Night Thoughts

Few debunkings of haunted houses, psychic media and so forth and so on rely exclusively, or even primarily, on what we’d call fundamental physics. It is not that the psychic operates in some way which requires a magnetic monopole; it is that the ability of people to do cold reading, plus our tendencies to remember hits and forget misses, plus other aspects of human behaviour, provide an alternative explanation which accounts for our experiences and gives us practical guidance for our future actions.

A skeptic who is told, “I saw a UFO!” and responds, “No, you didn’t,” is denying themselves the very data they require in order to have something to be skeptical about. The better response is not to deny the experience, but to question the proffered interpretation, its place in the greater weave. Where does it fit within, and how does it contribute to, the tangled bank?

We don’t have to take at face value the claims of the TV psychic or the faith healer. What we cannot disregard is that the currency of such beliefs in human minds has done its part to make history.

To put it another way: is there a necessary contradiction between the statement “the gauge group of the Standard Model is SU(3) × SU(2) × U(1)” and the statement “a dream can change a person’s life”? Since we teach physics with stories about Einstein dreaming of riding on a beam of light, we had better be able to make this reconciliation!