Regular commenter (and blogger) @lettersquash left a great comment here yesterday. I want to write a quick post picking up an important point from it. It concerns the repeated yammering from parapsychologists and psychic researchers (not to mention cancer quacks) that mainstream science has a taboo against studying psychic phenomena. Lettersquash notes that Rupert Sheldrake, for example,
rails against the taboo against studying psychic phenomena, although people have been studying it for centuries (and finding nothing).
The ‘taboo’ is boredom, the boredom some of us feel when someone tells us enthusiastically their house is haunted or they saw a spaceship land on their lawn last night or they know their dog can understand everything they’re saying….
The whole rant is excellent and well worth reading and responding to. I will post a few quick thoughts on this topic here…..
It seems to me that far from having a taboo about spiritual or psychic phenomena, scientists and serious researchers have been especially accommodating of such ideas. If people were not so emotionally invested in these ideas (and I include scientists here) there is no way that science would have wasted so much time and energy on them. Yet regardless of how many times such claims are demolished by properly conducted research, and such ideas are shown to be utterly useless by the laws of physics, nutbags like Rupert Sheldrake or Dean Radin continue to insist that it’s merely because of a taboo that these ideas have not entered mainstream science. No. It’s because these presumptious nitwits have published their poorly researched failures too quickly and are too egotistical or too greedy to back down.
The history of science is littered with failed hypotheses and disproven theories. Even very popular and plausible ones were swiftly dispatched pretty much as soon as it became clear that they were implausible. The theory that gravity was due to the existence of an “ether” through which the planets moved was dropped as soon as Newton figured out the math for measuring the exact velocity of planets at all points of their (elliptical) orbits. He was shocked to find that it they moved exactly according to his theoretical calculations which deliberately ignored the effects of the resistance he expected to find. (Like air resistance, it was supposed that ether would also cause a slight drag.) Had ether been equated with the Holy Ghost, or — a more relevant example — been supposed to be the medium through which we can communicate with the dead, we would probably still be forced to speak of it respectfully in hushed tones and fund research into why science “can’t explain” how it allows planets to move through it without resistance.
It’s an insult to science and to scientists to claim this taboo exists. Science itself is the process by which evidence is evaluated for its reliability and usefulness. Scientific method is entirely concerned with this, and scientific knowledge can be said to consist of those things which are so well established that it no longer makes any sense to test it. It’s not that difficult to realize that this valuable knowledge has implications — namely that we don’t need to waste time on investigating clearly implausible ideas.
If there is a taboo it’s against treating religious ideas exactly the same as other ideas and dismissing them when they have been clearly shown to be useless.
Of course, it’s fine if people want to go on gathering data and carrying out experiments (though why not try conducting them properly for once???). Maybe one day you’ll hit the jackpot. ESP will be proven to exist and we will be able to read minds with exactly the same accuracy as if we were guessing; homeopathy will be proven and we’ll be able to heal people just as effectively as a placebo; psychics will legitimately be able to help police find missing children with exactly the same success rate as random chance…. And a Golden Age will ensue….
UPDATE 17 June 2014
I wasn’t joking in the comments below when I warned of a $20 fine for any commenter linking to a paranormal claim that has already been thoroughly debunked. Unfortunately, one commenter below posted this link
to a book containing a veritable encyclopedia of idiotic charlatans and woos, (Uri Geller, for example) and a long list of fraudulent and debunked woo practices (Kirlian photography, for example). Many of these topics are no longer worthy of consideration, beyond serving as rather mundane cases studies of well documented fraud, delusion, and ignorance.
For this act, I hereby fine commenter Roman Voronjanski $20 to be paid to Doctors Without Borders. As an act of clemency, however, a fitting donation has been paid by this website on behalf of the offender. Please do not offend again. Next time I won’t pay it, and you will be placed on moderation until you do.
Posted by Yakaru