Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

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Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#1  Postby Will S » Aug 10, 2010 7:48 am

In another topic, I earnestly recommended an article in the 'Oxford Companion to the Mind': 'Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof'. It was suggested that I start another topic with my own summary of the article as its OP. So, here goes:

(If you have access to the Oxford Companion to the Mind, do please read the complete article. The author of the article is Christopher Scott, a Consultant Statistician, about whom I know nothing more except that he writes cogently and lucidly. Any failings in what follows should, in the first instance anyway, be attributed to me, not to him.)

Scott's starting point is that 'paranormal phenomena are not claimed to be repeatable at will'. For example, it would be extremely unusual if anybody claimed to be able to perform telepathic feats on demand, or conjure up a ghost on demand. Therefore, if you want evidence against the paranormal, it's no good saying that some particular experiment involving telepathy failed, or that no ghost appeared on some particular occasion, or that spoons failed to bend on this or that TV programme.

The logical consequence is that the only evidence against the paranormal consists of criticisms of the evidence in favour. This weights the scales against the sceptic.

In some cases, the sceptic will be able to examine in detail the evidence in favour, and come up with a convincing critique of it: this is precisely what happened when the work of S G Soal was reexamined. But in many cases this is just not possible; Soal's records might easily have been destroyed, making reexamination impossible. Also, the amount of work involved is likely to be very great.

In any case, the sceptic is like Hercules fighting the Hydra: chop off one head, and immediately two more grow to replace it. Discredit one paranormal claim, and next week another claim will pop up.

Scott's key finding it this: '.. the argument that there can be no smoke without fire - that the continuing flow of positive results proves the reality of the phenomena since the evidence has not been systematically disproved - is scarcely compelling.'

Then follows what I think is the most important sentence in the article: 'If the paranormal did not exist the situation could well be very close to that which we observe today.'

He concludes: 'The characteristic symptom of this situation would be a continuing failure to build up any solid body of accepted knowledge in the area of the paranormal. For the time being, this is the situation we observe. As long as this situation persists it will be reasonable to regard the case for the paranormal as not proven, though outright disproof is certainly unobtainable.'
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#2  Postby GrahamH » Aug 10, 2010 8:09 am

That seems to be a reasonable position.

To study a phenomena systematically requires us to have control of the inconstant causes of that phenomena.

This seems to be a problem in epidemiology. If a treatment is only effective for people with genetic signature X, and X is rare, then epidemiological studies are not likely to detect statistically significant results unless they control for X.

Colvin's paper is a good example of approaching the issue by trying to confirm that peculiar phenomena are indeed taking place. He got it wrong, but it seems a sensible way to go. Record the phenomena, analyse and attempt to replicate it by natural means.

We can't prove that Uri Geller never bent a spoon supernaturally, but we can prove that he cheated sometimes and that his results were indistinguishable from natural methods (force and fatigue cracking).
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#3  Postby twistor59 » Aug 10, 2010 8:25 am

Will S wrote:
Then follows what I think is the most important sentence in the article: 'If the paranormal did not exist the situation could well be very close to that which we observe today.'

He concludes: 'The characteristic symptom of this situation would be a continuing failure to build up any solid body of accepted knowledge in the area of the paranormal. For the time being, this is the situation we observe. As long as this situation persists it will be reasonable to regard the case for the paranormal as not proven, though outright disproof is certainly unobtainable.'


Thanks for the summary.

It seems like he's stating a viewpoint which many of us hold. "outright disproof is certainly unobtainable" summarises a problem we often come up against - expressed in statements like "well you can't prove it didn't happen". Science is about discovering natural laws, which by definition have some sort of regularity, which appears in repeatability. Until some sort of repeatable paranormal phenomenon is found (at which point it will be labelled "normal" rather than "paranormal") it's hard to treat the field as science.
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#4  Postby xrayzed » Aug 10, 2010 8:41 am

I disagree with the blanket statement "paranormal phenomena are not claimed to be repeatable at will".

While some alleged paranormal phenomena certainly aren't (eg apparitions of ghosts), others most definitely claim to be (spoon-benders, water dowsers, clarivoyants). When the latter groups are tested they invariably fail to perform any better than they would be expected to by chance.
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#5  Postby tnjrp » Aug 10, 2010 9:42 am

Indeed many people claim to be able to consistently produce paranormal phenomena -- but apparently even they only can do it when nobody is looking really closely at what is being done. Explanations abound, my favourite being the goats & the sheep one :mrgreen:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#6  Postby campermon » Aug 10, 2010 9:48 am

tnjrp wrote:Indeed many people claim to be able to consistently produce paranormal phenomena -- but apparently even they only can do it when nobody is looking really closely at what is being done.


....that's because it's a quantum thing. If you look too close you collapse the wavefunction and the magic paranormal stuff stops working...

:coffee:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#7  Postby campermon » Aug 10, 2010 9:58 am

tnjrp wrote:Indeed many people claim to be able to consistently produce paranormal phenomena -- but apparently even they only can do it when nobody is looking really closely at what is being done. Explanations abound, my favourite being the goats & the sheep one :mrgreen:


This is a classic debunking by Randi;

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlfMsZwr8rc[/youtube]
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#8  Postby GrahamH » Aug 10, 2010 10:02 am

campermon wrote:This is a classic debunking by Randi;


Oh come on! Randi is an Arch Mage who uses his dark magical powers to disable the abilities of people like Hydrick to make people think that such supernatural power doesn't exist. He obviously has you fooled! :naughty2:

OK, back to reality... :whistle:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#9  Postby campermon » Aug 10, 2010 10:09 am

:lol:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#10  Postby tnjrp » Aug 10, 2010 12:48 pm

campermon wrote:
tnjrp wrote:Indeed many people claim to be able to consistently produce paranormal phenomena -- but apparently even they only can do it when nobody is looking really closely at what is being done.

....that's because it's a quantum thing.
My woo sensor bounced into red at the Q word :tinfoil:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#11  Postby campermon » Aug 10, 2010 12:52 pm

tnjrp wrote:
campermon wrote:
tnjrp wrote:Indeed many people claim to be able to consistently produce paranormal phenomena -- but apparently even they only can do it when nobody is looking really closely at what is being done.

....that's because it's a quantum thing.
My woo sensor bounced into red at the Q word :tinfoil:


:lol:

Yes, you must be careful with your woo sensor. Mine broke shortly after entering the formal debate. :teef:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#12  Postby Will S » Aug 10, 2010 1:04 pm

xrayzed wrote:I disagree with the blanket statement "paranormal phenomena are not claimed to be repeatable at will".

While some alleged paranormal phenomena certainly aren't (eg apparitions of ghosts), others most definitely claim to be (spoon-benders, water dowsers, clarivoyants). When the latter groups are tested they invariably fail to perform any better than they would be expected to by chance.

Yes, I agree that that needs a bit of amplification. There are plenty of claims that paranormal phenomena are repeatable at will. For example, if dowsers didn't make this claim, not many people would employ them to advise on where to dig wells.

It's more that they're not 100% repeatable, and repeatability disappears the moment tight controls are imposed. For example, there's the famous TV clip in which Uri Geller said he wasn't 'feeling very strong tonight' - and it happened to be the very night on which James Randi had been involved in the preparation of the spoons and other props.

Sheer coincidence, of course. :angel:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#13  Postby tnjrp » Aug 11, 2010 4:46 am

Well, even discounting the "Arch Mage theory of James Randi" it could hypotethically be possible to rig a test for psychic powers so that they won't work, aside of the of-claimed setting of the bar for success impossibly high. After all, one usually assumes that there are limits to the powers in question even if they are "supernormal". In Geller's case, I'm not sure what that would involve -- replacing the normal spoons with titanium versions maybe?
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#14  Postby Will S » Aug 12, 2010 7:26 am

campermon -

I'll tell you something really odd.

Until a few days ago, I didn't realise that your signature incorporates a picture of the destruction of the Hindenburg. (Of course, I see it now, and its relationship with the demise of the RDF forum.)

I interpreted it a very large boot, or shoe, descending to crush - a beetle? claims concerning the paranormal?

Anyway, I now have the comfort of knowing that, where I previously was wrong about something, I've now got it right ... :angel:
'To a thinking person, a paradox is what the smell of burning rubber is to an electrical engineer' - Sir Peter Medawar (adapted)
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#15  Postby campermon » Aug 12, 2010 8:39 am

Will S wrote:campermon -

I'll tell you something really odd.

Until a few days ago, I didn't realise that your signature incorporates a picture of the destruction of the Hindenburg. (Of course, I see it now, and its relationship with the demise of the RDF forum.)

I interpreted it a very large boot, or shoe, descending to crush - a beetle? claims concerning the paranormal?

Anyway, I now have the comfort of knowing that, where I previously was wrong about something, I've now got it right ... :angel:


:lol:

I see you're not a Led Zeppelin fan! The burning balloon is from the cover of their first album.

:cheers:


edit...

Of course I must add that I used my psychic powers just to make you see it as a boot.

:coffee:
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#16  Postby Kaleid » Aug 15, 2010 8:22 pm

Louie Savva (who let rip at Derek Acorah on Most Haunted):

http://www.everythingispointless.com/2006/11/why-i-quit-studying-parapsychology.html
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#17  Postby Will S » Aug 16, 2010 7:04 am

Kaleid wrote:Louie Savva (who let rip at Derek Acorah on Most Haunted):

http://www.everythingispointless.com/2006/11/why-i-quit-studying-parapsychology.html

Interesting article! I was especially struck by his claim that there's a steady, continuing flow of duff research - lots of smoke, but no fire. That chimes in very well with what Christopher Scott concluded:
'.. the argument that there can be no smoke without fire - that the continuing flow of positive results proves the reality of the phenomena since the evidence has not been systematically disproved - is scarcely compelling.
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#18  Postby Kaleid » Aug 16, 2010 10:14 am

Yes. It also seems to be the case that a lot of people that conduct research in this field are reluctant to keep a tally of just how many null hypotheses have had to be accepted over the years.

I only recently came across this. A friend of mine is working on a new TV show that aims to explore apparently paranormal phenomena, so it got me interested in exploring the nature of the studies that have been done - the Jerome v campermon debate has been informative as well as entertaining.

This caught my attention - from Wiki:

Wikipedia wrote:James E. Alcock, Professor of Psychology at York University - a controversial commentator on psi research has asserted that few of parapsychology's experimental results have prompted interdisciplinary research with more mainstream sciences such as physics or biology, and that parapsychology remains an isolated science to such an extent that its very legitimacy is questionable, and as a whole is not justified in being labeled "scientific"


Hopefully someone here will correct me if I'm mistaken, but this seems quite a convincing point to me.
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#19  Postby jerome » Aug 17, 2010 2:05 am

Lots to say on this - I know Louie Savva slightly, great bloke and hope he is well - nd i know James alcock's work. Unfortunately I have gone down the dreaded flu, and am quite feverish, with just five days to a games convention I am hosting. I will whitter however on the thread once well and after the con, and make a few comments ;)

j x
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Re: Paranormal phenomena: the problem of proof

#20  Postby Kaleid » Aug 17, 2010 2:09 am

Great :thumbup: I'd like to know more, I'm getting interested in this. Lemsip in the meantime, yes? :coffee:
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