"Skeptically Speaking" Column #4 -- Dec. 1991

By Gary P. Posner

The "Open" Mind

A "Letter-to-the-Editor" in the October Tampa Bay Mensa Sounding, in response to my inaugural column, said in part:

I could not resist responding to . . . Posner's comment [that] ". . . there is at present insufficient evidence to justify a belief in the reality of [the] paranormal." I agree that one cannot justify the belief; however, neither can one disprove it. Therefore, I choose to believe that anything is possible until someone proves it is not.

The temptation to embrace the plausibility of the paranormal is not easily resisted. After all, what sort of self-respecting individual would choose to be a party-pooping "skeptic," when one can instead be "open-minded"? Even though one "cannot justify the belief," is it not far nobler nonetheless to "choose to believe that anything is possible until someone (dis)proves it," despite acknowledging that one cannot  "disprove it"? Talk about pie in the sky! Make mine à la mode!

This is a free country -- one may believe in anything one chooses. And this isn't just any country. This is the home of the "American Dream" where, at least as regards socio-economic upward mobility, certainly anything seems possible.

But what about claims of psychic power? In the absence of sufficient scientific evidence to substantiate its existence, is it nevertheless still "possible" that ESP and psychokinesis exist? Of course. And although Robin Williams performed the most realistic demonstration of trance-channeling that I have ever seen (during a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live), isn't it still "possible" that J.Z. Knight channels "Ramtha" for real? Sure.

What about faith-healing? Some TV evangelists may have fallen from grace. Christian Scientists may die younger on average than those who seek medical care. And James Randi may have failed to find any miracles to include in his book, The Faith-Healers. Isn't it still "possible" that miraculous healings occur? Indeed.

And how about astrology, or UFOs? After all, the moon affects the tides, and life probably exists elsewhere in the universe. Despite the absence of confirmatory scientific evidence, isn't it still "possible" that these phenomena are real? Yes.

So why not acquiesce with the following "politically correct" response when confronted with the claims of a psychic, astrologer, or UFO abductee?: "There may not be sufficient scientific evidence that your claim is real, but no one can prove that it isn't; therefore, I choose to believe that anything is possible." After all, it's only fair to keep an "open" mind, right?

But how "open" is the mind of one who embraces the paranormal? A skeptic of ESP, for example, is capable of admitting error, and of undergoing a 180-degree change of opinion, should psychic "x" prove able to perform feat "y" under condition "z." What sort of evidence could ever convince a believer of ESP that he/she is in error? Might such a mind actually be "closed"?

It is true that even the most strident skeptic can never hope to "disprove" the existence of the paranormal. That no paranormal claim has yet withstood critical scrutiny does not "prove" that none ever will. Maybe every psychic ever tested under properly controlled conditions has just had a bad day. Ditto the astrologers (see, e.g., Shawn Carlson's study in Nature, Dec. 5, 1985, pp. 419-425).

For that matter, who can "disprove" my claim that my deity, Zontar, whisked me away last weekend to his/its native planet, only to return me before anyone could perceive that I had been gone?

The "scientific method," employing critical analysis, has proven itself to be the most reliable road to the truth. Yes, let's all strive to be "open-minded," but not to the point that we allow our gray matter to spill out onto the newspaper as we read our daily horoscope.

Return to "Skeptically Speaking" Index

Return to Posner's Home Page