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“Extraordinary claims require require extraordinary evidence,” part III

I’ll now finally finish this series. In part I, I explained Carl Sagan’s famous dictum, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” saying that it meant that to establish something extremely improbable, you need evidence that is incredibly strong. How could anyone dispute that?

Then in part II, I started talking about what I see as the fatal flaw in this dictum, not in its basic idea, but in how it is applied. That fatal flaw, I said, lies in shuttling easily and unconsciously between two very different kinds of improbabilities: reasonably knowable probabilities (involving the behavior of familiar things) and currently unknowable probabilities.

I then quoted from an article from Skeptico website that explained why psychic phenomena represent one of those extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence:

Psychic powers are extraordinary initially because of lack of scientific plausibility: that is, we have no known way for psychic signals to be sent and received. Lack of plausibility doesn’t mean something isn’t true, but it does make it extraordinary. The continued lack of good evidence for psychic powers, despite 125 years of looking, means that even more extraordinary evidence is now required to explain why the previous 125 years of looking were unsuccessful.

As I said earlier, the reasons given here for psychic powers being improbable are two:

1. We have no known way for psychic signals to be sent and received.

2. We have no good evidence for psychic powers after 125 years of looking.

Let’s look at these two reasons. The first is labeled “scientific plausibility.” This means that within the current scientific framework, we have no plausible way for psychic signals to be sent and received. This is supposed to render psychic powers improbable. They consequently become an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. In other words, based on what science currently knows about reality, it is improbable that reality works in such a way that includes psychic powers.

Yet surely, what science knows is incomplete. No one doubts that. We can, however, imagine this incompleteness along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, the incompleteness is fairly minimal. As a result, the basic orientation of current science, that matter and energy are all there is, holds true as science progresses. We just find out more about how matter and energy work, and finally learn all there is to learn. In this scenario, it is doubtful (in my mind) that psychic phenomena will ever find a place within the scientific framework. On the other end of the spectrum, the incompleteness of current scientific knowledge is far greater. In this scenario, as we learn more, the current basic orientation is overthrown, and we learn, scientifically, that there is more to reality than matter and energy. In this second scenario, there could easily be room for psychic phenomena.

In other words, if we imagine current science as a flashlight, lighting up its own bright circle in the night, the question is: How much night is outside the illumination of our flashlight? How much is there that’s still in the dark? A little or a lot? Isn’t this the epitome of an unknowable question? It amounts to: How much is there to what we can’t see? How can you answer a question like that? How can you assign probabilities to such a thing? To know how much there is of what you can’t see, you’d have to see it, wouldn’t you?

Thus, in my eyes, the idea that current scientific knowledge renders psychic powers improbable is a classic example of a currently unknowable probability. It is a radically different kind of improbability than that of a knowable improbability like Newt Gingrich switching to the Democratic party (an example I mentioned earlier). Just because science has no plausible mechanism for how psychic phenomena might work does not mean that such phenomena are improbable. They are only improbable if we can be sure that there aren’t many more mechanisms out there to discover. And how can we be sure of that?

I believe that this removes psychic phenomena from the first category above: that they are improbable because science has no known way for psychic signals to be sent and received. So what about the second category: that we have no good evidence for psychic powers after 125 years of looking?

This is simply false. I know I am stating that rather categorically, but it really is the case. To understand why I say that, you would really have to read the appropriate books on the topic. Along these lines, I strongly encourage anyone interested to consult the works of Dean Radin. If you do not want to read an entire book, check out this excellent YouTube presentation of his: “Science and the taboo of psi” In it he points out that the statistical significance of parapsychological studies would be enough if this were a standard field of science. He even quotes arch-skeptic Ray Hyman acknowledging as much.

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t conventional scientists acknowledging the findings of parapsychology? Why do informed people talk about “the continued lack of good evidence for psychic powers, despite 125 years of looking”? Listening to the skeptics, I can’t help but get the impression that what they are really talking about is “the lack of good evidence that rises to the needed level, given the inherent implausibility of psychic phenomena.” In other words, yes, there is seemingly good evidence, evidence that would be good enough if these studies were about any other scientific field. But this isn’t just any scientific field. This is one whose claims we know from the start are inherently improbable. And since no evidence rises to the needed level, since no evidence gets over the high bar we have set, there is no evidence.

In other words, the second reason for the improbability of psychic phenomena really reduces to the first. Thus, there are not two reasons for improbability, but only one. It all comes down to how inherently implausible the existence of psychic phenomena is. And we have seen that we do not have any real basis for claiming that psychic phenomena are implausible. That would be like saying “I know there isn’t very much of what I can’t currently see.” Or, “We know it’s unlikely that there are any game-changers out there waiting to be discovered.” We do say such things, all the time, of course. Yet how solid is our footing when we say them? I recall hearing that at the turn of the 20th century, the head of the US Patent Office suggested the office should be closed, as everything that could be invented clearly had been. He was saying, “We’re obviously complete here. Thus, the probability of anything truly new being invented is clearly very low.” Isn’t that the same kind of thinking we are dealing with here?

The scientific search is all about the search for what is real, for what is really out there. And that search requires caution, but it also requires openness. Yes, we need the caution of a principle such as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But we also need to administer such a principle cautiously. Specifically, we need to balance it with another principle of human psychology: Established views will always move to protect themselves, often against the truth. In my mind, both principles are crucial. One protects against rash and wild claims, which could reduce the scientific discipline to chaos. The other protects against a bigoted conservatism, always a strong tendency in the human mind.

To get back to my main point, if we remove this one prejudice, that what science cannot currently explain is thereby rendered improbable, we open everything up. This would change everything, and I mean everything. We could then use science as a tool to explore all those unexplored regions that have the possibility to tell us what life is all about. Such a liberated science, in my view, would literally transform human society.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Neil Steyskal | June 19, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Robert – Perhaps the “extraordinary claims” claim isn’t as reasonable as it first sounds. I just got a copy of T.C. Lethbridge’s “The Power of the Pendulum.” He states a principle that’s directly opposite:

    “A witness should be believed until he can be shown to be wrong. If a scientist can pick and choose what observations he will accept, it makes others wonder how much reliance they can put on reports of his personal findings. What has he left out because it did not fit in with some perconceived theory?” p. 18

  2. Neil Steyskal | June 30, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Robert – I just came across another useful quotation:

    “Science worships skepticism…unless skepticism is applied to science….” Jane Roberts, “The God of Jane” p. 129

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