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As you all know, I’m very interested in how science often becomes a belief system itself for ‘non-believers’. Here’s a little case study for anyone who has this same interest. Last week Phil ‘Bad Astronomy’ Plait posted an entry titled “How to be Psychic“, in which he said:

Do psychic powers exist? I don’t think they do, but that’s because for decades all sorts of tests have been run, and when they are done correctly there is no indication that anyone has any sort of psychic ability at all.

Some guy using the moniker ‘MachineElf’ (who may or may not bear a striking resemblance to…errr…me) posted a one word query to Phil’s original statement: “Citations?” And what an obviously unscientific thing to say that is, because you just know who became the focus of other commenters then…

Now, that’s not to say that psychic abilities are real. There may well be plenty of well-done tests which conclusively show that psychic abilities are a mirage – I’d just like to see some citations. I’d go further to say (a) what about well-done tests which show psychic abilities are real (such as the case of Leonora Piper, which ‘MachineElf’ cites in the thread), and (b) how do we know a test is “done correctly”? On the latter, for most skeptics I would say the definition is when no psychic ability is detected. However, I’d like to see some sort of standard test set up so that this question can be answered definitively – but to do that, there needs to be more open and intelligent discussion of what psychic abilities seem to offer – that is, plenty of mistakes, but also occasional ‘dazzle shots’ which convince people due to their highly specific nature. So a large part of the problem in correctly testing psychics – in my opinion – is how to grade the ‘dazzle shots’ scientifically (objectively).

Anyhow, I’m sure those interested in the ‘science as a belief’ theme will find plenty of interest in the comments thread subsequent to the “Citations?” post.