“Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudoscience” – Carl Sagan
Pseudoscience! I don’t like to wade too deeply into the popular arguments about whether the celebrities of paranormal investigation are capitalizing on current public fascination with the supernatural and distrust of institutionalized science (mostly because I’ve found wisdom in the Las Vegas cocktail waitress maxim that says, “Don’t get down on anybody else’s hustle”), but nonetheless feel compelled to couch their subject in some scientific argot that lend it an air of superficial credibility. It’s a little like arguing the existence of God with the religiously devout. There is no commensurable paradigm upon which to find common ground. Plus, I’m too old for bar fights. Or rather, as I find my divinity in the bottom of a glass of aged and peaty scotch (“Our Father who art in Laphroig”, for those of you who are fellow travelers), the probability of spilling my drink are too high, and I like to play the odds.
In my younger, scrappier days, without the benefit of two decades of work amongst both stolid academics and profit-motivated corporate slugs, caricatures for sure, I might exhibit more tolerance, but you know what they say about stereotypes – they’re founded in “base rate” information, yet in the past I might have taken up the gauntlet. Why is it that dueling went out of fashion? Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but it can save you a lot of agony and angst if you know what you are getting into during the cocktail party. If they surprise you, you might have found a friend. That is to say, if you encounter the same insufferable attitude on multiple occasions, you’re simply wise to proceed from the assumption that the next one you meet will likely exemplify the archetype until proven otherwise. After all, the universe is all about me and it’s up to you to prove me wrong, at least from my perspective. Don’t screw with me. I’m an ontologist. I can philosophically declare that you don’t exist and abstractly end you. I’ll do it.
That said, I merrily peruse both the skeptical and belief-driven literature on a regular basis. A darn shame I can’t deduct that time as a business expense on my taxes. Oh wait, I don’t get paid for this. I should go write some natural language processing software or something, since that’s what they pay me for. Talk about injustice. And sadly, I’ve started to notice a pattern, ‘cause that’s what I do. Look for patterns. Professionally, I look for linguistic patterns. Personally and existentially, I’m more concerned with patterns of stuff that might kill you or steal your soul. If you ask me, the pay scales are reversed. When I design my own planet, things will be different.
A common complaint that has reared its ugly head in the skeptic v. supernatural chat rooms is the notion that the reason mainstream scientists don’t take the supernatural seriously is that those who are curious about investigating it are invariably engaged in “pseudoscientific” pursuits, and that a real “science” adheres to the accepted criteria required to be taken seriously. I don’t want to be taken seriously. Serious people floss.
Consider this recent commentary, that I dare say is rather representative. In this instance they were penning a rather scathing criticism (quoting RGA Dolby’s essay What Can We Usefully Learn from the Velikovsky Affair? – as the author pointed out to me in the comments below) of catastrophist Velikovsky (which by the way, was mad as a hatter, but that’s not the point): “In a speciality field, a contributor is expected to present their arguments and supporting evidence in a formal paper to a reputable journal and be subject to peer review. If the paper gets published, the idea is deemed worthy of consideration by this unique community. The idea is expected to fit into the existing understanding of the field or improve upon what is known, citing literature of what has come before. Velikovsky’s catastrophism did not go this route” (full article at https://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/paranormal-investigators-and-velikovsky-sound-similarly-sciencey). Now I have no particular bone to pick with this author, and in fact think some of their points are worthy of note. It was the characterization of scientific adjudication that I found amusing, knowing something about how the actual process of academic review and publication truly works. If the real process of academic review operated without the influence of ontological bias and individual ego, the author would have had a salient point, and I give her points for optimism. Some of us weren’t designed that way.
The Fortean and anomalistic are generally relegated to folklore. There are only a handful of doctoral level folklore programs. Folklore as a discipline certainly has its luminaries, but they tend to gravitate more towards more semi-respectable academic disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, religious studies, and comparative literature, with an occasional niche in some nouveau department like “Culture and Performance”, which seem to be evenly divided in their interests between dance and mythology. The journals available for publication are sparse, and lean towards the micro-identification of trends in human history, as there is no room in an academic career to give credence to such elements as the bizarre and inexplicable except as metaphorical concepts that at best have sociological import.
Anomalies are by definition irreproducible, and historical data is invariably suspect. The problem I have with this is that human consciousness is increasingly thought to be based on the capacity for metaphor, or as linguistic wunderkinds Lackoff and Johnson said, “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. To decry interest in the supernatural as “pseudoscientific” without the recognition that all forms of human cognition are essentially metaphorical, is an object lesson in orthodox naturalism, couched unsubtly in terms of guarding interdisciplinary boundaries by mandating a procedure for validation that is in essence tautological i.e. you ideas are worthy of consideration, if by the criteria of the current paradigm, your ideas are worthy of consideration.
I can already hear the cries of “sour grapes” from those steadfast adherents of a regimented scientific view originating in academia. That’s cool. Well okay, that’s not cool. So “screw you”. I never pretended to not be thin skinned. The simple fact is that in order to be an academic in the fields that interest me, I would (1) have to indulge in a micro-focus that I find excruciatingly un-entertaining, (2) apprentice to someone who had played the game, and (3) take a pay cut by nearly half. I have a powerful need to eat and pay my bills in the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to, and a pathological desire to cause trouble. These are not conducive to success in the academy.
Now, I have the same problems many folks do with the representation of paranormal investigation in modern media. I value skepticism as a tool in parsing the illogical from the remotely plausible. I draw the line at the criticisms of modern paranormal investigation that are founded on lack which predefines participation in a system that is governed by hubris, ego, jockeying for professional prestige, and simultaneously abstracts metaphorical concepts that govern the universe, while denying the importance of human experience. Perhaps it is the anthropologist in me that regards the multi-faceted nature of human experience as the relevant criteria in talking about the strange things folks have reported throughout history – that is, there is the experience as understood by an “objective observer” and the experience as understood by those who are participant-observers in the phenomena. Somewhere in between lays a meaning of some value to us as humans, independent of whether the journal reviewer, who has his own theoretical cohort, agrees that your assessment is of some value to the body of scientific literature.
Folklore is about probability. What are your odds of being eaten if you wander around in the dark forest? Is all folklore based on truth? Well, of course not, but it represents the experience of conscious beings in an unpredictable world. The scientific method is enormously successful in discerning reproducible natural phenomena. The essence of folklore is determining what to do when by all reasonable judgement the unnatural has reared its ugly head. And when the inexplicable occurs, what can a human consciousness do but fall back on our most effective tool for dealing with variable reality, that is metaphor. And is the essence of science not parsing out the relationships between those things we can see, and those things we cannot? As the poet Jane Hirshfield said, “You can’t write an image, a metaphor, a story, a phrase, without leaning a little further into the shared world, without recognizing that your supposed solitude is at every point of its perimeter touching some other”.
Hi mate. A most excellent article which (if you don’t mind) I reposted on Disclose.TV. (http://www.disclose.tv/forum/i-ve-got-your-pseudoscience-right-here-buddy-t109348.html). In my own way, I covered this topic as well a few years ago here. (http://vimeo.com/album/2701770/video/84937720). Look forward to more, more, more! Cheers.
Thanks! Great minds think alike!
Well done, Esoterx!
I’m delighted that you’ve come to the defense of metaphor! In one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read, “Angels Fear”, by Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, they posit that metaphor is, in fact, a better model of how living systems operate than classical logic. They contrast the logic of logic with the “logic” of metaphor by comparing the “syllogism in Barbara” with what they refer to as the “syllogism in grass”. The syllogism in Barbara goes like this:
Socrates is a man;
Socrates will die.
The syllogism in grass is rather different:
Men are grass.
The syllogism in grass is a metaphor, and the Batesons make the case that this is how the world of living things is actually linked together. As far as I can tell, this insight has made little impression, probably because it requires a paradigm shift–and we know how painful that can be.
But lately, there have been signs of dissatisfaction with traditional science: comments in the mainstream press note that conventional science is broken (or has always been broken). Few people have ever had the moxie to publically criticize the way the scientific community operates, so I was taken aback by Lancet editor Richard Horton’s comment published on April 11, 2015 in which he states that maybe half of the scientific literature is untrue. This led to my policy of never reading more than half of any science journal article.
The problem is that scientists are human beings and whether they admit it or not, science as it is supposed to be practiced and science as it is actually practiced bear little resemblance to each other.
We can’t eliminate or control the “human nature” of a scientist, nor should we want to, but we could try restructuring the social organizations in which scientists practice their craft, in such a way that would reward rather than punish free and open communication, truly creative thinking, and the pursuit of anomalistic phenomena.
There are some scientists who I think are both aware of the problem and are trying their best to find ways of changing the practice of science. One such is Prof. of Systems Biology, Uri Alon (who also holds a doctorate in theoretical physics). His 2013 TED talk titled, “Why truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown” is well worth watching: http://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown
It’s highly unlikely that large well-endowed and prestigious academic institutions would support any change in the social organization and system of rewards operating in the scientific communities they house (for the same reason we may never get rid of the electoral college), but it might be possible to pull this off in a smaller university willing to take a rather substantial risk. The adage that science advances one funeral at a time doesn’t really address the social, psychological, and cultural factors that favor the status quo in science.
I was not able to grasp the point of this post exactly so I won’t comment on that. But I would like to point out a few things I noted. I am the author of the Velikovsky post you linked to above.
Please note that the quote you use was actually referenced from RGA Dolby’s essay What Can We Usefully Learn from the Velikovsky Affair? in Social Studies of Science 5:2, 165-175. This was his view (I’m assuming “he”). It’s idealized and not very real-world practical. My point was to show that Velikovsky ran so egregiously afoul of scientists because of the cultural aspects inherent in science. Science is done by people so will have these episodes.
You say: “The journals available for publication are sparse, and lean towards the micro-identification of trends in human history, as there is no room in an academic career to give credence to such elements as the bizarre and inexplicable except as metaphorical concepts that at best have sociological import.”
Are you speaking of journals that would have published V.’s ideas? I’m not sure back then, but there are plenty of options now to publish wildly speculative stuff. Even utter nonsense done as a joke can be published if you pay for it. That is a problem because the literature is littered with garbage studies and baseless conclusions.
You say: “A common complaint that has reared its ugly head in the skeptic v. supernatural chat rooms is the notion that the reason mainstream scientists don’t take the supernatural seriously is that those who are curious about investigating it are invariably engaged in “pseudoscientific” pursuits, and that a real “science” adheres to the accepted criteria required to be taken seriously. ”
Hasn’t it been so for a long time? The SPR gave up professional ghost hunting and the Int’l Society of Cryptozoology folded. There aren’t too many scientists taking these fringe fields seriously. But there are some. I would recommend Bryan Sykes’ recent book on Bigfoot/Yeti where he takes on this argument directly and agrees that cryptozoologists could never convince the scientific community of anything they way they operate. So, he stepped in to raise the quality of evidence. (My review here: https://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/dreaming-of-dna-review-of-sykes-bigfoot-yeti-and-the-last-neanderthal/)
You say: “I draw the line at the criticisms of modern paranormal investigation that are founded on lack which predefines participation in a system that is governed by hubris, ego, jockeying for professional prestige, and simultaneously abstracts metaphorical concepts that govern the universe, while denying the importance of human experience.”
Are you saying that you do not agree that we should criticize paranormal researchers on the basis that they don’t follow the strict scientific protocol that is fraught with big egos, and very “Ivory tower” academics? I also get from this that you value experience. Experiences have an intrinsic value to the experiencer. That’s fine. However, for another to investigate the event is an extrinsic use of the experience. Taken as anecdotes, these should lead us to more and better evidence. Unfortunately, paranormal investigation today is sham inquiry as a conclusion is often assumed (“paranormal activity”) and preexisting belief is frequently enforced. Reasoning is decoration, not the basis for the conclusion. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I see no reason why people who report strange events, activity or anomalies can’t have their experiences reasonably investigated without the fakey sciencey act put on by today’s paranormal researchers. I could do it but they certainly wouldn’t like my answer. If I couldn’t find the cause, I would say “I don’t know” but it’s probably mundane and not beyond existing science. That defeats the purpose of those who fervently believe they have had a extraordinary experience and want an extraordinary conclusion to go with it. The experience remains extraordinary to them but not necessarily to me.
Finally, I was narrowly comparing Velikovsky’s method to the faked sciencey stuff of paranormalists. I’m not clear how it relates to metaphors and such. It may not be a suitable comparison.
Thank you for taking the time to read it and the correction on the Dolby quote. I did enjoy and appreciate your piece on Velikovsy and understood the comparison you were making with what the popular paranormal entertainers offer out there. Frankly, I agree with you on most points. We seem to both understand Dolby’s characterization of the scientific adjudication process in the same way – overidealized and impractical. Where I believe we differ is on thinking that Dolby’s view is uncommon one in the scientific community. Disciplines guard their boundaries, and my main point is that they generally do so with very little ontological or epistemological reflection.
My comments regarding academic journals (and in fact, the entire article) was in no way concerned with Velikovsky specifically, and the world is indeed littered with plenty of useless content, but the peer review process is demonstrably broken, ego-driven, and not inclined towards the consideration of ideas outside the mainstream unless they come from a “rock-star”, and as laughable as we may find that, every grad student can point to the professor in the department that is clearly the academic celebrity.
Now, you may have noticed the heavy emphasis on the satirical on my site. You’ve lumped a lot of things together under “fringe fields”, and believe me, I’m not singing the praises of the paranormal-curious community any more than I am academic science. The argument is an old one. If you can’t reproduce it its not real. Do I value anecdotal evidence more than physical and experimental evidence? It purely depends on what I’m doing with it. Am I trying to demonstrate natural law in a lab, or am I trying to comprehend human existence (and given that the way we relate to the universe might be metaphor, it makes sense to try to understand the anomalous as a metaphorical expression). I have no more room in by philosophy for “fakey science” and nonsense like spirit boxes, and I think the average demonologist is of no use to anybody, apart from the amusing stories.
You observed, “If I couldn’t find the cause, I would say I don’t know’ but it’s probably mundane and not beyond existing science. That defeats the purpose of those who fervently believe they have had a extraordinary experience and want an extraordinary conclusion to go with it. The experience remains extraordinary to them but not necessarily to me” is an ontological statement that the universe can be expected to behave in concert with existing scientific paradigms. Saying “I don’t know” as you did is very reasonable, but I would suggest that this is not the common response, which is more likely to be “It cannot be”.
We could get into discussions about the reality of the noumenal vs. the phenomenal, which of course has been the ongoing debate in philosophy since it appeared as a paying gig, but I doubt that would resolve much.
Mostly, I’m just trying to be funny.
Sorry, my first line should have been “I was not able to exactly grasp the point of this post so I won’t comment on that,” but your reply line, “Mostly, I’m just trying to be funny,” addresses that issue.