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Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers





Argument # 3: The Occam’s Razor rule

 

Stated as:  “When there are two competing explanations for an event, the simpler one is more likely.”

 

This argument is a principle that skeptics often misuse to try to force alternate explanations to  paranormal ones, even if those explanations involve false accusations or do not fit the facts, while those trying to prove their paranormal explanations will cash in all their Fisher Investments in order to conduct tests that will prove they're correct. Originally, it began as a principle in physics having to do with parsimony, but somehow got twisted into a mantra for invalidating paranormal claims. It was popularized by scientist Carl Sagan in his novel turned movie “Contact”, where Jodie Foster quotes it while during a conversation with a theist to defend her belief that God doesn’t exist. (Ironically, at the end of the movie it is used against her in a public interrogation by a National Security Agent.)  However, an analysis on the facts and assumptions of this argument reveals some obvious problems.  

 

1)   First of all, Occam’s Razor, termed by 14th Century logician and friar William of Occam, refers to a concept that states that "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily."  It was not intended to be used to evaluate claims of the paranormal as skeptics today use it for.  As Phil Gibbs points out in “Physics FAQ”:  (http://www.weburbia.com/physics/)

 

“To begin with we used Occam's razor to separate theories which would

predict the same result for all experiments. Now we are trying to choose

between theories which make different predictions. This is not what Occam intended…

 

The principle of simplicity works as a heuristic rule-of-thumb but some

people quote it as if it is an axiom of physics. It is not. It can work

well in philosophy or particle physics, but less often so in cosmology

or psychology, where things usually turn out to be more complicated than

you ever expected. Perhaps a quote from Shakespeare would be more

appropriate than Occam's razor: "There are more things in heaven and

earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

 

The law of parsimony is no substitute for insight, logic and the

scientific method. It should never be relied upon to make or defend a

conclusion. As arbiters of correctness only logical consistency and

empirical evidence are absolute.”

 

Even Isaac Newton didn’t use Occam’s Razor like the skeptics of today do.  His version of it was

 

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” (see same Physics FAQ) 

 

Obviously, he was referring to explanations to explain natural phenomena, not paranormal or supernatural phenomena!

 

Brian Zeiler explains:

 

"UFO debunkers do not understand Occam's Razor, and they abuse it regularly. They think they understand it, but they don't.

What it means is that when several hypotheses of varying complexity can explain a set of observations with equal ability, the first one to be tested should be the one that invokes the fewest number of uncorroborated assumptions. If this simplest hypothesis is proven incorrect, the next simplest is chosen, and so forth.

But the skeptics forget two parts: the part regarding the test of the simpler hypotheses, and the part regarding explaining all of the observations.

What a debunker will do is mutilate and butcher the observations until it can be "explained" by one of the simpler hypotheses, which is the inverse

of the proper approach"

 

2)   Second, what is “simpler” is often relative.  For example, having telepathic or clairvoyant experiences in some primitive cultures is very common (e.g. Tibetan, African, Amazonian) and those who have such abilities all their lives consider it ordinary.  As Phil Gibbs points out in the same Physics FAQ:

 

“Simplicity is subjective and the universe does not always have the same ideas about simplicity as we do.”

 

Sometimes skeptics will invent an elaborate and far fetched explanation over a paranormal one, anything but a paranormal one is acceptable to them.  For example, when Charles Tart did that experiment where a girl had an OBE and read a five digit number on a ledge near the ceiling, the skeptics charged that she was carrying a secret fold out mirror and flashlight.

 

3)   Third, even if we take Occam’s Razor at face value the way skeptics use it, just because one explanation is more likely doesn’t mean that it’s always the correct one.  For example, if I toss a die, it is more likely that I will roll numbers 1-5 than a 6.  But that doesn’t mean that a 6 will never come up.  Therefore, occasionally an unlikely explanation can be expected to be true sometimes.  However, skeptics treat Occam’s Razor as if it were an absolute rule and use it as a label for denying any paranormal claim, no matter how valid.

 

4)   Fourth, skeptics have used Occam’s Razor so religiously that they misuse it by inventing false accusations and denying the facts in order to force a simpler more natural explanation.  For example, if someone had an amazing psychic reading at a psychic fair (not prearranged) where they were told something very specific that couldn’t have been guessed by cold reading, skeptics would start inventing false accusations such as:  “Someone who knew you must have tipped off the psychic in advance”, “A spy in the room must have overheard you mention the specific detail before the reading”, “You must have something in your appearance that reveals the detail”, “You must have remembered it wrong since memory is fallible”, etc. Even if none of these accusations are true, skeptics will still insist on it simply because it’s the simpler explanation to them.  Likewise, if someone during an NDE or OBE hears a conversation or witnesses something many miles away and later upon verification, it turns out to be true, the skeptics will say that the simpler explanation is that the patient knew about the detail or conversation beforehand but forgot it.  A skeptic did that to me once when I brought up how a psychic was able to tell me that I had a tragic period in my life when I was 9 years old, without any other information or clue from me other than my birth date.  He kept insisting that I gave her clues which allowed her to predict that, even though I guaranteed him that I didn’t.  Examples like these suggest that skeptics are willing to support a false explanation rather than a paranormal one due to their bias.

 

For more on Occam’s Razor, see WikiSynergy’s entry on Occam’s Razor

 





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