Sometimes it’s also reasonable, when faced with a problem case for an otherwise well-established theory, to put it down as a mysterious anomaly. If on countless occasions an experiment has confirmed water boils at 100 degrees C, the fact that on one occasion it appeared not to may quite reasonably be put down to some unknown factor. If we can’t discover what went wrong, it can be reasonable to just shrug and move on—putting the freak result down to some mysterious problem with the set up (a faulty thermometer, perhaps).
It’s also often reasonable, when we have a theory that works but we don’t fully understand why it works, to say, “Why this happens remains, for the moment, a mystery. But we know it does.” We might have strong evidence that smoking causes cancer, say, long before we understand why it does so.
So the appeal to mystery has its proper place, even in science. What I object to is the way in which the appeal to mystery is increasingly relied on to deal with what would otherwise appear to be powerful evidence or arguments against certain beliefs, particularly beliefs in the supernatural. Whenever mystery is erected as a barrier to rational inquiry, a barrier that says, “You scientists and philosophers may come this far armed with the power of reason, but no further—turn back now!” we should be concerned, particularly if no good reason is given for supposing science and reason cannot, in fact, take us further. The more we appeal to mystery to get ourselves out of intellectual trouble—the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts or discoveries—the more vulnerable we become to deceit: deceit by both others and by ourselves.
With scientists exhibiting such strong levels of skepticism, some people may be surprised to learn that scientists heap their largest rewards and praises upon those who do, in fact, discover flaws in established paradigms. These same rewards also go to those who create new ways to understand the universe. Nearly all famous scientists, pick your favorite one, have been so praised in their own lifetimes. This path to success in one’s professional career is antithetical to almost every other human establishment
Neil deGrasse Tyson - Death by Black Hole and other cosmic quandaries.
In fact, the more what I’m reading is closer to my field of expertise, the more my skepticism grows.
From creationists who deny the veracity of evolution to climate deniers who hold global warming is a hoax, there is vocal minority out there who see scientific activity as buffet of ideas. They believe they are free to choose which parts of scientific endeavor to believe and which parts to reject. But, in truth, their actions belie their words. Living in a culture saturated with science, they routinely accept its authority on matters of life and death. Only when the consequences of science appear remote are they willing to take their politically charged stands against mountains of evidence and decades of effort. […]
“Corruption” they say, “It’s all corruption.”
In their worldview the scientists are in it for the money or the fame or the power. Scientists are overstating the case. They are ignoring other evidence. The science itself is not just wrong, it’s purposely wrong and designed only to fool the general public. How does that sentiment line up with their every day dependence on science for the miracles of modern life? […] science deniers talk one game and play another. […]
Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?
[…] “patternicity,” […] the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.
Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.
The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.
But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agenticity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.
Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. […]
I have found that I can get each group to think about what they are saying by using the other group as a foil. Namely, of the creationists I ask, “Do you believe in flying saucers?” They inevitably say “no.” Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied all of the claims?” Similarly, to the alien abduction people I ask, “Do you be- lieve in Young Earth Creationism?” and they say “no,” wanting to appear scientific. Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied every single counterclaim?” The point I try to make for each group is that it is quite sensible to base theoretical expectations on a huge quantity of existing evidence, without having studied absolutely every single obscure counterclaim. This “teaching” technique has worked in most cases, except those rare times when it has turned out that I was debating an alien abduction believer who was also a creationist!