Saturday, October 31, 2009

Doggerel #212: "Weird"

Welcome to a Halloween edition of "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

There's an implicit argument that seems to come up whenever I hear someone attempt to justify the paranormal by changing the subject to quantum mechanics or other branch of science: "Real phenomenon X is weird, therefore the paranormal is real."

Yes, we realize that the world is full of things that are unintuitive, strange, or don't yet make sense. One of the fallacies that's often used to our annoyance is a presumption that human intuition and "common sense" is always useful. We evolved in the "middle world" where, like many animals, we only needed to be able to get food, avoid dangers, and have children to survive. The instincts and prejudices we grow up with are pretty useful for that, since cutting corners with those assumptions usually didn't cost us anything. Our brains were built to survive, not to divine the truth of the universe.

Scientists know that they can't rely on their assumptions and intuition. That's why science exists: To reduce or eliminate our biases whenever possible. We need this process because science is always pushing at the boundaries of our experience, going to parts of the world quite alien to us. The fact that these places are "weird" to many of us doesn't mean that they are beyond science, only that we have to be careful in how we examine them. Unfortunately, many people try to use this doggerel to mean the opposite: "The paranormal is "weird," so you just have to take my word for it as an alleged expert on it." In other words, it's invoked to deter questioning.

The universe is a strange and wonderful place when you look beyond your everyday experiences. To invoke that "weirdness" as a shield against curiosity and open inquiry is to cheapen the experience.

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