10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science — Part 3: We are now more capable than ever of proving a miracleJuly 13, 2013
This post concerns miraculous or paranormal events. That is, events which “science can’t explain” or which seem to involve the suspension of the laws of physics. It’s often argued that science is dogmatically opposed to even considering the evidence for such events, or that it is blind to, of incapable of detecting such evidence. This post will argue that if in fact paranormal events really do occur, the chances of them being detected and accurately verified by science are better now than they are ever were.
As an easy entry into the topic, let’s start with a hypothetical paranormal event. How about the story told in this song written by Tommy Faile in 1968, and performed here by Tom Waits.
Big Joe and Phantom 309 performed by Tom Waits
For those who can’t make head or tail of it, here are the lyrics. And for those who didn’t want to listen, I’ll recount the story briefly.
A young kid is hitchhiking his way home across the US. He is waiting by the road on a rainy night, when a truck stops for him. The driver introduces himself as “Big Joe” and proudly says his rig is called “The Phantom 309”. The two talk for a while, each telling their stories and enjoying the company, until Joe stops the truck near a roadhouse and says the kid will have to get out here, as he has to be making a turn soon. As the kid climbs out, Joe tosses his a dime and says, “Go on in there son, and get yourself a hot cup of coffee on Big Joe.”
The kid goes into the diner, orders his coffee and mentions that Big Joe is paying for it. The place goes deathly quiet. It is explained to the kid that everyone there knows about Big Joe. About ten years ago he was driving his truck along that road when suddenly a school bus full kids rounded the corner on the wrong side of the road. Joe jack-knifed the truck to avoid hitting them. The kids were saved, but Joe lost control of his truck and died. And now,
Every now and then, when the Moon’s holdin’ water, they say old Joe Will stop and give you a ride….
In a nice touch at the end, the kid is told to hang onto that dime, as a reminder of Big Joe.
Stories like these often have a few common elements. A strong one is the pure enjoyment or attachment to the idea that the story is true as well as the confirmation of outlandish events by an innocent third party, (circumstantial evidence) and some direct physical evidence (the dime).
For the immediate witnesses, such an event would appear highly compelling, but for outsiders such a story would have to be regarded as hearsay. A listener would have to admit that as hearsay, it is susceptible to error, embellishment, and deliberate deception. So anyone seriously trying to find out whether the story is true would have to try and find the best possible evidence. Paranormal occurrences would, by definition, be very difficult to detect. Historically an investigator would have to sort through as many different accounts from eye witnesses as possible, and attempt to identify the countless possible sources of error in those accounts. Did they really witness the event itself? Have they discussed with each other and thereby unwittingly altered and adjusted their narratives? Might they be deliberately colluding? Etc.
But these days it’s increasingly likely that kid in the song would pull out his cell phone and snap a photo of Joe, or maybe the truck as it was driving off, revealing the number plate. Or texted a friend about getting a ride with Joe, or checked his satnav repeatedly that evening to verify his location. All that would help verify that the trip took place.
Sure it’s easy enough to fake photos these days, and many do, but the technology for detecting fakery is just as sophisticated, if not more so. Here’s a nice example from the Exposing PseudoAstonomy blog, where a “beam of light” was photographed emanating from a pyramid in Mexico. Astrophysicist Stuart Robbins explains in some detail why the photo is most likely a fake. (For example the beam is vertical, whereas whoever took the picture was holding the camera at a slight angle, suggesting a later alteration.) Robbins has a great many articles on the subject of image analysis. The bar for a successfully faked photograph has been raised considerably. Likewise, if a photo can pass that kind of detailed analysis, it has good science behind it verifying its authenticity.
In the past, that dime would have been a nice keepsake, but imagine how it could be investigated today. Of course it would not necessarily disprove the story if it were found to be a “normal” dime, but if it were found to have anomalies in the chemical structure or any unusual properties, that could become highly compelling evidence of authenticity.
One case where science could refute allegations of forgery and establish authenticity was the first discovered fossil of a feathered dinosaur. It was indeed an extraordinary find in 1861, shortly after Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, and suggesting a common ancestry between birds and dinosaurs. The chances of such a stunningly beautiful fossil forming and then being found in tact 150 million years later are incredibly remote.
As late as 1985 it was argued to be a fake by, among others, the astronomer Fred Hoyle. The feathers, it was argued, had been forged. Other anomalies were pointed out and various motives for forgery were suggested. None of the accusations stuck, however. Hairline cracks running through both the rock and the feathers showed that it was authentic and numerous other anomalies were shown to be spurious.
….And so would it be if that dime turned out to have extraordinary properties. Science would hold the best tools available for verifying its authenticity.
(And just take a look at that fossil close up. Anyone with the skill to forge something like that would not be wasting their talents on something as elaborate as that and then donating it to a museum for posterity! Fred Hoyle proved that being brilliant is no guard against being a bit of a loon sometimes.)
I imagine the point of this post must be so clear by now that I don’t need to say much more.
Where previously we had to rely on memory and hearsay, it’s now much more likely that a paranormal event, should it really occur will be recorded in some way. Similarly, faith healers or Louise Hay types claiming to have cured some deadly illness now have much better chances of being able to verify their claims. Science is on their side…. Or would be if they were telling the truth.
And the next Joseph Smith need not hide his gold tablets of God’s Book of Mormon. He can take them to the physics department of the local university and say “Check these babies out, you narrow-minded conservative materialist rationalist reductionists who dogmatically support the dominant paradigm.”
As the blogger Skeptico pointed out a few years ago, the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 with the aim of proving the existence of paranormal events. 130 years later, and despite regular claims to the contrary, it still has not proven a single case. Meanwhile, the narrow-minded conservative worshipers of the dominant paradigm are flying around in space ships, confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson, and working out ways of looking inside your brain to make sure that nothing’s going kill you suddenly. Just sayin’.
Note to commenters
Please don’t recount your personal tales of the paranormal. Whatever they are, I’ve got better ones: out of body experiences independently confirmed by the party I “visited”, contact with aliens, being an alien, contact with the dead, telepathy, past life memories containing subsequently verified information, information from dreams subsequently verified, divinely healed illnesses, and much more.
Wonderful and compelling as they seem subjectively, they are actually dull to everyone else. This is not the place for them and no one cares. Sorry.
More importantly, anyone who is thinking of writing that a particular paranormal event has indeed been scientifically verified, google it, for god’s sake. There will be a $20 fine for anyone posting already debunked paranormal events.
Posted by Yakaru