Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Who Invited You? How Does A Skeptic Justify Their Continued Interest In the Paranormal?

Picture the scenario, you're a skeptic with a healthy interest in the paranormal, you like to read the latest news stories, see the latest footage and photos and even keep track of the latest paranormal television shows without actually having to watch them. You may even have an interest in helping others understand that some of the things they believe are "paranormal" are actually quite... well... normal. You've not been there long before someone posts an image that fits this description quite well. Being the well-adjusted individual you politely interject and offer them a rational explanation for their photographic anomaly. Now, you'll normally get one of a few stock responses to this.

Rarely, the poster will thank you for your input, maybe even agree. More commonly you'll be told that you can't possibly be right, and then be offered anecdotal evidence that the photo is genuine. Super rarely you'll be told that pointing out a camera strap in an image is equivalent to comparing the photographer to the Trump administration!

But occasionally you'll get a response that is (saner) and worth some consideration. "If you don't believe in the paranormal what are you doing on a paranormal page?" A more thought provoking, less confrontational and more general version of this question was recently posed by a Facebook friend and I think it is genuinely worth answering.

Here's my paraphrasing of that question:
If you don't believe and don't like the ideas, technology or hypotheses in the paranormal field/community, then why are you still involved with the Paranormal? What is your goal within the community if you are not open to the possibilities of certain ideas and approaches?
I suppose I broadly fit the criteria of being part of the paranormal community, given that it's generally the area I discuss the most here, on social media and in the blogosphere. I also broadly fit the idea of someone who generally rejects almost all of the technology and the hypothesises, so I suppose my answer is as good as anybody else's.

Firstly, it's not really a question of whether I "like" these elements in the paranormal, it's a case of whether I can find validity in them or not. If the paranormal exists then it does so as a facet of the physical world, that means it should be testable in the same way that any other quality can. By science. There are a few really good, really sound paranormal investigators in the field and there's some good and important research. The problem is they are drowned out by the noise. If I can help cut through the noise and help these people and this research gain a better foothold in public, I'm going to do this. One of the ways I can do that is by highlighting the poor standard work, calling out its flaws, and in some unfortunate cases expose it as fake. Is it always nice?

Nope, but it's necessary.

Generally, this is an area that paranormal enthusiasts don't realise is directly lifted from the scientific method. If you're collecting and publishing any kind of work that pertains to be in any way scientific then you are subject to peer review.

I am open to the possibilities of the paranormal, but I think I owe it to credible and serious researchers in the field if I approach the ideas as robustly as researchers in any scientific field approach a piece of new research. I think I'm a lot gentler than they can be. Look at the way Hawking as approached the "firewall" theory of black holes. Now that's a flame war!

Tthe ultimate answer is do we care about the null hypothesis? To answer that I'd point to the most important null hypothesis conclusion in science history. When Michelson and Morley successfully concluded that the luminiferous aether did not exist, they broke the barriers that allowed physics to charge into the 20th Century. No one asked them if they "liked" aether or if they considered it to exist. No one asked Michelson and Morley what their motivation was. No one in the scientific community cared if they believed aether existed or not prior to their experiment.
The results of their devilishly ingenious experiment, their evidence, was all that was required.

Now, it's rare that an experiment can be so clearly devised as to support a null hypothesis. Normally all we can hope to ascertain is a positive result or a result that fails to show support for the tested hypothesis. I suspect, frustratingly, this will be the closest that any form of paranormal research comes to a definitive answer. But there's another reason to continue paranormal research, and hence peer-review of said research.

Consider, that the progression of science is rarely linear. Whilst I don't hold much hope of scientific acceptance of ghosts or Psi phenomena (cue flurry of peer reviewed Psi papers), I do think that such research may well lead to advancements elsewhere. I think of the scientific importance of "white dialectic material" in the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. If Penzias and Wilson had ignored the background hum in their equipment at Bell labs, if they hadn't crawled in to scrape out the pigeon sh*t in the Horn antenna, they wouldn't have made perhaps the most significant and groundbreaking cosmological discoveries of all time.

Their dedication to clearing crap gave us a clue to the origins of the universe itself.  We should all dedicate ourselves to clearing some brown dielectric material from the paranormal community.

That's why I'm here.

On an only superficially connected note I'll be appearing on the Paranormal Talk Radio Show with Matt Haas and Tim Vickers discussing the perceived intersection between quantum mechanics and the paranormal on Thursday 3rd August at 8pm Eastern in the US and roughly midnight in the UK. I really hope you can tune in and listen.Tim and Matt have a great show and I'm massively excited to take part! Link below!