Monday, August 31, 2009

Doggerel #193: "There are Lots of Frauds Out There!"

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

This particular bit of doggerel applies to many forms of woo, but psychics are probably the first that spring to everyone's mind. The skeptical community has done a lot to find frauds. James Randi and Houdini are probably the best known for this. And they're the right sort of expert to detect fraud: As magicians, it was their job to fool us. I am grateful that they applied their skills of deception strictly towards entertainment and revealing the truth. By knowing how a magician could perform a task, they could sabotage a fraud with appropriate controls. That's how rampant fraud (knowing or unknowning) became obvious.

But that's not what this doggerel is about, precisely: Yes, skeptics can unmask huckster after huckster without disproving the existence of the genuine article. That's not the point. We must apply the rigor they do in case we do stumble across a real psychic. If we don't use the scientific method to rule out fraud, we will never be able to tell the difference. All things being equal, Occam's Razor favors known, mundane explanations over those that require belief in unproven entities like magic or miasmas.

We only need one good, repeatable example of these extraordinary things to be convinced. True, many of us are jaded, and that's why science is needed to reduce experimenter bias in either direction. But one example that stands up under several tests could change everything and give us a strange and wonderful new thing to study. This would be most awesome. Don't use the frauds, knowing or otherwise, as an excuse to continually retreat to the next example. Use them as a reminder to be vigilant in your research and experimentation. Know that you're a normal person, and that normal people can be fooled. It's not just a good idea, it's a founding principle of science.

1 comment:

Valhar2000 said...

Sometimes woos, particularly UFO beleivers, will claim that even though much of the evidence they have has been shown to be bogus in some way there still is a bit of it that remains unexplained, and therefore there is something there.

Really! If 95% of your evidence is crap, how can you trust the remaining 5% at all?