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Psychic Possibilities and Giving Skeptics a Bad Name

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How a Slate writer resorts to the old "it isn't true because it cannot be true" reasoning

There are some paranormal "believers" who make paranormal research look ridiculous because they uncritically believe in every orb, ghost picture, or paranormal-themed TV show that's put in front of them. Likewise, there are skeptics who give skepticism a bad name, and for the same reason: a biased, unexamined approach to a possible piece of evidence.

Specifically, I am referring to a recent article by Justin Peters in Slate called "No, Psychics Can't Help Solve Murders, written in response to Pam Ragland's claim that she received a psychic vision that led her to the body of missing 11-year-old Terry Smith.

The Riverside County detective who was working the case, John Powers, was astonished by the event, saying, "Not in 23 years have I ever seen anything like this." No explanation disputing Ragland's claim was put forth to say how she was drawn to the Smith house and directly to the spot where the boy's body was buried.

Yet with no more examination of the case than what was reported by the media, Justin Peters wrote, "But I am beyond certain that, despite what Ragland says and the authorities might believe, psychic intuition had absolutely nothing to do with the discovery of Smith's body."

And his brilliant reasoning: "How do I know this? Because psychics don't exist," he wrote. "Psychic powers are not a real thing. A psychic cannot help a detective solve a crime, because there is no such thing as a legitimate psychic."

Wow, there's some objective reasoning and reporting for you. It isn't possible because it cannot be possible. That isn't skepticism. That's just nay-saying. He would have been right at home among those who 100 years ago said that space flight is not possible because it cannot be possible.

Skeptics complain that psychic phenomena do not exist because there isn't any evidence for them. But then, when possible evidence presents itself, such as this case, this skeptic says, Well, this evidence doesn't count - not even worth considering - because the phenomenon doesn't exist. It's clear that no possible evidence is worth examining for someone like Mr. Peters because his mind is already made up.

Nevermind the years of research conducted by Robert Jahn and others at Princeton's Engineering Anomalies Research Lab, which collected hard data on the influence of human consciousness on the material world. Nevermind the literally tens of thousands of psychic experiences reported by people all over the world for millennia. Mr. Peters hasn't experienced it, so it doesn't exist. What is certain is that he has not researched the subject at all. He does not, in fact, know what he's talking about.

Such steadfast, knee-jerk proclamations, made without the least bit of real consideration of the events, do not elevate the author to a position of scientific superiority, as perhaps he saw himself. Rather, it lowers him into a ditch of closed-minded, non-scientific simplicity, devoid of curiosity, that cannot envision the possibility a broader world than he knows.

Let me be clear: One cannot say definitely that this case is proof of psychic phenomena because we do not (possibly cannot) know all the details. But the people who were there - including the police authorities that Peters readily dismisses - suspect (or at least wonder) if this is a legitimate instance of psychic phenomena. It is a possibility - maybe a strong one - worthy of consideration.

And here's how Mr. Peters even misunderstands the case, or is being completely disingenuous to help prove his point: "A different nbclosangeles.com story noted that the discovery was made when, in 'the family home's backyard, [Ragland] found a decaying head sticking out of the raw dirt,'" he wrote. "A head poking out of the ground isn't the sort of 'vision' that requires supernatural powers to see."

Her vision didn't occur when she saw the piece of the head sticking out of the ground, Mr. Peters. Her vision took place beforehand, which led her to the house! That's the whole point! That's what made it a psychic event!

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm in favor of true skepticism, which requires an unbiased, open mind. Mr. Peters' brand of closed-minded skepticism is no better than someone who sees fairies swimming in his teacup every morning.

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