Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Paranormal Claims Need Quality Not Quantity

There is an endless quantity of eyewitness reports for UFOs, alien abductions, Sasquatch, Loch Ness monster, Lake Champlain monster, chupacabra, ghosts, faith healings, miracles, blessed virgin sightings, ESP, demonic possession, exorcism, stigmata, precognition, clairvoyance, chakras, Tarot, homeopathy, haunted houses, auras, karma, dowsing, palm reading, witchcraft, afterlife previews, reincarnation, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, faeries, energy healing, remote viewing, magic, voodoo, etc. 

For none of these phenomena will I be tipped from skepticism to belief just by adding to the existing pile of normal-quality eyewitness reports.

Take UFOs. We all agree that alien craft are not the only thing that can generate eyewitness reports of alien craft. We all agree they can sometimes be generated by: aircraft, rockets, satellites, drones, balloons, kites, flares, birds, insects, planets, moonlight, meteors, clouds, fog, ice crystals, contrails, lights, lighthouses, fires, smoke, reflections, inversions, mirages, St. Elmo's fire, auroras, autokinesis, eye spots, dreams, hallucinations, delusions, hysteria, and hoaxes. So adding more average-quality eyewitness UFO reports to the pile does not significantly increase the likelihood that some of the reports are really alien craft. 

What matters is the quality of the best, not the quantity of the rest. 

And so far, the best are not very compelling.

There are surely more reports of divine intervention -- miracles, answered prayers, healings, blessings, etc. -- than of UFOs. But if reports of everyday divine intervention spike, I don't think that the likelihood of gods has increased. Indeed at some point, the quantity becomes evidence against the quality. If the quantity of normal reports of UFOs doubles, but the quality of the best reports (e.g. with imagery) doesn't increase at all, then that strongly suggests that the extra reports are from the many known spurious channels listed above.

If you evaluate paranormal phenomena using the quality of reports instead of the quantity, then each day you face a massive risk of your disbelief being disproven. Each day, a report could arrive with 100 credible witnesses who all video-recorded the same paranormal phenomenon in broad daylight up close on their megapixel smartphones. As a skeptic, you're high up on a tightrope with no net.

But if you instead set your beliefs by the quantity of reports, and assume that some small irreducible fraction is likely to be true, then you're at no risk of ever having to change your mind. What morning headline could possibly do it? It would have to be something like: 

Project Blue Book Revealed As Massive Hoax
Prankster Group Releases Cache Of 12,618 Affidavits
Every UFO Report Was Part Of Multi-Decade Prank

When a belief is based on quantity over quality, it is pretty much unfalsifiable. There is nothing that can significantly shrink the pile of half-baked evidence after the pile's size has convinced the believer. Their belief is debunk-proof because it is evidence-proof -- i.e. safe from contradiction by any possible new evidence.

This is because the quantity method seems to work in only one direction. It doesn't matter how big is the associated pile of debunked reports. It doesn't even matter if a random sample of the primary reports are 100% debunkable. All that matters is that the haystack of reports is assumed to contain undebunkable needles, no matter that those needles are never found.

Note also that every paranormal phenomenon listed above is in principle verifiable through a repeatable lab or field experiment. But there is always some excuse why the phenomenon has never held still long enough for such experiments. So these theories wear the emperor's new clothes of someday-maybe verifiability, because we can all imagine an experiment that would verify them. But the emperor is naked, because there is always an excuse why the experiments don't work, and there is no schedule for when the theory could ever be falsified.

(Some scientific theories are not yet testable because the experiment can't be run yet. Examples are Einstein's General Relativity before the 1919 eclipse, or the Higgs particle before the Large Hadron Collider had generated enough data. But what is the schedule for testing UFO theories? On what date will we be able to say that the UFO hypothesis has failed?)

Nobody is immune from confirmation bias. Every truth-seeker is personally invested in their current worldview. Complaining about another truth-seeker's motives or practices may feel good and may even be valid, but it's pointless if they can reverse the complaint back at the complainer.

However, the complaint of unfalsifiability is not reversible. We skeptics of the two dozen paranormal phenomena listed above could be proved wrong on any of them tomorrow morning. Like this:

Flying Saucer Filmed Hovering Low Over Central Park
Dozens Of Daytime 4K Videos Confirm Beyond-Human Technology
Silent Craft Disappears Through Apparent Wormhole

What headline could announce that UFO believers have been proved wrong? That's about as imaginable as a headline saying that some gods had been proven not to exist. So how is UFO belief different from a religion?

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