A Clear Mind: Science

28Jun11

Many people attribute some human experiences to the realm of the paranormal.  They feel, in other words, that a particular experience — déjà vu, for example, or an instance of unusual psychic ability, or a seeming miracle, or some other exceptional event — is not very well explained by science.

Scientists do not typically favor paranormal beliefs.  They have good reason.  Superstition ruled humanity for thousands of years, with dreadful results:  stupidity, abuse, pain, and death.  Science has achieved things, in the past century or two, that superstition never could have achieved.  A simple experience of dental pain, unaided by modern dentistry, will quickly teach the value of some of those scientific achievements.

Science requires evidence.  Most superstitions fail this requirement.  The scientist sets up the instruments, asks the questions, gathers the data, and then examines the results.  If the faith healer, psychic, or magician cannot produce the claimed paranormal results under test conditions, then the scientist concludes that the paranormal claims are not supported.

That word, “supported,” is important.  Science is cautious about this.  It is not that the study absolutely disproves the claims; it is that this particular study does not provide good reason to believe them.  Of course, if people keep trying to test the claims under various conditions, and keep failing to find evidence in support of such claims, eventually people will tend to conclude that the claims are bogus.

When doing research, it is possible to ask the wrong questions, or to test in the wrong way, or to otherwise design a study poorly.  A good study can succeed where a faulty one fails.  It can take many years to improve upon previous studies, testing a phenomenon in different ways, and achieving different outcomes, before a settled conclusion begins to form.

Scientists tend to be committed to scientific explanations.  For the most part, this is because they believe that good research is why science has achieved so much.  If something odd is happening — with déjà vu, or with the heartrate of a person who has taken a certain medication, or really with pretty much anything — some scientist is apt, sooner or later, to study it.  And with luck and hard work, eventually a better understanding will emerge.

That, however, is not the whole story about science.  Another part of the story is that there are corrupt scientists, and inept scientists, and ideological scientists.  Scientists have biases.  They make assumptions.  Science is still miles ahead of anything else, when it comes to discovery and explanation.  But there have been many times when the learned experts have been terribly wrong.

Not all scientists have the same reaction to claims of paranormal phenomena.  Some consider such phenomena worth investigating.  Others do not.  Instead of displaying an “anything is possible” openness to the evidence, they seem closeminded — convinced in advance, that is, that the person cannot possibly have experienced what s/he claims to have experienced.

Such rigidity can generate a feeling that a potentially important kind of knowledge is being suppressed.  It may also reflect an outdated concept of science.  In the past century, scholars of quantum physics have reached some very odd conclusions and speculations.  For instance, they have proposed that there may be parallel universes, and that an atom can simultaneously spin in two opposite directions; they have devised atomic-level experiments that produce different results, depending on whether anyone is watching.  Because of such illogical outcomes, leading quantum scientists have remarked that the world is weird — that it is not as simple and real as it seems.

Scientists should certainly continue to search for conventional explanations.  For instance, they should continue to test the theory that déjà vu results from mis-synchronization of brain circuits.  Meanwhile, researchers should also be open to the ever-present possibility that something more bizarre is occurring.

So far, in many minds, science has not done a good job of explaining many paranormal phenomena.  Non-scientists often have a greater openness toward the possibility that the universe is not as cut-and-dried as the scientists seem to think.  Lacking superior scientific explanations, people often default to the traditional way of viewing such phenomena; that is, they continue to attribute paranormal events to the supernatural.

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One Response to “A Clear Mind: Science”

  1. 1 Marc Collins

    Science, by its nature, deals with the material world; it observes physical phenomena, generalizes those observations and hypothesizes what should happen in another situation based on those generalized observations. Science on the other hand is unable to speak into any events related to the spirit world.

    For many in science, they are satisfied when they can derive a plausible explanation for some event in the past, (which cannot be tested since no one can go back in time to capture data). There may be other plausible explanations that involve God acting in time and space – these are rejected categorically. They get branded as pseudo science, but in reality are outside of science and are unknowable by the scientific method.


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