledge or training. You say you have fairies at the bottom of your garden? I doubt it, but I don’t see any reason why I should think my scepticism itself needs to be doubted. Show me the evidence for these alleged fairies, but don’t suggest to me that I should doubt the need to doubt a claim that requires evidence rather than a deeply held belief or unquestioning faith before it can be accepted as true.
I’ve seen some trends over the last year (and longer), namely the tendency of the woo promoters to mangle the words of some very prominent scientists and sceptics and try to use them for their own purposes. For example, Carl Sagan’s famous phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is often used by the woo people to support their own claims and silence the sceptics (who actually understand what he was really getting at). Here’s how the argument usually goes:
Woomeister: Aliens from another galaxy are visiting our planet. They regularly abduct humans and perform unspeakable experiments on them (usually involving anal probes, sexual intimacy, genetic manipulation of our DNA and so on), not to mention the fact that Area 51 houses captured aliens and their spaceships, UFOs are all over the place, we are being observed and monitored, accounts of alien interference in world governments are true, “Ancient Aliens” is a series of factual documentaries [and so on and on].
Skepic: Oh, right. I would like to see the evidence for that.
Woomeister: There is plenty of evidence.
Skeptic: So, can I see it, then?
Skeptic: Then your claim has no basis and I can dismiss it. Show me the evidence and then I might change my mind.
Woomeister: The fact that you haven’t seen the evidence does not mean that there is no evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all, so you should be open minded about my claim.
Skeptic: You want me to accept a claim which, if true, would mean that the well-established and well-tested laws of physics are wrong – which I think is extremely unlikely; that is why claims such as yours have to be rejected. Maybe you really have uncovered some hitherto unknown force of nature, but only a fool would accept your – or anyone else’s – word for it. In the meantime, your claim is still rejected. What you call “open minded” is what I call “gullibility.”
And this is how many of my conversations with believers go; no doubt it will be pretty much the same in the coming year. The point is (or should be) easily understandable: absence of evidence is simply that – an absence of any reason to believe the absurd and ridiculous assertions made by those who promote what are extraordinary claims, but don’t feel the need to provide the equally extraordinary evidence that might support it. And those people think that I am the one who is being unreasonable.
No; alien visitation, for instance, is not impossible, perhaps, but it’s not good enough to simply assert that aliens from outer space must have developed faster than light travel, or the means to distort space-time by way of a warp drive, or that they can somehow do some kind of interdimensional space-hopping or even time travel. Any of those would do it, of course, and it’s easy to make up any fantastical method of travel, but without anything to back it up. No one has presented any alien artefacts, and no one has presented a testable theory of any of the methods of travel so far claimed. A Nobel prize and worldwide acclaim awaits anyone who can do that.
In fact, whatever the woo claim made – anything from aliens to spoon bending – the promoters have to think up something allegedly paranormal as an explanation for strange events for which they cannot find an ordinary explanation. But that’s one of the peculiarities of human psychology – we all want an explanation for things that happen, but in many cases a wrong explanation will do just so long as those explanations fill the gap, so to speak. And any tenuous evidence will also suffice – however wrong it might be – if it gives support to the relevant proposition.
I have to admit I find it tedious to see the same old justifications for the myriad woo claims out there being recycled endlessly without anyone who does so doubting (being sceptical of) their own position – the very thing they whine about when it comes to sceptical scrutiny of their claims. The point is: the promoters of all matters paranormal appear to have no doubts whatsoever about their beliefs, even though they cannot support them with confirmable evidence; their only other option is to try to rubbish the criticisms they come in for, for that very reason.
Something I find annoying also, is the mangling of logic that the woo promoters indulge in constantly. There are, in fact, some websites and blogs that actually try to debunk logic itself! The paradox here, though, is that to prove that logic is wrong, they have to try to use logic to do so, and in that case they are using arguments that are self-defeating because they are trying to use reason to prove that reason itself is wrong.
In fact, the woo people are not using logic, but rhetoric – a linguistic device that can sway the unwary into believing that the weak woo argument defeats what is actually a stronger logical argument. Rhetoric usually involves an appeal to the emotions of the listener, and unfortunately it is true that if a person’s emotions are put in conflict with their logic, then emotion wins every time. Ask any salesman. People don’t buy things because they need them, they buy because they want them. The woo people – in particular those who have a book to sell, maybe – don’t offer evidence for their claims, they sell you an idea; if you want to believe, you are more likely to buy it.
Here’s something to think about: next time you want to buy something, why not buy second hand rather than brand new? I occasionally do so. There is no way I would pay a hundred pounds or more for a shirt or any other item of clothing, although I do have some (second hand) designer clothes in my wardrobe. This is something I discovered when my wife worked in a local charity shop. There are people who buy clothes brand new but don’t even wear them. They are well off enough that they can simply buy expensive clothing, decide they don’t like it after all and just give it away. A similar thing applies to furniture, cars and all manner of things. A brand new hundred-pound shirt can be bought for just a few pounds, but it depends on whether you are willing to look at things in a way you normally don’t.
The same applies if you want to get the best deal on your utility bills. You don’t need to just accept your electricity supplier’s new rate, nor do you need to go to one of the many “comparison” websites. Do as I do, if you want to try it: phone another supplier and just ask them if they can beat the new rate you have been offered by your present supplier. They will probably offer you a better rate, but then you go to a third supplier and quote both of the offers you now have. That supplier might well offer an even better rate. Eventually you will find that after a few tries, you have found the cheapest rate you can reasonably get. Then phone your present supplier and ask them if they can beat – or match – the cheapest quote you have found. Remember that every supplier knows all of the rates offered by every other supplier, so they know you aren’t just bluffing. You don’t even need to suggest (threaten) that you might change supplier if they don’t give you a better deal, you are just asking if your present supplier can match a better quote that you have. Often, they will beat or just match one of the lower quotes you have, and that saves you from bothering to even change suppliers. But even if they can’t match your lowest quote, they might offer something better than they are offering you now, so you now have the opportunity to switch or stay, and save money anyway. OK, it might take ten or fifteen minutes to actually trouble yourself to make those phone calls, but for a potential annual saving of tens or even hundreds of pounds, it’s worth a try. It has worked for me. (I also suspect that some consumers might even spend unnecessary hours just surfing all of the comparison websites out there, without even eventually committing themselves to any change anyway.)
So, what has any of this got to do with scepticism? Well, it has to do with looking at things from a critical (or sceptical) point of view. Is my electricity supplier’s price offer the best they can do? I doubt it, and I might well delve into it to find out. Can a psychic contact the dead? I doubt that, too, and I will try to find out about that also. One thing I don’t need to do is to doubt the need to doubt extraordinary and sometimes completely absurd claims. Utility bills are real, everyday things; psychics are not – at least until someone proves that spiritualism, aliens, telepathy and all the rest of the psi claims out there are as real as that actual piece of paper that comes through the letterbox saying you owe money to someone.
Although I haven’t blogged much recently, I have been taking note of some of the bad thinking going on all over the internet, in particular the sites and blogs that promote woo in its many forms, but then attack anyone sceptical of their claims instead of providing the evidence that would change the scepticism of others into acceptance. Has science been wrong before (a common moan from the believers)? Yes, of course, but how often has any form of psi been confirmed? (Never, as it happens.) And how often has psychic research been wrong? All the time. The believers will not accept that, of course, but I invite any of them to give a single example of any scientific theory that has been replaced by a better, paranormal or supernatural, explanation of the workings of nature.
I confess that I get particularly irked at those writers that think they have some scientific insight into science itself, even though they are completely ignorant of what science is or how it really works. When you get down to it, science is, admittedly, imperfect, but it is, without doubt, light years ahead of any religious, parapsychological or any other woo way of explaining nature, and it also works when it comes to exploiting the laws of physics to our advantage. I know some very religious people, for example, who still rely on modern medicine to keep them alive rather than prayer to their preferred deity; also, there are heart-breaking examples of religious people killing themselves (and worse, their children) by ignoring science in favour of faith.
The reality of the situation is this: the paranormal has not been proven to exist at all; there are numerous examples of anomalous experiences that people have had, of course, but nothing that has been shown to be truly paranormal or supernatural. Failing to find a normal explanation for an unusual occurrence does not mean that a paranormal explanation is the default alternative. And that is why the paranormalists do not have their research published in reputable scientific journals; it’s nothing to do with scientists defending some status quo, it is to do with the fact that paranormal assertions that are claimed to be scientific have to be supported with actual science. And that just doesn’t happen.
Anyway, let’s see what 2017 is going to bring. My sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that there will be no proof forthcoming of any paranormal claim that might be made in the next twelve months or so. There will, however, be numerous scientific advances that will be derided by the woomeisters as unproven hypotheses or whatever. But the thing is, whether science has been wrong in the past is neither here nor there: science is the best method we have to find out what is going on out there. The alleged paranormal always leads absolutely nowhere. Think about that as you drive to your destination using satnav, also knowing that you have not succumbed to smallpox, polio or any other formerly death-sentence diseases as you were growing up. And if you want to disagree with me about my views, feel free to use modern science-based technology like computers and the internet to let me know. (Note: telepathy might not work, but by all means try it, and then leave a comment electronically on this blog to let me know it’s my fault that your psi powers let you down on this occasion.)
I might spend some time in 2017 examining the faulty reasoning (bad thinking) of some of the woo promoters who specifically attack science and scepticism, and just expose precisely where some of their specific claims are wrong, misleading and, sometimes, just outright dishonest and, very often, outright dangerous.
But: I hope my readers have had a merry Christmas, and that you have all enjoyed your new year celebrations. Now we have to prepare ourselves for the sceptical year ahead.