The haunted world of science

My mother enjoys these shows on television which purport to show hauntings and the paranormal. I do too, really, owing to my own experience “seeing a UFO” when I was much younger. I write that in quotes now because other circumstantial evidence has led me to conclude that I probably dreamed the whole thing (I was in bed at the time, etc.), but I can’t really dismiss all UFO sightings, ghost sightings, cryptozoological encounters, and the like as similar delusions. Making a sweeping assumption that that many people are all bonkers is to start saying that a significant percentage of the population literally doesn’t know what reality is…that’s when you enter territory where “reality” as you yourself see it might need to be redefined.

In any case, Mom gave my lovely wife a book called Science and the Paranormal, which, she must have thought, would give a sympathetic treatment to the latter half of the subject. (My favorite TV show on the subject is Ghost Hunters, which Mom likes though she finds it irritating that they end up debunking so many of the “ghosts” in their investigations…which is one of the very reasons that my wife and I like it. We like singing the theme from “Casper, the Friendly Ghost” while she complains at the TV.) Alas, the book is written by CSICOP, and has many of its luminaries involved in the chapters (Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, Philip Klass, James Randi, and so on). efbq was a bit disappointed, but hopeful that since this was written long enough ago that they were still scientific; unbeknownst to us but in a greatly illustrative fashion, as of about a year ago, CSICOP changed their name, ostensibly to remove “Paranormal” from it, but which also had the effect, in a bit of irony lost completely on the organization, of removing “Scientific” from it as well.

Previously, CSICOP and its fellows and similar skeptics gave birth to a movement which was extremely timely and welcome. Claims of the paranormal were encroaching on legitimate scientific inquiry, and too many people were too ignorant to know the difference. In some sense, that continues today – I made mention of it recently in this blog as it pertains to the field of statistics. At that time, I found the effort slightly annoying, as they were killjoys to those of us who knew better anyway, and some of them were crashing bores as writers, but all in all, they practiced good science at the very least. That is, they knew what science was and what it wasn’t, and they didn’t attempt to use science to “prove” something that it wasn’t meant to do. Sometimes they evinced some annoyance themselves when this was the case – Sagan is a good example – but they did stick to their guns.

Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. Most of these guys knew science and that was all, and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It became a simple flip-side to the intelligent designists of religion and the “true believers” of the paranormal: I have the “theory of everything”, and if your thing doesn’t fit, then you are wrong. If music opens worlds of consciousness to you…if the ruins of Chernobyl connote to you the folly of man…if you speak to God…if you love someone…then sorry, my little box doesn’t measure that. It doesn’t exist. Robert Anton Wilson correctly nailed this phenomenon on the head with the coinage “fundamentalist humanism”.

It’s gotten worse of late, much worse. Scientific skepticism has entered the Richard Dawkins Phase (link prolly NSFW) of its existence, where any yutz with a lab coat can pontificate on any subject imaginable because He Has ScienceTM. Attempts to discuss matters of philosophical, ethical, or spiritual import with such folks – or indeed, attempts to argue matters of scientific merit that originate beyond the university walls or journal pages of their sheltered existence – are met with the echoing clang of the gates of their mind closing, familiar to any who has attempted to engage a fundamentalist in any new thing or exercise.

Unfortunately, I’m being called away to parental duties, and I can’t think of a really decent way to conclude this, except:

  • Please don’t do this,
  • This might end up inspiring a rule on this blog,
  • If it does, I will not become Cory Doctorow or Teresa Hayden or the rest of the BoingBoing Censorship Guild,
  • The book looks kinda cool, but I don’t know if I’m going to read it or not.

Mahalo.

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6 Responses

  1. Peter Teiman Franklin here,
    An excellent book on the paranormail is “Way of the Explore” by former Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell.
    Peter Teiman Franklin,
    Sweden

  2. Peter Teiman– Franklin here,
    Before Heinrich Hertz, electromagnetic radiation would have been regarded as paranormal.
    Peter Teiman– Franklin,
    Sweden

  3. Peter Teiman– Franklin here,
    There is a growing epistemology re how science could attempt to quantify the paranormal.
    Peter Teiman– Franklin,
    Sweden

  4. Alas I no longer believe in science. It is an abstraction that exists only in theory. The only think we have left masquerading as science is “support your grant funding”. Results are predetermined based on the interests of those paying the bills.

  5. > Making a sweeping assumption that that many people are all bonkers is to start saying that a significant percentage of the population literally doesn’t know what reality is

    Keep in mind how many people voted for Bush. Twice. Nuff said on that. 🙂

    Talking about “arguing science with fundies” futility reminds me of a recent eye-opening experience I had while at a “young marrieds” church group dinner outing. (If you remember, I go to an evangelical church. I don’t need to say much more on that.) We were seated next to the new assistant pastor and his wife, and I don’t remember / wan’t paying attention to most of this particular conversation, but my ears pricked up when he said “there’s very few biblical scholars now that believe in a literal seven-day creation”. This really surprised me, especially coming from a pastor at an evangelical church. (Although, in similar church outings with church folk, I’ve learned that most of the people in the church believe a lot more “reasonable” things than I thought, although i still think our official church policies, from what I know of them, are more fundamental in nature.)

  6. @starfyr: It certainly would explain some things.

    @David: Yes, there’s a range of beliefs there, and it does underscore a couple of things about religion and spirituality in general. The classic way of looking at things by those who should likely know better is religious = dummy, scientists (or, more to the point, atheists) = smart. (Some atheists even try to reinforce that by calling themselves “Brights”.) People who are dumb, however, tend to come in more varieties. They may press their own version of Christianity, as an example, without being aware of any significant thought in that subject over the last several hundred years (in other words, they never study what they preach – literally). Or, they may just prattle on about science “proving” the non-existence of God or a whole host of other things it was never meant to do, while being willfully blind to the shortcomings of the subject that starfyr highlighted.

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