Monday, July 31, 2006

Doggerel #30: "You Need to Think Outside the Box!"

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

Many of the woos out there like to think that we skeptics are extremely limited in our thought patterns. Like many of their arguments, I wonder if it's a case of projection, but I'll get to that later.

When skeptics see something unusual going on, we try to use existing explanations to account for it. Why bother considering a fanciful, previously unknown explanation when the ones you've got will suffice?

Take, for instance, John Edward. Those he does readings for claim that only psychic powers could account for the information he receives. Unfortunately for the woos out there, there are plenty of known methods John Edward could employ: He could use simple cold reading. He could have looked up the person online. He could have read the local obituraries before the show. He could have plants in the audience relaying information about the other people present. He could make educated guesses based on the person's age, expressions, clothing, etcetera. He could be sticking with generalities. He could be spraying out random guesses and letting the person forget the misses. He could be emulating Peter Popoff with a hidden method of technological communication. He could be using any combination of the above, as well as a few tricks I haven't thought of, yet. Human beings put out a wealth of information that a perceptive, or at least persistent person could exploit. That's eight perfectly mundane explanations right off the bat, versus one fantastical pseudoexplanation.

Like the Tendas' dinosaur "cage," my "box" is quite expansive and unrestrictive. Even if I don't know an explanation for something (like that probably-simple card reading thing Randi did at Princeton), there's plenty of room for one. That's why there have to be controls: There are so many possible explanations, you have to try to eliminate them all before you can consider any others. If you want to convince me that John Edwards is using a completely unknown method of gathering information, you have to prevent him from using known methods. Randi intends to do just that, but JE won't submit to any such conditions.

In contrast, woos are entirely too willing to move to a collection of essentially identical explanations that boil down to one word: Magic. Simple conjuring tricks are inflated to divine status. Everyday coincidences are attributed to fate, synchronicity, or whatever. They typically reach this conclusion because they can't think of a materialist explanation: Their "box" is limited to their immediate knowledge and magic. If something doesn't fit their knowledge of the material world, it's immediately relegated to magic.

A skeptic knows that his knowledge of the material world is limited. No one is perfect. Humanity as a whole isn't perfect. Placing everything we don't understand in a box labelled "magic" is defeatism. Woos can glorify that defeatism all they like with words like "faith" and "open-mindedness," but that doesn't change the fact that they give up too quickly.

I don't see how such a worldview can expand.

Here there be dragons.


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Anonymous said...

It took me a minute to figure out the joke in that animated gif, but it's pretty funny once I got it. ;)

So shouldn't your closing line be, "Here there be dinosaurs," eh?

Bronze Dog said...

The "dragons" thing was intended as a reference to old world maps and how they would refer to uncharted regions. Figured it fit with the dinosaur cage analogy, since many woos are apparently afraid of exploring the knowledge of other human beings: "Inside the dinosaur cage."

Infophile said...

Ah, Earthbound. That was such a great game. It seems they've finally made a sequel to it, too, but it's sadly looking like it may never be officially translated to English.


Bronze Dog said...

Don't tell the FBI.

Foxinhand said...

Woo-woo look!
My comment has appeared on this page.
It must be divine intervention.

Anonymous said...

' Their "box" is limited to their immediate knowledge and and magic. '

Suggested fix: only one and

Bronze Dog said...

Thanks for the grammar pedantry. :) Fixed it.