Communication Breakdown

July 8, 2009 1:03 am Published by 2 Comments

It’s hard to talk to people about supernatural or paranormal claims, especially when you’re a Skeptic with a capital S. People think you’re just closed to anything that doesn’t fit into a strict naturalistic worldview, which just isn’t true. I like to say that I’ll believe in anything, literally anything, as long as it’s backed up by evidence. That doesn’t usually help though.

I think part of the problem is just in how we divide the world around us, by definition. Everybody agrees that the natural world exists (and if they don’t, run!) but people also divide things into two other categories, mentioned above, so they think that reality is split into the natural, the supernatural, and the paranormal (possibly others, but I’m going to focus on these three). The natural, of course, is everything around us that can be studied and explained by science. The supernatural is the spiritual world, the realm of religion and mysticism. The paranormal is stuff like psychic powers, aliens, cryptids, and ghosts.

However, terms like “supernatural” and “paranormal” are unnecessary. They just complicate things, don’t actually define anything, and give many claims more credence than they deserve. It’s time we stopped using them.

The problem with supernatural and paranormal concepts is that, by definition, they’re ideas that have no evidence to back them up. How do I know that ghosts don’t exist? I don’t. How do you know that ghosts do exist? You don’t. If evidence exists, then it’s not supernatural or paranormal. If something exists, it’s part of the natural world. If it can affect the natural world, it’s part of the natural world. If it can be detected, then it can somehow be studied, and it’s therefore part of the natural world.

Rather than breaking down the world into natural, supernatural, or paranormal, it’s time we started using more useful categories for these things. And those are:

  • The Proven: Claims that have been verified with evidence. In other words, this is what we now call the “natural” world.
  • The Unproven: Claims that have yet to be verified with evidence. However, some claims are more unprovable than others, and this category basically works as a funnel leading to the other two categories.
  • The Disproven: Claims that have been shown to be false.

The important thing to remember about this classification system is that claims can fit into more than one of the categories. It’s important to use fuzzy logic when deciding which category a claim fits into. Something can be somewhat proven and still remain partially unproven. Perhaps it’s helpful to imagine it as 3 overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.

We start by piling everything that we once labeled as supernatural or paranormal into the Unproven category. Take Bigfoot, for example. While it’s true that nobody has ever produced real evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, there are some ways to figure out how plausible a claim like this is. When one considers things like how many bigfoots there would need to be to maintain a viable breeding population, how wide-ranging they would be, the complete lack of any remains of dead bigfoots, and so on, I think you can safely say that Bigfoot is a mostly-disproven concept, but still somewhat unproven. Arbitrarily, I could say 70% Disproven, 30% Unproven.

Now take a concept like psychic powers. Nobody has ever been able to prove that they have psychic powers, and most of the time a so-called psychic’s activities can be explained by proven methods. We can test to see if specific people have psychic powers, and we can pretty safely say whether a specific person has psychic powers or not (so far: no). So for individuals, psychic powers are mostly a disproven claim. However, we’ll probably never be able to prove definitively that psychic powers don’t exist, so it’ll forever remain in the Unproven category, which is just fine.

Finally, consider quantum field theory. Some of it is unproven, and some of it is proven, but a great deal still lies somewhere in between. There are concepts that are backed up by data and predicted by models, but have yet to be demonstrated definitively. And, some of those concepts will be proven false with further study. So QFT lies somewhere between Proven and Unproven, with a little Disproven thrown in, though obviously any concepts that are disproven are discarded from the theory.

Another useful application of this idea is in the realm of Medicine. Currently, treatments are considered either “medicine” or “alternative medicine”. However, alt-med is a term that gives the treatments it encompasses far more credibility than they deserve. As the joke goes, what do you call alternative medicine that actually works? Answer: medicine. The fascinating thing here is that there really is no such thing as alternative medicine, but alt-med proponents have convinced many of us that there is.

So let’s apply my 3 categories to the world of Medicine. Bear in mind that this categorization method doesn’t really take into account how effective a treatment is, only whether it has an effect.

  • Aspirin: Proven. How proven? I’d say 95% or so (again, this numbering is just arbitrary). However, there are some alternate uses that are less proven. It’s frequently used to treat heart problems, which seems to be a viable treatment (I haven’t bothered to look it up) so…maybe 70% for that application?
  • Homeopathy: Disproven, assuming that it’s really homeopathic (some products are being marketed as homeopathic even though they’re not, like Zicam). Homeopathy is, quite literally, sugar water. I think in this case it’s safe to say that it’s 100% disproven. The hypothesis behind it is scientifically unfeasible, and there have been many, many studies showing its worthlessness.
  • Chiropractic: Ah, here’s a tricky one. There are so many versions of chiropractic, and numerous different theories behind it, that it’s hard to say exactly which parts do and don’t work. The idea that you can cure diseases with spinal manipulation is pretty much disproven. But what about just back pain? In some ways, it’s still too early to say whether it’s effective, although there have been a few studies showing that it’s at least somewhat effective for lower back pain. So this is one practice that is simultaneously Proven, Unproven, and Disproven. Maybe 10%/50%/40%.

(I shouldn’t have to say this, but I AM NOT A DOCTOR. DO NOT TRUST MY OPINION ON MEDICAL MATTERS.)

Well, I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. Concepts like “supernatural”, “paranormal”, and “alternative medicine” are obsolete and unhelpful. Hopefully, by redefining the way we make our arguments, we’ll be able to gain some ground. But probably not.

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This post was written by Bevans

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