Scientific Orientation of the Parapsychology Course

Some Notes on Blind Faith and Skepticism:

Charles T. Tart

It shouldn’t be necessary to explain the scientific underpinnings of a course taught in the College of Sciences at UNLV, but experience has repeatedly shown me that the subject of parapsychology often brings out strong feelings and irrational, even dishonest behavior in many people, including teachers and scientists who we expect to adhere to higher principles. Thus this note of clarification in the syllabus.

First, some working definitions of important terms for our purposes here:

Faith is here used to mean a strong, emotionally charged belief in certain ideas, even when the truth of that idea is not readily demonstrable in the ordinary world. When information and events that seem to contradict the faith are actively resisted in ways that seem irrational to most ordinary people, and/or when such information is taken as a threat rather than as an invitation to rational thought, we conventionally speak of blind faith.

For those of you who have strong faith in something (which includes just about all of us), please note now that I am not against faith per se, as will be explained later, but I am against misrepresenting what it is.

Science is a process of searching for better and better explanations about observable phenomena, a search for truth, that involves observation, theorizing, testing of theories and communication with colleagues, all done with complete openness, honesty and respect for all of the data. In science truth is much more important than what you would like to believe or disbelieve. The course will discuss essential science in detail, including obstacles to its practice.

Skeptic, if the word is used properly, means someone who (1) is interested in learning the truth (or at least the best approximation to truth possible at the time) about some subject; (2) has not made up his or her mind about the explanations for that given subject; (3) is skeptical, i.e. unconvinced that explanations currently put forward about the subject are really adequate; and (4) is honest about what they know and don’t know and in representing what is known. A skeptic may rest in this state of unknowing and/or use her or his investigative and rational abilities to find out the best explanation.

Sadly, I have met very, very few genuine skeptics with respect to parapsychological materials. Just about everyone already believes or disbelieves, with almost no regard for the evidence pro or con. Thus the next category:

A pseudo-skeptic is someone who actually has strong beliefs, (blind) faith, usually at a strong emotional as well as at an intellectual level, in the truth of something or other. Because (blind) faith is quite unfashionable in scientific and scholarly circles in our times, however, pseudo-skeptics present themselves to others (and, psychologically speaking, to themselves) as being genuine skeptics (as if they haven’t already made up their minds) and as scientists and scholars (as if they were genuinely adhering to the standards of honesty and rational procedure in science and scholarship). We all like the prestige that comes from being perceived as intellectually honest and scientific in our dealings.

Because pseudo-skeptics already know the "absolute truth" about reality and have an emotional commitment to defend their truth, they typically don’t bother to even read about the evidence for something (like parapsychological phenomena) they don’t believe in, much less do any actual scientific work in the field, and frequently present a biased and distorted picture of the material they want to debunk to others, using (sometimes consciously, often unconsciously) techniques that are useful for winning debates and influencing people rather than for arriving at truth in a scientific or scholarly way. These techniques include, among many others, presenting the weakest evidence for the rejected belief as if it were the best, ignoring evidence contrary to their beliefs, repeating any negative views about the field without bothering to check to see if they were accurate in the first place, and frequent use of ad hominem attacks (there must be something wrong with someone who would study this crazy stuff) rather than actually dealing with the material.

I will teach this course aiming for the honest use of scientific method as its backbone. That is, whenever possible I will describe objective experiments on the phenomena as our most reliable source of knowledge to date. When we get into aspects that are more speculative (people find this area so interesting and important that it would be impossible and irresponsible to confine all discussion to experimental data only), I will try to make it clear when we are speculating without much scholarly and scientific basis.

In this course no one is required to "believe" or not "believe" in any particular aspect of the material on parapsychology. I have no objection if, in discussion, a student wishes to make an honest statement based on their faith in something or another, especially if they (and others) know that they are speaking from faith. Such statements can be important in promoting understanding. This can be a religious faith or an anti-religious faith, but I do want people to be clear on what kind of position they are speaking from. If you speak from an actively blind faith, I will try to help you realize that you have an investment in shutting out some information. If you speak as a pseudo-skeptic, I will also try to sensitize you to how much faith is important to you and hope you will learn to distinguish your faith from the methods and results of science and scholarship. By the end of the course you will not be required to "believe" in anything in particular, but you will be required to have understood the scientific and scholarly data presented.

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Send questions or comments to Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies. Last updated Wednesday, 19-Nov-1997 11:26:07 PST.