Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sceptics need open minds

Like most people with a scientific background it would probably be fair to call me a sceptic, in the sense that I like to see evidence before accepting something. Science and scepticism go hand in hand - think of the Royal Society motto 'nullius in verba' which the Society translates as 'take nobody's word for it.' Or to put it another way, in one of my favourite modern versions, 'data is not the plural of anecdote.' However, all too many sceptics (including some prominent scientists) misunderstand this and turn these into 'without (controlled) evidence this is not true' and 'anecdote has no value' - both of these are incorrect.

What we've got here is a logical error. These people are going from 'without evidence we can't say it's true', which is good scepticism to 'without evidence it is false'. And while it's true that anecdotes have no value in deciding whether or not a hypothesis is true, they are valuable in flagging up the existence of something worth investigating. 'There's no smoke without fire' is obvious tosh, but 'there's no smoke without a cause' isn't.

I bring this up because of a rather sad interview suffered by the excellent paranormal researcher and sceptic, Hayley Stevens. She was attacked in the interview for not simply denying the existence of paranormal phenomena, with the implication that she was leading people astray and that she couldn't be a sceptic if she didn't simply deny and move on.

This is a bit like saying we should deny the existence of UFOs. But of course UFOs exist. We don't know what every object spotted in the sky is, so some of them are by definition unidentified flying objects. This is a perfectly good sceptical view. If we assume UFOs are alien spacecraft, however, that's very different. Then a sceptic should rightly raise a doubting eyebrow. There is no good evidence for alien visitors, and it is extremely unlikely from all we know about the universe and physics. So without such evidence, the starting point has to be that UFOs have perfectly normal terrestrial explanations (or they are weather/astronomical effects). But it is not scepticism to issue a blanket denial that UFOs exist and to criticise those who dare take an interest in them - that is simply stupid.

This is why I felt that it was okay to write my book about the science of the paranormal, Extra Sensory. It is not in any sense a wide-eyed vindication of telepathy or telekinesis. But to simply state that such things don't exist without examining the evidence is just as unscientific as to believe everything you hear from those who have 'witnessed' such events. Scepticism says we certainly shouldn't believe in something without having good evidence - but to take a stand based on not even looking at the evidence is nothing more than superstition.

Which is not good science or good scepticism.

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