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Article/Document:

Curious, Creative and Critical Thinking

Peter Sturrock, Center for Space Science and Astrophysics, Stanford University

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: In this essay, I will argue that scientists need at least three modes of thought that I call "curious," "creative" and "critical." These requirements, though they may be quite general in their applicability, come sharply into focus when one deals with anomalies within mainstream science or with anomalous phenomena that seem to reside outside of science as we know it.

Peter A. Sturrock ,  Ph.D.

author's bio


The Responsible approach to Exploring the Unknown

Edward Ginzion, one of the founders of Varian Associates, once remarked, concerning his colleague Russell Varian, that "he had several modes of thought, of which logical thinking was only one." So it is, most likely, with all great inventors, and so it is, I believe, with all truly productive scientists. In this essay, I will argue that scientists need at least three modes of thought that I call curious, creative, and critical.

These requirements. though they may be quite general in their applicability, come sharply in focus when one deals with anomalies within mainstream science or with anomalous phenomena that seem to reside outside of science as we know it.

An even more disturbing and challenging situation arises if a scientist takes an interest in a topic that is outside of mainstream science, and is believed by the scientific community to represent "pseudoscience," the "paranormal," or "pathological science." Some of the best known examples that are regarded in this light are "parapsychology," "ufology" (the study of UFO reports) and "cryptozoology," the search for zoological anomalies (including the search for Big Foot and for the so called "Loch Ness Monster'). Even the mention of such terms will send a shudder through the frame of almost any self-respecting scientist. Why is this so?

Typical responses to this question are in fact indicated by the terms I have just used. If I assert that a subject is "pseudoscience," I am stating that the activity is not truly scientific but merely pretends to be scientific. However, such an assertion is indefensible. A "subject" IS neither scientific nor nonscientific. It is only the study carried out by a particular person or group of persons that can be so described. Hence one may be able to make a case that this person who studies parapsychology is being pseudoscientific, but that does not mean that it is impossible for some other person to carry out a study in the same field that is truly scientific and meets the highest standards of the scientific enterprise.

There is a similar problem connected with the term "paranormal." If I assert that a subject is "paranormal," I am implying that I know what is "normal." I am further implying that any subject that is not "normal," according to my definition of the term, does not accord with scientific knowledge, and must be rejected as bogus. This would be a huge responsibility to take on. Most scientists would agree that science is incomplete. They would agree with Isaac Newton who stated that he felt like a person who had found a few beautiful pebbles from the shore, while huge oceans lay unexplored before him. If we do not know all there is to know about the universe (including human beings and everything else in the universe), then clearly we cannot claim to know what is "normal," and it is therefore foolish to use the term "paranormal." Such issues are perceived as heretical precisely because they involve a combination of intellectual and political considerations.

Indeed, my understanding of the term "heresy" is the following: A heresy is a proposition that is, at the same time, a challenge to understanding abd a challenge to power. Galileo faced the investigators of the Holy Inquisition as a result of his assertion that the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, in which the Earth is at rest and all bodies revolve around the Earth, is wrong, and that the Copernican model, that places the Sun at the center and has the Earth revolve around the Sun, is correct. Perhaps more important was his assertion that we may discover truth about the universe by observation, rather than through the reading of Holy Scripture. In addition to the purely intellectual challenge of offering a new model of the solar system, Galileo was challenging the Church as the ultimate source and judge of truth. Galileo was thereby challenging the status and power of the Church.

One may discern a similar conflict in relation to fields such as parapsychology. The very term "parapsychology" is unfortunate, since it gives the impression that it is somehow related to "psychology." This therefore implies that psychologists should know whether or not there is anything to this subject. Since psychologists, in fact, know very little about parapsychology, this creates a situation of some tension.

One can imagine that the public and the news media could implicitly or explicitly criticize the psychological community for not realizing early on that there was something to parapsychology, and the psychological community would, to some extent, lose face. Hence the conflict between parapsychological investigators and mainstream psychologists is not unlike the conflict between Galileo and the Church. Whether or not these investigators will prove to be correct in their assertions, as Galileo has been proved to be correct, remains to be seen, but the ultimate truth or falsity of a proposition is not, in my opinion, a relevant consideration in trying to determine whether or not a challenge is heresy.

Linda Pauling, daughter of the famous chemist Linus Pauling, once asked her father "How is it you had so many good ideas?" to which he replied, "I had many more ideas, and threw away all the bad ones."

As the astrophysicist Tommy Gold once remarked, "Old ideas are not right simply because they are old, and new ideas are not wrong simply because they are new."

Carl Sagan was correct in asserting that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," but that does not mean that anything less than extraordinary evidence may be ignored.

There is, at present, a huge no-man's-land between established science, on the one hand, and the public and news media, on the other hand. In this area one may find topics such as parapsychology, ufology and cryptozoology. The public is curious and wants answers to these questions The average citizen does not have the technical skills necessary to resolve these mysteries. The scientific community on the other hand, has a store of knowledge and an arsenal of techniques that could be brought to bear on these problems, but this is not happening because the scientific community views these subjects as being "off limits." Such topics are "beyond the pale."

The Society for Scientific Exploration was founded in 1982 to help redress this situation. The Society offers a forum, through its meetings and through its journal, the Journal of Scientific Exploration for the presentation of results of serious investigations into any topic amenable to such study. There have, to date, been no major break throughs in the sense of research that establishes the reality and nature of any of these phenomena. On the other hand, our knowledge of these phenomena is slowly improving. Our insight is increasing. It is my conviction that if we persevere with the judicious application of curious, creative and critical thinking it will be only a matter of time before each of these enigmas is finally resolved.

@1997 Society for Scientific Exploration

Peter A. Sturrock Ph.D. is a Professor of Space Science and Astrophysics at Stanford Universoty where he is the Director of the Center for Space Science and Astrophysics. He currently serves as President of the Society for Scientific Exploration.

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Notes From the Editor:
CAVEAT Lector

Sturrock asks why scientists "shudder" when topics such as parapsychology, ufology, and cryptozoology are brought up. Answer: because, in each of these areas,

(1) There is widespread, well-documented fraud, and
(2) there is a community, or, better, an industry, of "true believers" whose minds are CLOSED to the possible nonexistence of the phenomenon. These two together are enough to make any rational person shudder and put on his "I'm from Missouri" hat.

Sturrock says that we cannot legitimately label specific subject areas as pseudoscientific. I agree whole-heartedly. Subject-matter enters the dispute because some legends and/or "powers" are associated with attempts at "scientific proof," where there are strong incentives to believe One result has been a clustering of questionable methods in certain fields. But he's right: it's not subject-matter per se. One mark of pseudoscience is a continuing attempt to prove a conclusion made in advance, instead of simply doing an updown test. This characteristic is subject-matter independent. The key is "continuing." Much good science begins with fervent beliefs, but it doesn't persist in the face of falsification. Pseudoscience does.

Sturrock's discussion of "paranormal"" might lead one to believe that the word was born as a pejorative term. Not so. It is a substitute for "supernatural," for people who want to investigate ''miracles" without bringing God into it. investigating "miracles" is never "normal." That's the point of miracles. In 1933, when J. B. Rhine started doing his five-card research, "paranormal " was a very upper-drawer word. The term acquired a pejorative flavor only after much fraud, and now Sturrock notes its quasi-smuttiness.

Sturrock quotes Tommy Gold on new ideas. Parapsychology, ufology and cryptozoology are not new at all: they are centuries old. (You should read some of the 16th-century reports of strange animals from European explorers in America. Some were true, others were tall tales. Cryptozoology indeed.) Some truth claims are "relatively" recent, "only" decades old. Sturrock here conflates "new" with "extraordinary," and in my opinion this only confuses the issue.

Even so, I am happy to see that the Society for Scientific Exploration exists, and I wish them success. They offer a second opinion on whether something is worth pursuing. I've been told that their journal is peer-reviewed, and I'd like to know if the reviewers include professional magicians and members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Such a policy would help keep them clear of the fraud and other kinds of self- delusion that have contaminated certain subject areas so far. We must all remember, SSE and CSICOP alike, that open mindedness is a two-way street.

William B. Lindley

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