Three Arguments for Skeptics

Over on his Ann Arbor Science and Skeptics, my friend Chris Lindsay posses three questions about skepticism and the paranormal. He challenges his readers to come up with good answers to them. As one who’s never shied from debating with Chris before, I’d like to say “Challenge accepted.”

1) There are phenomena that occur of which scientists can’t explain. Skeptics reply that just because something is not explained, doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable. So I asserted that this skeptic argument is fallacious. Specifically, it is the Argument to the Future fallacy – which states that this skeptic’s response is valid because a natural explanation will eventually be known. But isn’t this reasoning often made by charlatans and quacks who are trying to sell a service or product to the public that does not have scientific or empirical support. Are skeptics making the same, flawed, argument?

Skeptics are not using the future to support our position; we are using the past. There has never been any situation where paranormal claims have turned out to be something outside the realm of science. To steal Tim Minchin’s words: “throughout history, every mystery ever solved, has turned out to be – Not Magic!” Every single ghost who haunted an amusement park was actual the janitor in a mask. In fact, it is often the paranormal who appeal to the Argument to the Future, claiming future tech will be able to sufficiently explain the phenomena that they “feel.”

Related to this, the skeptic does not have to defend a position of non-existence. It is up those making paranormal claims to provide solid, repeatable evidence and the appropriate mechanism to explain how the evidence comes to be. Nothing exists until proven to exist.

2) Science is provisional. It updates its theories based on new evidence. And skeptics adopt a similar stance – accepting claims when new evidence arrives to support them. However, when believers of supernaturalism offer evidence, the skeptic will reject it for either being lousy evidence (which is appropriate) or flimsy evidence (which may not be appropriate). That is, if a skeptic can’t refute the evidence, it’s still not sufficient for them to accept a claim. Why can’t skeptics accept it provisionally?  This is a double-standard, holding supernatural phenomena to a higher standard than natural phenomena, of which some of it – has shown to be ever-changing (i.e health/nutrition claims, for example).

If the evidence is bad, that evidence should be rejected, in all cases. If the theory does not support the evidence, it too should be rejected in all cases. This is the basis of science and skepticism. The subject matter, be it natural or supernatural, does not matter.

Is it possible that we will eventually find evidence and a mechanism for ghosts? Of course. But no one has proposed any such theory that does not also suggest a great re-working of our understanding of the physical universe. Much like homeopathy, the paranormal make claims above and beyond anything the evidence supports. Science will change when it is forced too, not because someone wishes it to do so.

3) As scientific research of neurophysiology continues to show the many ways in which cognitive processes of the human brain can be fallible (for example, the tricks on our senses, such as hallucinations and hypnogogia) skeptics now have an “out” – a default explanation – for explaining observed supernatural phenomena. “It’s a brain quirk.” This sweeps claims of supernatural phenomena that may blip into the range of our sensory perceptions under the rug.

Given all the possible explanations for a phenomenon, it is logical to select the one that has supportive evidence and a known mechanism. In any given situation, it is always best to start with known solutions and eliminate those before moving onto new ones. If you drop a ball and it falls toward the earth, you first assume this is because of gravity. Only after you eliminate the possibility of gravity would you consider the thought that a ghost is pulling it to the ground. The entirety of science knowledge exists as a tool to get answers quickly and prevent re-inventing the wheel. Starting from scratch every time with new theories isn’t productive. If a known explanation fits the evidence, the burden rests on those claiming it is not the known explanation.

As a whole, I am opened minded to the possibility that there are new and exciting things to be found by science. Our search for Higgs boson particle is one such item. We do not know for certain it exists, but all the evidence of particle physics says that it does. If it does not, we need to rethink some fundamental things. Science does not shy away from this possibility; the Large Hadron Collider was built in an effort to prove one way or another. These experiments are being done in a documented, testable, and repeatable fashion. This methodology is the crux of science, and something that is far too often lacking in those making paranormal claims.

-That is all.

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