Another old piece from RichardDawkins.net, but an important one I think! For DCG… “The Professor” is a reference to Richard Dawkins, and this was another piece from the week before The Enemies of Reason show…
Now many of you know that I am twice damned as far as the Prof is concerned, for not only am I a dodgy Christian, I’m also by profession a dodgy ghosthunter. Yep, if you did not know, you read that right… It’s an odd mix I suppose. Most Christians don’t seem overly keen on running ESP tests, or researching poltergeist cases or whatever, but I’m really quite comfortable with it. Long term readers of this forum are painfully aware of how passionately I defend proper academic parapsychology against its critics, while remaining a skeptic and supporter of Randi and the JREF. Anyway, I can’t see Prof Dawkins taking kindly to my chosen path. I guess this series of essays may be nothing more than an attempt on my part to justify my own position: I don’t like the idea of being dubbed an ‘enemy of reason’ much!
OK, so tonight I’m going to talk about my problem with the paranormal. And here we have a problem straight away – what is the Paranormal? The term is used so loosely as to be almost meaningless. I tend to make a distinction between the supernatural – things above or beyond the universe and nature, and so presumably if they exist outside the scope of the naturalistic inquiry of science, or at least unfalsifiable – and the paranormal, which I would argue is simply a term used for those phenomena lacking any currently agreed hypothesis or theory as to their cause but which may one day be included in the scope of science, because they are part of currently undiscovered natural laws, or we understand the principles which govern them, but so far have failed to apply them correctly. So those laws may well include misperception, wishful thinking, or all kinds of naturalistic explanations. I think this is roughly what Professor Dawkins means when he refers to perinormal phenomena.
This is where Prof Dawkins and I are in some agreement. I personally think many “paranormal/perinormal” phenomena will eventually become part of our knowledge as science advances. Why?
Well when I was a kid, Arthur C Clarke had a TV show called Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World . It was actually probably rather good, and had a slightly sceptical edge, but I was never a fan as such things did not interest me – I thought what I know know to be Forteana, Cryptozoology, Parapsychology etc etc were utter bilge. Still I recall the episode when Giant Squid were discussed, and we were told there was some evidence in terms of sucker marks on whales. Yet Giant Squid back then were thoroughly “paranormal”.
That was what, thirty years ago? Nowadays Giant Squid are perfectly respectable, though i still would not take one home to meet mummy and daddy, well not unless you really don’t like mummy and daddy! And the same with high altitude blue streaks, ball lightning, and a few other phenomena which in the 70’s were considered paranormal, but now have made the jump over to scientific acceptance, if not yet full explanation.
Others, like the legendary Sasquatch and Nessie are not looking so good after thirty years of research, and may well end up finally be accepted as myths. UFOs, well after Cartman got his anal probe and the bizarre excitement of the 90’s Abduction craze, nuts and bolts ufology is well in decline, and Wicca and the Occult has suffered from over exposure and the harsh light of day – never a happy fate for a mystery religion. It end up less The Devil Rides Out and more Sabrina the Teenage Goth Wannabe Witch. 😦 Still my point is simple – some “paranormal” phenomena make it as science includes them, usually without any radical new breakthroughs or changes in our understanding of the laws of nature, others just fade away as they are explained as mistakes or fail to stand up to scrutiny at all, and swim away like Nessie seems to have done. The thing is to keep an open mind without your brains falling out. 🙂
Anyway, so far hopefully so good. The problem I have with the paranormal is not people being interested in it — even Most Haunted had the advantage of creating a generation of new skeptics and hard core researchers, so I’m not entirely unhappy with it (and won’t decry my short association with the show – they paid me well, and I enjoyed the work) — but the fact that I don’t really know if the Paranormal works at all.
Let’s starts with a list of “paranormal” claims —
- ESP, Ghosts, UFOs, Zombies, Ball Lightning, Nessie, surviving Thylacines, Mediumship, Spoon Bending, Dowsing, Crystal Power, Atlantis, Witchcraft, Astrology, Poltergeists, Curses, Synchronicity, Astral Projection, Vampires, Werewolves, Psychic Pets, Auras, The Bermuda Triangle, etc, etc…
Now that’s a pretty outrageous list, and I would not necessarily advocate the reality of any of those. However, what if say Poltergeists were real? The very fact they have been placed in this category makes them immediately suspect, and makes any decent scientist worth his salt (so not me) ignore them utterly. Guilt by association. And you know what? You try and do some research in to a poltergeist case, and suddenly people all link you with Auras, Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle – you are a nut. Why – because you study the paranormal! Yet my question — what do any of these things actually have in common?
What does Spoonbending tell us about Atlantis? How are Psychic Pets linked with Werewolves? (Er, don’t answer that actually – I don’t want to know!) This whole paranormal category si just a vast dumping ground for subjects we think lack credibility – and in many of the above examples, probably quite justifiably! However paranormal is just a term of abuse – it tells us nothing about the phenomena except they are not respectable. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena and anomalies out there which are taken seriously – its research on these anomalies, on the niggling problems with our best scientific models which leads to revisions and to the models improving, and hence scientific progress after all. Yet “paranormal” as a term? It’s meaningless.I’m even wary about “parapsychology”. It’s too close for comfort to the despised term.
I’ve just realized I’m in danger of rehashing an article I write in 1996, when Prof Dawkins last publicly spoke on these things, decrying the X Files as it happens. (Amusingly he admitted in The Times interview earlier this week he never actually watched the show!!?) Still back then I wrote a little piece, which I may well repost next in my ongoing collection of CJ musings…