Friday, 16 July 2010

Evidence and testimony

Here is a quote I see often on the Skeptiko forum: "You can't prove the existence of a new phenomenon based on eyewitness testimony alone. lots of pieces of anecdotal evidence do not equal one piece of good evidence."

I'd like to know where this belief comes from, where "anecdotal" and "evidence" get hooked together like this. "witness" and "testimony" are used as "evidence" all the time in courtrooms, and that is no different. Critics would say that a legal standard is lower than a scientific one, but it seems to me that with psi it's gotten to the point where it resembles Holocaust denial.

For instance, what do we have as evidence of the Holocaust? Troops entered the camps and found a lot of emaciated corpses (in the camps where they weren't incinerated), they heard anecdotes from survivors, and the found German-language paperwork associated with shipping people to the camps and what was done with them. How does this compare to psi evidence? Is it that much stronger, or isn't it? First, the witness testimony can be totally discarded if the same standard is to be used, because it happened "a long time ago." The same thing goes for all the bodies, because they've long ago disintegrated to nothing, and they could have been tampered with. For all we know, they are German soldiers, forced to be buried en masse in prison camps because that was the only location where they had sufficient labor. As for the paperwork, well, the Germans and English were constantly running elaborate deception campaigns. Perhaps for their own reasons they made it all up. And to top it all off, there are surviving Germans who deny that the Holocaust took place.

The point is that if you really don't want to see something, you can make outlandish arguments seem reasonable, like "witness testimony isn't evidence" or "anecdotes aren't evidence." What is "evidence?" Is evidence a faked lab report as in the great cold fusion hoax a couple decades ago? Or is it a prejudiced peer-reviewed article poisoned by cronyism as in the recent Climate Change scandal in the UK? Is it doctored physical samples like the falsely cloned sheep? What is "evidence" anyway? Is there a category of object or information that can ever be reliably described as "evidence"?

Video tapes can be faked with computer animation, so they can't be evidence. Policemen can be bribed, so their testimony has to be considered suspect, that isn't evidence either (and it's anecdotal), it is possible to counterfeit real-world articles - to pass off no-name Bulgarian jeans as expensive Levi's. An archaeologist digging up centuries-old ruins isn't going to be able to tell the difference between a real Picasso and a well done intentional fake, so his opinion can't be counted as evidence. Blood can be planted, test results, even when not faked, can be skewed or prejudiced by experiment design. Some parts of the results could be affected by a magnet placed too closely to a computer, or a janitor feeding a test animal. There are so many different ways "evidence" can be tampered with, intentionally or not, that there is no point in describing anything as "evidence," or is there?

Ultimately, the decision about what is and what is not evidence is an arbitrary one. With psi, witness testimony makes up the greater part of information available on the subject. This same witness testimony includes,in some cases a perfectly reasonable explanation why the effect is not easily found in a laboratory: it is dependent on very specific circumstances that cannot be generically reproduced in a lab.

There are police officers who deny that psychics are of any use in investigations. On the other hand, there are police officers who say precisely the opposite. In my mind, this would either nullify both or require a close look at each. A close look reveals that the officers who deny that psychics are helpful fall into a couple of groups. One group has no experience with psychics and can be discounted immediately. Another group has worked with psychics, but no positive results occurred in their presence. Fair enough, but this is unrelated to other cases witnessed by other officers where positive results did occur. Then there are officers who describe positive results, but say that they "didn't make the case" or words to that effect. These are the officers I see used most often by skeptics, which is strange, because they are equating psi effects that fail to "make the case" with no psi effect. This is not the same thing, and I would expect skeptics, who claim to be so careful, to notice the difference.

There are more examples of witness testimony to support psi than there are survivors of the German prison camps in WWII. There are more rigorous psi experiments available than there are similar examples made in an effort to prove that psi is false. Physical remnants of psi effects do exist. All of these things are "evidence." To discard witness testimony in the case of psi, is like a psychologist trying to diagnose a patient on the basis of personal artifacts alone. At some point the words you use are meaningful and should be listened to.

I understand that skeptics react to psi claims the way my wife responds to snakes, but this is no reason to be timid. You cannot expect people to walk around with a video camera trained on them all day long to capture any psi-influenced event that spontaneously presents itself. That just will not happen. To try and re-create in a lab psi of the strength seen naturally is like trying to get a fish to swim on a dry beach. It may be able to move a bit, but outside of its natural environment, it can only do so much.

With that in mind, ignoring witness testimony here is no different from ignoring it in a police investigation, or a psychologist paying no attention to his patient, or a salesperson ignoring his customer. You will never get the answer you seek if you are unwilling to listen to the answer. By treating psi as if it is the kind of thing that can be commanded at will to perform amidst a sterile environment populated by gas jets, sodium capsules, and other artifacts of a laboratory, is to completely ignore what it is and where it is normally found.

When Disney went out to make their "True-Life Adventures" series, did they try to recreate the ocean in their studio to film it? No. They went to the ocean, or the prairie, or Africa, New Zealand, the Philippines, or wherever they had to go. Archaeologists likewise go to dig sites, wherever they might be, and Zoologists, and even Climate Change scientists. All of these people go to where the phenomena they seek to study is found. Why is it that in parapsychology, phenomena that is only known due to witness testimony is considered tainted because of witness testimony?

Here is an analogy that shouldn't be too difficult to comprehend: a Bedouin tells his brother about some cracked jars containing scrolls that he found in a cave. The brother tells some other people and it eventually becomes known to archaeologists. By then, many of the scrolls have been sold to traders and are gone. The only evidence they were ever there is witness testimony from the brothers, and the fragments of a single scroll left in the cave. Should they be believed?

This is not much different from the situation with psi. There normally is a story about an event with some artifact, either in the form of additional witness testimony or some documentation, but this is almost always after the fact because of the nature of the events. If you managed to recognize the story above, you know it was the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that the Bedouins were believed, and many (or all) of the scrolls were recovered. Why miss out on a discovery of even greater proportions by insisting on the meaningless conceit that witness testimony isn't evidence?

When children from around the world spontaneously provide statements that indicate memories of having lived before as another person, and they provide enough information to verify that this person really existed, should all that be thrown out because it is witness testimony? What about the fact that thousands of children who have had no contact with each other or knowledge of reincarnation spontaneously make these statements? That fact alone should arouse curiosity at the very least, but it is also "evidence." It is evidence that for some reason unknown, many unrelated children are making similar unusual statements. When combined with verifications of the previous personalities (all of which comes down to witness testimony) you would have to be a very cynical person to deny it all. Either that, or a Holocaust-denier in principle.


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