Every few years, I like to go back to watch Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and its sequels in order to remind myself that (contrary to Penn & Teller), it’s possible to make a skeptical documentary without being a condescending jackass*. Dr. Clarke’s style is to first explain the supposed phenomenon under investigation, present accounts by alleged eye-witnesses, detail real scientific investigations that are taking place into these subjects, and then conclude by gently reminding his viewers, for example, of how difficult it would be for Sasquatches to go undetected in the Pacific Northwest, or just how many mediums have been proven fraudulent.
But last night, as I watched the final episode of the second series, World of Strange Powers, something stood out to me. Namely, Arthur C. Clarke was delivering the following monologue on the subject of parapsychology:
There’s one peculiarity that distinguishes parascience from science: in orthodox science, it’s very rare for a controversy to last more than a generation–fifty years at the outside. Yet this is exactly what’s happened with the paranormal, which is the best possible proof that most of it is rubbish. It never takes that long to establish the facts, when there are some facts.
All that I could think about at that point was my own field of theoretical physics. Now, there has been progress in theoretical physics–or, at the very least, theories can get discredited every now and again–but the truth is that we’ve been debating much the same issues for decades. For example, string theory was first formulated in the late sixties, and it’s truth is no closer to being demonstrated than the existence of Bigfoot. Now of course there’s a legitimate reason why scientific experiments have had nothing to say on this matter: namely, that the distance and energy scales over which string theory is speculated to operate are well-outside of the current capabilities of our instruments, but it does raise the question of when a science stops being a science.
Or to cite an example that is perhaps more directly relevant, there’s the issue of magnetic monopoles. Now, as you probably remember from your grade three science class, every magnet always has two poles: a north pole and a south pole, and when you cut a magnet in half, you don’t get two isolated poles, but two new magnets. There is, however, good reason to suspect that subatomic particles carrying isolated magnetic charges–so-called magnetic monopoles–should exist in the Universe**. Paul Dirac postulated these particles in 1931, and the search has been ongoing since then–but not quite unsuccessfully: particle events were detected in 1975 and 1982 which were initially interpreted as magnetic monopoles, but then judged inconclusive. A parapsychologist might call these “sightings.” The problem, in this case, was that the initial event could not be reproduced; this of itself is not inconsistent, since cosmological theories predict that magnetic monopoles should have a relatively low density in the Universe, but the scientific method depends on reproduceability, so if monopoles are truly rare, it seems virtually impossible to verify their existence***.
In this case, what we appear to have is a limitation to the scientific method: truly rare, randomly-occurring events are very difficult, if not outright impossible, to study effectively. Now of course, this certainly doesn’t mean that you should start believing in ghosts, or in alternative medicine****, or even that any individual case of “paranormal activity” needs to be given credence; rather, what it means is simply that it is perfectly reasonable to expect that on very rare occasions, very strange and even seemingly-impossible things will happen for no apparent reason, without any good explanation ever being discovered.
*Although the series do have their flaws; this time around, I’m noticing a certain twinge of Orientalism, particularly when Sir Arthur talks about fire-walking or reincarnation.
**In particular, it turns out that the presence of even one magnetic monopole anywhere in the Universe is sufficient to explain charge quantization. And while there are other schemes to explain charge quantization, they all seem to have magnetic monopoles as a consequence.
***At least by trying to detect cosmologically-produced monopoles; it’s possible that we may eventually be able to produce them with accelerators.
*****Indeed, this by no means allows for alternative medicine, since its practitioners claim that it can regularly achieve results; if this is the case, then it is penetrable to the scientific method and indeed has been pretty much completely discredited.