10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science — Part 3: We are now more capable than ever of proving a miracle

July 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).

Circumstantial Evidence

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.

Direct/Physical Evidence

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.

000-Archaeopteryx_lithographica_Berlin_specimenArchaeopteryx, Natural History Museum, Berlin

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


  1. Hehe, that beats google adwords or a donate button! Fines for posting bullshit on the net…you’re definitely onto something.

  2. Another good post, Yakaru! Woo woo types often say that science won’t or can’t study the paranormal/non-physical. When I first came out of my Abraham haze, I was surprised to learn that people with scientific training can and do study these things!

    I find it interesting that, in the presence of scientific instruments and scientific theories that measure and address things we can’t see, woos will say that science can’t measure what someone FEELS to be true.

    I agree, Yakaru, scientific study and exploration are quite advanced and would be able to prove at least some of the claims floating out there!

  3. @LS,
    It’s kind of the reverse of the Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

    I’m sure there are sincere paranormal investigators out there who are genuinely looking for real evidence. But all the ones I’ve ever come across are already running off to the PR department and the bank without even trying to find out if they’ve found something real.

    Fact is that if any of those goons ever really did find something, they’d probably spoil the evidence through shoddy procedure.

  4. @Yakaru, well, yes, that’s a good point! But there actually are reasonable, scientifically-oriented people who are willing to consider these claims, whereas the woo woos say that “science” is unable and/or unwilling to do so.

  5. One more recent thing that comes to mind is the modern ubiquity of camera phones. Once upon a time, if you claimed to have seen a flying saucer or Bigfoot, it was plausible to claim you didn’t have a camera on you. People generally didn’t carry cameras with them all the time. These days, if people see something strange, their first instinct would be to pull out their cell phone and start snapping pics. And yet no one can get a clear picture of these things. They have to hunt for artifacts, insects hovering close to the lens, orbs from reflective dust, and blurry camera straps.

  6. Yes — and I’ve never seen any tweets saying Abducted by ALIENZ. Holy crap the earth is hollow! #hollow earth #missed appointment

  7. Yes Yakaru, i’ve felt this kind of thing strongly myself.
    Everytime I’ve heard organic fanatics discuss pesticides, with comments that contain what may have even been valid concerns in the ’60s, and completely ignore what years of research have taught us about the population of this planet’s inability to survive soley on organic farming and the conclusive lack of greater nutrition in organic food.
    Ufology nuts with no grasp of the knowledge we now own regarding imagery, human perception, atmospheric anomalies, the physics involved in space travel and so on and so forth.
    Believers in psychic mediums, who can’t or more likely just wont accept that warm-reading, cold-reading, ability to lead conversation and hours of preparation are not just viable skills but have been shown many times to be practiced by their favourite ‘psychics’.
    As anyone can tell the list could keep going with woo that seems to insist on staying dated and shows an amazing ignorance of the countless discoveries that science has made since the first big book came out about their favourite type of woo.

  8. Hi Woody, I’m in general agreement with most of that, but a bit less so on pesticides, organic food production and nutrition, possibly due to my own ignorance. If it’s ok to follow this off topic a bit, Yakaru…?

    …My concern about “pesticides” includes some that are in use now, whereas your (Woody) post seems to suggest that we’ve sorted out the good from the awful DDT we sprayed on everything back in the old days. First of all, chemicals are passed as safe for use (I think) if their toxicity is below a certain threshold, while they may still be toxic to some degree, this toxicity may not be fully understood in the longer term and possible overuse might add to the problem. I’m not up to date on the issue of the widespread death of bee colonies, but I believe a pesticide passed for safe use has been implicated as at least a possible cause. Theoretically, a whole range of toxic consequences might follow from the use of pesticides and other technologies over time. This is one of the undeniable (and often denied, misunderstood or ignored) failings of science: being evidence based, it sometimes requires arbitrary lengths of time for the results of “experiments” to come in. Hence some of the issues around pesticides and other chemicals, and of course genetically modified organisms.

    I am certainly ignorant of the data on the “population of this planet’s inability to survive soley on organic farming”, but it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to realise that we may well have a distinct inability to survive on inorganic farming in the long term. If I’m not mistaken, the population is sustained only by burning the vast amounts of carbon we have since the industrial revolution, and SOMETHING is causing a mass extinction of vast numbers of other species. I read the other day that biomass related to humans (us and our farmed organisms) make up about 95% of the total biomass of Earth.

    Obviously (I hope), our ability to survive on either organic or chemical-driven farming is almost certain, depending on what level of population we’re talking about and how much resources we use, since humans were living in an organic “garden” for most of our prehistory. I also wonder how much your statement would be impacted (even allowing for our 7 billion) by a complete switch to vegetarianism, since farming meat wastes a large majority of the energy invested in growing our food (and it also appears that most of the modern deforestation is for the benefit of burger-munchers).

    I sometimes find a scientific position that is as untenable and irrational as the woo, predicated on the idea that whatever problems we might have we can solve by throwing more technology at them, and (although I don’t mean to accuse you of this) I think your statements could follow from, or help support, that view. They could suggest that losing species left, right and centre doesn’t matter, diversity doesn’t matter, complex ecosystems, natural environments and unspoilt wilderness don’t matter: all that matters is counting the mouths to feed and the tonnes of food we can grub out of the ground, fertilized with whatever we can dump on it.

    Finally, I should point out another problem with inorganic farming. I have read that organic veg or meat is no more nutritious than inorganic veg or meat. I doubt, in fact, that all the possible trace elements are taken into account in such studies, but my main problem with the latter is not what might not be there that I want, but what is there that I don’t. And you’ll have a long arduous road ahead trying to convince me that all the pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, heavy metals and other shit the “scientific” world shoves into the environment in the name of productivity don’t get into my body and don’t contribute (even potentially) to cancers and other diseases. The last 200 years have been a mad science experiment with the world as its test tube. The results are still coming in. And at the helm now we have private multi-nationals like Monsanto, putting the global ecosystem as far into its pocket as it can shove it, claiming intellectual property rights on crops third-world countries need and virtually owning goverments. Rich countries are buying up vast tracts of foreign countries, Africa etc., to turn into more chemical (killing) fields, to feed more chemical-soaked burgers and cereals to their obese citizens.

  9. Thanks lettersquash, concentrated rants (woo or skeptical) can quickly cover a lot of subject ground and your thoughtful reply was well worth me reading.
    Pesticide residue is a concern that still seems to appear in the studies comparing organic with non-organic produce, or simply studying farm produce without any reference to organic issues.
    Indeed, talking about the results of testing and what conclusions we may draw from those results is no finale to such debates because – as you express – the real world, organisation of scientific, economic and territorial power, contains a number of issues we need to be concerned about having nothing to do with test results.
    None an claim that inorganic food is free of pesticides and harmful chemicals, but it is a myth that organic food is free of these things.
    I invite you to check out that address and in return I will turn my eye to questions about the global ecosystem and to all of the things that may affect it. Your reply shows me that I would benefit from what I may learn looking at this through a very wide scope including the whole world and how it’s leading groups act in relation to feeding the population (and their own wealth).
    Converting all food production of this world to organic farming would not produce enough food to feed us all to the point that millions would starve. It is statements like that, factual and supported by the scientific evidence that can grow in me a monster that leaves unkempt, short, concentrated skeptical rants. Sites like this can be so good for me because other thinkers like you can affect my views, not necessarily changing them, but making me aware that what I do know needs to be tempered with greater knowledge of historical, global and human facts.

  10. That’s a very fair-minded reply, Woody, and I’m also ready to learn and shift my views (and I was definitely ranting towards the end!). The first thing that strikes me is that this is a complicated technical and political issue, where each side in the debate tends to identify problems differently and suggest different causes and cures.

    My reply has morphed into something more article-length, currently 1700 words, with a bit yet to discuss, so I’ll write it on my blog and provide a link in a while.

  11. You can also increase food production by other means than genetic modification, hybrid plants, artificial fertilisers, and pesticides.
    E.g. Breed more ladybirds to control other small insects. (Maybe not ?)
    Increase the global temperature to promote plant growth. (Er ?)
    Melt the polar icecaps to recycle more fresh water via rainfall into irrigation. (Errr ?)
    Errrrrr. Aren´t I forgetting the problems are mostly man-made ? I don´t think increased efficiency is going to work in the long run. Somewhere there´s going to be a limit, and increased production will falter. Meanwhile eco-systems are being overwhelmed.

  12. […] was reading an article at Yakaru’s excellent blog, Spirituality is No Excuse, when I stumbled into a discussion […]

  13. Well said, Donald. Sorry for the delay, Woody – I get a bit carried away editing. I’ve written a critique of Christie Wilcox’s article on my blog at lettersquash.wordpress.com – also sorry that it’s got so long. There may be other points you’ve made that I should respond to, but I hope that answers some of them for now.

  14. It’s a complex issue with a lot of forces involved. At the moment, I think ideal farming practices would involve reliable GM crops, ecological knowledge to optimize crop rotation with sustainability and biodiversity in mind, and finding synergy between different farm functions, such as using livestock to fertilize fields.

    One thing that often gets neglected on the issue of famine-stricken regions is that a reliable food supply and improved quality of life counter-intuitively leads to less reproduction, especially if coupled with access to contraceptives. As it stands, I think famine can provide a perverse incentive to have more children: They can work as farm hands and scroungers, and presumably result in a net increase in the family food supply. There’s also a likely tendency towards r-strategy reproduction, since high mortality makes it risky to invest everything on fewer children. Improve quality of life in those areas, and parents will feel more secure about investing in the children they do have.

  15. @Bronze Dog, yes, that is my understanding of the new consensus about population growth, mainly from listening to Hans Rosling on TED, and it’s very encouraging. The intuitive belief most of us grew up with was (something like) that population was an ever-increasing curve, an explosion that would only end in some final disaster, and the more of us there were and the richer we were the more children we would have. But history shows that where poverty is releaved families invest more in fewer children because their survival is more secure, and population grown dramatically slows, stops or reverses. It makes sense to pay for the children’s education so they can get jobs and contribute more to the family finances. Against this, those countries are moving towards urbanisation and industrialisation, including of farming, leaving fewer and fewer amalgamated farms in the countryside, with increasing environmental stresses and pollution, similar to what we have been doing for 50 or 60 years in the developed world.

    Maybe my definition of “organic” is a bit loose, but I think most of us would consider it including “ecological knowledge to optimize crop rotation with sustainability and biodiversity in mind, and finding synergy between different farm functions, such as using livestock to fertilize fields”. Probably one of the biggest problems in the organic debate is that people have these different definitions, so that good farming practices and outcomes are attributed to whichever category the writer supports and vice versa, especially when they argue for a combination of the best of both worlds. My current reading is persuading me that, despite the patronizing noises from the supporters, we don’t have “reliable GM crops”. I read comments from those supporters like: “The anti-GMers have been proved wrong and the science simply doesn’t support their case; GM is such a simple and precise technique now that nobody can even think of any unforseen outcomes; they just fear the unknown; they’re anti-big-business…etc.,” but what I’m finding in the critical research is staggering. As for the impossibility of unforseen outcomes, for example, they didn’t even expect “Golden Rice” to be yellow. They expected it to be red, but the new genetic material produced beta-carotene instead of lycopene. And that’s just the start of the problems.

  16. @lettersquash,
    Just rescued your last two comments from the spam bin. I don’t know why they landed there. Apologies for late posting.

    Discussion is welcome, but it might be more relevant to continue it at the post on lettersquash’s site —

  17. Ah, I wondered where they’d gone. Thanks for rescuing them. Yes, I’d welcome any other comments on organic farming on my blog, and this thread can rail itself. De-derail, see?

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