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[alt.paranormal] Rational Investigation FAQ


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Archive-name: paranormal/rational
Posting-Frequency: Monthly to alt.paranormal,alt.answers,news.answers
Last-modified: 1998/10/10
Version: 1.0
URL: http://www.sidaway.demon.co.uk/paranormal/rational.txt
Copyright: (c) 1998 Sherilyn <sherilyn@sidaway.demon.co.uk>
Maintainer: Sherilyn <sherilyn@sidaway.demon.co.uk>

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
This FAQ is a regular posting of brief essays that reflect on some
insights and opinions gleaned from observing alt.paranormal over a
number of years.  I offer it as of potential use mainly to people
wondering why alt.paranormal is in such constant upheaval.  Some
people wondering why the level of debate in a.p is so low might
also glean some insights into why this is so.  I don't believe the
gulf between skeptics and believers is as wide as some people like
to make out, but I hope at least some people reading this FAQ will
be prompted to rethink their positions.

I think it may be unique in being the only alt.paranormal FAQ that
actually tries to deal with issues in the study of the paranormal
rather than personality conflicts, netiquette, or administrivia.
Let's hope it isn't the last!

1.      De rationibus absurdisque (On Reason and Absurdity)
2.      Gnosticism and Agnosticism
3.      The role of doubt in rational investigation
4.      Other resources in alt.paranormal

1.      De rationibus absurdisque. 
        ==========================

With all sorts of conspiracy theories going around about skepticult
and whatnot, I thought I'd revisit an old posting I made to
alt.paranormal.moderated when one poster gave an unusually candid
description of his problems with skepticism.  Having read
the bizarre web page at the URL below, I'm uncertain whether it's
deliberate misinformation or something the author actually believes,
but it strikes me as the end result of a process I described quite
precisely in this posting.

http://www.angelfire.com/me/lucianarchy/

I think the following paragraph, in particular, applies here:

    One way to guarantee that people will laugh at you is to blurt out
    in public "I know you're all laughing at me!"  Similarly, one way
    to guarantee that a person will not take you seriously is to claim
    that that person is bent on ridiculing you.  By asserting such an
    "a priori" relationship, one is simply indulging in an ad hominem
    fallacy, and insofar as one holds to that argument (which in time
    validates itself as more and more people take one less and less
    seriously) one courts ridicule.  In short, it's an argument that,
    by its nature, cannot but provoke ridicule.

Repost in full follows:

Subject: Re: Hello to group
Date:  11 Jun 1998 00:00:00 GMT
From:  Sherilyn <Sherilyn@sidaway.demon.co.uk>
Newsgroups: alt.paranormal.moderated

In article <897287560.325197@linux2.bluegrass.net>,
  Scott <bogus@mailbag.com> wrote:
...
>
> Take the contrast between my actions and that of a sketpic. I hear
> of an event and attempt to discover what caused the observed
> phenomenon. If it cannot be explained via known physics then it
> falls into the category "to be considered". A true skeptic goes
> through this same sequence, but those events that cannot be
> explained via known physics fall into the catagory "from a nut".
>
> Sketpics are out of place here. If not for the above reason, then
> for the reason that they wish to quash anything that they themselves
> do not believe in.

These two statements express with great clarity a distressingly common
argument of justification for the a priori discounting of certain modes
of examination of the paranormal.  The basic premise seems to be that
(one claims) a certain mode of inquiry is tainted by a motivation
towards suppression by ridicule, therefore such modes of inquiry (which
one usually identifies in a post hoc manner according to the results of
the inquiry) are to be ruled invalid, even though the methods used might
be (as in this case) openly admitted to be otherwise indistinguishable
from one's own.

We all should be aware of the self-fulfilling nature of this argument.
One way to guarantee that people will laugh at you is to blurt out in
public "I know you're all laughing at me!"  Similarly, one way to
guarantee that a person will not take you seriously is to claim that
that person is bent on ridiculing you.  By asserting such an "a priori"
relationship, one is simply indulging in an ad hominem fallacy, and
insofar as one holds to that argument (which in time validates itself
as more and more people take one less and less seriously) one courts
ridicule.

In short, it's an argument that, by its nature, cannot but provoke
ridicule.  I stress here that my ridicule is reserved for the argument,
not the proponents in this instance, whom I have every reason to
believe to be susceptible to reason.

There's only one way out of this--adhere to standards of reasoning
that are universally recognised as reasonable.  An excellent
introduction here:
        http://www.sidaway.demon.co.uk/skeptic/toolkit.html

An alternative way of viewing this would be as a "tragedy of the
commons".  If only we'd all agree not to laugh at one another behind
our backs no matter what the provocation, and stick to it, then
ridicule would be banished from the planet.  I don't happen to think
the world would be better place, but you might differ.  In the
meantime, we might all try to stop acting like it mattered a toss if
anybody ridicules us.


2.      Gnosticism and Agnosticism
        ==========================

[This from a debate on the use of the word "energies" along with
other words and concepts borrowed from science in an astrologer's
attempt to describe his astrological theory]
In article <CNaT1.8497$yU2.18385342@typhoon01.swbell.net>,
  "Jason Mathews" <xiii@swbell.net> wrote:
...
> But really, what's the quibble? Dan obviously knows what "energy"
> means in this context. Why don't you tell us Dan? I'm curious to see
> what you know on the subject. How does Ed's use of the word energy
> mean something different than the commonly accepted definition?
...

The standard response to the above seems to be "why ask such a
question when you clearly haven't studied the subject honestly?"

In general, the definition of honest study tends to be set so that a
person who emerges from a course of study still asking questions to
which adequate answers have not been given is judged to lack spiritual
maturity.  The issues of motive, hidden agendas, and self-deception
are quite valid, of course, but to judge a questioner by his question
is putting the cart before the horse.

There are two basic views on this issue, which should be well known
to most people from the parable of the Emperor's New Clothes.

  1) The gnostic view, which says it's a matter of spiritual maturity,
     and if you aren't spiritually ready then you won't understand the
     message (see any posting supporting S0ll1g's so-called
     "prophecies").

  2) The _agnostic_ view (rationalist, though not necessarily
     materialistic) that holds that certain knowledge is not possible
     through the spirit.

Agnostics will tend to hold others to the same standard to which they
hold themselves, but this is sometimes misunderstood as a demand for
proof.  The agnostic simply follows Huxley's dictum

    "It is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective
    truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which
    logically justifies that certainty."

Agnostics tend to hold few fixed, certain beliefs, and the number of
beliefs help tends to decrease with time, as the agnostic investigates
more, discovers the value of more points of view, and correspondingly
more reasons to doubt. An agnostic can always be expected to drop a
claim if shown to be unable to defend it rationally, however.  The
agnostic position is arguably one of the best defended and most useful
propositions in the history of modern thought.  It is adaptive,
open-minded and self-questioning.  It rejects the certainty of belief
in favor of the deductive power of reason and experience.

It's actually quite easy for an agnostic to drop all this thought and
examine a non-critical mode of thought.  Clearly a belief in astrology
implies that some kind of invisible activity is taking place.
Predicated on this belief, it seems inevitable that there are
influences, which can be called energies, and from this and some
standard grade motor-mechanic buddhism, and some third-hand platonism,
one can build up the whole edifice which Grant Lewi and others have
used.  All one has to do is to make one unquestioned assumption, and
the rest follows (it also follows from this that the agnostic must
be aware of potential flaws in his own assumptions).

All it takes to bring the whole thing down is one small, ignorant but
perceptive boy.

I think this is why asking ignorant questions is viewed as so
corrosive to gnostic belief systems, and why skepticism is
regarded by some gnostics as a form of deadly harassment (though most
take a much more stoic view).  Asking ignorant questions has
historically worked so well in businesses where critical thought is
important.  Science can only grow stronger if questioned.  Gnosticism
can only grow weaker if questioned.

3.      The role of doubt in rational investigation
        ===========================================


In article <3602ECB9.810E81F2@ladsoft.com>, David Lindauer
<camille@ladsoft.com> writes
...
>
> When I originally created the [alt.paranormal.moderated] I was hoping
> that the skeptics would accept the observations being made just on the
> basis of being assumed and then reason about them in a scientific
> fashion in order to shed light on whether the assumptions actually
> *might* be possible.  What I got instead is that they basically argued
> with the 'veracity' of the observations instead of just accepting
> them.  Since you can't do good science if you won't even accept
> observations about reality long enough to think about them 
...
I'm looking through the current copy of New Scientist (Sept 19th).  The
major feature, "Ghosts in the Sky" refers to a search by a Russian
cosmologist for ghost images of our own galaxy--if this guy is right,
some of the images we see through our telecopes and other instruments,
and that are catalogued as objects in their own right, could actually be
double images caused by the curvature of space.  The second feature, Dig
This, is about the problems of identifying objects underground using
magnetometers and other instruments.  One archeogeophycist, Ralph von
Frese of OSU, is quoted: "You don't get something back that says 'This
is an arrowhead'.  You get a bunch of distortions and disturbances and
you have to sort through them to determine if you're looking at a real
target that's worthwhile digging for."  The third feature is called
"Let's get emotional", and is about questioning the veracity of
commonsense assumptions and observations in economic modelling.  So
there we have it: astronomers question what they see in their
telescopes, archeologists can't believe their instruments, and
economists can't believe the market.  Science is like that; it's mostly
about questioning assumptions--not believing your eyes, looking beyond
appearances.

4.      Other resources in alt.paranormal
        =================================

Other resources related to this newsgroup can be obtained from
        http://www.faqs.org/faqs/paranormal/
END
-- 
Sherilyn

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