Friday, 18 November 2011

It’s Skeptical Correctness Gone Mad


Go on, admit it, you all think that Psychic Sally is a big fat fraud.

However, the majority of skeptics and rational commentators on the recent tribulations of the ever so lovely  Sally Morgan have gone out of their way to make it perfectly clear that they are absolutely not accusing her of being a fraud. And I too would like to make it quite clear up front to everyone, including Sally’s legal team, that I’m not making that allegation either.

We all know perfectly well that we cannot scientifically disprove Sally’s psychic claims any more than we can disprove Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot or Carl Sagan’s garage dwelling dragon. The likelihood of Sally’s mystic abilities being supernatural powers currently unknown to science are roughly equivalent to the likelihood of spontaneous heavenly crockery. Indeed the possibility any self proclaimed psychic has genuine paranormal powers are as close to zero as makes no odds, but it is nonetheless important to concede that it’s not an absolute impossibility. It therefore doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to transfer the burden of proof onto Sally, and kindly invite her to prove her mystical abilities under scientifically controlled conditions.

Sally may well be many things, but one think she is clearly not, is a complete and utter fuckwit. She knows as well as we do that the seemingly inexplicable phenomena seen in her stage shows will not manifest themselves under tightly controlled test conditions. She also knows as well as we do that it is not possible to empirically disprove her claims through the scientific method, so it’s hardly surprising that her response is simply to bat the burden of proof back to the skeptical community.

Stalemate.

This deadlocked situation seems to have spawned a set of almost creed-like clichés resonating around the sceptical community. How often have you heard phrases along the lines of?
“Sally may well have genuine psychic abilities; we just want to give her the opportunity to prove her powers beyond all reasonable doubt.”
The sceptical community are reduced to pussyfooting around the big name psychics being ultra careful not to explicitly claim they are frauds (apart from clear cut cases like Peter Popoff).

The preferred tactic seems to be hopelessly goading them into proving their claimed abilities under controlled conditions like the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge with more clichés like:
“We would love for Sally to prove that she has genuine psychic abilities as it would be one of the most monumental scientific discoveries in history”
But would we truly be thrilled and delighted if a psychic were to pass a controlled test? Would we set to work rewriting the science books straight away in the light of this truly astounding new observation? Or would we not still be a little sceptical? Would we be reluctant to immediately overturn a wealth of negative data in the light of a new freak positive? It would certainly be a fascinating discovery that would warrant in depth inquiry, but with extreme caution.

But of course these offers of a potential scientific paradigm shift and the possibility of bringing psychic investigation into the realms of credible science are meaningless carrots, dangled in the safe knowledge that we all know its just a load of old bunkum and cheap parlour tricks really.

Bunkum it almost certainly is, but it’s hard to hammer the point home when restricted by the unwritten rules of sceptical correctness.

Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps it’s just a matter of giving the psychics enough rope and waiting. In the last episode of Derren Brown’s recent series “The Experiments” he conducted an experiment in to luck by seeding a made up rumour of a lucky dog statue. The rumour quickly spread around the local townsfolk and eventually drew the interests of Psychic Sally herself who credulously proclaimed that the statute was standing at the centre of “a vortex of energy”.

This looks like a much better way of exposing bullshit, and helping the public avoid treading in it.



POSTSCRIPT:
Well spotted commenters, I did mean to include something about self delusion. Just read fraud in its broadest terms covering both conscious and self deluded.

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