Astrology and telepathy, UFO’s and alien abductions, psychics and prophecies, ‘Bigfoot’ and the Loch Ness monster, ghosts and hauntings, the Bermuda triangle, crop circles, fire-walking, spoon bending… and that’s just a few!

What are we to make of all these mysterious things? How much of it can we believe? What would a scientist make of it? How much is based upon reliable evidence, and how much upon our burning desire to believe in the supernatural or the unorthodox? How big a part does trickery and the simple hoax play?

An insatiable thirst
Our interest in the paranormal is almost insatiable. The popularity of TV programmes and newspaper stories dealing with paranormal issues bears witness to this. Astrology books outsell astronomy books, and even some of the ‘serious’ newspapers contain horoscopes suggesting that heavenly bodies thousands of billions of miles away can influence our lives on earth. The psychic Uri Geller claims to have stopped Big Ben by will power and is taken seriously. Not always are attempts made to provide ‘natural’ or scientific explanations for strange and mysterious events.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof
Although an open mind is always necessary, paranormal claims should be carefully examined and not just taken on trust.

As one scientist said: "Our minds should be open, but not so open that our brains fall out!"

All claims should be carefully considered for that matter, including the ones made in this book. But, as scientists have pointed out, extraordinary claims should require extraordinary proof.

CRITICAL THINKING AND THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

"What is wanted is not the will to believe but a wish to find out, which is the exact opposite"


Bertrand Russell

(English philosopher)

Why do these beliefs abound, when the wonders and the fascination of science are so much greater?


The following are a few of
the possible reasons:

 
‘Why now? At a time when science is transforming the world, daily finding cures for diseases that have tormented our species for all of history, finding ways to peer into the farthest reaches of the universe and putting all this knowledge at the fingertips of ordinary people, why is so much unscientific non-sense embraced by so many people?’ (Robert Park, Professor of Physics, University of Maryland)
Entertainment - It’s entertaining and interesting and sometimes comforting. There’s nothing like a good mystery, and the stranger the better.
 
     

Psychological Processes - Psychological processes such as illusion, hallucination, false memory, proneness to fantasy etc. are fairly common; it is easy to see and believe things which are not real even when we are aware of these psychological processes. Consider the following familiar optical illusions:

 

Can you ‘see’ a triangle?

 

Which middle ball is ‘bigger?’

 
   
 

Look closely at this impression in clay of an Einstein toy. We interpret the cues wrongly as showing a face as we expect to see it, with nose sticking outwards and not inwards.
 
When the brain constructs what we see

You are probably familiar with a variety of optical illusions. The point about these is that they show that we can’t always believe our eyes. What we see is not always an accurate representation of what is out there. We may see what we are expecting to see or what we want to see. ‘Seeing’ is therefore sometimes a question of our brains constructing what we see, sometimes from scanty evidence or unfamiliar evidence.

Sometimes we construct what we see from no evidence at all! Thus if we’ve been thinking and reading and talking about UFOs and aliens morning, noon and night, we’re more likely to see alien faces in the cloud patterns, and on occasion even to see a whole alien standing by the bedroom door!

The neural (nerve) pathways in or around the temporal lobes in the brain appear to become ‘primed’ under certain circumstances. So if we are obsessed with something, or grief stricken, or emotionally vulnerable in some other way, or under the influence of certain drugs, or half-asleep, or in some other altered state of consciousness, then our brain is capable of playing some funny tricks on us.

 
The Mass Media - The mass media must share some of the responsibility. TV, radio, newspapers and magazines are all good at exploiting our gullibility and love of mystery. They may say in their defence that they are only giving us what we want. However, it is one thing to feed our natural yearning for mystery, and quite another to do so in an unquestioning way and without any attempt to provide possible rational explanations. Supernatural explanations are usually simpler and more intriguing, and above all sell more copies!  
Could this explain at least some of the reported ghost sightings and other paranormal experiences?
     
Unfamiliarity with scientific or ‘critical’ thinking
(Scientific method)

Accepting anecdotal evidence as proof: (anecdote: a personal or private story) - the problem with anecdotes is that there may have been exaggeration, delusion or deception. We just don’t know, unless it happened to us or to someone whose reliability is beyond question. They may be honest but are they reliable? In addition there are many people in the world who love to carry out simple hoaxes, as we shall see, and then enjoy watching the media and the public take it all in.

 
Confusing a correlation with a causal link - an extremely common mistake: let’s say a correlation (or a link) is found between people who jog and people who are very fit and healthy. Does this mean that jogging causes good health - i.e. is it a causal link? Although it may be a causal link, we cannot assume so. The one does not necessarily cause the other. Perhaps people who jog are more likely to be fitter to start with. They may be more likely to take an interest in health issues and to eat more nutritious food, and perhaps it is this and not the jogging which causes them to be healthier. (Also, perhaps people who are not fit simply do not enjoy jogging!). To find out if there is a causal link, we would need a properly controlled study or experiment with participants randomly assigned to jogging and non-jogging groups.  
Not understanding the laws of chance and probability: e.g. if a psychic makes 10 predictions about us and 3 come true, this might be what we could expect from the laws of chance, especially if they are vaguely worded and could apply to most people. (See sections on astrology and psychic predictions).  
Resorting to a paranormal explanation when a more likely and mundane explanation may be available. (See sections on fairies, crop circles, fire-walking and others; see also Occam’s Razor.).  
Treating your ideas like Procrustes’ victims (or making the facts fit the theory): e.g. you believe that very advanced extra-terrestrials visited earth thousands of years ago, so you manage to find runways where their spaceships landed, coded messages in ancient writings, ancient legends of strange visitors and so on. You see patterns where none may exist, and of course you ignore the facts which don’t fit.

Procrustes in Greek legend was a robber who put his captives into an iron bed. If they were too long he cut them down to size, and if they were too short he stretched them to fit the bed! ‘Procrustian’ is the adjective which describes this way of operating.

 

Unfamiliarity with sample selection, use of control groups, “experimenter bias”, conflict of interest, and other aspects of scientific method and experimental design.    
To give one example of the damage which can be done  
In 1998 a paper was published in which a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, claimed he had evidence that the MMR vaccine (an immunisation against measles, mumps and rubella) could cause autism spectrum disorders. This triggered a health scare among parents. Vaccination rates in the UK and Ireland dropped sharply, and the incidence of measles and mumps and resulting deaths shot up. Investigations into the scare found that Wakefield’s samples were too small and badly selected, that he had “tweaked” the evidence and that he had a conflict of interest.
  • Samples of the study too small - not representative of the wider population (see sampling in glossary)
  • Experimenter bias and making the evidence fit the theory (i.e. manipulating the results)
  • Conflict of interest (see glossary) - Wakefield stood to make money from a business venture which depended upon his findings being correct
 
     
Dislike and suspicion of sceptical, ‘down-to-earth’ scientists. Many believe that the earthy, hard-boiled, sceptical scientists cannot provide adequate explanations for strange events; and that they prevent progress by pouring cold water on what may turn out to be a great discovery or achievement.

‘Einstein’s theories, radio, the telephone, flying machines... many great advances in our knowledge were made in the face of a sceptical scientific world. Lucky for science that those sceptics lost out!’

‘And what about Galileo? He turned out to be right, so we must give the mavericks a chance. Only dead salmon swim with the tide!’

There is some truth in this. Excessive scepticism certainly slows down progress. A healthy scepticism, however, simply requires evidence, and evidence which can stand the test of scrutiny by others.

This usually means it should be possible to repeat the experiment with the same results, not just once but many times. Remember also that for every Galileo there are a hundred crackpots who end up in a blind alley, and we do not remember their names. Galileo at least carried out rigorous scientific experiments which could be reproduced. He was silenced because his findings contradicted church doctrine. Swimming against the current doesn’t necessarily make you right.

   
If the authors had been around when Mr. Marconi claimed he could send an invisible radio message through the air to arrive instantly at its destination 3.000 miles away, we would have been highly sceptical. But we hope we would have been first in the queue on 18th January, 1903, to witness Marconi’s public demonstration of the amazing discovery. We would then no doubt have suspected a conjuring trick. (Many an incredible trick appears to defy the laws of nature.) But, upon reading later that others had reproduced the same results under controlled (‘experimental’) conditions, we would have finally accepted its validity (pretending, of course, that we had never doubted it for a minute!)  
Marconi’s message to King Edward VII, which he sent on behalf of the American President, Theodore Roosevelt:
His Majesty King Edward VII London, Eng.

In taking advantage of this wonderful triumph of scientific research and ingenuity, which has been achieved in perfecting a system of wireless telegraphy, I extend on behalf of the American people most cordial greetings and good wishes to all the people of the British Empire.


Theodore Roosevelt


Marconi with his
wireless transmitter
     
‘Many scientists, in claiming to have all the answers, are guilty of arrogance, even though there are many unsolved mysteries of the universe’. There are indeed some arrogant scientists who ‘know it all’. But no good scientist would claim to have all the answers. He or she may argue, however, that just because we cannot solve something now, doesn’t necessarily mean that we never will; and that if we cannot understand certain mysteries of the universe, it doesn’t mean we should plunge headlong into mysticism and the supernatural. How can we be both sceptical and open-minded at the same time? The dilemma was summed up by the late Carl Sagan (himself a well-known scientist): ‘It seems to me what is called for is a ... balance between two conflicting needs: the most sceptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only sceptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) On the other hand if you are open to the point of gullibility, and have not an ounce of sceptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.’ (1)
 
Science can be hard - It can take time and effort to get to grips with the more complex scientific ideas. It’s much easier to dismiss science in favour of something that requires little thought.
 
PSEUDO-SCIENCE
Although we have already encountered some of the characteristics of pseudo-science, a clear understanding of how it contrasts with real science is important.
A pseudo-science is a set of ideas or body of ‘knowledge’ which masquerades as science. It typically uses the language of science and claims to be based on evidence, but the research has not been carried out in accordance with scientific principles and methods.
   


Pseudo-science

 

Science

More likely to make use of subjective and anecdotal evidence, which cannot be checked. Based on evidence which is collected in a controlled and objective way, and which can be checked.
Only evidence which supports their theories are taken into account by pseudo-scientists. Contradictory evidence ignored.   All evidence taken into account; evidence which contradicts is considered to be extremely important.
Theories are rarely changed, no matter how much negative evidence is produced. The original idea is very rarely abandoned. Theories and hypotheses are modified or rejected if results are negative, or cannot be reproduced by other researchers.
If experiments are carried out at all, it is not considered important that they should be repeatable.   Experiments designed in such a way that they can be repeated by others.
Does not bother with ‘double blindcontrol groups   Uses ‘double blind’ control groups where appropriate (e.g. when studying the effects of a particular medicine on a group of people.)
Misuses the language of science. (e.g. use of the word ‘energy’ in alternative therapy, which has little in common with scientific use of the word.) May invent terms such as ‘bio-cosmic energy’. (‘psycho-babble’) Uses accepted and recognizable terms and concepts.
Some rely on ancient myths and legends or sacred texts as a basis for their theories. (See ‘Fantastic Archaeology’ section)   Do not accept that ancient myths and legends can be accepted as factual, unless supported by evidence e.g. archaeological.
Sometimes argue that governments or the scientific establishment are conspiring to shut them up or discredit them. (e.g. Roswell, UFOs)   Sees little evidence for most of the conspiracy theories.
Literature aimed at the general public, not at scientists.   Findings expressed mainly through scientific journals, so they can be reviewed and scrutinised by other scientists. (Known as ‘peer review’.)
Mysterious or supernatural explanations are often given, even when natural ones are available. (Fire-walking, Bermuda Triangle) Natural explanations or theories preferred.
   

QUESTIONS

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