University of London psychology prof Chris French has a complex relationship with parapsychology (research into, for example, extrasensory perception or ESP). At one time, he believed in it, then was, for four decades, a skeptic — but he has now come round to a new approach to the question: How do we decide what is and isn’t “science”:
Before we can assess the scientific status of any discipline, we must first consider what philosophers of science refer to as the demarcation problem. What criteria must be applied in order to decide whether a discipline is a true science or not? This is a fascinating topic that has been a subject of discussion amongst philosophers of science for a very long time. A full discussion of this issue is way beyond the scope of the current article. Suffice it to say that many commentators have ultimately concluded that it is simply not possible to devise a set of strict criteria that can be applied in such a way that they correctly classify all true sciences as such and exclude each and every example of non-science, including pseudosciences.
Does that mean that there is no difference between science and pseudoscience? No, it does not. Although there is no definite dividing line between day and night, we can all agree that clear examples of each are easy to find. In the same way, we can all agree that, say, physics and chemistry are clear examples of true sciences and astrology and homeopathy are excellent examples of pseudoscience. So how are we doing this?
The best approach appears to be one that does not attempt to apply a definitive list of strict criteria but instead accepts that there are certain ‘benchmarks’ that characterise what we think of as good science.Chris French, “Why I now believe parapsychology is a science not a pseudoscience” at The Skeptic (September 22, 2021)
French is careful to point out,
First and foremost, science is a set of methods for attempting to gain veridical knowledge. It is not an established body of ‘facts’ that must never be questioned. Personally, I no longer believe in paranormal phenomena such as precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. I could be wrong, of course, and maybe one day new evidence of a robust and replicable paranormal phenomenon will be presented that will lead me to change my mind. After almost a century and a half of systematic research, I’m not holding my breath.Chris French, “Why I now believe parapsychology is a science not a pseudoscience” at The Skeptic (September 22, 2021)
On his current view, one can assume that if a researcher studying extrasensory perception follows strict, agreed-on guidelines, the research can’t simply be ruled out of bounds if it does come up with evidence for ESP. That is, fellow researchers cannot simply say, “Well, if you had debunked it, that would be science. But because your research — done according to the agreed standards – supports it, therefore, it is pseudoscience!”
That’s the classic demarcation problem. “Science” mustn’t mean gathering support for only one side of a question. If so, science becomes a branch of propaganda.
On the whole, more open-mindedness on this topic is a good development. Simply debunking all claims of paranormal experiences as “pseudoscience” could result in missing or misreading some verifiable facts about the relationship between the mind and the brain.
We know, for example, that
➤ Some people suddenly gain clarity about life just before dying when their brains/bodies would seem less able than ever to sustain it.
➤ Some near-death experiences include acquiring information while a person is known to be clinically dead.
It may be that a more correct account of many paranormal claims will turn out to be something like this: The mind, while dependent on the brain for its existence in our frame of reality, is not simply an output of the brain. If the mind is not simply “what the brain does” (epiphenomenalism), we can make more sense of some of the facts noted above and, in turn perhaps, of many paranormal claims.
Epiphenomenalism is fashionable in science. But there is certainly evidence out there to question it. And merely being fashionable does not make an approach to a subject correct.
Perhaps this situation is similar to what is happening with unidentified aerial phenomena (UABs or UFOs). Decades ago, Carl Sagan (1934–1996), denied tenure at Harvard, was frightened of bringing them up, even though he thought them real. But now Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who also thinks them real, is free to talk about them.
That in itself doesn’t make Loeb correct or UFOs real. But at least we are getting past the simple-minded “science vs. pseudoscience” melodrama that gets in the way of actual research.
You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know
The UFOs Carl Sagan was convinced of but couldn’t talk about. Sagan had already been denied tenure at Harvard, a sci-fi screenwriter reflects, and he couldn’t afford to take more chances. Writer Bryce Zabel recalls a dispute with Sagan on the topic in a parking lot 40 years ago, during the Voyager 2 flyby — which changed Zabel’s career.