Sunday, July 31, 2011

On "evidence"


A phrase you will often see me use in relation to claims of the paranormal is "where's the evidence?"  
That is typically something that a skeptic will say and when faced with any such claim I will always be skeptical first.  It is only through that method that the wheat may be sorted from the chaff and the truth demonstrated through accepted methods or so I have been conditioned to think.  Carl Sagan was fond of saying, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
I like Sagan, but I wonder if he was going about it from a skewed perspective.  First of all, "extraordinary" to whom?  What exactly constitutes "extraordinary" evidence?  Why should there be more evidence required for a given claim as opposed to any other?  It makes me wonder if there could ever possibly be enough evidence to convince a true skeptic of...well, anything.  Additionally, if theories from researchers such as John Keel and Jacques Vallee are anywhere near the mark...and I think they might be...then garnering enough "acceptable" evidence might not be possible. This brings up an old axiom: "absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence."  If something is true, it is no less true if there is no readily understandable means of explaining it.

This brings us to another popular axiom: Occam's Razor or in Latin, lex parsimoniae.  This recommends that when faced with competing hypothesis that are equal in other respects, select the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.  In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.  Die-hard skeptics tend to lean on this axiom quite heavily.  The problem is that it is just an axiom.  It is not always the best instrument with which to work.  The correct answer is not always the simplest one.  Often times, things are very complex.  And while we're at it, what is "simple" to one might not be simple to another.  As paranormal researcher Albert Budden said, "science should look for the correct answer, not just the simplest one."
Since my main area of interest in the "field of weird" is UFOs, I will refer to them in terms of our discussion here.  I came of age through a sci-fi perspective.  UFO=alien.  Not just me, but the whole of the Western world came to the overall assumption that if real, UFOs were spacecraft from other planets that arrived here perhaps by traveling through wormholes or by warping space.  Vallee's wide-ranging review of UFO cases going back to events many years BCE, pokes a few holes in that ET theory.  What it does suggest is more along the lines of Keel: we're not dealing with a physical, tangible reality.  This phenomenon may be a "living" thing that responds to our thoughts and perceptions...or perhaps our thoughts and perceptions themselves made visible and real.  Those experienced with reading about Eastern thought might still be with me here but I'm willing to be I've lost most of the American audience.  As I said, "correct" isn't always "simple."

Okay, then let's go back to the ET hypothesis, even if it might not be the best one.  Arthur C. Clarke said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  It is not outside the realm of possibility that an advanced alien race could visit and leave little to no evidence behind save for an errant glimpse from an eyewitness.  As the skeptics argue, "if 'they' really are "here," then why aren't our skies filled with their marvelous spacefaring technology?  Why haven't detected a single radio signal as they should be communicating back and forth?"  Why indeed.  The Fermi Paradox strikes again.
Cybernetics may be one reason.  We humans are just now finding ways to transcend the limits of our given biological limits.  An advanced race would no doubt have accomplished that long ago.  They could then easily mask their presence from us and likely use methods of communication so far beyond our piddly radio signals that we would never detect them at our current level.  Why stop there?  It might be that we're being visited all the time and we never see said visitors as they move in ambsace about us.  There could be entire races that are so advanced that they've long since shed their corporeal forms and exist as beings of "pure energy," if I may crib a bit from Spock.  

No one likes to have their view of the universe challenged.  Not even me.  And if someone is telling you that they do, then I'm skeptical.  Ha!  
It's an unsettling feeling, learning that things might not be as you thought them to be and might even be weirder than you have ever been capable of imagining.  A part of me really does yearn for the relatively simple notion of, "flying saucer lands, aliens walk out, people get probed."  Yes, "far more things in heaven and earth..."
Luckily, there are scientists like Michio Kaku who are not afraid to challenge accepted perceptions and don't mind things getting turned up on end.  It will be through their efforts that we finally arrive at the truth...whether there is discernible "evidence" for it or not.

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