Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Science cannot explain these things," said the headless BBC hosts

Yesterday, in the car, I was listening to a BBC news program. The host was interviewing a woman who recently published some sort of encyclopedia of the paranormal.

“Uh-oh,” I thought.

The host commenced his interview by noting, chirpily, that, back in 1950, only 10% of Britons believed in ghosts, but, nowadays, a great many more Britons believe in them (I don’t recall the figure, but it was much higher than 10%).

“I’m not surprised,” said the paranormal lady, I think. He or she then noted how common are sightings of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. Indeed, said the lady, a few years ago, she herself saw her dead grandfather.

“I did not realize it at the time,” she said.

“Oh, how veddy, veddy interesting,” said the host.

This went on for a while, and I didn’t take much notice. But then, the host, referring to paranormal phenomena (or ghosts in particular), said something like, “Science is unable to explain these things, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes, it certainly is unable!”

What!? What balderdash!

One of my goals as a teacher is to overcome such sloppy and silly thinking.

To see the problem here, consider this question: What is it exactly that our Brit radio guy was saying science can’t explain?

Is it the many reports of ghost sightings? These are easily explained by science—or, better, by reasonably informed people.

That’s been true for a long time. Two hundred and fifty years ago, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume commented on the reports of paranormal phenomena of his own day:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)
Suppose that Smith reports to us that he saw a headless horseman at the cemetery last night. How are we to explain this? (It is important to be clear what the word “this” refers to.)

There are two possibilities, for either (1) Smith is attempting to deceive us or he has himself been deceived—for instance, by a hallucination or an optical illusion—OR (2) he really did see a headless horseman. –The Deception Explanation (DE) or the Paranormal Explanation (PE).

Hume asks: which is more probable?

Well, let’s see. We have a fair amount of experience with people who have lost their heads. The French are particularly experienced in this regard. As far as we know, not once have any of these headless persons ridden a horse (or done anything else beyond bleed profusely).

On the other hand, our experience provides countless examples of people being deceived—sometimes in surprising ways—or attempting to deceive others. Deception is common and explicable.

So, unless one is a dullard from hell, one will see the necessity of judging DE as better than PE. That is, in the case of Smith’s report, it is much more likely that deception is afoot than that a guy without a head really was riding a horse down at the bone yard last night.

“But wait!” you say. “The radio Brit was not talking about the explanation of reports; rather, he was talking about the explanation of paranormal phenomena—such as ghosts and headless horsemen and such. That is what science cannot explain!”

Now, now, let’s not lose our heads. If one says that what is wanting is an explanation of paranormal phenomena (e.g., ghosts), one implies that there exist paranormal phenomena to explain. That is, in speaking this way, one is assuming that ghosts (etc.) are real, that science is obliged to explain the reality of ghosts, and that science has failed to do so.

Twaddle! Such talk commits a gross fallacy, namely, the fallacy of assuming that which is at issue (the reality of ghosts). As logicians and philosophers quaintly put the matter, such talk “begs the question.”

What’s that? The Oxford English Dictionary provides one meaning for the phrase “begging the question.” It is the one that logicians/philosophers use:
begging of the question: a taking for granted of the thing to be proved.
And so, dear reader, the BBC guy is confused. If he’s saying that science has no explanation of reports of paranormal phenomena, then he’s simply (and obviously) mistaken. If, on the other hand, he’s saying that science has no explanation for ghosts and the like, then he’s committing the egregious fallacy of “begging the question,” that is, he’s assuming that ghosts are real and to be explained when the question at issue is precisely whether ghosts are real and thus something that needs explaining.

I teach (or I try to teach) my students that good thinking is clear and precise thinking. So when people—including BBC radio show hosts—confront us with the old, “How do you explain that?”, we need to be prepared to say, “Yes, a very good question that. But could you please identify the referent of the word ‘that’?”