4421Steve on "scientific evidence" : But what about the UNPACKING method?
- Dec 22, 2001Steve, you wrote:
> Note that the researchers said "no conclusions can beSteve, much of what you say above merits thoughtful consideration and
> reached on the phenomena observed and described in
> this account because they occurred under informal
> They were not discounting the possibility of unusual
> phenomena, but merely said that they and not Sai Baba
> had to control the conditions before the stories would
> have scientific validity. That standard can also be
> applied to other reputed miracle stories, such as
> those of Blavatsky. If the stories indicate that the
> conditions were poorly controlled, the miracles may be
> real, but the stories do not constitute scientific
> evidence. The Hartmann story is clearly in this
> category. So is the Ootan Liatto story. This is not
> aggressive skepticism, as has been charged, nor is it
> an effort to "bother" fundamentalists with
> uncomfortable truths or to "explain away" something
> someone else might wish to believe in. It is simply a
> canon of scientific and historical criticism which
> does not imply any judgement on the events being
I agree with the thrust of what you say.
I certainly agree that we should have a positive skepticism toward
various claims, etc. But I believe we should realize that there is a
brand of skepticism, whether one calls it "agressive" or not, that
can "explain away" any paranormal experience or for that matter any
claim in science.. For good examples of this, I refer you to the
extensive literature produced by many members of CSICOP and published
by Prometheus Press. Read for example C.E.M Hansel's
book "debunking" the paranormal.
This type of "debunking" and "skepticism" can explain away even the 2
paranormal cases (HPB) that you mention in one of your previous posts.
I repeat again below what I wrote earlier regarding the type of
argument and method employed in this type of skepticism.
Steve, you wrote:
". . . . if chicanery is a plausible explanation, then the story
is not evidence of anything."
Steve, here is a statement that clearly shows me that you do NOT
fully understand the vital difference between possible/plausible and
probable. You can take ANY experience of the paranormal and ANY
experiment in parapsychology and think up plausible and/or possible
natural explanations for the experiences or experiments.
C.E.M Hansel in his skeptical books on parapsychology is a master of
looking for plausible or possible counterexplanations for the most
famous experiments in parapsychology.
Here is an example from another writer.
In the current web version of his book THE UNKNOWING SAGE, David
Christopher Lane wrote:
". . .I have yet to unearth an airtight, empirical case for genuine
psychic powers. There are always some uninspected loopholes which
reveal that natural (versus supernatural) processes were
involved. . . . "
David's words sound quite similar to remarks made by the Amazing
James Randi, who is a member of CSICOP.
Notice that David Lane says that he has not discovered one AIRTIGHT
case for genuine psychic powers; and that in all such
cases "uninspected" [I assume this is a typo for "unsuspected"?]
loopholes ....reveal that natural processes were involved."
Exactly how does Lane define "airtight"?
One dictionary defines "airtight" as follows:
"having no noticeable weakness, flaw or loophole."
But the crucial question to ask is: Are those "unsuspected"
loopholes "real" or only possibilities or plausibilities.
Also, as far as I know, nothing is 100% airtight, or flawless.
James MClenon has written about the skeptical strategy of "unpacking"
any successful parpsychological experiment.
"The goal of the critic using this strategy is to 'unpack' and
examine in detail any experiment, and to demonstrate how
methodological flaws *could* have entered into the experimental
process, thereby producing an invalid results.. . .The
critic ...thinks of some...methodological flaw that *could* have
occurred. . . .His or her 'unpacking' of methodological assumptions
tends to render the experiment into an anecdotal form. . . .This
unpacking strategy makes the 'perfect' ESP experiment an
impossbility. Sooner or later, the critic will ask for information
that is no longer available, or for a degree of experimental control
and exactitude that is desirable in principle but impossible in
practice. . . .[Another] rhetorical ploy is to demand total
perfection. It is always possible for critics to think of more rigid
methodological procedures after an experiment has been conducted...
The a priori arguments of the critics mean it is highly logical to
assume that, within *all* experiments which successfully 'prove' the
existence of psi, there must be an 'error some place'."
This unpacking method can ALSO be used on paranormal experiences.
Ray Hyman, a psychologist and also a skeptic of the paranormal, has
agreed that in using such A METHOD OF ARGUMENT, "it is ALWAYS
possible to 'imagine' SOME scenario in which [for example] cheating
[or lying], no matter how implausible, COULD HAVE occurred."
Using such a METHOD is "illegitimate" [as Marcello Truzzi, a
sociologist and another skeptic of the parnormal points out] because
by its use, "one can 'hypothetically' explain away ANY result [even]
Turning from paranormal experiments, consider "suspected" flaws in
regular scientific experiments. Pray tell, is there even one
experiment in science that has no "possible" or "plausible" flaws?
In effect, this TYPE OF ARGUMENT and the process of UNPACKING an
experiment or a testimonial account becomes a game in which the
skeptic cannot lose!
Turning to the realm of NORMAL historical inquiry, the historians
Barzun and Graff point out:
"If you receive a letter from a relative that  bears what looks
like her signature, that  refers to family matters you and she
commonly discuss, and that  was postmarked in the city where she
lives, the probability is very great that she wrote it."
"The contrary hypothesis would need at least as many opposing signs
[of evidence] in order to take root in your mind---though the
possibility of forgery. . .is always there."
Please note that the hypothesis that the letter is really written by
your relative is supported by three positive signs of evidence. But
as Barzun and Graff point out, even in spite of all that, the
POSSIBILITY or PLAUSIBILITY of forgery is ALWAYS there! An
critic using the UNPACKING method could take the ball at this step
and try to "explain away" the three pieces of evidence.
For example, the skeptic could "reason":
"Isn't it possible or plausible that  the relative's signature was
forged, and, isn't it possible or plausible that  some "forger"
was somehow privy to family matters, and, furthermore, isn't it
possible or plausible that  the forger could have mailed the
letter in the city where your relative lives to throw you off the
And if you (the level-headed researcher) objected to such speculation
by your resident skeptic, he might quip:
"Prove to me that the three statements, I just listed, aren't
possible or plausible! Didn't Barzun and Graff admit that THE
POSSIBILITY OF FORGERY ...IS ALWAYS THERE?"
But the perceptive researcher should point out to his skeptical friend
that POSSIBILITIES and PLAUSIBILITIES are not to be confused with
PROBABLITIES. Barzun and Graffe clearly enunciate an important
dictum for the researcher:
"The rule of 'Give Evidence' is not be be violated. . . .No matter how
possible or plausible the author's conjecture it cannot be accepted
as truth if he has only his hunch [which is not evidence] to support
it. Truth rests not on possibility or plausibility but on
probability. Probability means the balance of chances that, GIVEN
SUCH AND SUCH EVIDENCE, the event it records happened in a certain
way; or, in other cases, that a supposed event did not in fact take
Unfortunately, far too many skeptics of the parnormal become fixated
on "possibilities" AND "plausibilities" and never progress beyond to
considering "probabilities." Such skeptics---after pointing out that
if two or more explanations are possible or plausible, none are
proved---SEEM TO BE UNINTERESTED in the question of where the
WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE lies. Many of these skeptics fixate and
speculate (almost ad infinitum and ad nauseam) on various
possibilities and plausibilities ---hoping that careless readers will
ASSUME that 'something' has been proven or disproven by such
So when David Lane writes: "I have yet to unearth an airtight,
empirical case for genuine psychic powers. There are always some
uninspected loopholes which reveal that natural (versus supernatural)
processes were involved," is he referring to "possible"
or "plausible" loopholes that he has conjured up in his imagination
or is he talking about loopholes that can be documented with
Furthermore, if by "airtight" David Lane wants to convey the meaning
of perfect, flawless, 100% confirmed, then I would say he is living
in a "fairytale" world. What is completely flawless? For example, is
there a medical test in the world that will give accurate results
anytime, anywhere, under any and every condition?
One of my major criticisms of K. Paul Johnson's books was his
excessive speculations about what might be plausible or possible
without ever going to THE NEXT STEP and trying to determine what is
most PROBABLE in light of all the known evidence, both pro, con and
Steve, your statement: ". . . . if chicanery is a plausible
explanation, then the story is not evidence of anything." shows me
that you also do not fully understand the vital difference between
possible/plausible and probable.
IN SUMMARY, there is no historical account and no scientific
experiment where there are not plausible or possible
counterexplanations. Therefore as Truzzi says: "one
can 'hypothetically' explain away ANY result [even] in science" by
using plausible/possible arguments.
Steve, in closing, I give again the Hartmann account below which I
think you multilated in your UNPACKING method.
Daniel H. Caldwell
This morning at half-past eleven I went upstairs to Madame
Blavatsky's room and had a conversation with her in regard to
matters. After this conversation the thought came in my mind to ask
her opinion in regard to a certain subject of which I had been
thinking. Madame Blavatsky advised me to apply to the Master
himself, to ask him mentally, and that the Master himself would
surely answer my question. A few minutes later she said she felt his
presence, and that she saw him writing. I must say that I too felt
his influence and seemed to see his face, but of course this
circumstance will carry conviction to no one but myself.
Just then another lady came in, to my great annoyance, and expressed
her wish to have a pair of pincers, which she needed for some
purpose, and remembering that I had such a pair of pincers in the
drawer of my writing desk, I went downstairs into my room to get
them. I opened the drawer, saw the pincers and a few other things in
there, but no vestige of any letter, as I had removed my papers the
day before to another place. I took the pincers and was about to
close the drawer, when --- there lay in the drawer a great envelope,
addressed to me in the well-known handwriting of the Master and
sealed with the seal bearing his initials in Tibetan characters. On
opening it, I found a long, very kind and somewhat complimentary
letter, treating of the identical questions, about which I had just
been talking with Madame Blavatsky, besides giving a detailed and
satisfactory answer to the very question which had so perplexed my
mind, and a satisfactory explanation of certain matters, which for
some time had been foremost in my mind, but of which I had said
nothing at all.
Moreover, there was in the same envelope a photograph, cabinet-size,
of the Master's face, with a dedication to me at the back. This
picture will henceforth be considered as the greatest treasure in my
Now, if I know anything at all, I know that my drawer contained no
such letter, when I opened it, and that there was nobody visible in
my room at that time. The letter, giving a detailed answer to my
question, must have been written, sealed and put into the drawer in
less than four minutes, while it took exactly forty minutes to copy
it the next day; and finally, it treated a very difficult problem in
such an elaborate and yet concise manner, that only an intelligence
of the highest order could have done the same.
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