by Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia
Hard-nosed science types like myself are often criticized by the paranormal enthusiasts for setting too high a bar for what we’ll accept as evidence. The supernatural world, they say, doesn’t come when called, is highly sensitive to the mental states of people who are nearby, and isn’t necessarily going to be detectable to scientific measurement devices. Also, since a lot of the skeptics come into the discussion with a bias toward disbelief, they’ll be likely to discount any hard evidence that does arise as a hoax or misinterpretation of natural phenomena.
Which, as I’ve mentioned before, is mighty convenient. It seems to boil down to, “It exists, and you have to believe because I know it exists.” And I’m sorry, this simply isn’t good enough. If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method. Such claims should stand or fall on the basis of evidence, just like any other proposed model of how things work.
The problem becomes more difficult with the specific claim of precognition/clairvoyance — the idea that some of us (perhaps all of us) are capable of predicting the future, either through visions or dreams. The special difficulty with this realm of the paranormal world is that a dream can’t be proven to be precognitive until after the event it predicts actually happens; before that, it’s just a weird dream, and you would have no particular reason to record it for posterity. And given the human propensity for hoaxing, not to mention the general plasticity of memory, a claim that a specific dream was precognitive is inadmissible as evidence after the event in question has occurred. It always reminds me of the quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard: “The tragedy of life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.”
This double-bind has foiled any attempts to study precognition… until now.