May 15 2007

Skeptics, Paranormal Researchers, and the Shyness Effect

This past Saturday, May 12th, I was interviewed on the Beyond Reality radio show on the topic of demonic possession. The show is broadcast live from Rhode Island (WPRO 630 AM), streamed over the internet, and you can listen to the recording here. Jason and Grant, from SciFi Channel’s Ghost Hunters, host the show.

I must say, it was an enjoyable interview. Heir to the Warren’s ghost hunting legacy, John Zaffis, was also on the show, although we were interviewed separately and I never had an opportunity to debate him. Jason and Grant were very personable and respectful throughout the interview, although we disagreed on some key issues.

Skeptics and Paranormal Researchers

Jason and Grant took a similar attitude to Alex from Skeptiko, namely that skeptics need to be more open minded about the paranormal and more respectful toward the evidence and experience being offered by serious paranormal researchers. I think this attitude comes from a misunderstanding of what skepticism is really about – although to their credit Jason and Grant allowed me to explain the skeptical position.

Skepticism is not a set of beliefs but rather is a set of methods (scientific methods) for investigating and thinking about reality. It is open-minded in the sense that it professes to fairly apply these methods to all claims. Part of the scientific method, however, is to consider the plausibility of claims based upon what is already well established scientifically. Basically, a good scientist doesn’t just make stuff up as they go along – they plan the next experiment or observation as an extension of what has come before.

The conflict with the pro-paranormal crowd comes when this method is applied to paranormal claims – which typically do not hold up well in terms of scientific plausibility. Annoyed by this, the pro-paranormalists dismiss arguments from prior plausibility as being “closed minded.”

I define closed-minded very differently – to me this is the vice of maintaining a belief (whether in the affirmative or negative) despite logic and evidence to the contrary. By this definition, believing in ESP despite 100 years of failed research, for example, is rather closed-minded.

What I told Jason and Grant during the interview is that skeptics are open to the evidence. If proponents of any paranormal belief want to close the gap between believers and skeptics, it is largely they who have to move – by improving the quality of their logic and science. I also pointed out that skeptics can be the best friends of paranormal investigators – depending on the latter’s goals. If the goal is to convince the broader scientific community that a particular paranormal phenomenon is scientifically valid and probably true, then the only path to that acceptance is through the skeptics.

I know that Alex from Skeptiko hates this notion – that skeptics are the self-appointed gatekeepers of what is scientific, but he misses the point. Practicing skeptics (many of whom are trained scientists) are just taking what is standard practice within the halls of mainstream science and applying that standard to controversial or paranormal claims. So convincing skeptics is the same thing as convincing a skeptical scientific community. The only real difference is that skeptics are giving the paranormalists attention (primarily because they command public attention), while the mainstream community won’t give them the time of day.

Further, science is, by its very nature, a process of criticism. The self-corrective nature of science is largely a result of peer-review (which in practice means harsh criticism from peers), and from the vigorous attempts by the scientific community to disprove and tear down any theory. To use a tired but very apt metaphor, scientific theories are forged on the anvil of skeptical analysis, pounded by the hammer of unrelenting criticism. Therefore, if “serious” paranormal researchers were truly serious they would welcome skeptical attention as essential to the scientific process and improving their theories. Some do profess to accept this, but in my experience they tend to flinch in the face of that skeptical analysis.

Jason and Grant seem open to skepticism in principle and they did invite me on their show to genuinely present the skeptical point of view (not as mere token skepticism, as is often the case). But clearly they also have a lot to learn, as my point demonstrates.

The Shyness Effect

At one point during the interview, in response to my comment that there is no compelling objective evidence for genuine demonic possession, Grant commented that in their experience, and to their great frustration, just when interesting things start to happen in an investigation the camera equipment has a nasty habit of failing. The implication is that the demons or ghosts sabotage the equipment to prevent the very evidence that would prove their existence. Therefore, our only option is to rely on subjective (anecdotal) experience.

To experienced skeptics, this is a common claim frequently encountered. The basic logic is that the phenomenon in question has certain features that make it impossible to document objectively. This logic is not unique to ghost hunting, or even the paranormal. It crops up in almost all of alternative medicine, whose proponents claim does not work in the rigid setting of a double-blind placebo controlled trial. We hear it from cryptozoologists who simply ascribe to the creature in question whatever characteristics would explain away the absence of evidence – Nessie hides in the depths, the chupacabra is stealthy, and Bigfoot has been granted numerous qualities, from being camera-shy to the ability to become invisible or even travel through other dimensions. Whatever it takes.

UFO believers also have their own set of special pleadings, which together amount to granting the aliens the desire and ability to manifest themselves just enough to tease humanity with the possibility of their existence, but never enough to provide objective evidence.

ESP believers have even gone the extra step of arguing that this “shyness effect” (a term coined to refer to this particular bit of special pleading) is not just a property of ESP, but of skeptics. The very presence of skeptics inhibits ESP from functioning – as if it can sense the dark side of the force emanating all around us.

The problem with the logic of the shyness effect should be obvious when viewed in the context of its many applications – you can invoke this as needed to explain away the lack of evidence for any claim. Because it can be invoked for everything, it has no predictive or discriminating value – which means it is worthless scientifically. In other words, because someone can invent a reason to explain away the lack of evidence for a claim does not in any way rescue the claim from this lack of evidence.

But of course it is probably true that some phenomena have features that render them invisible to certain types of observation and this does not mean that the phenomena are not real. Believers often point this out, but they make the mistake of stopping at this point and not thinking through the implications. After invoking a possible explanation for the lack of a particular kind of evidence, what a good skeptical scientist should ask themselves is, “How do I know I am not just invoking special pleadings – how do I know my phenomenon is actually real?” That’s a critical step, often neglected.

First, the explanation for the lack of evidence should be both plausible and derived from established facts – not plucked out of the air. This just gives the explanation plausibility, you still have to then prove it, and this can only be done by finding an alternate line of evidence to prove the existence of the phenomenon. You have to send subs to find Nessie’s hiding spot, you have to capture a Bigfoot before he teleports away, you need to find a recording device that will not malfunction in the presence of ghosts.

What often happens next is that new special reasons are given to explain why each independent line of investigation failed to obtain objective evidence. This leads us to Sagan’s invisible floating dragon and the need for the judicious application of Ockam’s razor.

As a final rallying point paranormal believers often argue – what if a paranormal phenomenon exists but cannot, by its very nature, be demonstrated using scientific methods. Science is therefore not up to the task of proving the phenomenon is true, so we are therefore justified in using other methods. The problem with this logic is that it assume that we as humans must have access to the absolute Truth. If a method cannot find the Truth, then the method is lacking. This is an argument from final consequences – we should be able to know the Truth, therefore we can.

There is another logical contradiction in this position. Science is really nothing more than a set of methods for knowing whatever we can know about the universe. (Meaning objective knowledge, not our subjective feelings and opinions.) If something cannot be known by science, by logic and evidence, then it cannot be known. There may be things about the universe that we cannot know, and we have to be content with that fact. Simply pretending to know about such things is not a solution, it’s faith masquerading as science.

So rendering a claim unfalsifiable by coming up with special reasons to explain the lack of evidence does not make the claim scientific, it catapults it from the realm of science. What believers are really saying when they argue for some variation of the shyness effect is that the phenomenon cannot be known.

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