Science: It Works—Except When It Doesn’t

If there is one thing skeptics aren't skeptical about, it's skepticism

Carrie Poppy thought she was living in a haunted house. She heard whispering sounds. She felt eyes on her. Sometimes there would be a weight on her chest. It felt like a person was there, somewhere. It was horrifying.

She tried going to a shrink. She tried burning sage. Even with incantations, the ghosts wouldn’t go away, so she started googling the problem and stumbled on a group of skeptical paranormal investigators. When she told them about her situation, they suggested she call her gas company, because she might have carbon monoxide poisoning.

A worker came that night and tested the place where she was living, and sure enough: the house had carbon monoxide at unsafe levels. It could have gone much worse for her, and quickly. She told the story at TEDxVienna in October, and her video was just published last week by TED.

Since then, she’s become a paranormal researcher, documenting her investigations on the podcast, Oh No Ross and CarrieShe and her co-host look into ghost investigations, faith healing, cults, psychics and others. She’s investigated more than 70 different paranormal claims.

“I would love to tell you that nine times out of 10, science wins, saves the day, it’s all explained,” she tells the crowd. “That’s not true. The truth is, 10 times out of 10, science wins, it saves the day.”

That line got a big round of applause from the room. If there is one thing skeptics aren’t skeptical about, it’s skepticism. These days, folks are very eager to believe if someone slaps the word “science” on a series of facts. We write about them here all the time. New studies are fun, right? Something to think about.

The trouble is, a lot of times they are as bogus as faith healing.

A new podcast by a Vassar College professor named Barry Lam, Hi Phi Nation, took a two episode deep dive into these troubles recently, starting with its sixth episode, “Hackademics.”

The first episode dives into the field paranormal psychology, where people use scientific methods to find evidence of whether or not people exhibit unexplainable psychic abilities. No one has ever found one person who can consistently, under controlled conditions, exhibit psychic powers on a consistent basis; however, that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence for paranormal abilities of the mind.

At first, Lam makes a compelling case for the science of psychic powers, showing that when large numbers of people are tested over time, as a group, they will perform slightly better than chance, which suggests something’s going on. Maybe we really do have very weak senses that can, for example, reach into other people’s minds?

“The positive results, if they’re there at all, are always small effects,” Lam points out, but it’s important for people to think through the implications here, because the effects found in pharmaceutical research are also often small. So how big does an effect need to be for us to feel confident it’s real? 

And if a small effect is real for a drug, then why isn’t it real for psychic abilities?

Spooky action at a distance gets less spooky every day, after all.

In the second episode, Lam completely turns the table on what listeners think he’s shown them so far, breaking down much less controversial psychological research but showing that all too often the findings of a study don’t stand up when another researcher attempts to replicate their results.

One solution to this problem: pre-registration of scientific work. When a study is pre-registered, a scientist states a hypothesis and testing plan in advance. Too often these days, researchers run experiments and then look for other interesting findings in their results if they get a negative result on what they actually set out to test.

In other words, they set out to test one thing and then end up publishing on a tangential finding. It’s not so surprising that the results from a test that didn’t actually set up to test that result don’t stand up when someone attempts to replicate it.

So in the case of researching matters like seeing the future or reading other people’s minds, pre-registration might be even more important. If we weren’t there ahead of time to see how researchers planned it, what they intended to show and what kind of data comes out of their tests, then it’s harder to trust the results. How do we know they didn’t revise their hypothesis to fit their results?

“Here’s a new standard of science. Science ought to be conservative,” Lam says. “According to this criteria, parapsychology isn’t science because… well,it’s contrary to everything we know from all the other sciences.” Taken too literally, one might suggest that Lam needs to read up on his Thomas Kuhn. The big breakthroughs always run counter to what we think we “know.” 

But the basic idea isn’t bad: if a finding seems to contradict lots and lots of other findings that have held up well, it probably should be held to a higher standard.

It probably also shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand either.

“Every cure for cancer so far has not panned out, but we still keep looking,” Popper says. “Searching for what’s out there, also helps us understand what’s in here.”

  Science: It Works—Except When It Doesn’t