Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Who you gonna call?

One of my (many) pet peeves is people claiming a scientific basis for something, and then their explanation indicates that they really have no understanding of the science they're citing.

An oft-quoted example is the way purveyors of the woo-woo liberally drizzle words like "quantum" all over everything.  I've seen ads for "quantum-activated bracelets," whatever the hell that means.  They often follow it up with ridiculous pseudo-explanations about how quantum physics teaches us that nothing is certain, that anything is possible, and that energy fields exist, and therefore if you buy our bracelet ($39.99 US, plus shipping and handling), you can harness quantum energy fields to realize your true possibilities.

The problem is, if you don't have much scientific training, which unfortunately a great many Americans don't, you might actually be suckered in by something like this.  Funny how people will spend their hard-earned cash to buy a useless item because of an advertisement that sounds "scientific," but when actual scientists present their actual conclusions based on actual logic and actual hard evidence, such as with evolution and climate change, many people just go, "Damn pointy-headed, pocket-protector-wearing nerds.  Whadda they know?"  And then they go back to watching advertisements for "quantum-activated bracelets" on the Shopping Channel.

I bring all of this up because of a recent feature article in our local newspaper, The Ithaca Journal.  The article was written by Steven Brewer, founding member of Paranormal Investigators of Central New York, and was a thinly-disguised attempt to drum up business from the credulous.  PICNY (visit their website here), based in Auburn, has as its mission "to help the people being effected [sic] by (a) haunting better understand what is happening to them and help them address it."  Most of the article was what you'd expect -- anecdotal reports of lights being found on when the people in question "knew they'd been turned off," fuzzy voices on a recording made in an empty house, a ball rolling across a table "when no one had pushed it."  (This last one happens to my wife and I all the time, but it's because our house was built in such a way that there is not a single straight line, level surface, or right angle anywhere.  The words "square" and "plumb" were not in the vocabulary of the builders of this house.)

In any case, Brewer goes on to explain how scientific his operation is:  "PICNY does approach the paranormal with a scientific mindset and we go into every investigation trying to debunk any claims of activity, we even try to debunk our own experiences inside the location. We do this mostly because there are many things that are believed to be paranormal in nature but are in fact natural such as the feeling of being watched. This is caused by EMF or Electro-Magnetic Fields which are given off by the Earth as well as old or improperly wired electronics. The claims and experiences that we cannot reasonably debunk are classified as being paranormal in nature."

It's a wonder he didn't throw in the word "quantum."  Yes, the Earth has an electromagnetic field.  Quite a large one, in fact.  Without it, it would be damned hard to get a compass to work.  Yes, electronic equipment generates an electromagnetic field.  That's how they work; note the use of the word "electronic" in "electronic equipment."   And from this he accounts for our "feeling of being watched?"  If this explanation was correct, we'd constantly feel like we were being watched, because we're constantly immersed in the Earth's electromagnetic field, and most of us are around electrical equipment all the time.  In fact, rather few of us feel watched all the time, and those few are generally referred to as "paranoid" and are referred for psychiatric evaluation.

You'd think that, given that the previous paragraph requires an understanding of physics equal to that of your average 7th grader, people would immediately frown upon reading these claims and say, "Well, these guys certainly sound like a bunch of nimrods."  Sadly, that is not the case.  I just looked at PICNY's Facebook page (of course they have a Facebook page) and since the article came out, it's been "liked" 214 times.  I saw, in fact, a post on their page that said, "I just read the article about what you're doing, and I wanted to let you know that I'm a reporter who tags along on paranormal investigations for the field experience, contact me if you'd like to connect."  There you have it, folks -- the true purpose of social media: to bring together wackos.

I would be remiss in not pointing out another, and subtler, problem with the paragraph I quoted above; and that's in the last sentence, where they state that anything they cannot "reasonably debunk" is classified as being paranormal.  Now, the difficulty with an investigation like this is how prone it is to confirmation bias.  Investigators who come in, billing themselves as "paranormal researchers," who clearly believe in the supernatural, and whose reputations rely on successfully finding ghosts and hauntings and so on, are going to have a clear bias toward interpreting whatever they see or hear as evidence of the paranormal.  Anything that happens -- a noise, a movement of air, a "feeling of being watched" -- is very likely to be unquestioningly accepted as having a supernatural cause.

The whole idea of "if we can't explain it, it must be paranormal" is contrary to the scientific way of thinking right from the get-go, and yet it's a fairly common theme you hear from people who accept the supernatural.  It is especially pervasive amongst the religious; Richard Dawkins calls it the "god of the gaps" approach.  "If we can't explain it, then god must have done it."  A scientist does not need to label the parts of nature (s)he hasn't yet explained as either "paranormal" or "spiritual."   Science's approach is, "if we can't explain it, we can't explain it -- yet."  You gain nothing in understanding by labeling everything we have yet to comprehend fully as supernatural.

And, for crying out loud, if you're going to try to use science to support your position, get the freakin' science right.  If you get the science wrong, all you do is make yourself look like a dunderhead, even if you do manage to convince a few other dunderheads along the way.  To once again quote Dawkins: "Ignorance of facts is not evidence of fiction."

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