Some Unfair Practices Towards Claims of the Paranormal

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Some Unfair Practices Towards Claims of the Paranormal: Discrediting “Extraordinary” Claims

by Marcello Truzzi

Quote:Today, I think the balance has shifted too far towards arrogance. The emergence of a new and quasi-religious dogmatism, usually termed Scientism, has been examined and criticized from diverse standpoints in recent years, particularly those of Tom Sorell, Mary Midgley and Bryan Appleyard. Though some critics of Scientism take an anti-science stance, we need not go so far to recognize some current excesses. And though some postmodernists and others question the basic epistemology of science, my concern here is only with metaphysical debates over what phenomena science should judge to be “real,” especially controversial claims for the reality of anomalies (ranging from alleged processes like extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis – the claims of the parasciences – to bizarre physical things like bigfoot and UFOs – the claims of the cryptosciences). My complaints here, then, are only with scientists’ violations of their own professed method; in fact, I agree with those who contend that science fundamentally IS its method rather than its tentative substantive content.

Quote:As psychologist Ray Hyman has noted, many scientists may be more interested in discrediting than in disproving claims of the extraordinary. This can lead to poor scholarship and methods below normal professional standards, and it also results in ad hominem attacks and rhetorical tricks rather than solid falsification. Hyman noted it can also lead to the use of “hit men” (nonscientists such as journalists or even magicians) encouraged to discredit the claimants. Such nonscientists have argued about the need to “fight fire with fire” and the advantages of “horselaughs” over arguments and evidence. Such counterattacks themselves constitute a form of pathology within science. As philosopher (and critic of the paranormal) Mario Bunge put it: “the occasional pressure to suppress it [dissent] in the name of the orthodoxy of the day is even more injurious to science than all the forms of pseudoscience put together.”

Quote:As proponents of anomalies produce stronger evidence, critics have sometimes moved the goal posts further away. This is especially clear in the case of parapsychology. To convince scientists of what had been merely been supported by widespread but weak anecdotal evidence, parapsychologists moved psychical research into the laboratory. When experimental results were presented, designs were criticized. When protocols were improved, a “fraud proof” or “critical experiment” was demanded. When those were put forward, replications were demanded. When those were produced, critics argued that new forms of error might be the cause (such as the “file drawer” error that could result from unpublished negative studies). When meta-analyses were presented to counter that issue, these were discounted as controversial, and ESP was reduced to being some present but unspecified “error some place” in the form of what Ray Hyman called the “dirty test tube argument” (claiming dirt was in the tube making the seeming psi result a mere artifact). And in one instance, when the scoffer found no counter-explanations, he described the result as a “mere anomaly” not to be taken seriously so just belonging on a puzzle page. The goal posts have now been moved into a zone where some critics hold unfalsifiable positions. Scoffers are typically quick to demand good methodology when dealing with extraordinary claims, insisting on such things as replications, control groups, double-blind experiments, and the rule of parsimony (Ockham’s Razor). They often write of the cognitive fallacies committed by paranormalists. In the process, however, they overlook the same need for rigor in many areas they defend. Thus, alternative medicine is denounced for its failure to demonstrate claims with proper experiments, ignoring the absence of experimental evidence in many areas of orthodox medicine (for example, in surgery). And scoffers denounce “psychic” counsellors but don’t bother to do controlled experiments comparing them to orthodox advisors such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and social workers.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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Good stuff, Sci. I also really appreciated this bit, with emphasis mine:

Quote:Perhaps the most insidious rhetorical trick has been the misappropriation of the label “skeptic” to describe what are actually scoffers . As sociologist Robert K. Merton pointed out, organized skepticism is a fundamental norm in science. However, the term skepticism is properly defined as doubt, not denial. It is a position of agnosticism, of nonbelief rather than disbelief. The true skeptic (a doubter) asserts no claim, so has no burden of proof. However, the scoffer (denier) asserts a negative claim, so the burden of proof science places on any claimant must apply. When scoffers misrepresent their position as a form of “hard-line” skepticism, they really seek escape from their burden to prove a negative position.

I have noticed this over and over again. This is roughly how I think it goes:

Scoffer: The existence of X is not even possible. And the burden of proof lies with those who think it does exist.
Proponent: Uh, the burden of proof is on anybody who makes an unambiguous claim. You've just made one: that X is not even possible. Therefore, the burden of proof is as much on you as the proponent.
Scoffer: Nah but: can't prove a negative.
Proponent: Oh yeah? I can prove that there is not a lollipop in this box simply by opening it and checking. In any case, if you can't prove it, then why are you asserting it to be true?
Scoffer: [Doesn't have a meaningful response]
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