In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part II: Evidentialism

Note: This is the second installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu

Previously, we have explored skeptical principles such as the fact that confidence should be in proportion to evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor, the burden of evidence and skepticism of anecdotal evidence and these were analyzed within a Bayesian framework. In this second installment, we will examine the misconceptions that Wu has about the psychology of memory, Hume’s argument against miracles, evidentialism, the scope of science and the notion of scientific plausibility.

Misunderstood principle #6: The unreliability of memory as evidence for paranormal claims

Instead of engaging with the rich psychological literature on the malleability of memory, Wu dismisses it by asserting that most memories are reliable and those aspects that turn out to be unreliable only pertain to peripheral details of little to no importance.

However, decades of memory research has shown that human memory is not as accurate as Wu believes. For instance, several hundred people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted based on false eyewitness testimony:

When well-meaning eyewitnesses testify in court that a defendant brutally attacked them or that they witnessed a defendant commit a violent crime, jurors are likely to believe them. That is because the vast majority of eyewitnesses to crimes are honest people who want to help solve crimes. Unfortunately, studies of wrongful conviction cases and of the fallibility of human memory have proven that eyewitnesses frequently are mistaken. In the first 239 DNA exonerations, mistaken eyewitness identifications were a factor in more than 70% of the cases, making it the number one cause of wrongful convictions in DNA cases.

Of the first 239 exonerations proven by DNA testing, 175 involved mistaken eyewitness identifications. While a number of these wrongful convictions also included some of the other main causes, the faulty identifications were the sole factor leading to the jury’s decision in 50% of the cases. Additionally, in 62% of these cases only one person identified the suspect as the perpetrator.

It may seem strange that a rape victim, for example, could misidentify her rapist, but studies have shown that human memory can be easily – and unintentionally – manipulated during the investigative process. Through no fault of their own, eyewitnesses frequently participate in identification procedures that are likely to cause errors. Some examples of such procedures include: viewing photographic lineups or in-person lineups in which the suspect very obviously stands out from the “fillers”; participating in multiple lineups in which the defendant is the only person who appears in all of them; and receiving unintentional feedback from the police officer administering the case after identifying the suspect.

This evidence does not match the belief held by Wu.

Misunderstood principle #7: Hume’s argument against miracles

Wu continues to butcher and misunderstand skeptical principles. This time, it is Hume’s argument against miracles. In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), Scottish philosopher David Hume makes the following arguments:

That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish

Hume goes on to consider the case when someone tells him that a dead man has been resurrected. What is more likely: (1) that the uniformity of nature has been violated by a supernatural agent, or that (2) the person is lying, has been deceived, or is otherwise mistaken? Hume goes for the most plausible answer and rejects the biggest miracles.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, yet Wu has trouble understanding it. He falsely characterizes it as the automatic dismissal of any and all paranormal claims by accusing people of being liars or hallucinating. Wu thinks that there are cases were these alternative explanations do not fit the data. However, the issue is not about absolute fit, but whether or not they fit the data better than the paranormal model.

Misunderstood principle #8: Evidentialism

Wu complains that skeptics dismiss personal experience as anecdotes, require proper controls for all psi experiments as well as replication. However, these are reasonable principles. Personal experience can be subverted by a large number of different cognitive biases. Controls are required to make sure the observed results are not due to something else other. Replication allows researchers to ensure that biases and errors in single studies are not the cause of the observed results. These are not unreasonable requests.

The alleged evidence for paranormal claims like he Ganzfeld and Autoganzfeld Experiments and PEAR was refuted in a previous installment of this series.

Shockingly, Wu then goes on to use the popularity of paranormal beliefs as an argument for their validity. Around 60% of Americans are claimed to believe in the existence of psychic powers or extrasensory perception, and this is interpreted by Wu as large-scale evidence from personal experience that evidence exists. However, just because a belief is popular does not make it valid.

In addition to paranormal powers, Wu cites a couple of well-known alleged UFO sightings. The Bentwaters incident, for instance, has been shown to be a result of a practical joke by former USAF Security Policemen Kevin Cond. The BBC Inside Out explains:

One interesting utterance that a puzzled Halt gives on the tape recording is, “The red, white and blue lights of the UFO are still hovering over Woodbridge.”

But former USAF Security Policemen, Kevin Conde, has exclusively revealed that these lights were the result of a practical joke he played on the gullible airman.

Conde says, “I drove my patrol car out of sight from the gatehouse, turned on the red and blue emergency lights and pointed white flashlights through the mist into the air.”

“The bottom line is that, that was not a UFO it was a 1979 Plymouth Volare!” explains a bemused Conde.

The supposed witness now admit that they know they were chasing lighthouse beams as well. The other so-called incidents mentioned by Wu can be explained by temperature inversions or misidentified atmospheric phenomena.

Misunderstood principle #9: The scope of science

Science is the most credible and reliable method of acquiring knowledge about the world around us. Wu misrepresents this as the claim that science is the only method to acquire knowledge. Against this straw man, he leverages things like “direct observation, personal experience, textbooks and articles, and advice from those who are wiser and more experienced than us”. However, the validity of all of these examples rests on science. Textbooks and articles are informed by science, direct observation and personal experience can be tested. As long as you admit that these additional sources of information can be shown wrong by scientific research, science is the most reliable method of acquiring knowledge. Obviously, solid scientific research cannot be refuted by advice from an elder or similar.

Wu attempts to reference psi and supernatural powers as alternative ways of acquiring knowledge, but these claims were refuted in an “earlier installment of this series. His next point, that things can be true without having been proved by science, confuses ontology with epistemology. The claim is not that scientific research determines what exists, but rather what we can know about things that claim to exist. Radio waves exists before science could demonstrate their existence, but you would not be justified in the belief that radio waves exists before science discovered them. The reason why skepticism is more valid than personal experience is that personal experience can be flawed in a great number of ways.

Misunderstood principle #10: Scientific plausibility

Wu dislikes the statement that paranormal claims are wrong because they contradict the known laws of science. He attempts to argue against this by stating that new laws always overturn old ones, so current well-supported scientific laws cannot be used against paranormal claims. However, this argument falls apart when we notice that new scientific laws were accepted because of a massive amount of evidence in their favor and the older models could not explain new observations. However, paranormal claims do not have a massive amount of evidence in their favors and current models can explain the observations that proponents of paranormal claims refer to.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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