Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope