Saturday, February 05, 2011

Just Because Something's Unexplained Doesn't Mean It's Supernatural


Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world
By Michael Shermer

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the brilliant author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories, which celebrated the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and magical thinking. Unfortunately, the Scottish physician-turned-writer did not apply his creation’s cognitive skills when it came to the blossoming spiritualism movement of the early 1900s: he fell blindly for the crude hoax of the Cottingley Fairies photographs and regularly attended séances to make contact with family members who had died in the First World War, especially his son Kingsley. Perhaps fittingly, Conan Doyle’s fame brought him into company with the greatest magician of his age, Harry Houdini, who did not suffer fakes gladly.

In the spring of 1922 Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his New York City home, whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing—a favorite method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate—­could be done by perfectly prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that it had not been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to go down the street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil, write a question or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle complied, scribbling, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a riddle from the Bible’s book of Daniel, meaning, “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.”
How appropriate, for what happened next defied explanation, at least in Conan Doyle’s mind. Houdini had him scoop up the ink-soaked ball in a spoon and place it against the slate, where it momentarily stuck before slowly rolling across the face, spelling out “M,” “e,” “n,” “e,” and so forth until the entire phrase was completed, at which point the ball dropped to the ground. According to William Kalush and Larry Sloman in their 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini (Atria Books), the Master Mystifier then dealt Conan Doyle the lesson that he—and by implication anyone impressed by such mysteries—needed to hear:

Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them....

Lamentably, Sir Arthur continued to believe that Houdini had psychic powers and spiritual connections that he employed in his famous escapes.

This problem is called the argument from ignorance (“it must be true because it has not been proven false”) or sometimes the argument from personal incredulity (“because I cannot imagine a natural explanation, there cannot be one”). Such fallacious reasoning comes up so often in my encounters with believers that I conclude it must be a product of a brain unsatisfied with doubt; as nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, does the brain abhor no explanation. It therefore fills in one, no matter how unlikely. Thus do normal anomalies become paranormal, natural phenomena become supernatural, unidentified flying objects become extraterrestrial spacecraft and chance events become conspiracies.

Houdini’s principle states that just because something is unexplained does not mean that it is paranormal, supernatural, extraterrestrial or conspiratorial. Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world, for science is grounded in naturalism, not supernaturalism, paranormalism or any other unnecessarily complicated explanations.

The particular anecdote may be irrelevant, but noted skeptic Shermer's conclusion,

"This problem is called the argument from ignorance (“it must be true because it has not been proven false”) or sometimes the argument from personal incredulity (“because I cannot imagine a natural explanation, there cannot be one”). Such fallacious reasoning ... must be a product of a brain unsatisfied with doubt; as nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, does the brain abhor no explanation. It therefore fills in one, no matter how unlikely ..."


certainly is not. While most would take this to be aimed at religion (and it certainly is), it can also be applied to conspiracy theorists, new agers, UFO nuts, ghosts chasers, etc.

Any advanced race that would ever come to Earth would have technology and knowledge that would seem indistinguishable from magic to us. But that doesn't mean it is magic. Shermer focuses on points I've always tried to make here. Most notably, doubt is not a bad thing. Get over your own mental prejudices. Just because we can't explain something doesn't mean it is supernatural (or divine). It just means that we don't have the tools to understand it yet. And that's not a discouraging thing ... that's an exciting thing. It means that there is always more to learn.

9 comments:

wunelle said...

Three cheers for Michael Shermer. A one-time fire-breathing fundie, he saw the light and has been trying to get others to see it ever since.

I just started a book called "Denialism" by Michael Specter. Very depressing. I find myself despairing that this kind of irrational thinking is spreading and making headway at exactly the time when it should be dying a natural death. Like the anti-vaccination crowd, we seem to be primed to embrace the comforting falsehood and to defend it even with violence.

shrimplate said...

I've read "Denialism," and I like to discuss these things with my child. Doubt and skepticism are some of the best things a person can have.

dbackdad said...

Well, both of you mentioning that book (Denialism) is enough for me. Methinks I must get it.

wunelle said...

Denialism is a depressing read, at least to me. I'm glad I'm reading it, but it's dealing with a bleak phenomenon against which many progressives have been fighting for some years now.

As for other recommendations: most of what I've read and liked is on the blog, and many of those you have also read and had similar reactions to my own. (Everything by any of the Four Horsemen makes for good reading.)

For casual reading, I enjoyed Erik Larson's Devil in the White City and his follow-up Thunderstruck, and both novels by Benjamin Black, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan.

I was awfully impressed with Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, about the early days of the scientific method and a cholera outbreak in London. Absolutely riveting, and one of my top reads ever, I think.

Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew, about how Republicans rule, can be read hand-in-hand with Denialism. Depressing, but vital.

Jill Jonnes' Conquering Gotham, about the building and destruction of Penn Station in New York was very interesting (for one who loves NYC as I do).

After that, a few things from my want list:

Victor Stenger: God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Daniel O'Krent: Last Call (about prohibition--also Michael Lerner's Dry Manhattan).

Evolution books by Donald Prothero (Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters), Sean Carrol (The Making of the Fittest), Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish).

Mary Roach: Packing For Mars.

Paul Krugman: The Conscience Of a Liberal.

Matt Taibbi: Griftopia.

Nathan Ward: Dark Harbor (about organized crime on the New York waterfront).

Happy shopping. I love shopping for books, though I'm holding off lately for the arrival of the new iPad; then I'll buy electronic versions.

wunelle said...

As for the music blog: you can see it gets very little use lately. This last post was my first in a year. I tend to go in spurts, buying a bunch of CDs and trying to make sense of them on the blog, followed by fallow periods where I spend time listening to what I already have.

I used to put music posts on the JW where they had a wet blanket effect (back when I had a few more readers than I do now), so I decided to make a separate space for them.

I often think I ought to do that with political things as well, except that all that will be left for the JW is movie reviews!

The music blog is a neon sign for Life's Biggest Irony, the obsession of a fervent atheist for a couple specific veins of church music, particularly organ music and the history and construction of the organ. Obviously, this music long ago shed any associative baggage for me, and I see it as the products of extraordinary human minds (whatever their motivation). Things sung in a foreign language makes it easier to listen to the mythological drivel, but in the end it's all about harmony for me.

I have a few musically-astute friends whom I've invited to contribute (and to widen the scope of the site) but alas, to no avail. Everyone has a full plate already, and there is no money or other perks involved. Maybe someday we'll expand.

Anyway, I'm happy you stopped by for a look-see! As always :-)

CyberKitten said...

Victor Stenger: God: The Failed Hypothesis is in my 'To Read' pile...

As are:

Sean Carrol (The Making of the Fittest), Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish).

I really must get around to reading them....

dbackdad said...

Bil - great list. Thx. All have been added to my queue.

As we've discussed before, I'm a fan of Thomas Frank's earlier work, What's the Matter with Kansas?, so I'm sure I'd like this one too.

I'm a fan of Krugman and have read him in the past.

As for the big 4 ... currently reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, which is fantastic. I just picked up Dennett's Freedom Evolves used. He's the only one of the 4 that I haven't read before.

dbackdad said...

As for your music blog, I can appreciate atheist irony. I love European church architecture and gospel music, especially bluegrass gospel music.

wunelle said...

I too am mesmerized by church architecture. I love the big Parisian cathedrals (all stone cathedrals, really), my love tempered only by the awareness of what they all cost and what that money could have been used for instead.

But even many modern churches are interesting spaces, warm public meeting rooms with a sense of grandeur. And organs! (I've often asked myself whether my dislike of the church is stronger than my love of the music, and I don't know. The organ is bigger than the church, I know--it was initially banned from the church as "satanic"--but without churches we'd lose about 99% of them.)

We should do what the French did with St. Ouen in Rouen, another huge stone church with one of the most magnificent organs on the planet: they stopped using it as a church and made it into a concert hall! Bravo for that.