To the Editor:
Re: “To the Editor: Cleese’s claims completely un-scientific,” Opinion, April 23.
In this letter criticizing remarks about precognition made by John Cleese at the Hotel School, the author reveals that he misunderstands the nature of science. Science is a method of inquiry that enables one to investigate empirical claims. Even if some of those claims seem unlikely to be true on a priori grounds, that does not thereby render their investigation pseudo-science.
It is true that the burden of proof lies with the claimant, and it is his or her obligation to spell out the experimental and statistical methods used to investigate and support the claim. But at that point, it becomes the obligation of the skeptic to read the evidence, to evaluate the methodology and the data and to argue for or against the investigator’s own conclusions. The person who simply calls the entire enterprise pseudo-science without doing this is neither a skeptic nor a scientist, but a scoffer.
In his talk, Cleese was reporting informally on some of my own studies of precognition that I have carried out over the past few years here in Cornell’s Psychology Department. As it happens, I believe the data reveal evidence for precognition, and I have discussed the studies with Cleese during several of his visits to Cornell. But what Cleese and I believe about the phenomenon of precognition (or even astrology for that matter) is not the important issue here. The methods and data are available for inspection by those who wish to evaluate them, and they are free to arrive at their own conclusions about the validity of the results. That is how science proceeds. Indeed, the real identifying mark of pseudo-science is declaring phenomena to be real or impossible on a priori grounds while refusing to consider the data. The Catholic Church learned that lesson well since it tangled with Gaileo over the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Today the Pope would be willing to look through the telescope. It is time for the author of this letter to learn that same lesson.
Daryl Bem, Professor Emeritus of Psychology