Mini-Science Q & A – Science and the paranormal

Mini-Science logo At the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Joe Schwarcz’s lecture “Science and the paranormal” (April 7, 2010).

Q: What happens when Science doesn’t seem to match our perception of reality (e.g., quantum mechanics)?

A: Science is based on evidence, not on perceptions. Perceptions can be very misleading. For two thousand years people perceived that they were helped by bloodletting. Scientific evidence shows that aside for the placebo effect, they are not. Quantum mechanics is a way of explaining observed phenomena. It is consistent with physical evidence so we call it “science.” Should observations be made that cannot be accounted for by our current understanding of quantum mechanics, the theory will have to be modified. Science is based on reality, not on our perception of reality.

Q: Are there any scientific experiments or theories about a human psychological need to believe the unbelievable?

A: I don’t know of any experiments but it is quite evident that belief in the unbelievable is widespread. Humans have a need to find explanations for everything that happens in life and when there is a problem they hope to find a solution. Hope is an important feature of life and when science cannot provide it, people look to the “unbelievable.” Of course what is “unbelievable” is a matter of judgment.

Q: What is the greatest danger that fraud represents in our current society?

A: The greatest problem is health fraud. Patients can be seduced into trying quack products and quack procedures instead of scientifically proven approaches. Science doesn’t always have an answer and it is understandable that desperate people who have exhausted all conventional methods will try “alternative” treatments. The real danger is when they eschew conventional methods in favor of unproven interventions.

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