Inquiring into Claims of Unusual Experiences

It would be absurd for me to suppose when someone relates to me an extraordinary experience, barring reasons to suspect deception, that nothing at all really happened.

Clearly, in many cases, whether within one’s mind or in the external world, something has happened.

But it would be equally absurd for me to leap to the conclusion that what was related to me was literally an external experience in principle or in truth beyond the ability of science to explain.

Let’s try to avoid confusing the currently unexplained with the inexplicable, peeps.

In earlier posts, I’ve often discussed the ways in which we can be misled by faulty thinking, especially the use of anecdotes of personal experience and other forms of undocumented observation, into believing what we want to believe. My point is this: ‘Anecdote’ does not mean ‘evidence’ in the plural.

The reason for this is simple. When people try to use anecdotes to support supernatural, paranormal, or other questionable claims, they are not actually providing supporting evidence, merely supporting a claim by making yet more claims, which themselves require evidence, without which they are useless. I’ll say it once more: anecdotes ≠ evidence.

Even in the sanest and most sober of us, the claim of an encounter with the unexplained is often based upon a very personally compelling subjective experience, a form of evidence that while often powerful and deeply moving, can be highly fallacious and misleading, despite the general reliability of it in our everyday lives.

Anecdotes of weird experiences do not strengthen the case for any paranormal claims, for they are themselves only claims. This is why in a court of law, it is often essential for eyewitness testimony to be supported by corroborating evidence, not just more eyewitness testimony. Anecdotes have even lower status in the court of science.

Our senses can deceive us, our memories are fallible, even the most normal of us can hallucinate much more often than we would like to think, and our intuitive faculties are often inadequate for figuring out things beyond our everyday experience or complex correlation and causation…

…It’s why we invented statistics, to compensate for our natural tendency to misjudge probability.

With regard to some…fringe topics, no matter how many anecdotes are made for a claim, all by themselves they are scientifically worthless as evidence: if a hundred guys all say they saw a UFO, even if they said the same thing, but there is no supporting objective evidence for their claim, then all that testimony is useless and of no value to science.

This could be summed up by the following principle…

Anecdotes are not scientifically useful to test hypotheses, only as a means of formulating them, as rather than being evidence for a claim of fact, they are themselves merely claims of fact.

If, on the other hand, all one hundred of them started showing something that could be objectively verified, such as medically diagnosable radiation sickness, then that might lead to an investigation into what they might have really seen, which, spacecraft from another galaxy or not, is likely to be interesting.

One of the things I have to look out for as one o’ them Evil Debunkers™ is to avoid committing a common fallacy: to make a misplaced leap in reasoning, the skeptical version of an argument from ignorance, though rather than come up with a pseudoscientific or supernatural explanation for a strange event without having reason to suppose it true, attempt to propose one or more ‘naturalistic’ explanations for the alleged phenomena that while remotely possible, sound weak and contrived, and are also just as unsupported by the facts as those proposed by believers.

It’s the fallacy of giving explanations for strange events without first doing the legwork to find out if there’s really anything to explain.

This has a lot to do with anecdotes, which, no matter how honest, sincere, or otherwise virtuous the speaker, are often secondhand, third-hand and even further removed from the original source, the one the mysterious event allegedly happened to.

This has the obvious difficulty that as the one on the receiving end of this testimony, I have no independent access to any of the events described, and if it was a one-time only event, I have no way of repeating it and finding out the answer. I would have no idea what information in the account described has been omitted, embellished, or confabulated before the anecdote was transmitted from the source several persons removed, before reaching me.

Some anecdotes are simply not amenable to real explanation, and in this case a skeptic would be best served by saying to both himself and to the one relating the account, ‘I’ll have to suspend judgment on that statement for now. I have no plausible explanation for what you just told me, no magic easy answer. But let’s say we look into this a bit further and maybe get to the truth of the matter.’

I simply decide that given the data, no definitive answer to the question can be made, that the alleged event is unproven, and file it away until at some point in the future, evidence will be uncovered that allows the case to be reopened, evidence which may point to a definite conclusion and the case’s final closure.

3 thoughts on “Inquiring into Claims of Unusual Experiences

  1. I had a rather odd comment yesterday about a guy who was channeling dead people through his stomach or something and it apparently baffled atheists (only poo-headed-atheists would doubt such an obvious thing) … well obviously throwing your voice is called ventriloquism but, as you say, even if it was such an obvious carnival side-show trick that doesn’t mean there is no natural explanation … apart from really big questions like what caused the big bang or whatever i haven’t actually encountered any so-called inexplicable phenomenon that couldn’t be traced (a) fraud or (b) mental illness … and sadly in that order


    • That was an…interesting comment, though the impressions I get are that the one posting it assumes [1] atheism must be a belief system (much like their own) as opposed to unbelief, and [2] he seems to be confusing atheism with skepticism. At any rate, I see where you’re coming from on your last two points on fraud or mental illness, since I’ve found both in some of the claimants I’ve met, especially a New Ager I used to know and debate.


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