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  Columnist: Edward Crabtree

Image credit: NASA

A defence of fringe science


Posted on Saturday, 8 March, 2014 | 0 comments
Columnist: Edward Crabtree


'Cats can be both alive and dead; particles can be in two places at one; Heisenberg says everything is uncertain. These things are all true, but the conclusion so often drawn – that since something strange is afoot in the microworld, we are steeped in mystery – is most definitely not' (P-4, The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen does Happen, Brian Cox and Jeff Forsham.)

This pre-emptive strike against any funny business is slipped a few pages into a useful introduction to quantum physics. It goes on to castigate ESP, mystical healing and something they call `vibrating bracelets` - in short the paranormal. Perhaps the elephant in the room here is an article that was written by their fellow scientist Professor Brian Josephson F.R.S. In 2001 the Nobel Laureate was responsible for an article which suggested that quantum mechanics might aid British research into telepathy that was taking place. It caused a storm among sceptics (see Guy Lyon Playfair: Telepathy, Stamps and Fuzzy Logic in www.skepticalinvestigations.org.)

The Strange Death of Mysterious Britain.

These kinds of health warnings are not at all unusual – and that is why they need to be reflected on. The era we live is one where all has been explained, or soon will be.

We are more sophisticated nowadays; that is why, for example, few of us see the loch Ness Monster anymore. As for `ufology`, that has been declared dead not once but twice in the last fourteen years: first in 2002 in a Fortean Times meeting and then in 2012 – according to features in the Daily Telegraph and Huffington Post (4th November and 14th November 2012).

The Bermuda Triangle, meanwhile, has been lost without a trace. Depending on which expose you wish to accept, it either does not exist at all as an anomalous region – or it does, but the whole thing is the work of undersea gas bubbles. Remember crop circles? These were all the handiwork of two cidered up old gaffers who have since confessed all. Then ghosts: these now only haunt trash T.V shows which showcase dubious celebrity psychics.

If anything of these things were for real, after all, then somebody would have snapped a good picture of them on their mobile phones by now! This is the age of the image – and in such an age to see is the only way to believe. Ergo, it must follow that not to see is not to believe.

Trundle over to your local Waterstones. Where has the unexplained section got to? Ah, yes, there it is tucked away in the Mind/Body/Spirit part of the bookshop. With any luck you might find a, say, coffee table compendium of old spirit photographs hidden away next to the latest feverish delusions of David Icke.

It was not ever thus. Once a hundred flowers bloomed: Colourful fruitcakes like Brinsley Le Poer Trench were in competition with more worthy commentators like Dr Allen Hyneck. Nicholas Redfern, before he was the Royal correspondent for the BBC, had a book out on the Loch Ness Monster; Isaac Asimov saw fit to write a foreword to a paperback which proposed that the Tunguska fireball might have been a crashed alien spacecraft.

Now in the twenty tens the well stocked section is `Popular Science`. There are books with titles like: `Why Your Girlfriends Tears Taste Like Salt`. Many of these play a good educational role- like the one I mentioned at the start. A lot of it though is more like boil-in-the –bag science for pub quiz goers: TV tie- ins or books that aim to become a television series. It is a world of pre-packaged answers that allow everyone to play at being Jonathan Creek. Anything kooky gets short shrift.

A case in point is a book by Professor Richard Wiseman, the UK’s own would-be James Randi. Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There is presented like a TV show: full of humorous patter, delayed revelations, and try-this-at-home suggestions for the audience. Richard Dawkins, on the book’s jacket promises that it `deftly skewers the paranormal charlatans, blows away the psychic fog, and lets in the clear light of reason`. The sedative appeal of commonsense rules the day. Now it is autumn time for enthusiasts of the unexplained, and open season for the debunkers.

Voicing doubts.

Every dog has his day, and to each its season; I was happy to acquiesce in this. Then two small things happened. These were enough to make me want to pen a sort of Open letter to Skeptics: something to remind them that we still live in a big world.

Item one: a spectacular rainbow appeared outside my window. Do I expect you to believe me? Well by the time I had located my Kodak M320, put my warm jacket on (it was a cold day), got my keys out and gone downstairs to find a vantage point outside...it had faded away. This reminded me the fact that the idea that stones fall down from the sky had only come to be accepted by science in the late nineteenth century. Meteorites, like a lot of paranormal phenomena, are evanescent and not amenable to being tested in laboratory conditions. Also that to get photographic proof of anything, even in our digital age, is not as simple as some make it sound.

Item two: a Facebook friend and fellow critic of religion shared a slogan. It read:

`Dear Religion – While you were arguing about what type of chicken God wants you to eat, we landed on Mars: Your friend, Science`.

What stopped me in my tracks were not the sentiments –glib as they are - so much as the cocksure tone. I knew that I had heard it somewhere before: from people who make a point of being skeptics.

Before we start, let’s get something into perspective. Skeptics say that widespread belief in the paranormal would pull us all back into the Dark Ages. This claim belongs to the seventies when the organised skeptic movement first emerged. Who in our present age is the biggest threat – an Oklahoma or 9/11 style bomber or a librarian in Toronto who believes that leaving his razor in a small pyramid will keep it sharp? If the dark Ages do return it will arrive on the coat tails of Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists who, moreover, are every bit as hostile to free enquiry into the paranormal as the skeptics.

Meet the skeptics.

One of the poster boys of the skeptical movement is Carl Sagan. Sagan, however, in relation to his present day acolytes, was broadminded and tolerant towards fringe ideas. Take Harriet Hall, for example. In an article called `Teaching Pigs to Sing: An Experiment in bringing Critical Thinking to the Masses` she recalls a fellow skeptic advising her not to bother attending a New Age festival to try and convert them. `Never try to teach a pig to sing`, she is told. `It wastes your time and annoys the pig`. The intrepid Hall, however, turns up anyway and attempts to make the pigs see the clear light of reason. She fails and her friend is vindicated. (see www.csicop.org Volume 30.3 May/ June 2006.)

That is how the sceptics like to picture themselves: under siege in a world of unreason. The truth is that they thrive quite well. Richard Wiseman is the psychologist most quoted in the British media (according to a survey conducted by Times Higher Education supplement and cited on the biography in his books.) Meanwhile, over at Loch Ness, Adrian Shine can make a living as a resident rent-a-quote disbeliever – which is more than any Nessie hunter could manage. The new interplay between the scientific community and the mass media is their stomping ground. Few feel free to challenge the stamp of science: a survey done by the National Science Foundation in 2009 showed that society holds science in high esteem.

Moreover the sceptics are well organised. I have attended (and enjoyed) meetings put on by Sceptics in the Pub in Britain. Whenever I have done so I have been impressed by their good venues, their turnout, their schedules of monthly speakers, and their youthful publicists. This is all more than a mainstream political party could conjure up in our times!

Speak science-or die.

Our skeptic likes to be seen to embody a kind of mature stringency in his or her attitude to the world. They are the Holmes’s with the classical masculine virtue of clear reason. `Critical thinking` is their birthright as scientists. Is this science or... scientism, though?

What have the philosophers of the world since Plato been doing if not engaging in `critical thinking`? Many sceptics are unschooled in philosophy and untroubled by the thought that there might be more to `critical thinking` than just epistemology or reductionism.

Phenomenology is brushed aside even if only as a starting point. A key article of faith with these self styled rationalists is that eyewitness accounts (`personal testimony`) do not constitute evidence for anything. Professor Wiseman even builds this up into a collective ad hominem argument against personal experiences which he calls `a grand theory of the paranormal` (Wiseman, p-307.) The psychologist proposes that we `investigate why people experience these strange phenomena` rather than the phenomena themselves. After all, he adds, `Why should I waste my time looking into the possible reality of things that probably didn’t exist? ` (Wiseman, p3 and 4.)

In many disciplines, however, reported experiences do command respect. Where would history be without it? (Indeed, Holocaust deniers like to harp on the fact that much of the evidence for the existence of the Nazi death camps originates more from memoirs and verbal reports than physical corroboration.) In law too sightings of a crime are used as evidence (in fact some would say this approach has gone too far: a man can be put on trial for alleged sex crimes that happened decades ago just on the say so of supposed victims.)

Cleansing the unclean.

One is never shocked to find out that many public sceptics are jaded one time believers, and that their zeal is the zeal of the converted. Susan Blackmore, a prominent British debunker of psychic powers, started her career as a prolific astral traveller and` White Witch `before being cleansed by Reason (Wiseman, p-83-84.) It follows to such people that there must be no degrees of credibility to any paranormal claims. If one has been a dupe in the past then to disavow this one need to adopt a blanket dismissal of all things unexplained. To do otherwise would be to risk re-infection. (This is also a media savvy way to proceed. It is more of a headline grabber to say `The paranormal is bunk` than `Well, there does seem to be some interesting evidence to consider, but it needs more research , and...`.)

Whatever has happened to the nuanced stance that Arthur C. Clarke could assume? Speaking of the Loch Ness Monster in the eighties he said: `If you want my personal opinion – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I believe in Nessie’. (Cited by Welfare and Fairley, p-171).

Perhaps nobody dares to enter the leper colony. There exist many disincentives against crossing the Rubicon into interest in the unknown. When the British popular philosopher Colin Wilson died last December, the columnist Terence Blacker asked why, given that he had made a comfortable living from his writing, was he so unmentionable in polite society? He had a few answers – for one thing Wilson kept aloof from the London literati. More significant than that, though, he wrote too much about `sex, crime or the occult` which sits `uneasily with claims of literary seriousness` (The Independent, 19th December 2013).

Even Dawkins has experienced his own run in with the cast iron censure which walls off fringe science. In a discussion about the origins of life he mentioned Directed Panspermia. This is the theory that life may have been seeded onto Earth by alien intelligences. He said that it was a possibility (as, indeed, the discoverer of DNA Francis Crick had said many years before.) Later he had to spend time paying penance by fending off taunts to the effect that he was inviting little green men to slide down the dreaming spires of Oxford. It had just been a `thought experiment` he explained. (see old.richarddawkins.net/articles/2394trying-for-jesus.)

Fear of the unknown.

Why then does scepticism need to be so vituperative? Well, for one thing we need to maintain vigilance against wishful thinking. People have a need to believe in all manner of crazy things! Indeed so. Is there not also, however, an equivalent drive to be reassured by the familiar?

I have met people who have almost a phobia of anything paranormal. I myself am not interested in cricket. If I am with friends who wish to talk about this sport, however, I would not clasp my hands over my ears and hum in a tuneless way to myself: I have known `paranormaphobics `to do just that when I have wished to discuss a UFO sighting or some such.

Why are some so discombobulated by the unknown? Why has sober consideration of it been turned into a bit of a taboo? Let me follow in Wiseman et als footsteps and indulge in a little pop psychology. In earlier theocratic times the Universe was supervised by gods and God and not for us to worry too deeply about. The rise of applied science has encouraged a more anthropocentric mentality. This makes it seem that we humans can manipulate the laws of nature to suit us, and can see all. The prospect of there being something out there beyond our ken is a big challenge to that.

Meet the believers.

The sceptics have long erected a straw man who is a` believer`. This person is undiscriminating, unscientific, and obsessive. One of the key phrases the sceptics trot out is `the whole shebang`. This `whole shebang` takes in everything from Chinese herbal medicine, to climate change denial to belief in fairies. The intention is to show that interest in the paranormal is a slippery slope to belief in any old thing. To what extent is this just a bogy-man though?

I think I myself might prove to be quite typical. Of telepathy I am convinced, I think there is `something to` the UFO phenomena (although I am not sure what), I suspect that there are one or two undiscovered creatures on our planet and remain open minded about ghosts. On the other hand crystal healing brings me out in a rash, auras have an aura of chicanery about them to me, channelers make me switch channels and – as for those who tell me that the moon landings were a hoax – well, I would hurl moon rocks at them!

Then there are people like flight Lieutenant William H. Wood. He was a prominent British rationalist and atheist in the Nineteen Forties. He also, however, became convinced by the evidence for life after death without changing his secular position (Fuller, p-308-31.)

As for being obsessive: like most people I hop between parallel lives. Nordic walking, cooking are some of my interests and I also write about politics and pop-rock music. Robert Temple –of Sirius Mystery infamy – is perhaps best known to some as the author of the first British translation of Aesop’s Fables (published by Penguin.)Timothy Good, the doyen of `ufology` lives another life as an accomplished violinist who played for the London symphony Orchestra...And so on.

Yes but, cry the skeptic brigade, what about due scientific procedure? A true scientific hypothesis needs to be peer reviewed, capable of being proved wrong and needs must make predictions that we can test.

Is this the sole preserve of disbelievers? Let us take, as a sample, Leslie Kean’s book UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials go on the Record (2010). Some of the people who have reviewed this include: Derrick Pitts, Chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute, Rudy Child PhD at the Harvard- Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and Jean-Claude Rines PhD formerly at the Paris Observatory (retired). The book proffers a thesis: that a small percentage of UFO encounters are with something extraterrestrial. This could be shown to be untrue by finding alternative explanations for the phenomena. A prediction can also be made from the thesis: that the sightings will be ongoing and will remain unexplained until we recognise that they are extraterrestrial.

Grey Areas.

Then the sceptics love to draw our attention to the many swindles that have been associated with the unexplained. Without doubt the whole area has been trip-wired by tricksters so that advocates of it feel like the boy who cried wolf. Is mainstream science immune from this problem though? Forty years passed before researchers established that the Piltdown man, found by Charles Dawson in southern England, was a crude forgery and not the much heralded missing link. A converse example is that of the Duckbill platypus. The first specimen of this, acquired from an Australian hunter in 1799, was thought by many in the sciences to be a hoax perpetrated by Chinese sailors.

So is science really the monolithic and unanimous closed shop that the sceptics so often paint it to be? There are a few science insiders who have strayed into fringe domains. These include:

  • Sir Peter Scott, the famous naturalist, who died believing in the Loch Ness Monster.
  • Eric Laithwaite, the electrical engineer, who once appeared on a Radio Four debate to be on the `yes` side for the question `Do ghosts exist?`
  • H.J. Eysenck, the psychologist, who felt that analysis of ESP statistics justified enquiry into the matter – and who wrote books on Psi.
  • Doctor Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist who has said, more than once, that some UFO reports could be of visitors from another world.
No doubt you can add your own samples to this list and the point here is not to validate any of their claims. To do so would make no more sense than to say there must be something to alchemy because Isaac Newton was very much involved in it. It does show, however that scientists can engage in thought experiments. To do so can bring unlooked for dividends. As Frederich Nietzche observed:

`Do you believe then that the sciences would ever have arisen and become great if there had not before been magicians, alchemists, astrologers and wizards, who thirsted and hungered after absconded and forbidden powers?` (cited in Gleich, p-106.)

Dream with your eyes open.

What we lack today are public figures with the will and ability to stand astride the gulf between accepted science and its fringe and report back to us. One such a person was Arthur C. Clarke. As he put it:

`True wisdom lies in preserving the delicate balance between scepticism and credulity. The Universe is such a strange and wonderful place that reality will always outrun the wildest imagination; there will always be things unknown, perhaps unknowable`.

Those concerned with the unknown are more often just thought experimenters rather than fantasists, and ones less dogmatic than those who suppose we have the whole cosmos under wraps.

Edward Crabtree.

References:

Cox, Brian/ Forsham, Jeff The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen (London: Allen Lane, 2011)
Fuller, John G. The Airmen Who Would Not Die (New York: Berkeley, 1979)
Kean, Leslie UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials go on the Record (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010)
Welfare, Simon/Farley, John Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (London: Book Club Associates, 1984)
Wiseman, Professor Richard Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There (Oxford: Macmillan, 2011)

Online:

www.csicop.org
www.museumofhoaxes.com
www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online
www.oxforddub.com
www.skepticalinvestigations.org

Article Copyright© Edward Crabtree - reproduced with permission.



 
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