Sunday, January 09, 2011

More Monsters from the Id

"The oldest and greatest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and greatest type of fear is fear of the unknown." (H. P. Lovecraft)

This post on Uncommon Descent by Denise O’Leary is interesting; in fact I share her concerns. The post is about some research that appears to support Extra Sensory Perception. This research has “generated a mixture of amusement and scorn”.

We must bear in mind here the effect whereby many null results go unreported against the occasional publishing of  positive results, consequently skewing the publicity toward affirmative experiments. But having said that we must also factor in the natural resistance put up by those for whom any suggestion that the world is not quite as they thought is just too much to take; they will be completely unable to detach themselves from their emotional commitments.

In the wrong hands the epistemic rule “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” can be exploited as a pretext to block science: It is conceivable that ESP effects, if they exist, may be too subtle to register strongly with our formal methodological detectors and therefore do not have the intensity to produce extraordinary evidence. Moreover, that the underlying mechanisms for ESP are difficult to conceive can also be used as an epistemic rule to excuse a lack of imaginative effort. Not everything is necessarily an epistemological push-over. Not all ambiguity can be dispelled.

For myself I much prefer to leave white space on the edge of the map rather than either enclose the map in a heavy frame of exclusion or populate the white space with monsters from the id. If there are subtle weak signal “occult effects” out there, some toy town scientists lack a sufficient detachment from their world view to discover those effects. In fact they may be so impassioned as to actively block investigations. Science isn’t safe in their hands.

Toy town science is as unacceptable as toy town fundamentalism; for both, fear of the unknown keeps them in their epistemic play pens. The robust scientific attitude must always be a paradoxical blend of criticism, imagination, dispassion, curiosity, disinterest, commitment, adventurousness, perseverance, moral courage, integrity, and above all epistemic humility: Good science requires both the right intellectual equipment as well as the right personal traits. That these challenging traits have to be cultivated and worked on is one reason why the opinions of human beings are unreliable; because failure here is liable to be replaced with hubris, self delusion and hegemony: Whether it be fundamentalists reporting the latest bizarre miracles or toy town scientists telling us what we can’t believe in or shouldn't even investigate, both have totalizing agendas that they are determined to foist on everyone.

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