Conspiracy theorists have used the internet to co-ordinate increasingly slick attacks on the accepted versions of events, but now a group of scientists and sceptics has decided it’s time to organise and fight back.
There are three issues.
First, just because someone’s view is outside of the mainstream it doesn’t mean that therefore it’s false. There are many alternative views even within science, and many accepted theories were dismissed when initially presented. Besides, not all scientific theories have been absolutely proven, and many things that were once thought to be true are later disproven.
As for the government, politicians and other officials are known to lie all of the time. The military can keep largescale activities secret for years and even decades. You have to be absolutely naive to believe everything the government tells you.
The ability to question and doubt conventional opinion is a part of critical thinking skills. Instead of telling people what to think, teach them how to think.
Second, it’s true that there is a loony fringe of alternative thinkers. On the other hand, there is a loony fringe of debunkers. As far as skeptics go, Randi isn’t the most respectable. Many people have been highly skeptical of Randi’s million dollar challenge. True skepticism cuts both ways. Skepticism as ideology is dangerous to freedom of thought.
If you want to understand the complexity of skepticism and alternative views in science, then you’d have to do some reading. I’d suggest two books: George P. Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal, and Chris Carter’s Parapsychology and the Skeptics. Or if you’d rather read something shorter, there are many articles to be found online such as those on Hansen’s website.
Third, I think it’s unhelpful to try to force the world into polarized categories. Reality isn’t either/or. Any group that takes an ideology to an extreme will feel alone and isolated. This is as true for sceptical extremists as it is for religious extremists. Generally speaking, extremism isn’t an admirable trait when it comes to critical thinking skills. Polls show that the numbers of people identifying as atheist or agnostic are growing. When asked what religion people identify with, there is an increasing number of people who choose ‘none’. At the same time, the majority of people have had some kind of spiritual or paranormal experience (or some experience they don’t think can be fully explained by conventional scientific theories).
In conclusion, skepticism is helpful and a worthy attitude. But it needs to be kept in balance with other factors. Obviously, skepticism without open-minded curiosity is rather bland and I would add blind as well. The ability to imagine new possibilities and to temporarily suspend disbelief are extremely important. Anyways, if you’re going to be a skeptic, then go all the way. A skeptic who doesn’t turn their skeptical gaze back upon themselves is a narrowminded fool. Always question your self first (Mathew 7:5 – “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”).
I’m not worried about this simplistic polarized thinking. It’s no different than the theist vs atheist debate. The agnostic sits on the sidelines and laughs at both of them. As for the defenders of science, I could care less about those who feel haughty in their self-righteousness. The Forteans, Zetetics, and Pyrrhonian skeptics will keep the pseudo-skepticism in check.
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I’ve written about this subject a number of times. The following are two posts from my Gaia.com blog.
Hansen speaks to these issues. Objectivity, verifiability, and repeatability aren’t easily applied to the paranormal, but researchers have attempted to do so. Some are satisfied with the evidence and some aren’t. […] How are lived experiences proven? Well, very little of even our “normal” subjective experience is provable. As for the paranormal, it all depends on what kind of evidence you consider acceptable.
People have seen lights and when they investigated discovered crop circles. Crop circles are just more complex forms of fairly circles that have been observed for centuries in corollation with fairy lights. My brother visited with friends a place where orbs (ie fairy lights) were known to be common. They saw the orbs and the orbs approached the car and hovered around it. Even scientists have observed orbs, but no one agrees on what explains them.
Pilots have seen ufos and they were observed simultaneously on radar. There are a fair number of radar cases. Why is there not more evidence? For one, I’ve heard that pilots are discouraged from reporting ufos. Also, some evidence gets destroyed because people fear ridicule. Vallee started out as an astronomer but later became a ufo researcher because he personally observed astronomers he worked with destroying video evidence (here is an interview with him where he speaks about this).
Rupert Sheldrake was describing a dialogue he had with Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Sheldrake: “This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”
(Sheldrake describes how he tried to bring up his own rearch about telepathy, but Dawkins refused to discuss it.)
And something I wrote in a comment to that post:
I like the idea of piling up the anomalies. That is my basic viewpoint. Parapsychology hasn’t “proven” anything, but it has provided some anomalies. Eventually, if enough anomalies pile up, it will create a critical mass forcing a paradigm shift. As I see it, parapsychology research is still in its infancy despite it being more than a century old.
About the Newtonian paradigm of mainstream science, I think that is very true. The Newtonian paradigm has practical usefulness for research in most fields. Since there isn’t much connection between most fields and post-Newtonian paradigms, my guess is that most research scientists don’t consider theoretical complexities of quantum physics. Even paranormal research have mostly ignored theoretical issues and I doubt that many paranormal researchers are educated in quantum physics. All of science has a whole lot of catching up to do.
I suspect that if convincing evidence of the paranormal is ever found, it will probably be in the field of physics. Basically, mainstream scientists will only be convinced by evidence by mainstream science, and yet parapsychology isn’t considered mainstream and so its evidence isn’t acceptable.
I was thinking about Dawkins telling Radin that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Radin pointed out that it depends on what one considers extraordinary, but there is a further problem with Dawkin’s statement. Parapsychology gets very little funding and so is unable to do the largescale research that is necessary to produce “extraordinary” evidence, but its mainstream scientists such as Dawkins who argue that parapsychology doesn’t deserve funding because it doesn’t produce “extraordinary” evidence. So, Dawkins’ statement is disingenuous because he really doesn’t want parapsychology to produce extraordinary evidence.
It reminds me of CSICOP, the skeptical organization by various mainstream scientists (incuding Dawkins). The problem with CSICOP is that it isn’t headed by scientists and the scientists who support it have no professional experience with parapsychology research. CSICOP has no peer-reviewed journal and doesn’t support research even in disproving the paranormal. Hansen says that CSICOP did do some research early on, but it ended up proving what they were trying to disprove and so they never did research again. Worse still, they use their influence (via mainstream scientists) to keep parapsychologists from getting funding.
I am curious about the possible connection between parapsychology and quantum physics. Lynne McTaggart speaks about the connection in her books, but as she isn’t a scientist I don’t know how biased her presentation might be.
I’ve heard that there is nothing paranormal because its a false label. If the paranormal exists, then its normal. I agree with that as far as that goes… I really don’t care what one calls it. Anyways, normality is kind of a relative concept. I’m sure quantum physics seemed a bit paranormal to Newtonian scientists.
Enactivism questions the traditional assumptions of science and so blurs the boundaries somewhat. Varela was influenced by phenomenology, and Hansen says that ethnomethodology was similarly influenced. Ethnomethodology (along with sociology of scientific knowledge and studies of experiment expectancy effects) puts the scientific endeavor into a very different context.
p. 280: “Ethnomethodologists took as their subject matter the interactions of everyday social life and how people make sense of them. That sounds innocuous enough, but ethnomethodologists probed foundations. They recognized that for orderly common activity, people must share a large body of assumptions, meanings, and expectations, though these are not consciously recognized. In order to make them explicit (i.e., bring them to conscious awareness), breaching experiments were invented, and those involved violating, in some way, typical patterns of behavior.” … “These breaching experiments have commonalities with anti-structure and the trickster; they all violate boundaries that frame experience.”
p. 281: “Ethnomethodologists pointed out that one is part of that which one observes, i.e., one participates in processes of observation. The issue of participation has some intriguing connections. At least since Levy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think (1910) it has been associated with the non-rational.”
p.282: “Mehan and Wood say that their theoretical perspective “within ethnomethodology commits me to the study of concrete scenes and to the recognition that I am always a part of those scenes. Social science is committed to avoiding both of those involvements.” They are correct, but few social scientists wish to acknowledge the consequences. The abstraction and distancing found in all science endow a certain status and privilege from which to judge and comment on others. In order to maintain that position, scientists must not get too “dirty,” too closely associated with their objects of study. Ethnomethodologists understand they necessarily participate in the phenomena they observe. Mehan and Wood comment that “Ethnomethodology can be seen as an activity of destratification.” This destratification is a leveling of status, and that is also associated with limimal conditions (a.k.a., anti-structure). Thus social leveling via participation and reflexivity has been recognized by theorists from entirely separate disciplines, demonstrating its validity.”
The last part about the leveling of status directly relates to the Trickster archetype, and status relates to hierarchy. Scientists often are seen as final arbiters in many matters, and traditionally science saw itself opposed to nature, above the object it studied.
Also check out this other blog post of mine as an example of a topic that exists at the edge of mainstream science:
For more information, see these Wikpidea articles about various issues involving science, knowledge, biases, and critical thinking skills: