It’s only Anecdotes!
When it comes to the proper assessment of evidence, it is as well to put forward a few principles and propositions. People who pride themselves on the scientific way of distinguishing between things that are real and things that are unsubstantiated (imaginary, invented, spurious) usually draw a firm line between facts that have been, and can be, demonstrated by experiment or predicted to happen in prescribed circumstances, and those that are merely the subject of “anecdote,” meaning eyewitness testimony describing a particular event, an event that cannot be repeated, any more than the coronation of Queen Victoria can be repeated. That was just something reported in historical records, i.e. sundry anecdotes. The lack of credibility attributed to anecdotes is contrasted with experiments in which those effects capable of repeated demonstration or subjected to a reliable routine and the results are published in refereed journals.
With regard to people not present at the experiment, all they have to go on is the anecdote published, and let us assume, for further comfort, it is in a refereed journal. Why in principle should we believe that anecdote more readily than the one about a key that attached itself to/from a split ring, even if the person reporting that is actually as much a scientist as the one reporting on the experiment? It may be argued that anyone doubting the reliability of a published report can carry out the same experiment for himself–that is, if he happens to have a Large Hadron Collider (or whatever) at his disposal and knows how to operate it. The fact is that people outside a scientific specialty are entirely dependent on the anecdotes reported by those within the specialty, and until they have reasons for suspicion, they usually accept them as essentially truthful.
It might be said that they have faith in their colleagues and other disciplines because the sort of people who publish refereed papers are totally credible and have no reason to improve on their “stories” in the way that must be irresistible to retailers of jottles (that is, witnesses to the sudden dematerialization of an object). Is that so? Do we expect to read in published reports about personality clashes that had a deleterious effect on the smooth running of the experiment, about things that went wrong building on reliable/unwelcome results, about technological breakdowns and other mishaps that would detract from the tidiness of the results if spelled out? We do not.
Mary Rose Barrington, JOTT: When Things Disappear…and come back or relocate…and why it really happens, pgs. 8-9
Hand-Wavery: Regarding the debunkers’ “there must be trickery involved in all ‘expert’-observed paranormal occurrences, despite there being no evidence that trickery is the case”:
Such a position (undetected trickery) is, in a sense, quite impregnable. But, paradoxically, it is its very impregnability which undermines it. One cannot deny that, logically speaking, undetected trickery, undetected natural causes, undetected malobservation and undetected lying may lie behind all reports of poltergeist phenomena. But to assume without supporting evidence, and despite numerous considerations (such as we have advanced above) to the contrary, that they do live behind them, is to insulate one’s beliefs in this sphere from all possibility of modification from the cold contact of chastening facts. It is to adopt the paranoid stance of the flat-earther or the religious fanatic, who can “explain away” all the awkward facts which threaten his system of delusions. At its worst, such a stance borders on insanity; at best it constitutes an unhealthy and unprofitable turning away from the realities of the world.
–Poltergeists, Alan Gauld and A.D. Cornell, pg. 262.
On the Arrogant Denial that Investigating the Paranormal can Ever be Scientific, and the Humility Required in the Endeavor to Investigate it:
To minds which can admit nothing but what can be explained and demonstrated, an investigation of this sort must appear perfectly idle: for while, on the one hand, the most acute intellect or the most powerful logic can throw a little light on the subject, it is, at the same time—though I have confident hope that this will not always be the case—equally irreducible within the present bounds of science; meanwhile, experience, observation, and intuition, must be our principal if not our only guides. Because, in the 17th century, credulity outran reason and discretion; the 18th century, by a natural reaction, threw itself into an opposite extreme. Whoever closely observes the signs of the times, will be aware that another change is approaching. The contemptuous skepticism of the last age is yielding to a more humble spirit of inquiry; and there is a large class of persons among the most enlightened of the present, who are beginning to believe that much of what they have been told to reject as fable, has been, in reality, ill-understood truth. Somewhat of the mystery of our own being, and of the mysteries that compass us about, or beginning to loom upon us—as yet, it is true, but obscurely; and, in the endeavor to follow out the clues they offer, we have but a feeble light to guide us. We must grope our way through the dim path before us, ever in danger of being let into error, while we may confidently reckon on being pursued by the shafts of ridicule—that weapon so easy to wield, so potent to the weak, so weak to the wise—which has delayed the births of so many truths, but never stifled one. The pharisaical skepticism which denies without investigation, is quite as perilous, and much more contemptible, than the brought blind credulity which accepts all that is taught without inquiry; it is, indeed, but another form of ignorance assuming to be knowledge. And by investigation, I do not mean the hasty, captious, angry notice of an unwelcome fact, that too frequently claims the right of pronouncing on a question; but the slow, modest, painstaking examination, that is content to wait upon Nature, and humbly follow out her disclosures, however opposed to preconceived theories or mortifying to human pride. If scientific men could but comprehend how they discredit the science they really profess, by their despotic arrogance and exclusive skepticism, they would surely, for the sake of the very science they love, affect more liberality and candor. This reflection, however, naturally suggests another, namely, do they really love science, or is it not too frequently with them but the means to an end? Were the love of science genuine, I suspect it would produce very different fruits to that which we see borne by the tree of knowledge, as it flourishes at present; and this suspicion is exceedingly strengthened by the recollection that, among the numerous students and professors of science I have at different times encountered, the real worshippers and genuine lovers of it, for its own sake, have all been men of the most singular, candid, unprejudiced, and inquiring minds, willing to listen to all new suggestions, and investigate all new facts; not bold and self-sufficient, but humble and reverent suitors, who aware of their own ignorance and unworthiness, and that conscious they are yet but in the primer of Nature’s works, they do not permit themselves to pronounce upon her disclosures, or set limits to her decrees. They are content to admit that things new and unsuspected may yet be true; that their own knowledge of facts being extremely circumscribed, the systems attempted to be established and such on certain data, must needs be very imperfect, and frequently altogether erroneous; and that it is therefore their duty, as it ought to be there pleasure, to welcome as a stranger every gleam of light that appears in the horizon, let it loom from whatever quarter it may.
— The NightSide of Nature, Catherine Crowe, 1848
No, Timmy, Extraordinary Claims Simply Require Ordinary, Scientifically-Sound Evidence:
The first of these distinctive fallacies has been neatly defined in the words “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.” There seems to be some question about who first formulated this adage but it appears frequently in the writings of the late debunker and CSICOP member Carl Sagan, and so it seems only reasonable to name it “Sagan’s fallacy.” Like most fallacies, it seems reasonable at first glance, but behind it lies a drastic distortion of logic. What this adage means is that evidence for one set of claims – “extraordinary claims” – ought to be judged by a different and more restrictive standard of evidence than other claims.
What makes a claim extraordinary, though? Jimmy Carter’s 1969 UFO sighting offers a good example. What we know about the sighting is that a small group of businessmen watched an unusual light in the sky for a few minutes. Robert Shaeffer’s claim that the witnesses saw the planet Venus, and somehow suffered a collective hallucination in which the planet seemed to turn red and approach within a few hundred yards of them, is surely just as extraordinary as the suggestion that the witnesses saw something strange in the sky, and reported it as they saw it. If the same group of men had sighted parhelia or ball lightning, say, Shaeffer would likely have excepted their testimony as a matter of course. The only thing that makes Carter’s sighting “extraordinary” is that believers in the null hypothesis (that no ETs exist) want to argue that it did not happen.
This point can be made more generally. The evidence that has been offered to date for the real existence of UFOs–not, please note, of alien spaceships, but simply of things seen in the skies that have not yet been adequately identified by witnesses or investigators, which again is what the term actually means–would have been accepted by most scientists if it involved anything within the currently accepted range of natural phenomena. Sagan’s fallacy attempts to justify this divergence, but in the process it violates several of the most basic rules of logic.
It’s one of the classic fallacies – the Latin name for it is petitio principii – to insist that the evidence for one side of an argument are to be judged by a different standard than the evidence for the other side of the same argument. It’s another classic fallacy – consensus gentium is the Latin term for this one – to insist that because a given community of people believes that something is true, it is true. Sagan’s fallacy combines these two in a triumph of circular reasoning. Once a claim has been labeled false by debunkers, the evidence that supports the claim is automatically considered less valid than the evidence that opposes it, because the standards of proof that apply to all other claims–and, in particular, to the claims of debunkers—no longer apply to it. Since UFOs don’t exist, in other words, any evidence offered to prove their existence must be invalid, and the lack of valid evidence shows that UFOs don’t exist.
–John Michael Greer, The UFO Phenomenon, pgs. 120-121
Parapsychologists really want to play the game by the proper statistical rules. They’re very staid. They thought they could convince these skeptics but the sceptics keep raising the goalposts. It’s ironic, because real psychic researchers are very committed to doing real science, more than a lot of people in science are. Yet they get rejected, while we can be slipshod in psychology and sociology and economics and get away with it. We’re not painted as the witchdoctors, but they are.
-Marcello Truzzi, professor of sociology
The Fallacy of Science as a Self-Interested Institution that, Nevertheless, by Definition, is Immune from Social Factors:
The institutional approach may be useful to historians of science, as it allows them to accept the various definitions of fields used by the scientists they study. But some philosophers go so far as to use “institutional factors” as the criteria of good science. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett, for instance, say that they “demarcate good science—around lines which are inevitably fuzzy near the boundary—by reference to institutional factors, not to directly epistemological ones.” By this criterion, we would differentiate good science from bad science simply by asking which proposals agencies like the National Science Foundation deem worthy of funding, or which papers peer-review committees deem worthy of publication.
The problems with this definition of science are myriad. First, it is essentially circular: science simply is what scientists do. Second, the high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals…
The fundamental problem raised by the identification of “good science” with “institutional science” is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett explicitly state that most human institutions, including “governments, political parties, churches, firms, NGOs, ethnic associations, families…are hardly epistemically reliable at all.” However, “our grounding assumption is that the specific institutional processes of science have inductively established peculiar epistemic reliability.” This assumption is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself.
It is something approaching this adulation that seems to underlie the abdication of the philosophers and the rise of the scientists as the authorities of our age on all intellectual questions. Reading the work of Quine, Rudolf Carnap, and other philosophers of the positivist tradition, as well as their more recent successors, one is struck by the aura of hero-worship accorded to science and scientists. In spite of their idealization of science, the philosophers of this school show surprisingly little interest in science itself—that is, in the results of scientific inquiry and their potential philosophical implications. As a biologist, I must admit to finding Quine’s constant invocation of “nerve-endings” as an all-purpose explanation of human behavior to be embarrassingly simplistic. Especially given Quine’s intellectual commitment to behaviorism, it is surprising yet characteristic that he had little apparent interest in the actual mechanisms by which the nervous system functions.
Ross, Ladyman, and Spurrett may be right to assume that science possesses a “peculiar epistemic reliability” that is lacking in other forms of inquiry. But they have taken the strange step of identifying that reliability with the institutions and practitioners of science, rather than with any particular rational, empirical, or methodological criterion that scientists are bound (but often fail) to uphold. Thus a (largely justifiable) admiration for the work of scientists has led to a peculiar, unjustified role for scientists themselves—so that, increasingly, what is believed by scientists and the public to be “scientific” is simply any claim that is upheld by many scientists, or that is based on language and ideas that sound sufficiently similar to scientific theories.
—Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism”
The occult provokes uneasiness. That it did so in someone as insightful and influential as Freud emphasizes the importance of the problem, even if it was unresolved. His attempted resolution led to errors and excesses. Freud and his followers readily embraced a shoddy myth of origins rather than fully address the sacred. In his own way, Freud signaled the danger of the sacred; he established a taboo. The potential ridicule and derision of being labeled neurotic or infantile is still sufficient to keep rational, academic, status-conscious scholars from approaching the supernatural too seriously.
-George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal, pg. 353 (emphasis added)
Regarding Those Dumb, Dead Scientists of Centuries Past:
Ptolemy and Aristotle were no less scientific than today’s scientists. They were just unlucky in that several false hypotheses conspired to work well together. There is no antidote for our ability to fool ourselves except to keep the process of science moving so that errors are eventually forced into the light.
-Lee Smolin, Time Reborn
The Sausage-Making of Science:
Most cognitive scientists have a relatively narrow field of expertise. With the hundreds of clinics churning out new information, keeping up-to-date is a monumental task. For basic scientists to also be well-informed in psychology is impossible. Not having the time, and often lacking the background, training, or interest, they must, to explain their findings, rely on popular psychological theories if they are often inadequate to judge. Experimental psychology is a field onto itself. The use of studies is necessary in order to achieve even a superficial understanding of the innumerable pitfalls of experimental design and interpretation.
Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers increasingly incorporate summary conclusions (which in all probability have not been independently verified) from neuroscience to support their ideas, but without having the training to recognize inherent limitations of basic science methods and interpretations. The cycle is never ending. New psychological theories become the neuroscientists’ language for translation of their own basic science data, which in turn are cited by the psychologist as evidence for their theories. Once an idea gets a foothold in the collective mind of the cognitive science community, it develops a life of its own, irrespective of its underlying validity. Unsubstantiated word-of-mouth morphs into hard fact.
-Dr. Robert Burton, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot tell us about Ourselves
One reason that the full force of (sociologist Max) Weber’s ideas has not been recognized is that they ultimately implicate the limits of rationality–the very foundations of western thought. Science ignores those limits, and it is at those times that the supernatural erupts. But it is not only the supernatural that is of interest, the problem of meaning, the idea of objective reality, and the validity of logic are all directly related to rationalization and to each other. These matters are entirely ignored within science, but they are at center stage in the humanities–particularly in postmodernism and deconstructionism. When these ideas are raised in regard to science, scientists become anxious, panic, viciously lash out, and display an unconsciousness of the fundamental issues.
-George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal, pg. 108
Replication of scientific experiments is one of the thorny problems tackled by SSK. It is a foundational issue of science. Most scientists accept the simple idea that valid experiments must be repeatable by others. But when the matter is closely examined, all sorts of complexities arise. What is replication? Who determines whether it is accomplished? How is it described? In controversial areas, simply doing more experiments doesn’t resolve issues about putative effects; there are continuing arguments about what is required for a satisfactory experiment. Slight changes in conditions may have important consequences, and those can be debated endlessly. Conducting more experiments can lead to what has been termed the “experimenter’s regress.” Do objective observations establish fact, or is it only social agreement? Further, written reports are not always sufficient to explain an experiment’s procedure. Sometimes direct personal training is required to teach the skill and convey the necessary information for successful replication. Abstract text is inadequate. SSK raises all these issues, and in a subtle but profound way it strikes a blow against the foundational myth that science is a fully objective process.
-George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal, pg. 286
Admittedly, among Western intellectuals today, materialism is the default philosophical position, one often unthinkingly assumed to be self-evident–but that doesn’t make it true. It simply means that materialism, at this period in history, is more popular than dualism. To this a materialist might say, “The popularity of materialism is no fluke. It’s based on the tremendous success of materialist scientific inquiry over the past few centuries.” But here we encounter a very common intellectual confusion.
The term materialism can be used in more than one sense. There’s philosophical materialism, as described above, and there is also what can be called technical materialism, which is a tool or method of inquiry. Technical materialism makes no assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality. It simply posits that a physical, non-supernatural explanation should be sought first for any phenomenon. For instance, rather than assuming that thunder and lightning are produced by angry gods, a scientist following the rule of technical materialism will discover that the phenomena are caused by electrical discharges. Or again, rather than assuming that diseases are caused by malevolent spirits, a scientist following the rule of technical materialism will discover that microorganisms are responsible.
Technical materialism has been an enormously fruitful method for exploring the physical world. We moderns enjoy a fuller understanding of physical phenomena, and have been gifted with longer lifespans, greater comfort, and more affluence, than any previous generations. But our modern lifestyle is not owed to philosophical materialism, but to technical materialism, two things that are by no means the same. (In fact, it could be argued that much of the downside of modern life — the angst and anomie that characterize many developed societies — is attributable to philosophical materialism, with its rejection of spiritual values and its embrace of an uncaring, meaningless cosmos.)
-Michael Prescott, blog entry
We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists . . . who often confuse their religion with their science.
-John C. Eccles, neurobiologist.
An example of self-referential absurdity is a theory called evolutionary epistemology, a naturalistic approach that applies evolution to the process of knowing. The theory proposes that the human mind is a product of natural selection. The implication is that the ideas in our minds were selected for their survival value, not for their truth-value.
But what if we apply that theory to itself? Then it, too, was selected for survival, not truth—which discredits its own claim to truth. Evolutionary epistemology commits suicide.
To make the dilemma even more puzzling, evolutionists tell us that natural selection has produced all sorts of false concepts in the human mind. Many evolutionary materialists maintain that free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, even our sense of self is an illusion—and that all these false ideas were selected for their survival value.
So how can we know whether the theory of evolution itself is one of those false ideas? The theory undercuts itself….
Applied consistently, Darwinism undercuts not only itself but also the entire scientific enterprise. Kenan Malik, a writer trained in neurobiology, writes, “If our cognitive capacities were simply evolved dispositions, there would be no way of knowing which of these capacities lead to true beliefs and which to false ones.” Thus “to view humans as little more than sophisticated animals …undermines confidence in the scientific method…”
The reason so few atheists and materialists seem to recognize the problem is that, like Darwin, they apply their skepticism selectively. They apply it to undercut only ideas they reject, especially ideas about God. They make a tacit exception for their own worldview commitments.
–Nancy Pearcey, Why Evolutionary Theory Cannot Survive Itself
I spent 14 years chasing gamma rays and neutrons in industry…I’ve never seen a neutron or gamma ray. I’ve never seen Australia, but it’s there.
—Stanton Friedman, physicist and ufologist