Re:  - James Randi responds again to Ali Sina and Sina responds back.

By Brent Meeker

E-mail: [email protected] 

Ali Sina defines paranormal events as occurrences outside the scope of common experience and inexplicable by current science. By that definition, every discovery in science that leads to a new theory would count as paranormal. From Sina's examples, it is clear that he means more than this by 'paranormal'. He is not thinking of an experiment that shows general relativity is wrong or that there is an error in the standard model of elementary particles. He means a 'spiritual realm'. Someplace outside our experience where 'free will' and 'agency' do things. Where other intelligent beings dwell. Powers that can be exercised through pure thought. He objected to my explanation of the orange globe of light because he believed it 'behaved intelligently'.

He doesn't want us to dismiss this kind of paranormal realm unless we have proof. But what kind of proof is demanded? Obviously there cannot be deductive proof as in mathematics. That leaves empirical proof. Empirical proof cannot be certain, but it can provide high probabliity - as in the legal standard of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt." So what we have in this debate is Sina saying you can't dismiss the paranormal unless you have proof that all the claims of paranormal events and powers are false. Randi is saying I'll believe in a paranormal event when it is demonstrated in a controlled environment to rule out cheating and lying. So which is the 'rational' position.

First, let us consider Sina's position. What does he mean by 'dismiss'? Does he mean 'not believe'? I don't think so; He writes, "This is no proof that paranormal is a reality that should be taken seriously. We have no evidence to make such claim." So he must consider it rational to withhold belief in the absence of evidence. So what else can he mean by "dismiss". I think he means not take the effort to investigate. He thinks that to be 'rational' we should investigate claims of the paranormal. But isn't that what Randi proposes to do? Isn't he offering a million dollars as an incentive for those who claim to have paranormal powers to come forward and confirm their claim.

Perhaps Sina has in mind the investigation of claims in the field as carried out by Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell, Ralph Estling and other members of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. If he would read their publication, "The Skeptical Inquirer" he would find that dozens of claims are investigated every year. None however have been found to be beyond ordinary explanation. Fraud, mistakes, and self-delusion account for most of them. Are some of them unexplained in the sense that no single definite explanation is highly probable? - Certainly. But just because one cannot rule out all but one mundane explanation doesn't mean that a paranormal event has been found.

So when we hear a claim that, for example, "intricate forms can appear on thin ice where no human can walk" how should we rationally respond to it. My response would be:

Where is it? Do you have photos? How do you know that no one could walk on the ice? Could they lay on the ice? Could the pattern have been made when the ice was thicker? Could a child have done it? A small animal? Can such forms be the result of natural processes?

You see there are many possibilities quite consistent with known science. They all seem more probable to me than the action of a supernatural being. So, while I would be inclined to investigate such a phenomena if it were accessible to investigation, when it is merely a claim that can no longer be investigated, I see no reason to give any credence to the theory that it was paranormal.

I note that Ali Sina uses this same standard when it comes to the claims of a religion he dislikes. Muslims claim miraculous sights and paranormal events all the time. But Mr. Sina dismisses them without investigation. One might characterize this as bigotry; but I wouldn't want to stoop to Mr. Sina's tactic of calling my fellow debater names like liar, arrogant, bogus or insincere while flattering myself that I am not rude.

Now consider Randi's position. He doesn't credence reports of paranormal powers. He knows that people are easily fooled and, as Richard Feynman observed, the easiest person for you to fool is yourself. But he doesn't dismiss them either. He investigates them. Not just by trying to get those who claim paranormal powers to come and demonstrate them. He also travels all over the world to investigate such claims. He has tested water dowsers, psychics, aura readers, and magic healers all over the world. They have all failed. Their failures are documented on video tape - not just reported as antecdotes. Has Ali Sina investigated all those claims he says shouldn't be dismissed? - or has he simply settled comfortably into believing in a 'spirit realm' and not wanting to investigate lest the world prove less magical than he hopes. There are plenty of antecdotes to feed those who want to believe - religions make them up by the thousands.

Brent Meeker

"What is needed is not the will to believe, but the will to find out." --- Bertrand Russell

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