A common charge against skeptical and scientific thinking is that we deny those things we cannot explain. I have often heard rebuttals such as “just because you don’t understand it does not mean it doesn’t exists,” or “not everything in this world can fit into a test-tube and be tested in a lab.” These types of comments show two profound misconceptions about the scientific process; that proof is synonymous with understanding, and that science is something we do in a lab.
Let’s take for example a psychic who claims he has the unique ability of remote viewing, being able to gather information at a distance through ESP. There is no question that our current scientific understanding would be unable to explain this phenomenon if it were real, meaning we wouldn’t be able to describe precisely how it works. But does this mean we are unable to test this claim?
A rigorous and effective scientific test of this individual’s abilities would not only be simple, it wouldn’t require test tubes or technology of any kind. We would simply have to ask our psychic to stay in one room while we took a number of volunteers to a different room or building. We could then proceed to ask our volunteers, one at a time, to write boldly and legibly a number of their choice between 1 and 20 on a large sheet of paper. Meanwhile our psychic would use his remote viewing abilities to have his consciousness enter the room (or whatever it is he claims to do) and tell us what number each volunteer wrote down.
With only 10 volunteers and 10 numbers we could quickly discern whether our psychic has a unique talent or is just another fraud (maybe one who actually believes what he says). Were such an experiment to take place, anyone producing a success rate of even 50% would shake our current understanding of reality. If these result were replicated time and time again there is no doubt the scientific world would scramble and race to understand this phenomena, careers would be made, awards won, paradigms shifted…and it could all begin with a sheet of paper and a pencil.
The truth is the history of science is riddled with things we did not understand, I would argue that no community more joyfully embraces the unknown. Newton did not understand how gravity worked when he defined its nature on paper, nor could Pasteur see the particles his experiment proved existed. Today the mysteries of science include the nature of consciousness, black holes, out of body experiences, dark energy, non-locality, and untold numbers of phenomena. These are not being ignored, rather our best and brightest are on the forefront, learning, studying, discovering….careers are being made, award will be won.
Science isn’t just done in a test-tube, nor does it require a lab. Science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” For most fields the unknown represents the end of the road or the limits of human knowledge, for the scientific mind, the unknown marks only the beginning.
Remember this next time the question of evidence comes up, particularly as it relates to claims of the paranormal or supernatural. The scientific view never dismisses that which we cannot explain as non-existent, but rather focuses on learning to explain those phenomena we can prove exist.