The ‘Science Can’t Explain!’ Fallacy

October 19, 2017

As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I'd walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the Fifties. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I'd pick up some "true mystery" books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page.

These weren't ghost stories, or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, "Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic -all absolutely true!" I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures, and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like, "The Invisible Fangs" and "The Girl Who Lived Twice" and "A Voice From The Dead?" A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a "fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!"

Yet the assertion that the stories were "fully documented" was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since none of Edwards' stories cited sources, references, or in fact any documentation whatsoever! The "science cannot explain" line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould's 1965 book Oddities, subtitled "Mysterious, true events science cannot explain!" I pictured worried scientists--imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats--huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn't explain.

A few years ago when researching the famous Coral Castle in Florida I came across this claim repeatedly. In Homestead, not far from Miami and off the South Dixie Highway, sits the world-famous structure. Though not really a castle-and not really made of coral-it is nonetheless an amazing achievement. More than 1,000 tons of the sedimentary rock was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial.

"You are about to see an engineering marvel that has been compared with Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt," touts an information sheet available at the site. Many sources claim that the castle, originally called Rock Gate Park, is scientifically inexplicable. According to the attraction's website, "Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers and scholars since its opening in 1923."

Despite researching information about the site, I was unable to find any references to all the baffled scientists. Who were they? When were they there? What were their credentials? What exactly did they test or examine that left them perplexed? When I put these questions to the staff at the Coral Castle I got baffled if bemused shrugs. How can you boldly claim that scientists can't explain it, if you have no record of any scientists actually trying to explain it? They may or may not be able to, but unless they have made a sincere effort you can't honestly claim that they failed.

I was recently reminded of this when I was contacted via Twitter by someone with the handle "Ninel Kulagina Fans." They wrote "In 50 years, no magician has replicated the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions."

I promptly and politely replied: "Which magicians tried, where, and when?" It was a sincere and simple request: I was told unequivocally that "no magician has replicated the telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions," and in order to determine the validity of that claim I'd need to know more about the times that magicians had tried and failed to replicate said experiments. The afternoon came and went without a reply, so the next day I repeated my request: "So: Which magicians tried, where, and when? Still waiting for a response."

Eventually the fan (or fans) of Ninel Kulagina realized that I was serious and asking for evidence of their claim. Instead of the names of one or more magicians who had tried to "replicate the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions" (along with the dates, published research on the topic describing the experimental conditions, etc.) I got the following reply: "Doesn't say ‘tried.' A success by a magician would require a famous parapsychologist, science film crew. No reports in 50 years of success."

This answer--and its tacit admission--was quite revealing: The person admitted up front that no magicians had even attempted to replicate those specific telekinesis demonstrations under the same conditions.

It certainly is true that skeptical magicians (most prominently my colleague James Randi, as well as other including Ray Hyman, Banachek, and Dan Korem) have tried to replicate alleged claims of telekinesis by performers such as Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and others; the magicians were successful in those attempts--but only because they tried in the first place!

Kulagina's claims have been analyzed and discussed by many skeptical researchers including Randi, Martin Gardner, and Massimo Polidoro. Stating that no magician has replicated a specific telekinesis performance is only meaningful if one has attempted to do so but failed-which is the false conclusion implied in the tweet by Ninel Kulagina Fans. We don't know whether or not a professional magician could replicate Kulagina's performance because it hasn't been done, and there's no reason to think that the magician would fail.

I responded with a final reply: "So you're claiming that X has never happened, yet acknowledge that X has never been attempted. Do you see the faulty logic there?" Fans of Ninel Kulagina responded, "I see a red herring or avoiding the issue fallacy or both. As you know, Randi et al have simulated, but not under same conditions. Thanks."

The red herring claim was especially rich, but at any rate I'm still waiting for any Kulagina supporters to provide the name(s) of the professional magician(s) who tried to replicate Kulagina's effects, where and when these attempted replications took place, under what conditions or controls, under whose supervision, etc. If and when those are provided (and validated) I'll be happy to concede that no magician has replicated the Kulagina demonstrations under the same conditions.

When it comes to claims of baffled scientists and skeptics, there's a simple lesson to remember: "Can't" isn't the same as "didn't try."

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