The Ignorance of Error


Parsimony as a Worldview

Science follows the law of parsimony which, put simply trusts existing knowledge over new. This is one of the biggest challenges with the paranormal; many of the claims are parsimonious so they are doomed from the start in the eyes of science. But parsimony has a fatal flaw; it fails to account for error. 

For parsimony to be a fair and logical test of new claims this error should be small and able to be defined. Or at least science determined that more knowledge is known than left unknown. Neither is the case. Error is a persistent problem in science and defining it for any specific case is difficult. And there is so much unknown left, in fact we have no idea how much is left to know. Possibly our quest for knowledge will be infinite. 

And then there is the ambiguity of application. There are no hard and well-defined guidelines for applying parsimony to new knowledge. The interpretation of what is and isn’t parsimonious can be somewhat subjective. 

I accept parsimony as a useful tool for choosing which hypothesis to test first, but applied as a worldview, the notion of parsimony is problematic. 

If You Don’t Disbelieve You Must Believe

If I have a pet peeve, this is it! I see this idea expressed in many forms throughout the skeptical community. Those that reject skeptical arguments against the paranormal are believers. This is a ridiculous notion and it is especially comical coming from skeptics. Skepticism, historically, was about withholding belief and using evidence as a guide. In other words a skeptic wouldn’t believe or reject a paranormal claim on face value but investigate and analyze carefully, case-by-case. This is virtually synonymous with objectivism . Unfortunately modern skepticism uses parsimony as a guide. 

Credible Evidence vs. Definitive Proof

One common line I hear by skeptics is no credible evidence of X event. This isn’t the whole story: It really hinges on how we define credible evidence. If we define it as evidence that supports a paranormal explanation with very little indication of deception or misidentification, then credible evidence certainly exists. The problem is in the uncertainty. Are the thousands of Bigfoot tracks collected the product of hoaxes, overlain prints, or Bigfoot? We will never be able to tell with 100% certainty that footprints, photos or video are related to Bigfoot. The same goes with other paranormal phenomena. The burden of proof for the paranormal community is very high. For Bigfoot it will likely take a body. Even DNA evidence may not be enough. For ghosts it would take the manifestation of one on cue in a controlled environment.

It is logical then to ask for indulgence as non-scientists attempt to meet this very high burden of proof, but unfortunately the skeptical community seems to ignore this imbalance. This is the difference between credible evidence and definitive proof. Paranormal investigators will always be at a disadvantage. 

100 years from now our descendants will laugh at the crazy things scientists believed, if only we were wise enough to realize that today. But truth is the friend of time and one day we will have answers.