Psionics and insanity: Science versus the easy answers of pseudoscience

Recently, Parapsychologist Dr. Barry Taff posted a rant about how the world of parapsychology is full of crazy people. That mental unhealth is a big and growing problem in the subculture of people who believe in psionic powers or in ghosts or aliens. But is this really true? Blogger Keir Liddle posted a reply that denounced this theory.

However, Liddle’s argument for why there wouldn’t be any link between parapsychology and insanity seems to be focused on an the alternative theory: The theory that Taft is a bad unethical person who just want people to feel sorry for him. Such a defense is extremely weak: Even if these accusations were justified, they still wouldn’t rule out that Taff is also right.

Reading Taff’s post, I assume that he isn’t trying to prove anything. (I also assume that he faked names and such for his example cases.) Rather, he’s merely ranting about a problem that worries and frustrate him. If he actually did try to prove anything, it failed: Even if the cases he presents are entirely accurate, they are still merely a few individual cases. Surely there are some unbalanced individuals within every subculture, every system of belief, every group of people who share mutual hobby, or whatever.

Anecdotal evidence is weak, even if we don’t take into account the phenomenon that I have previously named Professional Bias: As a professional compared to an experienced private person, he is more likely to encounter the crazy ones and less likely to have good counterweights to those experiences.

Lets take five hypothetical persons. Andrea, Betty, Caroline, Dana and Erica. A, B, C, D and E for short.

A. has some mysterious experiences, which cannot easily be explained by science. They seem unlikely to be dreams or hallucinations. However, her own memory is all that remains of these experiences, and she know she can’t reproduce them in a laboratory.
B. has some clearly supernatural experiences, usually at night or when she’s high. These experiences might be be dreams or drug-induced hallucinations, or they might be something else.
C. is a mythomaniac, a habitual liar who will tell any story that will get her attention. She is not insane in any way. Merely insecure and starved for attention, hoping that people will like her more if she make up stuff to make herself seem more interesting. Over time, she may even come to believe her own lies, having internalized them in her identity. She might not even tell any outright lies: If she has an experience, she will simply interpret it in the way that will make her seem most interesting.
D. is Schizophrenic. She can not distinguish any clear line between dreams, fantasies and reality. She may be hearing voices and seeing things.
E. is a manipulator who make things up in a calculated way, designed to maneuver people into positions where she can use them. She may tell them whatever she think they want to hear, or whatever she think will give a reaction that is useful for her.

Of these five characters, which one is most likely to seek out a doctor of parapsychology? Surely not A! It is extremely likely that a lot of people in the parapsychology subculture has a lot in common with one or several of these five fictional persons. How common each of them is, we can only guess. But it is likely that a parapsychologist will get more and more frustrated with encountering case after case of C, D and E, as well as with his own inability to distinguish between these five kinds.

Doctors are not the only one’s who are vulnerable. Anyone can be sucked in by the destructive sides of of D and E, or reinforce the self-destructive sides of C and D. Therefore, such people have every reason to flock to such subcultures, where their grandiose claims cannot be disproven. However, this does not mean that we should assume that every person who has “supernatural” experiences is delusional or lying. The question is if we dare to let the unexplained remain unexplained?

Finding answers
It is part of human nature to want answers. In the few centuries it has existed, science has already given us more answers than anything else in the history of mankind. It keeps giving new answers, but it also keeps raising new questions. And it is often slow with providing the answers we seek. Religion and pseudoscience is much quicker to provide an answer that feels good although it is empty or inaccurate or both. To simply reject the question fills the same function.

The reasonable answer to our fictional Andrea is that we don’t know for sure what her experience was. If it wasn’t one of the options we already know about, then it is something we will discover in the future. The pseudoscientist, the priest or the magician will be able to quickly give her a definite answer to exactly what her experience was, but there is no guarantee that this answer is anything but nonsense. It might even be dangerous nonsense, if a part of the answer is that she need to give them her time and money or that she must reject mainstream society or be shamed of herself.

If we demand a quick answer to what to think of her, we cannot stick to reasonable science. We can pick some unreliable answer from pseudoscience, fiction, or belief in religion or magic. If we don’t want to do that either, all that remain is to decide that she simply must be delusional or lying. It might not be fair, but it is easy for us.

One basic thing to understand about science is that it has room for things called supernatural or magical. It is only “supernatural” and “magical” as concepts it doesn’t have room for. In a scientific worldview, the laws of reality are descriptions of how reality does work. Not edicts of what reality ought to be. Breaking the laws of reality is not forbidden, but merely impossible. If someone breaks the laws of nature as we know them, then our knowledge of the laws of nature is proven to be incomplete. Therefore, the concepts of “supernatural” and “unnatural” are nonsense concepts: If something exists, it’s very existence proves that it can indeed exist and must thus be considered natural.

Science keeps finding new natural things that we didn’t know about yet. There is no reason to believe that this process has suddenly stopped, so that all unexplained experiences from now on deserves to be categorized as lies or delusions. Throughout history, these discoveries have often surpassed our wildest fantasies. There is no reason to believe that this will change in the future. However, the discoveries so far has never (or at least hardly ever) proven discredited pseudoscience to actually be right after all. There is no reason to believe that this will change either.

As my final word on this subject, I would like to tell about when my mother saw a UFO. She had seen a flying object that looked truly alien. She was convinced it came from another solar system. My father was convinced that she has imagined the whole thing. The truth was revealed a decade later, as the US government admitted the existence of the stealth bomber.

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