19 May, 2006


Hello, friends! My computer at unviersity exploded - a rather unfortunate circumstance and one which meant I ended up ignoring this poor, flailing blog even more than usual. I should really have prepared an entry for what is turning out to be a somewhat wet return; instead I figured I'd do some vaguely and annoyingly introspective post about my rehabilitation, in the hope that inspiration strikes without my having to write about badgers or penises.

When I was little I collected a huge volume of books about aliens, UFOs, ghosts, leylines, British folklore, Loch Ness, religious miracles and the like. I used to love the most outlandish explanations, particularly those which suggested alternative histories and that seemed to prove the profound limitations, even marked falsity, of science. It used to boggle my mind completely that scientists - a blank faced hegemony - refused to believe the reality so patent infront of their eyes, a reality ludicrously and obsessively avoided to protect some paltry belief about the world, which I was led to believe embodied the entirety of science.

Then I started reading the actual perspective afforded by scientific investigation - not the straw man version of conflicting power struggles and ideologies presented in credulous books of paranormal phenomena - and found it absolutely astonishing how reasonable and tentative, yet predicated about the evidence that their conclusions often were. The sheer volume of evidence for the supernatural nature of many phenomena seemed to melt away before the fires of reason; the omissions of subtance in so many of those books was extraordinary. While the evidence for any of the range of phenomena occasionally described as paranormal seemed broad, it was extremely shallow - that is to say there was a lot of it, but almost always it was dribble.

At the same time I was beginning to better understand the nature of science - as a self correcting tool to develop models of ever increasing accuracy of the phenomena about us; a science which
is limited, but which draws its strength from those very same limitations. Many phenomena which I think could be possible, although distinctly unlikely - such as alien visitation, psychic powers and ghosts - could be revealed through scientific investigation and therefore be perfectly natural, if indeed they exist at all.

When I first approach a subject I try to have an open mind about it. Science may well one day be replaced by a superior epistemology, but nature has yet to show it to be archaic and defunct - and thus I demand the rigorous standards of science for any unusual explanation, particularly those which seemingly contradict already existing models. While having an open mind, it is utterly pointless to ignore the vast bulk of evidence when considering a position held in the minority within a given academic field.

If I don't understand a subject or an explanation, or lack the time or interest to find out more, I tend to tentatively accept the mainstream scientific explanation. If this is the case I try not to engage in discussions or debates about it - economics and psychiatry, for example, are well beyond my understanding. Remembering my own experiences and regarding the limitations of my knowledge I can well understand the scoffing disdain many people feel towards certain scientific fields, if not science itself. I occasionally feel the same way about psychiatry and economics - because I do not often know what mainstream opinion is, how tentatively a given view is held within that field's community, and my view of them both are gifted purely through media diktat.

I've heard the same story from the scientists I know - a few physicists, bioloigsts and linguists, and it's an issue often raised by a number of science bloggers - Dr Myers of Pharyngula and Orac of Respectful Insolence stick in my mind particularly as having addressed this a number of times, and The Two Percent Company - one of my absolute favourite blogs - has commented on how comedians, even ones we like, often denigrate science. The impression of science held by many people is often muddled by media representations. Almost universally it is explained in terms of politics; as a battle of rhetoric and posturing. I know that to an extremely significant degree this is exactly where my own skepticism of psychiatry and economics comes from, exacerbated powerfully by my own ignorance.

In the media, the genuine significance of research is often hampered in a journalist's or editor's need to make some political point; the most polarised opinions of scientific (and indeed, often nonscientific) authorities are given voice grossly disproportionate to their actual importance in a field, and science is painted as just so many guesses tenaciously clung to and often contradicted laughably, even predictably by some startling discovery which common sense should have revealed decades ago. This in contrast to real science: yes, there are people like that, and that has actually happened, but generally it is a series of ever increasingly accurate yet generally tentatively held models, which are healthily discussed and kept significantly honest by the actions of other scientists with other opinions approaching and gathering the evidence - always so heartily incomplete - from other perspectives, vehemently trying to disprove both themselves and each other. Some questions have been settled, yet in the act of solving one problem far more questions are always opened to us, and our knowledge is ever increasing even as we better realise how little we know.

Skepticism is important and vital if we wish to develop understanding. Science is the very act of a scholar trying rigorously to dethrone their own ideas and conceptions - in other words, I feel strongly that science is the best tool of a skeptic today. A scientist is fallible; the scientific community is fallible - and science is the best way to limit that fallibility. As I say, it may one day be replaced - I do not know. But that day does not seem to be soon.

-The Rev. Schmitt.