Sunday, 10 August 2008

A sceptical outlook

I've recently began to watch The X-Files from the beginning again. To me, it poses a unique challenge to a sceptical mind. It is a work of fiction, but it pushes the realm of implausibility is not only a tangible explanation but pushed as the explanation. Of course it's just a show and has no bearing on reality. But the methodology used by the show is exactly the problem I see in those who believe in the paranormal: a willingness to reach for an implausible explanation despite no mechanism for which it to act. And while that is perfectly fine in fiction, in reality it has some very negative consequences.

The truth is out there
In the absence of a natural explanation, there are those who jump quite readily towards a supernatural one. Most of the time there is already a natural explanation, which more often than not gets wilfully ignored. Maybe for some, it's not an adequate enough explanation. It seems almost paradoxical that for explanations people deem paranormal, a higher burden of proof is required to show that it is indeed a natural occurrence. It's not enough to just demonstrate that there is a natural explanation, all the finest details must also be established all the paranormal explanation is favoured. Just look at the psychics. Now psychics work under two natural mechanisms: cold reading and hot reading. Cold reading is by saying something vague enough and universal enough, eventually there will be some hits. And the "psychic" uses the hits to draw the story out of the wilful participant without them being aware that they are the ones who are actually filling in the blanks. It's a hard technique to master, but it can be done. Hot reading on the other hand is having information in advance, and this becomes an exercise in telling the participant what they want to hear. Because it's such an overwhelming and powerful experience, few are going to question the validity of the paranormal as the experience seems to far from reality it must have credibility.

This is what is identified as a false positive. The willingness to believe in the paranormal is essence is confirmed by the evidence the believer is looking for. So it doesn't matter about whether psychic powers are even in the realm of plausibility, the evidence seems to match the description of the phenomena so it's taken over a sceptic's objections. It's the equivalent of looking at the mountains and concluding goddidit, then ignoring all empirical data on plate tectonics and erosion to maintain that position. It's an answer without a reason, and so often a reason is not needed because the answer is coupled with meaning. When it's a personal issue like communicating with the dead, the emotive connection is never going to be pursuaded by empirical evidence. Much like when someone believes the world was created by God in 6 days as it is now, when God is tied to their meaning of existence, how are they meant to understand that the empirical observation suggests otherwise?

Appealing to a paranormal explanation is to take that explanation on face value. It's to stop evaluation of the claims and just feed the delusions of those making them. Two things need to be understood when assessing claims of this nature: a naturalistic explanation should always be sought in favour of a supernatural explanation, and in the absence of a natural explanation, it doesn't automatically make a supernatural explanation any more plausible. There are two important elements in testing a phenomena: predictions and the mechanism. Firstly if a phenomena is real, then it should be testable under a blind study. If it passes that first hurdle, then the mechanism behind it should be tested. Science is no enemy of the paranormal, it's indiscriminate towards all ideas. If an idea has credulity, then it will stand up to the rigours of the method. Any belief that can withstand objective scrutiny has some credulity. Getting objective scrutiny on ideas that are intrinsically tied to emotion can be nigh on impossible.

Little green men
Consider the belief in extra-terrestrial life. Now if intelligent life did exist elsewhere in the universe, let us consider the lengths they would have to go to get to earth and observe us. It would have to be able to travel light-years across the galaxy at the very minimum; and that's just if the life-form is on a nearby solar system. But more likely, there are no local stars that harbour intelligent life (if life exists at all), and the distances would be in the 100s to 1000s of light years away. For a life-form to do this, they would have to have a ship that can either:
a) travel faster than the speed of light
b) bend space and time or
c) harbour many many generations on the same ship
Now consider the extreme intelligence required for such an endeavour. It's almost entirely implausible, so when someone says they were abducted by aliens, surely there would be some real evidence to back it up. Instead we get stories that wouldn't look out of place in the fantasy section of the library, comparable to the tripe L. Ron Hubbard wrote. Yet the willingness to believe transcends the implausibility, because to those who truly believe they were abducted the experience was as real as anything reality has to offer.

As evidence, people look to phenomena like crop circles. There's a couple of problems with this. Firstly crop circles have a naturalistic mechanism, human involvement. And even if some can't be explained by human behaviour, why would an intergalactic being travel 1000s of light years and the only clue it leaves as proof of it's existence is patterns in our crops? That sounds just as crazy as an all-powerful, all-knowing deity revealing himself through the miracle of etching women on toast or making statues bleed. Personally, I'd expect highly advanced beings to do a little better than make primitive yet cryptic messages for people to learn of their existence. What does the Virgin Mary on toast symbolise anyway? Maybe it was a sign from the lord for the woman who found it to give up her cholesterol-laden diet and get some damn exercise. A weeping statue could mean that Jesus is crying at what Christians have done with his message of peace. Of course an all-powerful being could just make the message a bit less cryptic and spell it out. Maybe it'll stop some of the wars and intolerance between religions. Or maybe we are just looking at the most asinine occurrences as sign of the miraculous as there is no real evidence to back it up.

Now I'm not saying conclusively that crop circles aren't the products of alien life, nor am I saying that God has better things to do with his time than putting images onto baked goods. I'm saying to think about the properties that we attribute to both phenomena. Highly intelligent, incredibly powerful beings that can manipulate time and space. It just seems very unlikely that if such beings actually wanted to contact us, there would be much more direct and evidential ways. It's clutching at straws, and by no means evident of anything other than the mind's ability to link beliefs with causality plus an overactive imagination. Evidence should fit the nature of the claim, thus extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is what the sceptic requires, as what is required of any idea; paranormal or not.

I want to believe
Being sceptical is not being outright dismissive. It's a tool on which to assess the quality of evidence and veracity of claims. Someone who takes a sceptical point of view towards evidence is not a bad thing by any means, on the contrary having ideas challenged is the only way to continually test their worth. Personally I have no problems of believing in ghosts or psychic powers, I just want them subjected to the same rigorous process as other ideas go through before openly supporting the idea. This is scepticism at it's heart, it's not believing because of wants, rather believing because there is simply too much evidence to suggest the phenomena is real.

It's sad that being sceptical is looked down on so much in our society. Born out of religious tolerance, to try and debunk the paranormal is met with the greatest of resistance. To question the validity of psychic powers becomes a personal insult, it's killing the hopes and dreams of those who want to believe. This poses an ethical dilemma: on the one hand we don't want to cause undue harm to another being, and on the other by allowing that belief to go unchecked that person is being exploited by charlatans. The bottom line is we can't protect people from themselves, they are always going to be suckered in by the promises of the miraculous, listen to anecdotal evidence, and believe in obvious falsehoods. The mind is geared that way. To apply some objectivity to those beliefs and maybe question why it should be a social taboo, otherwise who knows what kind of crazy ideas will be propagated with no evidence at all?

1 comment:

exploding_dinosaurs said...

The thing that really annoyed me about the X-files (so far, only up to season 4) is the skepticism shown by Scully to most of Mulder's supernatural explanations, but when her religious faith is questioned (by Mulder? I can't remember now) all that skepticism is tossed out of the window.