This article is a collaborative piece with the science magazine Progressistes.
We are living in a society where it has become “natural”, even for older people, to surf the Net, and just as “natural” to be able to benefit, at the flick of a switch, from heating, air conditioning, and other electric and electronic appliances. In the same way, images sent back by probes from Mars or Saturn don’t even seem like technical feats any more, and we are not even amazed by them now. Nevertheless, despite their superficial banality, everyday objects hide major technological achievements. They make use of in depth knowledge of the physical world, made possible by the scientific approach. They are the proof of the superiority of scientific discourse over all others in understanding reality and in particular over religious discourse about the world.
At the same time, the cults of Unreason have never been so well attended: Internet clairvoyance is thriving, astrology is all over the media, and you can get homeopathy on national health plans. This is all the more incomprehensible since these practices are all based on principles completely at odds with the most firmly established laws of physics.
But in a strange twist of Fate, the pseudo-sciences and pseudo-medicines are great proving grounds for (re)discovering Science and the scientific method.
The Broch Approach…
In the 1970s and 80s, a scientist, Professor Henri Broch, became interested in “paranormal” phenomena and began testing them using the scientific method. He has been trying to verify these phenomena for years and has drawn two conclusions: their existence cannot be demonstrated, and studying them can be very beneficial for teaching about the scientific approach …
People, documents and methods of the “paranormal”
Firstly, studying the “paranormal” domain can be informative about the behaviours of the “disciples”, the people who believe in these extra-ordinary phenomena. Henri Broch observed that they exhibit the behaviour of the true believer: nothing can make them change their minds about what they hold true, the opposite of a scientist, who never stops questioning and checks his beliefs against each new discovery or new contradictory finding.
Next, he noted that paranormal phenomena display characteristic similarities. Generally, they transgress the most solidly established scientific knowledge, as in the cases for example of various “miracles” such as the “blood” of St Janvier in Naples, or the Turin “Shroud,” to mention only a couple of the most famous. In the “para” world, the more nebulous, incoherent, and mysterious the explanation of the phenomenon, the more likely it is to be considered as The Truth … quite the opposite of the scientific world, where coherence and respect for precedent are constantly sought after.
Finally, the methods. Henri Broch identifies clear lines of demarcation from naivety via plain incompetence to fraud or the possibility of fraud. For example, confusion between the ideas of correlation and causality: observing a lighter in the pocket of a patient with lung cancer (correlation) does not mean that the lighter causes lung cancer in some “paranormal” way (causality) …
And so to Zetetics …
The paradoxical usefulness of the pseudo-sciences becomes clear: by demonstrating what is Not Science, they help to guide the critical approach towards actual Science. Moreover, they generate useful resources. Henri Broch systematised all this into an approach he called The Zetetic Method. It is based on two categories of recommendations: facets and effects.
Facets are general principles to be respected in any critical process or action that is based on scientific methodology.
Effects are errors or biased thinking which, when they are identified in a discourse, enable us to evaluate its quality. There are some examples in the box below.
And now, to put it into practice…
There are several practical resources available: the Zetetics Laboratory at the University of Nice – Sophia Antipolis, or even online, the great videos on the channel La tronche en biais [“A sideways look”] winner of the Diderot Prize in 2016. At a European level: the movement launched in 1999 in London by Dr. Scott Campbell called “Skeptics in the Pub”: over a drink or two they hold discussions, often introduced by an expert speaker, about topics such as UFOs, creationism etc.
No more excuses now for not putting it into practice!
Some zetetic “effects”
The Well Effect
You need other people to love and admire you, but you are still liable to be critical of yourself. Although you have some character flaws, you are usually able to compensate for them. You have considerable untapped abilities that you have not used to your advantage. Some of your aspirations tend to be quite unrealistic. Disciplined and outwardly self-controlled, you tend to be anxious and uncertain inside. Sometimes you even have serious doubts about whether you have made the right decision. You like a little bit of change and variety and are dissatisfied when you are thwarted by restrictions or limitations
Isn’t this an accurate description of your personality, which might have come from a clairvoyant, a horoscope or an HR department personality test? You’re surprised and impressed by it, because it strongly resembles your personality even though it’s been produced by a complete stranger.
How was it possible?
By using vague, fuzzy or even contradictory sentences, mixing in a bit of everything and the opposite too. The phrase “Although you have some character flaws, you are usually able to compensate for them” is a perfect example: we all have character flaws that we compensate for with varying degrees of success. From then on, it’s a series of banal truisms which everyone can see themselves in. The absence of a specific context also allows everyone to assign their own meanings. For example, a sentence like “You are going to come out on top” doesn’t make sense without the context: top of what? Mathematics? Sport? Macrame? Strawberry tarts? Weakness? Everyone will add their own context to this vague text to give it a specific meaning (for them) and will then recognise themselves in it.
This is what’s known in psychology as the Forer Effect, from the name of the psychologist who first tested this effect in 1948, or in social sciences as the Barnum Effect. In zetetics, it’s called the Well Effect and is explained as follows: the more vague a statement is (very deep – like a great big empty hole), the more the people who listen to it will recognise themselves and recognise themselves to a great extent in it.
Snowball effect: build up the details in a story at 10th hand
So-and-so declares that Someone said that Whoever had learned from Whatsisname that…etc etc. This is the 10th hand testimony where each successive party adds an element of their own to the original story.
Biped effect: taking the effect for the cause
This is reasoning from a firm belief, towards a possible cause ie reasoning backwards. This is one of the most perverse and difficult to identify effects. It very often consists of confusing cause and effect. A good illustration of this effect is the following statement: the fact that we wear trousers proves that God wanted us to be bipeds.
Stork effect: confusing correlation and causality.
The Stork Effect consists in simply confusing a statistical link (correlation) between two variables, with a causal link. The example of the lighter, cited above, is a perfect example.
Some facets of zetetics
Weird stuff happens
We are struck, in everyday life, by some particularly amazing coincidences: meeting a childhood friend we hadn’t seen for 20 years in the subway, thinking about a person and hearing about his death 5 minutes later, etc. We assume a very low level of probability of these events happening, which makes them all the more extraordinary. However, while it’s true that there is little chance that a specific extraordinary event will happen to us, on the other hand it is almost certain that we will all be, at some point in our life, party to an extraordinary event, because the number of events perceived as such is almost infinite.
The source of information is fundamental
You should always have a certain amount of doubt about the validity of information unless you have been able to verify its origin yourself. In fact, it’s often the case that the reported information is not the original information (ripple effect), or that it sometimes comes from sources who are not expert in the field (see below).
The expertise of the source is equally fundamental.
The information more likely to be of better quality if it comes from experts in the field concerned. So on Astrophysics, we can consult Hubert Reeves, a noted astrophysicist, or go to Claude Allègre, leading geochemist, on geology. However, we should be wary of slippage of field of expertise: always bear in mind that Hubert Reeves’ opinion on pesticides, or Claude Allègre’s thoughts on global warming are no more valid than those of the French singer Mireille Mathieu on the existence of black holes…
For further reading on
Henri Broch (1985), “Le Paranormal. Ses Documents, ses Hommes, ses Méthodes”, [“The Paranormal, its Documents, People, and Methods”] Science Ouverte collection, Le Seuil, Paris.
Georges Charpak, Henri Broch (2002), “Devenez sorciers, devenez savants” [“Become wizards, become scientists”], Odile Jacob.
On paranormal phenomena
Zetetic Laboratory of the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis website: http://www.unice.fr/zetetique/
In Grenoble and surrounding areas: http://www.zetetique.fr/
Youtube channel “La tronche en biais” [“A sideways look”], Diderot Prize 2016: https://www.youtube.com/user/TroncheEnBiais
Skeptics in the Pub: https://www.skepticsinthepub.org
 This free clairvoyant reading is brought to you by Henri Broch: http://webs.unice.fr/site/broch/articles/horoscope_puits.html
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