“Science is not a thing, it’s a verb. It’s a way of thinking about things.”
– Michael Shermer
Your friend says to you, “I can move things with my mind.” Your first response would probably be to wonder what they ate for breakfast, but your likely response would be, “Show me.”
This is science. Nobody would say, “OK, I believe you. Want to help me move Saturday? It’ll be easier if you can carry boxes with your mind.”
When somebody makes a claim, we want to see him back it up. Without science you would have to take everything anyone says at face value, which could have disappointing consequences when your friend tries to carry your piano down the steps with something other than his arms.
There are many lacking elements of the schooling system, but the biggest is perhaps my opportunity to earn a high school degree without a complete grasp of the importance of the scientific method. Sure, I learned the steps, but nobody ever stopped and said, “If you pay attention to one class this semester, it’s today. This scientific method thing… it’s really frigging important!” Kids often question the applicability of what they learn in school to the real world. The scientific method is Exhibit A.
Footnotes of the Scientific Method
“Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. They beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson
Most people have learned the steps to the scientific method at some point. Define your question, gather info, form a hypothesis, run an experiment, analyze data, draw conclusions based upon the results, publish results, have other people retest your claims. But there are a few other points that people often miss–I certainly did–that lead to many of the beliefs that we form in everyday life.
The most important aspect is something I did not learn until college (and it still did not completely sink in until later), which is that you must assume the null hypothesis. Being that science is about a lack of assumptions this might sound weird, but what this means is that we do not believe there is a connection between X and Y until it has been demonstrated in a test. This is like being ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ in that it is assumed there is no crime until evidence is presented that there has been a crime. The responsibility of providing evidence rests with the person who makes the claim. It is not for others to disprove a claim that has no evidence in the first place.
The consequences of not assuming the null hypothesis leaves us with chaos in that we must accept anything that anyone says. As we will look at later, many people appear to be more willing to accept conclusions despite weak or no evidence in some topics, but not in others. Skeptics and scientists simply demand sufficient evidence before they are willing to believe claims, regardless of the topic.
The next thing to remember is that not all claims are testable, and if a claim cannot be tested it is not science. Consider our telekinetic friend. If he claims that he threw a pencil across his bedroom with his mind when he was alone last night, he has not made a scientific claim. We have no way to test this and therefore do not have any reason to believe him (though we may want to question our decision to continue to be his friend). However, if he claims that he can throw pencils with his mind whenever he wants to, this is a claim that we can test. But we must assume that he cannot do it until he shows us that he can. And even if he can, we will want to do further testing. If he is able to throw pencils on demand, under many difference circumstances, then he will want to contact a guy named James Randi (we will get back to him in a few sections).
Another aspect that testability entails is that the claim must be falsifiable. Psychics sometimes claim that their predictions did not come true because the person in question did not truly believe that they were psychic. This is an awfully convenient claim, as there is no difference between people not believing and the psychic not actually having the abilities they claim they do.
Some people argue that we are living inside a simulation, ala The Matrix. With no way to actually test this most would not consider this a scientific claim. Something that currently lacks the ability to test, but is still in development, is the Multiverse theory, which posits that there are multiple universes. There are a few vague ideas as how we could actually test the theory, at least they are vague as I write this, but there is some mathematical evidence that suggests it is possible. Still, until an experiment is conducted, even the incredibly smart people who work on the math behind the theory would not say there are other universes.
Finally, our findings must be repeatable. Some studies done on a connection between smoking and lung cancer have not found a link between the two. However, these results have not been replicated anywhere near as often as the studies that have linked them. This does not mean that any single study was flawed, but we must be willing to look at all of the studies and consider how much evidence we actually have before making assertions based on it.
Scientists Are Know-it-Alls
“Throughout history every mystery ever solved has turned out to be: Not Magic.” – Tim Minchin
I have seen people claim that scientists act as if they know everything, and refuse to discuss anything that contradicts their beliefs. This could not be further from the truth. As we have seen in the scientific method, it is only useful if we do not know something. The point of science is precisely to learn something new. It is always legitimate to ask what evidence led someone to their conclusions. To say, “I don’t know” is a much more acceptable answer in science than it seems to be in the rest of society. Unfortunately every topic can lead to its own in-depth discussions and findings that might be difficult even for other scientists to understand.
Some of these accusations could stem from a misunderstanding of how something was stated. Findings so far in history have given us a view of the universe and how it works. We therefore make conclusions and proceed forth based on these findings. Simultaneously we admit that there is a great deal that we do not know. Thus every conclusion could be stated, “Based on the current evidence…” This goes back to the inability to prove a negative. It also stems from the way the word “proof” is used. A hypothesis can be confirmed, but nothing can be completely, 100% proven. This being said, many things have gotten to the point where supporting hypotheses have been confirmed over and over and over again. The conservation of energy, evolution, living things being made of cells. These have been tested repeatedly and have prevailed. As far as we know gravity has always existed, but there is always a ridiculously miniscule chance that you will get out of bed tomorrow morning and fall to the celling. Just because something has not been shown to exist does not mean it is impossible, it means that there is no evidence for it. It is a fine line; but just because it could possibly exist, if all the evidence so far says it does not exist, there is no reason to conduct ourselves as if it does.
Another misconception is that there is some type of scientific hierarchy. There are indeed scientists who are well known in the media or public eye, but they are in no way in charge. It is the evidence as found through the scientific method that ultimately should form opinions, regardless of whether it comes from someone who has been around for years or a student. Scientists and skeptics do not—or should not—root for one theory or anther to be true. They merely wish to grow our knowledge of the universe.
My Experiences: Leave Mulder Alone!
There was an episode of Larry King Live a few years ago that discussed one of my biggest interests: UFOs. Two of the guests were Stanton Friedman and Michael Shermer. I had watched Friedman on many shows about UFOs and for my money he is the best Ufologist out there. But no matter what they threw at him, this Shermer guy refused to buy into the arguments that aliens from other planets were visiting us. I could not figure out what he wanted. He claimed he was a skeptic, but the others continued to label him a “debunker.”
I also could not figure out what believing that UFOs were extraterrestrial hurt. I had a belief in the paranormal, but I was not climbing to mountaintops to meet the mother ship, so what difference did it make if I thought these were ships from another planet? Shermer was standing in my way of quality entertainment. I didn’t like him.
I came across Shermer a few times after that, he was always saying things like that there is no such thing as ghosts or psychics. I did not have personal experience with these things, but their existence seemed plausible. Just consider how many people believe in such things!
But over the last few years, I have increasingly found it more and more difficult to figure out how anyone could possibly disagree with Michael Shermer. Here’s why:
“Uri Geller may have psychic powers by means of which he can bend spoons;
if so, he appears to be doing it the hard way.”
– James Randi
Is there something more out there than what we encounter on a day-to-day basis? For years there have been books, movies, and television shows about supernatural and paranormal phenomenon. Ghosts and psychics, UFOs and Aliens, Chupacabras and Bigfoots; maybe not every sighting is real, but given how widespread the claims are surely there is something real behind all of this!
The first thing we should do is define exactly what we are talking about. “Supernatural” literally translates from Latin as ‘above nature’ and the dictionary states that it is “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” Paranormal is “of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation.”
Many would claim that ghosts are supernatural entities, which is why we have yet to find scientific evidence for their existence. It would appear that, by definition, science is powerless to test claims of the supernatural or paranormal. This is odd though when people often claim to believe in ghosts because they have seen or heard them. They tend to ignore that seeing and hearing are observations of the natural world. Any light that can be seen, whether or not it is a ghost, is indeed natural. Why then, would we classify this entity as supernatural?
Regardless, people who claim to possess psychic or telekinetic powers seem convinced that their abilities work just fine in the natural world, even if they are conversing with the supernatural world. In order to test their claims we must first define what their claim is. Next, we put that to the test.
The best example of this is James Randi who has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate they have abilities that cannot be scientifically explained. Some might accuse Randi of making the stakes too high, but Randi and the individual mutually agree upon all test procedures in advance. Since 1964 over one thousand people have come forward claiming that they possess “psychic or mediumistic powers, ESP, dowsing, magnetic humans, astrology, faith healing” abilities and more. To make a long story short, not one has been able to back up their claim.
Usually they just end up looking silly.
Harm of Belief Without Proof
“We should be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brain falls out.”
– Richard Dawkins
Nobody believes every claim that they hear. Society no longer burns witches; not because people have ceased to claim they have supernatural powers, but because there has never been any evidence that the supernatural can affect the natural world that we live in. And therefore many have ceased to take such claims seriously. If you want to continue to believe in a supernatural world I cannot stop you, but realize that you are professing belief in something that is not of the world we live in, nor can it ever be demonstrated within the world we live in. Still despite a lack of evidence, some people are willing to take people who claim to have the ability to talk to the dead or ability to read minds seriously.
Thus we return to my original question: What is the harm in believing in UFOs, even if there is a lack of scientific evidence? The first thing that Michael Shermer said to Larry King on that episode is important. Before investigating anything, we need to clarify what the claim is. To “believe in UFOs” does not really mean anything. UFOs do exist. Videos and photos exist of flying objects that have not been identified; this is not controversial. However, it is a different claim entirely to say that UFOs are piloted by aliens from other planets.
Here is my moment to stop and say if you are going to pay attention to one thing in this article, make sure it is to constantly ask two questions: What is the claim? What evidence exists to support the claim?
I never acted on my interest in UFOs in any way other than watching a bunch of TV shows about them, but this is not the case for many other people who believe in things that have no evidence to support them. I cannot explain this better than James Randi:
The potential harm is very real, and dangerous. Belief in such obvious flummeries as astrology or fortune-telling can appear — quite incorrectly — to give confirmatory results, and that can lead to the victim pursuing more dangerous, expensive, and often health-related scams. Blind belief can be comforting, but it can easily cripple reason and productivity, and stop intellectual progress. We at JREF never try to impose our beliefs or philosophies on others; we only try to inform them, and suggest that there are alternate choices to be made. Examples of personal tragedies resulting from an uncritical embrace of supernatural claims, are plentiful.
I did also believe though, that aliens from other planets piloted some UFOs. I was not assuming the null hypothesis. And though I was not acting on my belief in any major way, but I was shortchanging myself. Everyone uses science to some extent; we insist a certain amount of evidence in order to believe claims. To demand evidence on one topic, but none on another is illogical. It also does not help anything to assume a supernatural answer when a natural one has not been found.
In light of my new views, I am not against studying UFOs whatsoever. To the contrary I am still very interested in the topic, but we must be sure to always assume the null hypothesis. It does appear that the US government is hiding something when it comes to UFOs, but that something could be aliens from other planets or it could be nothing. Are there beings from other planets piloting UFOs? I don’t know, but it is only logical to assume it is nothing until we have proof of something.
We must constantly question our beliefs. People change their minds every day, but it is unpopular in our culture to admit doing so. Switch your opinion and you are labeled a flip-flopper. And why should I believe anything you say if you are just going to change your mind again tomorrow? We need to realize that opinions are only as important as the chain of reasoning used to reach them. If presented with new evidence we need to reanalyze everything we think on the topic. To ignore a new discovery to cling to what you have always believed means that you will remain in the same spot while the rest of the world passes you by.
My intent in writing this was to give the view of someone outside of academia who has come to understand the importance of thinking scientifically, which is perhaps different than the traditional attempts of science education from well-established scientists. I encourage you to seek the views of well-established scientists and people smarter than me to confirm everything I have written.
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truth by Michael Shermer
NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos
Stephen Colbert Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson
James Randi: Homeopathy, quackery and fraud
James Randi on his $1 million challenge