(This was written over a year ago and not published . . . )
Reviewing some RationalWiki articles, I see a common trope that is a fundamental error. Articles on persons interested in the paranormal call them “parapsychologists,” even if they are not engaged in scientific study. Simply being a student of the paranormal or even of parapsychology does not make one a “parapsychologist.” Those with a strong political agenda play fast and loose with definitions, …. so:
: not scientifically explainable : supernatural
Supernatural then has:
1 : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2 a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
b : attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit)
Wikipedia has, in the lede on Paranormal:
Paranormal events are phenomena described in popular culture, folk, and other non-scientific bodies of knowledge, whose existence within these contexts is described to lie beyond normal experience or scientific explanation.
Severe ontological difficulties abound. Phenomena, if objectively described, are “what happened.” Then there is interpretation of what happened. Perhaps a cause is ascribed; this is inferred, not necessarily directly observed. The wikipedia article does not distinguish between experiential phenomena (“I saw such and so,” perhaps lights in the sky) and interpretation (“I saw a UFO,” which assumes that there was an object there, not merely an appearance of lights.)
So there is a general meaning for paranormal, as being phenomena — actual experience — that are not understood through ordinary scientific nowledge (testable and tested) k.
Unless we believe that science has understood everything, we must accept that there are such phenomena. We might “explain” the UFO as an atmospheric phenomenon rather than an actual “unidentified flying object,” but even if we manage to show, at some point, that a particular incidence was such, we could never rationally claim that this proves that all such incidents involve no object. But the “explanation” might personally satisfy us. Or not. Genuine skepticism will cut both ways; and there is pragmaticism to contend with.
However, the “paranormal” often is used more specifically, to refer to a class of phenomena loosely called “spiritual,” another quite problematic word. Again from the Wikipedia article:
The most notable paranormal beliefs include those that pertain to ghosts, extraterrestrial life, unidentified flying objects, psychic abilities or extrasensory perception, and cryptids.
Before even clearly defining “paranormal,” the article is talking about “beliefs.” What is a “psychic ability”? “Psychic” refers, at origin, to the mind. (“relating to the soul or mind”). However, in usage, it comes to mean mental abilities that have no apparent physical modality. Again, we return to the problem of appearance. That is, there “appears” to be no “physical explanation.”
What is “belief”? We have operating assumptions that might be called “beliefs.” I get out of bed and put my weight on the floor and “believe” that it will support me. However, the Wikipedia article is talking about something else. Someone may say, “I believe in ghosts.”
I.e., perhaps, “spirits of the dead.” Feynman famously was being interviewed for a draft physical and was asked if he ever heard voices. Yes, he replied, because he could remember the very distinctive voice of a certain scientist. It was like he was actually hearing it. So if I experience some phenomenon that I interpret as being some manifestation of someone who died, is that a “ghost”?
How would I distinguish between a phenomenon that is “only in my mind” and one that exists “out in the world.”
And what difference does that make in my life?
The ontologically unsophisticated typically believe in a reality that is “out there,” not merely in the mind. I do, too, but I’m aware — and have been trained to be aware — that this “belief” is an invention, a tool, something that has a function, it is not, in itself, “truth.” Tools work or they don’t work.
Thus there may be “beliefs” that are not “true,” but that still have a life-enhancing function. They are “myth.” Pseudoskeptics dismiss “myth” as contrary to “critical thinking,” apparently not realizing that the creation of myth is a nearly universal human phenomenon. As such, it must have evolved for a purpose, or it would not have been maintained. At least that is my understanding based on my training in science.
(How the hell did “cryptids” get in there? Humans tend to believe the results of their own investigation or interpretation, and may variously assign credibility to reports, or not, depending on many, many factors. If some unknown species exists, how is this outside of the normal, since we have not necessarily discovered all species?)
Setting aside the “paranormal,” and allowing it to have a more restricted meaning, limiting it to “psychic phenomena,” we can turn to “parapsychology.” From the Wikipedia lede,
Parapsychology is a field of study concerned with the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena which include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other paranormal claims. It is identified as pseudoscience by a majority of mainstream scientists.
Does this belong in the lede, and is it true? There have been revert wars over this, for a long time. There are claims in reliable source that “parapsychology” is so identified. What is the balance? The problem is that “parapsychology is defined as scientific investigation, but a casual respondent to a survey may confuse parapsychology with the claims investigated, those “paranormal beliefs,” and if those were accepted by the majority, they would not be paranormal! So parapsychology must always be “fringe,” but that does not make it a pseudoscience. Ah, pseudoscience:
Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be scientific and factual, in the absence of evidence gathered and constrained by appropriate scientific methods.[Note 1] Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories. The term pseudoscience is often considered pejorativebecause it suggests something is being presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Those described as practicing or advocating pseudoscience often dispute the characterization.
The demarcation between science and pseudoscience has philosophical and scientific implications. Differentiating science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs, such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery, occult beliefs, and creation science, is part of science education and scientific literacy.
It may be fun to track down the sources, but this article has, again, been a battleground. Notice the division is between “scientific facts and theories” and “pseudoscientific beliefs.” Key is “beliefs” and “scientific theories.” In the ideal, a scientific “theory” is not merely a belief held for emotional or similar reasons, but has been rigorously tested through the scientific method; it is useful for prediction, often very accurate predictions.
Unfortunately, for the pseudoskeptics, “scientific” is equated with “mainstream,” but not mainstream in the sense of the general population, it is “mainstream” in the sense of “most scientists,” and this often completely neglects whether or not these people are experts in the field they are judging. Many scientists rely on information cascades, to use the sociological term and, indeed, do those who claim to be skeptics study that science? There are some very clear examples of widespread belief among scientists that was rooted in an information cascade, rather than in actual scientific testing of the ideas. Scientists tend to believe what their friends believe, the same as everyone else.
What is an “occult belief”? Wikipedia again:
The occult (from the Latin word occultus “clandestine, hidden, secret”) is “knowledge of the hidden”. In common English usage, occult refers to “knowledge of the paranormal“, as opposed to “knowledge of the measurable“, usually referred to as science. The term is sometimes taken to mean knowledge that “is meant only for certain people” or that “must be kept hidden”, but for most practicing occultists it is simply the study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences.The terms esoteric and arcane can also be used to describe the occult, in addition to their meanings unrelated to the supernatural.
Again by definition, the “occult” will be unknown and not understood by most. However, the operative term here is “knowledge.” Occult belief is practically an oxymoron. That is, if it is not rooted in experience, the most reliable source of knowledge (that issue was largely resolved centuries ago, and experience is the basis of science, not “satisfying explanations.” Explanations are models, useful for prediction, but without experience, it is not actually knowledge of reality, but of ideas. Hence training in science includes laboratory work, not merely absorbing the conclusions of centuries of scientific work, such that we not only know a thing, we know how we know it. We cannot test everything — there isn’t time — but, collectively, we can test everything over and over. Unless some idiot locks the doors, prohibiting re-investigation, which is exactly what pseudoskeptical fanatics want to do!
We are largely programmed to ignore much of our sense experience. I’ve been having a lot of fun lately, observing entoptic phenomena. These are things we can see that are not “out in the world,” unless we want to think of the eye as “out there.” They are ubiquitous, but we learned as very small children, probably before language, to ignore them. Years ago, as a young man interested in music, I learned to hear partialtones. I remember reading a music dictionary that described them as “faintly heard.” That was written by someone who had little or no experience! Without hearing partialtones, we cannot tell the difference between the vowels, but we were never taught to consciously discriminate them. One who does that can tune instruments perfectly, it is not merely a guess as to what “sounds good.” Musical harmony is based on coincident partialtones.
And then there are countless human phenomena that we mostly ignore and overlook, beyond a few who study them — and who profit from them. What makes us happy? Is it possible to live life so that we die smiling? There are ancient “secrets” that are not secret, they are quite open, but which are hidden by lack of attention. Much of this shows up in religion, which pseudoskeptics commonly deny as “pseudoscientific.” The demarcation would theoretically be “can it be tested?” So how do we test these things?
I know one thing clearly: we will not deepen our understanding through lying, about ourselves and about others. Our ideas that others are wrong will never, in themselves, make us either wise or happy.
So … pseudoscience would be “fake science,” not merely something we think is “wrong,” which is how pseudoskeptics often use the term. Does something pretend to be science, but actually is something else?
Parapsychology is an old field. From the Wikipedia article:
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London in 1882. Its formation was the first systematic effort to organize scientists and scholars to investigate paranormal phenomena. Early membership included philosophers, scholars, scientists, educators and politicians, such as Henry Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, William Crookes, Rufus Osgood Mason and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet. Presidents of the Society included, in addition to Richet, Eleanor Sidgwick and William James, and subsequently Nobel Laureates Henri Bergson and Lord Rayleigh, and philosopher C. D. Broad.
Was this “pseudoscience”? What is the “fake science” involved? Does a scientific investigation become pseudoscience if some errors are involved (such as, perhaps, unrecognized fraud)? More traditionally, if the methods of science are used, and if some error is made resulting in erroneous conclusions, this is called “pathological science,” perhaps, though Bauer (a sociologist of science) points out that there can be little practical difference between the “pathological” and simply the ordinary process of science — which can involve error, and later correction of error.
The first steps in scientific investigation is the collection of data, not the identification of “claims.” That is, I saw those lights. I might claim I saw a “flying saucer.” Normally, in human society, we accept reports of experience as true unless controverted. So if I say I saw lights, most will agree, I saw lights. They might even be entoptic phenomena, but … I saw them! The phenomena are distinct from the interpretation. This is basic social understanding and is a principle at law as well.
The Society for Psychical Research has this prominently featured:
THE SOCIETY for Psychical Research was set up in London in 1882, the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. We hold no corporate view about their existence or meaning; rather, our purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education.
I look at this and wonder: do such claims exist? Of course they do. So what are they talking about? Ah, the meaning! That is, the interpretation or explanation.
What question were “scientists” asked such that the following could be claimed?
[Parapsychology] is identified as pseudoscience by a majority of mainstream scientists.
This is stated as a bald fact? Is it verifiable? It should be well-known that because some alleged fact is stated in a reliable source, it is not necessarily balanced and verifiable as fact, but rather it is a claim or statement which is verifiable if the existence of the claim can be verified. Otherwise we get into the issue of whether what is in reliable source is truth, well-known as unresolvable.
 refers to a series of sources
- Gross, Paul R; Levitt, Norman; Lewis, Martin W (1996), The Flight from Science and Reason, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 565, ISBN 978-0801856761,
The overwhelming majority of scientists consider parapsychology, by whatever name, to be pseudoscience.
That is an offhand comment, made in response to what appears, in the brief excerpt Googlebooks presented, to be a critique of some specific claims made by a non-parapsychologist. There is no clue how the author knows what he knows; rather it would appear to be common knowledge. I.e., sloppy as hell, not substantiated by evidence (such as a survey, and an examination of the pesky question of who qualifies as a “scientist” for purposes of the question. Such as being a software engineer and professional skeptic (i.e., Tim Farley)?
Mind you, I’m not denying that “most scientists” might reject claims of the paranormal. but I don’t actually know that. Answers depend on questions. I don’t see that the authors actually asked any questions, they merely made a statement off the top of their heads, and were so allowed by the publisher, which made it reliable source. But this isn’t science, it’s popular writing.
- Friedlander, Michael W (1998), At the Fringes of Science, Westview Press, p. 119, ISBN 0-8133-2200-6,
Parapsychology has failed to gain general scientific acceptance even for its improved methods and claimed successes, and it is still treated with a lopsided ambivalence among the scientific community. Most scientists write it off as pseudoscience unworthy of their time.
What I notice is that the term “pseudoscience” here is used as a synonym for “not worthy of their time.” Is parapsychology treated with a “lopsided ambivalence”? What does that mean? Does it use “improved methods”? Are there “successes”? The book is stating, it appears to me, that even though there have been such developments, most scientists won’t look at the evidence. I’ve certainly seen this in other fields. Everyone has the right to decide where to invest their time, and I’m not investing mine to find out if I can predict coin tosses. Except in a small experiment for fun!
This was not intended, it appears, to establish that parapsychology is “identified by most scientists as pseudoscience.” It’s making a comment about difficulties the field faces in attracting the attention of “most scientists.” However, what was the context of the quotation? On Googlebooks, the paragraph before is talking about CSICOP. It’s about skeptics! (CSICOP became a debunking organization rather than the original intention of parapsychological research: Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. I.e, it might as well have been named Committee for Parapsychology.)
- Pigliucci, Massimo; Boudry, Maarten (2013), Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, University Of Chicago Press, p. 158, hdl:1854/LU-3161824, ISBN 978-0-226-05196-3,
Many observers refer to the field as a ‘pseudoscience’. When mainstream scientists say that the field of parapsychology is not scientific, they mean that no satisfying naturalistic cause-and-effect explanation for these supposed effects has yet been proposed and that the field’s experiments cannot be consistently replicated.
That is, when they refer to parapsychology as a pseudoscience, they are not actually claiming it is pseudoscience, they mean something else, which is then stated. This is, then, a reference to results, not to the practice of a science. I am not sure what “naturalistic” means. It would probably be “fitting within my understanding of nature.” But the paranormal, by definition, appears to be outside that.
Is it true that “the field’s experiments cannot be consistently replicated”? That is odd. Suppose I want to find out if saying Heads before I toss a coin affects the result. I suppose this would be, allegedly, telekinesis. So I do this a hundred times. I get results. Can they be consistently replicated?
Here is what I expect: I may get some result that seems “significant,” but if I repeat the experiment many times, that result may not be found any more than would be statistically expected with no influence, only random chance. That would be a result! If I’m not satisfied, I continue to repeat the experiment until I am.
And if there is a biased coin, this would discover it. I would do control experiments saying “Tails.”
So what are Pigliucci et al talking about? It seems as if scientific investigation, in the minds of these unidentified critics, is only “scientific” if it produces some confirmed result that is expected under some theory. Scientific investigation, however, is carefully structured, when it is real science, to not be biased toward “positive results.”
Let’s say that parapsychologists study the paranormal so that others don’t have to. That works for human society, there are obvious survival benefits for some minority maintaining investigation of the fringes. Once in a while it pays off, and, by definition, the overall cost is low.
The occasion for this post was the identification of certain people on RationalWiki as “parapsychologists,” when they are not scientists and are not engaged in scientific investigation, but merely have studied sources , or have expressed beliefs.
Brian Inglis (1916-1993) was an Irish journalist, parapsychologist, spiritualist; and pseudoscience author.
Neither this article on RationalWiki nor the Wikipedia article on Inglis show that Inglis was a parapsychologist, i.e., someone engaged in scientific investigation. Wikipedia has, as a detail:
He also had interests in the paranormal, and alternative medicine.
And, indeed, he compiled The Paranormal: An Encyclopedia of Psychic Phenomena (London: Paladin 1986). But this doesn’t make him a parapsychologist, it makes him a writer and editor. An Irish one, perhaps, and the author wants to make sure we know what “Irish” means. I’m not looking at the other terms.
The sloppiness is common for RationalWiki and especially common for Anglo Pyramidologist socks, as the original author of the Inglis article was.
And then we have Ben Steigmann:
Benjamin Steigmann (born 1991) is a [list of alleged political positions equivalent on RationalWiki to “clubs baby seals” or “is a Donald Trump supporter” — and I have no idea if he is or is not] he is also a parapsychologist and promoter of paranormal pseudoscience.
Steigmann is, again, not a parapsychologist at all. He decided to do a source review on parapsychology, on Wikiversity, which makes him a student, not a scientist. He is utterly non-notable, except for being a long-term target of Anglo Pyramidologist (specifically Darryl Smith, probably, less so his twin brother, Oliver Smith), so if you want to see an AP sock, it’s easy, look at who created the article (and look at the accounts created impersonating Steigmann, shown in the Anglo Pyramidologist studies with checkuser evidence on Wikipedia and the Obvious Obvious on RationalWiki.)
Craig Weiler is not a parapsychologist. He is a blogger and became a target when he wrote about the situation of some on Wikipedia.
Geraldine Cummins is not a parapsychologist but a medium.
Princess Märtha Louise is not a parapsychologist. See the Wikipedia article.
Now I have some more places to look for AP socks!