(Cross-posted from Telescopic Turnip)

Recommended soundtrack for this post

The Wiktionary defines paranormal as “that (ostensibly) cannot be explained by what scientists know”. This is to be distinguished from Real Science, which is about – wait, this definition of paranormal corresponds exactly to what scientific researchers spend their time investigating in their labs.

Put this way, every researcher is a paranormal researcher, and science labs are places where an unusual level of paranormal activity occurs. I’m talking about really weird spooky paranormal phenomena like B-form eDNA flipping into Z-form to make lattices within bacterial biofilms. And don’t even ask me about The Vault. Over centuries, many macroscopic magical phenomena have been explained, leading to the impression that magic has disappeared. But look at life in a microscope, and everything is magical and mysterious again.

And not only the Universe is full of magical phenomena; human wizards are also surprisingly common. They are walking among us. Magic comes in roughly two forms: the one where wizards can predict the future, and the one where wizards can do impossible things.

Compare climate change and homeopathy. Most climate experts agree that climate change is human-made, so if you Believe in Science, you should believe in climate change. This is a terrible argument. I would reply that homeopathy experts also agree that homeopathy is effective. They have diplomas, they publish in scientific journals, and they even follow the scientific method. They may fall for p-hacking and publication bias, but so do people in every other field.

However, only one of these fields involves actual magic. In 2013, powerful wizards from the IPCC predicted how sea levels would change over the next few years. Now that the next few years have passed, we can compare the predictions to the most recent measurements, and it appears that their predictions were correct[1]. This is divination. They are literally oracles. I have no understanding of the underlying climatology, but I saw them perform magic, so I’m inclined to believe their reports.

On the other hand, I don’t believe in homeopathy – precisely because I’ve never seen homeopaths perform anything even remotely paranormal or mysterious. Like, you know, miraculously curing diseases. Homeopathy is boringly normal.

Likewise, if you just told me about the equations of quantum mechanics, I wouldn’t believe you. It makes no sense, the implications about the world are bonkers, and it doesn’t even fit with our understanding of gravity. But quantum mechanics predict that there is a way to cut through metal by casting a beam of light. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. This is straight out of a fantasy book. So I have to admit that there is at least something right about quantum mechanism – it has to be a correct, if incomplete, description of reality.

I think this highlights (another) problem with our scientific institutions. There is a separation between fundamental sciences, which produce knowledge, and applied sciences, which put that knowledge into application. I like to see applied sciences as an essential part of the whole knowledge-production machine – not in the sense that people figure out new things while optimizing the product, but in the sense that the very fact that applications exist is what ultimately gives the method all its substance. It’s a far deeper proof than p-values and Bayes factors.

In summary, if you are not sure whether to believe a claim, ask yourself what kind of magic the author can perform.

(thanks Justis for feedback on this post)

  1. ^

    This was not always the case. Earlier IPCC forecasts were a bit exaggerated, but it seems that they’ve got their act together since then.

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I enjoyed this — and I especially enjoyed having a soundtrack for the post. Thank you!

You know what this reminds me of? The notion that reality acts like itself, and we're the weirdos for e.g. thinking subatomic particles should act like billiard balls. So what you're calling "paranormal" is really just that discrepancy between normal human expectation and the way reality actually is.

(Funnily enough, that makes me think of what the first "paranormal activity" ever discovered might be. And it might just be "Hey, you know how earth goes off in a flat plane in all directions? Well, if I find the right place, I can make a distant city vanish below the horizon.")

I tried to convey a similar sentiment here, in the pinned comment: 

Many people say that it's impossible to predict the future. And yet predictions are at the core of science. If a belief says something about the world, then it makes predictions. The more accurate your models are, the better your predictions will be. Under this view, everyone can do magic. Your models of the world are your clairvoyance powers. Your actions, informed by your models, are your spells. The better your predictions are, the more powerful your spells.

Oh yes, that's basically the same point! I love this channel btw. Now that you mention it, this post by Jason Crawford on precognition is also relevant.

Notice that that post doesn't actually call it precognition. Instead it says that you don't need precognition, because this is as good.

People cannot do magic, or clairvoyance, or precognition. Those words mean things, which people can't do, and we already have perfectly good words to describe the things that people can do. Reusing "magic" or "clairvoyance" or "precognition" is the nonpolitical version of calling everyone you don't like a Nazi, or of saying that anything you believe in is "God". If you call everyone a Nazi, what are you going to call actual Nazis? If my "god" is utilitarianism, what do we call the being that creates universes and controls morality? Honest-to-God God?

This is a really fun way to think about the world—thanks for sharing!

Words are for communicating and this is a very nonstandard way to apply words. If homeopathy claims paranormal things, but those things don't actually happen, most people would phrase it as some variation of "homeopathy is paranormal, but homeopathy isn't real", not "homeopathy isn't paranormal".

Good read. Reminds me about "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

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