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Science and the paranormal

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on November 23, 2008

A few days ago I wrote an entry titled “Sacred Geometry-Sacred Nonsense?” in which I replied to an entry about sacred geometry posted at the blog “Beyond the Blog”. Me and that blog’s author, Anthony, had a nice discussion in the comments section of that entry of mine. Now Anthony has a new entry titled “The Science Gene” and I have, yet again, some issues with what Anthony has to say. On my previous entry I was told that I did not get the meaning of what he was saying, so I will read this carefully to make sure that this acuse cannot be thrown my way this time.

In his latest entry Anthony is talking about the paranormal and scientists. He says:

When it comes to this modern breed, I immediately fall into the same category as anyone else who is prepared to give the paranormal a chance.

I never expected any different. The general scientific acceptance of curiosity may work for most areas of life and the universe, but regarding the paranormal, there is a form of mental block. Simply considering the subject is enough to be discounted.

Now the term paranormal is a wide umbrella that encompasses lots of things from homeopathy and acupuncture to psychics, ESP, remote viewing, astral projections, psychic surgery etc etc. Some of these fields, especially the medical related ones such as homeopathy and acupuncture have been studied deeply by the modern science types. I am not sure if Anthony includes skeptics in the “modern breed” category. Organizations such as the James Randi Educational Foundation have been spending lots ant lots of time testing every kind of imaginable supernatural/paranormal claim. In fact Randi’s million dollar challenge remains unclaimed decades after it was instituted.

What group does Anthony think he falls under? It seems that the implication is the “ignored with a wave of the hand” group. In fact many proponents of the paranormal usually throw that sort of argument around. Oh, the scientist are too arrogant that they don’t even look into our claims, they just discount them out of hand. But is that true? Let’s look at this carefully. As I mentioned plenty of studies have been done by scientist on many paranormal/supernatural claims (and yes acupuncture with it’s chi and ying and yang nonsense is totally paranormal and so is homeopathy with its law of attraction/similarities and the dilution nonsense). Psychic abilities also have been tested extensively by the JREF.

But let’s stay on track here. By definition the paranormal/supernatural are beyond natural, they are out of this natural world. Science, also by definition, is concerned with natural explanations and does not, cannot, get involved with stuff that is supposed to be outside of nature. How do you test something when it is defined as being untestable by the tools of science? How do you test psychic abilities if psychics will rationalize (usually after the fact, after having failed miserably) that their powers wane and go away under test conditions? How do you test something which is supposed to work all the time, except when it is being tested under a controlled environment?

So can we blame scientists EVEN IF they did completely ignore supernatural explanations? It is not fair to blame them for not doing something which they cannot do right? Science test hypotheses, but the hypothesis itself has to be testable. If you define things so that they fall beyond the natural, beyond the testable then you cannot experiment with them, you cannot study them properly speaking. Some paranormal claims are of this nature 100% (GOD) whereas others are not completely this way. Therefore some are more suitable for scientific testing and some are less, depending how they are defined by their proponents.

Which takes me back to my original question, which group does Anthony feel like he’s being included with? The group that has been tested but has not been shown to work? Or the group that by it’s very own definition cannot be approached scientifically? Now if you belong to the first one, is it really a surprise that after study after study failing to even hint that such things work, scientist would say enough, I will not test the same idea anymore? Is it really unreasonable at this point to say that anyone who comes to me with the very same argument, without a new hypothesis, without new data, without some preliminary test, will not get anymore of my time? I don’t think so.

And if Anthony thinks he’s being lumped into the second group, well then in that case he’d be disqualifying himself from scientific review and the blame should not be thrown the scientist way.

Could it be down to a simple inability in them to comprehend the subject? Certainly it appears so.

That is unfair to say the least. In fact I submit that skeptics and scientists understand more of the various paranormal subjects than more people that blindly believe in them. We understand how psychics are supposed to perform their tricks. We understand how homeopathy and acupuncture are supposed to work miracles. We know how healing prayer is supposed to work. We do. But we are not convinced. If there is an inability, it is one to believe extraordinary claims based on very flimsy evidence. Yes, I confess to that inability.

Behaviour is said to be down to nature or nurture. The former is due to our genes, whilst the latter is said to be to do with our upbringing, etc. Yet I’ve recently begun writing about a third factor in this equation.

Culture could play an important part.

We exist in culture. We are labeled through our culture. Our knowledge is very much a part of our culture. Hence, culture plays an important part in our behaviour.

Now this is more of a technical gripe. Culture does play an important part, that he’s right about. But culture is not a third element. Culture is included in nurture and upbringing. I just wanted to point that out. Not a biggie but it helps to straighten everything that needs straightening I think.

But could it be that changes in culture lead, over several generations, to changes in the behavioural elements of our genetic structure?

That’s an interesting question to entertain I think, but I find it very hard to accept that some behavioral trait that is not genetic in any sense can somehow be transferred to the genes. Very very doubtful to say the least. Do we have any geneticist that read this blog that could shed some light on this area? I am in no position to say conclusively either way, but I lean towards no right now. Anthony offers another possibility:

We talk of change through the ‘meme’, but I’m suggesting here that it could be a real genetic influence, and not just a concept. In effect, what we are is not enshrined in genetic stone, but fluid. We change as our culture directs.

As with evolution generally, the culturally fittest ideas could well survive to be conditioned into the person. Hence behaviour – the cultural prevalence of the religious or scientific impulse, for instance – can be programmed into the person.

How would this programming happen? What is the mechanism being proposed? And don’t give me a supernatural explanation please.

Does this give a hint of a reason for science’s intransigence when it comes to the paranormal? I don’t know. But it should be discussed, for it suggests that the ‘natural’ bias against the paranormal is not ‘natural’ at all, but the result of a form of cultural brainwashing

Nope! Actually this possible conclusion that Anthony offers is based on a very very weak speculation (behavior that is not genetic in nature can be programed into the genes) and when the foundation is week the whole building will collapse. I understand that Anthony is not claiming that this is in fact what is happening. Nevertheless, he is offering a possible explanation about the science gene, programed via countelss cultural scientific brainwashing over the generations , which makes scientists ignore the paranormal. Very neat philosophically, but way to speculative scientifically.

So where do we go from here? Someone who thinks this hypothesis has any merit should first start with the claim about the “cultural programing” and establish that this claim is probable. When that is established, then they need to get to work on this “science gene” and identify a possible gene candidate, I guess by running genetic profiles of scientist and looking for common genes and what have you. Then, you need to devise a test to figure out if said science gene does affect attitudes towards the supernatural. That is in a nutshell the proper way of approaching this. Remember, just thinking up a hypothesis is not enough even if it seems to make sense. We could sit around discussing ideas all day long and nothing would come out of it unless we actually did the work to test them.

Indeed, it suggests that, in terms of behaviour, nothing is ‘natural’ at all. Rather, we are fluid receptors of change and ideals produced by an over-culture of our collective behaviour and ideas.

Baloney! Fight or flight is not cultural under any sense. It’s much more primitive than any human culture. Generalizations like this are very dangerous. Whenever one say nothing, or everything, they are open to all sorts of criticism as I hope I just showed here. This statement I completely disagree with.

I think I’ve figured out the differences between Anthony and I. It seems to me that it comes down to possibility and probability. It seems Anthony considers many possibilities but does not take into account the probability. What he has just described in his entry is possible, sure, but very very improbable. And scientist and skeptics look at both possibilities (hypotheses) and probabilities (experimental results) and when the probabilities remain very very low we just stop wasting time with the possibility and unless new eveidence is presented to raise the probability it makes no sense to go back over and over  to the possibility. That  is not a fault in my eyes. It is a virtue. Am I making any sense?

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One Response

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  1. anthonynorth said, on November 23, 2008 at 9:21 AM

    Hi Skepdude,
    That’s much better. I have no problem with people calling me what they want, or rubbishing my ideas as they see fit, as long as they’ve ‘got’ exactly what I’m talking about. In the previous post, I didn’t think you did, and this was my only real criticism.
    Obviously I disagree with much of what you said here, but you portrayed me accurately, which is what counts. I won’t go into any detail as to why I think you’re wrong, as it would take a book. But maybe I’ll whittle away a bit at your views if you keep visiting 😉


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