A local outbreak of unscientific scepticism

‘Paranormal phenomena do not exist,’ declares Professor Richard Wiseman on the web-page advertising his appearance at this year’s Brighton Science Festival.

He didn’t rise to my tweeted rejoinder, ‘Wouldn’t “there is no evidence” be better?’ So I emailed the festival organisers:

Dear Brighton Science Festival —

I’m concerned by the remark on your website, ‘paranormal phenomena do not exist’.
I don’t see anything wrong, of course, with arguing there is no evidence for the paranormal, or producing evidence for alternative explanations, but to suggest that a negative has somehow been proved seems to me an inappropriate assertion for an event purporting to demonstrate scientific reasoning.

Do you agree that it might be better if the wording on that page were changed?

With best wishes –

I received a response two hours later:

Dear Brighton Paranormal —

Scientists are intellectually prepared for anything, but to live one’s life in a tentative, provisional way isn’t possible, so we use the best theory that fits the facts as we find them. There is no evidence for the paranormal. There are plenty of reasons why people might believe in it, in spite of the evidence, but they haven’t looked at the evidence. That’s my view, but pop along to see Richard [Wiseman] and raise your doubts. He might be more uncertain than he makes out.

So they weren’t keen to change the wording, even though their reply included the very sentence I had suggested!

Dear Brighton Science Festival

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

I would pop along to Prof. Wiseman’s talk, but the present wording — sadly — doesn’t fill me with confidence that it isn’t based on assumptions.

Sure, it’s not possible to be tentative and provisional towards everything in life, but I think we can afford this where the allegedly paranormal is concerned. (Remaining uncertain about the existence of ‘ghosts’ doesn’t get in the way of daily living, I’ve found.) The paranormal is a wide and notoriously amorphous field, but to dismiss the lot in one sentence seems to reflect a lack of understanding. It is also a disservice to the scientists who have presented evidence contrary to Prof. Wiseman’s views. (Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, for instance.)

The paranormal is a great field for demonstrating how scientific reasoning works, but I cannot see how the simplistic assertion that ‘paranormal phenomena do not exist’ will encourage anyone to question assumptions.

Yours ever doubtfully, but with best wishes –

Disappointingly there was no further correspondence. For now, the Brighton Science Festival seems content to allow this confusion between scientific proof and sceptical doubt.

No one has proved that paranormal phenomena exist, but in the absence of proof that they do it may prove incorrect to pronounce for certain that they don’t. Assuming certainty where there is none is a breeding-ground for ignorance.

There is nothing wrong with remaining open to evidence, or even taking the view that paranormal phenomena probably don’t exist, but this should be recognised for what it is – a hypothesis, rather than a fact.