A while ago an acquaintance of mine, who happens to have been born in India, told me of a holiday he had taken in his home country. It turns out that he and his party decided to visit a remote area – a small village that had had little or no contact with the “outside world,” as it were. He told me of his astonishment when one of his group pulled out a transistor radio, and the villagers they were visiting pulled back in fright at the fact that voices and music were coming out of this small box.
Arthur C. Clarke’s famous saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” suddenly seemed very pertinent indeed. These were people who had never come into contact with what most of us take as every-day, nothing-special personal entertainment. For them, however, this was, indeed, an experience that seemed like actual magic.
As we know, a radio receiver is a clever piece of technology, even if you don’t know exactly how it works (although you might know it’s to do with modulated radio waves being transformed into electrical signals that power a loudspeaker), you know that there is nothing about it that involves actual magic. The laws of physics are at work, and you can quite easily find out more about it. There is an underlying theory (and I mean theory in the scientific sense) that explains it all, and of course any aspect of the theory can be tested at will. Let’s face it: anyone can test whether a radio works just by turning it on and tuning it in to a radio station. It would even be possible, perhaps, for some of those villagers themselves to learn about electricity and electronics if they had the will (and perhaps the means) to do so.
When I was told that anecdote, I began to wonder about what the paranormal folks think they are achieving with their various paranormal claims. My acquaintance had not gone to an out of the way place just to make unsubstantiated claims about an alleged magic box of voices and music – the radio was there and was working – but what if he had? Maybe those villagers wouldn’t have believed him. And why should they, if he had failed to provide the evidence that would convince them? It certainly wouldn’t be up to them to disprove the magic box claims.
This, I think, is where all claims of the paranormal fail completely, and probably always will. There is no underlying theory with regard to any paranormal or supernatural claim. Sounds coming from a small box could be explained by saying that it contains very small people, or perhaps fairies have their home in there. The problem then, of course, is that some people might believe it; others might be sceptical. But what if someone proposing either of those “theories” could not demonstrate the claims they make, nor could they even make their magic box work on a reliable basis? Then they have to start making excuses for something they don’t understand themselves.
Think of it this way: in the unlikely event that I met someone who had never heard of electricity and electric light, I would probably be eager to show them what they had been missing out on. I might invite them to my home so that as night drew in, I would be able to demonstrate my claims by simply flicking a switch and suddenly having my living room (and whole house, if necessary) bathed in instant light. No more of putting up with darkness until daylight eventually crept up in the early morning, or relying on a fire or just a candle with its weak and flickering flame. No, I’m talking about a sufficiently advanced technology that would seem like magic – at least until I explained the theory of electricity and how it works.
But what if, when the darkness closes in, I flick the switch… and nothing happens? Should I say to my guest that the reason for the light’s failure is that the “energy” is upset by a sceptic (him or her, obviously)? Maybe I could say that he or she just didn’t have enough faith? Maybe I could claim that electricity is a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t just be called up at will? Maybe the “energy” has chosen not to be tested at this time? Perhaps [insert any standard excuse of the woo people, including the accusation that disbelief is just the nay-saying of a typical pseudo sceptical denialist].
This is the difference between the paranormal proponents and those of us who live in the real (and rational) world. I would not have to make excuses for failure, I would go through a standard procedure to rectify the problem, because I would be working on the basis of a real (scientific) theory.
Here’s how it would go: the light fails to light up. Maybe the bulb has burned out, so I would replace it with a new one. But what if I flick the switch again and it still does not light up? The next stage would be to see whether the main fuse is OK; sometimes, of course, when a light bulb burns out, it also causes its fuse to blow or a circuit breaker to flip. If the light still doesn’t go on, then the next stage would be to check the light fitting, the switch, or any other part of the circuit that might have failed. If none of that cures the problem, then I would have to check to see if there is a general power cut in the area, or even check to make sure that I have actually remembered to pay the electricity bill and the supply hasn’t been disconnected because of my forgetfulness. The point is, electricity is real, even if my guest has never experienced it before. Eventually, of course, even after all of that, I will be able to prove my claim about electric light, and also demonstrate why it might sometimes fail, and how it can be put right. You know yourself that electric light is real (surely?).
If my guest were sufficiently interested, I could supply him with books about electricity that explain electromagnetism, magnetism, electrical fields, movement of electrons and so on. He might even want to try to do some of the basic experiments that many of us did in school. The bottom line is that electricity can be understood, produced and manipulated because it is supported by a scientific theory. My guest could even, possibly, develop an interest in the subject to the point where he wanted to learn to be an electrician or electrical engineer.
But that’s the real world. The world of woo is rather different. Someone might want to explain a transistor radio in terms of tiny people inside a small box. They switch it on and it produces sound. The tiny people hypothesis can be claimed, and it wouldn’t affect whether the radio worked or not. And I think paranormal claims are rather like that. If it didn’t happen to work when switched on, then it could be claimed that the tiny people have gone out for the day, or they were tired, or on holiday, or doing something else. The truth might be that the batteries have run out, or there are no stations transmitting at that time, or that the radio is in a bad reception area. Maybe there is a component failure that can be traced and repaired in a similar way to the electric light scenario above. Without a solid theory that explains radio transmission and reception, the proponents of tiny people are going to get absolutely nowhere. If you don’t know that batteries have to be replaced occasionally, you are in trouble.
A sceptic like me would want to test this out. Tiny people? OK, let’s open this box and have a look at them. But what if I’m told I can’t see them because they’re invisible? I can’t touch them because they’re immaterial? I can’t hear them moving about because they are silent (except when they are producing sounds but only with the box closed)? And so on. Paranormal claims are like that. For every way that a claim might be tested, there is an equal and opposite excuse that can be given for why a test fails or simply can’t be conducted. Often enough, you would not even be allowed to open that box anyway.
There are innumerable claims of the paranormal to contend with – telepathy, precognition, astrology, psychokinesis, spiritualism and a host of others. I think it’s possible that parapsychologists are not even testing what they think they are testing. In telepathy, for instance, I won’t disagree that there are sometimes examples of information being transferred from one person to another. There are many ways it can occur, but psychic power is not a necessary condition for that to happen. When a researcher believes he or she has managed to control for all possible normal ways that it could happen, then the next stage has to be to detect and test the alleged psychic energy or whatever they think is behind it. In other words, form a hypothesis regarding what this alleged energy might be and test it. And that is what seems to elude all parapsychologists.
It seems to me that if those researchers have “proven” telepathy or any other paranormal claim, then doing the same old tests over and over is futile. If Michael Faraday had gone no further than moving a magnet through a coiled wire, then that would have been the end of it. Instead, he collaborated with James Clerk Maxwell, and then the whole electromagnetic spectrum was discovered. It’s a theory, alright, but a theory that actually explains what electricity (and light and magnetism) is, and how it can be used. It works, and there is no need to make excuses for failure.
Unfortunately, the present state of parapsychology is rather like the radio mentioned above. It seems to work some of the time, but speculation about tiny people is way off the mark. Without a testable theory to work with, it is doomed to stay in the realms of woo. In my proposed electric light scenario above, a failure can be rectified by going through a standard set of procedures to test the circuit and repair it, based on the underlying theory. In the meantime, all the paranormal folk can do is make excuses – none of which can be tested or rectified in a similar manner. I think that after more than a century of supposed “scientific” psychic research there should by now be a theory available to underpin psychic and other paranormal claims if any of them were real.
I can imagine a scenario where a tiny-person believer would call me a closed-minded pseudosceptic for not accepting the possibility (reality?) of tiny people operating the radio set from within. And I would also be derided for demanding testable evidence for what is, in fact, an obviously nonsensical claim; after all (as usual), I would not be able to disprove the claim – although that is almost always the fall-back of the committed woomeister.
In the meantime… Pfffft! I will show you that electricity is real and how to test it, because there is a testable theory behind it, and I will not make excuses if my light does not light up; I will fix it if it doesn’t.
If your psychic, dowser, remote viewer, astrologer, spoon bender or whatever fails to perform in the same way, then do what I do if I make a scientific claim – prove it. Then I will be convinced.
Anyway, can any alleged psychic who disagrees with any of this just make a contribution in the comments section and state what this week’s lottery numbers will be?
Additional note: many parapsychologists claim that their tests of various alleged psychics show that the probability of their subjects having passed the tests they have undergone, by dumb luck alone, are trillions to one against chance. If that is true, then I would suggest that because lotteries are only millions to one against winning the jackpot, then getting the right numbers in any lottery should be a trivial task by comparison. (The difference between trillions and millions is several orders of magnitude – for anyone who understands what “orders of magnitude” means.)
However, using my sceptical powers, that I have vowed to use only for good, I predict with confidence that no psychic will provide those winning numbers. And if any do, then I will simply ask them to replicate their achievement the following week just for the purpose of replication in the scientific spirit, and confirming their claim, in the same way that any claim within science has to be replicated before it can be given serious consideration.
I am not expecting to become a millionaire because of this challenge, however, although if any psychic provides me with the winning numbers in a couple of lotteries, I will be more than happy to renounce my scepticism and announce my confident belief in the existence of the paranormal from my new luxury yacht.