Sunday, May 18, 2008

Science, the Supernatural and Elitism

Food for thought from Science and The Supernatural, written by Professor John Taylor (King's College, London) in 1980, who wrote that people who are interested in the supernatural / paranormal are simply looking for answers that speak to them at a level they can comprehend, as opposed to serious science, which is beyond most people:

He or she will be searching for an answer to the unspoken question as to why they are here and what it all means. But it has to be a loud and clear answer and one that is short and sharp. That is presently absent from the more serious literature.

The supernatural would seem to give such an answer, either from the spirits of those who have "passed on," from the mouths of alien beings, from those who have lived many times or from "psychics" who are prepared to jump where angels fear to tread.

The answer I give here now is short and sharp: the mystery of existence is not to be gained by searching for strange paranormal powers possessed by humans. It is to be gained by looking more closely at the beautiful edifice of science, to see how the whole of existence - both of ourselves (all living beings) and of the material world - is to be understood in a unified manner. We, as humans, are at one with the rest of existence. The basis of all is energy, in its various manifestations. The question now to be answered is why those manifestations of energy are there in the first place.
I'm a big believer in science, and the scientific method, and Taylor raises some valid points in his book, which is an interesting and thought-provoking read. For example, he writes about the "levelling" element amongst those who are inclined towards the paranormal and supernatural - the belief that everyone's opinion is equally valid, and the antipathy towards "elitism". Taylor writes:

It is relatively easy for the man in the street to comprehend writings of a pseudoscientific nature about the supernatural. This is because such books do not require any knowledge of the vast body of scientific thought in order to understand the,. Truly scientific works, on the other hand, sadly often fall short of comprehension for many potential readers...

A second reason is the great interest of the man in the street in powers which he thinks he may himself possess and be able to develop quite rapidly. Such magical powers have always appealed to those with limited opportunities for self-advancement.
The second point can be clearly seen in the history of experiential religious movements, or mass political movements, which have generally found their greatest number of adherents amongst the dispossessed and disenfranchised of society.

I am an elitist, a state of affairs for which I never offer an apology, because there is nothing wrong with elitism, when the term is properly understood and used. Some people's opinions are objectively worth more than others in areas where they have developed a level of expertise or knowledge - that's why we have doctors performing brain surgery, as opposed to truck drivers (similarly, within their field of expertise, a truck driver will trump a brain surgeon). It's why I don't write a blog about biology, a subject I have never taken a single course in, even while in high school, and about which I know no more than the average person in the street.

This is true of the UFO phenomenon as well, which has myriad self-proclaimed "researchers," but relatively few true experts qualified to offer an informed opinion about various aspects of the phenomenon. This applies, however, not just to the UFO believers, but also to most skeptics, to judge by their lack of familiarity with the actual evidence. That's the great thing about elitism - it is an equal opportunity discriminator.

Speaking of which, and as a bit of a rejoinder to Professor Taylor's true-blue faith in science, here is a final word from one of my favourite comedians, Patton Oswalt, who riffs, in response to developments in science that allowed a 63-year old woman to give birth, as follows:
Sometimes science is fucking wrong and gives us shit we don't need...they might as well go, 'Hey, we made cancer airborne and contagious! You're welcome! We're science: we're all about coulda, not shoulda.'
So - does Oswalt have a point?

You be the judge. Just make sure your opinion is an informed one.

Paul Kimball


Anonymous said...

Paul, you are dancing around the point.

It's about them, not us.

The people who have experienced paranormal occurences such as UFOs, Ghosts, etc are not interested in analyzing the motivations of so called experts in the field and so called expert scientists. (Harken back to a time when the world was considered flat by leading scientific minds.)

So for those of us who investigate paranormal activities (like yourself), one is often reminded that the 'victims' did not ask to have a paranormal experience. And they are often the first to say they are not experts or scientists.

So how does scientific or other controversial types of examinations or interpretations of the paranormal have any bearing on the fact that something happened?

As you know there are literally thousands of paranormal events recorded in print, or by testimony (admissable in law), in photos, on video, film, plus audio recordings ... should I go on? Stone tablets? Carved in the very earth? - cases that have defied explanation by any rational means - at least so far.

So I say forget our informed opinions. I'd rather know the facts of the case from the experiencer's point of view.

Instead of debating about ourselves, we should be hitting the books and going through the reams of cases that are out there right now - and growing by the day.

Love your blog!

Greg Bishop said...

Wish I'd written that post. In other words: great job!

Oswalt does have a point, but only a small one. He's a comedian, and was using hyperbole to make a better joke. He was also tapping into what Taylor was talking about when he discussed scientific illiteracy and the will to mistrust those eggheaded scientists.

Education is getting worse, and it shows in the great mistrust of science and institutions. On the other hand, misuse of power by institutions and government, and these entities' occasional misuse of science against the greater good contributes to this stereotype. One example is the cozy relationship that the FDA has with some drug companies.

So, as I see it, the fault lies with both sides of the argument. If parents demanded better schools and took more interest in what was being taught (or not) we might have a better-informed and thinking population, who would not be ready to believe the worst until weighing the evidence.

Ideally, science should not be beholden to funding sources which often bias results and keep goals too narrowly defined.

If you can't figure out what the evidence consists of, someone will always be willing to explain it to you in their own terms.

Unforunately, education is also prey to the vagaries of interest groups and the personal bias of the educators.

The goal of a happy medium in this morass may just be to produce more people who can think clearly, regardless of the issues involved.

P.S. There is more than one definition of elitism.

Red Pill Junkie said...

Besides science being about the couldas and not the shouldas, science basically is more about the "hows" and not about the "whys". Most people really don't care about the minutiae of how a remarkable event unfolded, they want to know "why" it happened, and what significance that has in their own lives.

Having said that, I think it's a tragedy that people regard science as something completely inconsequencial and tedious. Science is fascinating, but it is an acquired taste.