Room Temperature Universe

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is pretty damn funny.  Never really a Fallon fan before this, but I’m coming around.

Did you ever take the time to notice how much we don’t notice?  Like room temperature.  Unless it’s really cold or really hot, we don’t notice room temperature.  It just doesn’t record in either or short-term perceptions or our long-term memories.  What isn’t deemed unsusual isn’t deemed noteworthy.  Obvious, you say?  Probably, but it’s an idea that we really don’t think through.

This perceptual paradox is why we give so much credence to pseudo-science and coincidence.  A psychic makes 100 random guesses and gets 10 “right” (in the broadest definition of the word).  To many an average observer, this is an amazing demonstration of supernatural powers.  Especially after the fact, after time has allowed the expected incorrect answers to fade into oblivion and only the amazing anomalies remain.  As time passes, we can become even more convinced of the validity of this experience because the only thing that remains is the “proof” of psychic powers.

Or take a moment to watch any (and I do mean any) reality ghost hunter type show.  A team of investigators walks through a haunted location for several hours, then combs through the “evidence” and discovers one or two unusual pieces of “phenomenon” and focuses entirely on these.  But what’s never shown in these shows is the hours of non-evidence, the hours when nothing unusual happens.  This isn’t exactly deception.  The people who star in these shows are usually victims of this perceptual trick just as much as the audience.

Another example of this particular concept is found in the illusion of coincidence.  Although coincidence isn’t really an illusion.  Coincidences do happen, and they happen every day.  A complete lack of coincidence in the universe would, in itself, be unbelievable.  There are thousands of opportunities for coincidence in this world.  Do yourself a favor one day and take note of all the non-coincidences that take place in an average day.  Here’s just a list of typical non-coincidences that aren’t at all unusual and because of that, we rarely notice them:

-Nobody you see all day is wearing the same shirt as you.

-You don’t meet a single person with the same name as you.

-You don’t spontaneously have a run in with any friends or acquantainces.

-The phone rings.  You think it’s Person X.  It isn’t.

-You’re thinking about a reasonably obscure song, and it doesn’t start playing on the radio.

And so on and so on.

As a skeptic, I’m sometimes accused of being too closed-minded, but it seems as if too often believers miss the point.  It’s not that I’m not willing to believe.  It’s just that I need more than a single anomaly in an ocean of normality to be convinced of something as fantastic as ghosts, flying saucers, or astrology.  For that matter, this rule applies to even the ordinary things.  I don’t believe in evolution.  I know evolution is fact because there’s a mountain of corroborating evidence.  Those who take a few extraneous oddities and try to use them as proof that evolution is false aren’t really interested in the truth.  They already know what they believe, and are all-too-happy to grab onto any strange piece of data to justify that belief.  It’s really no difference than ghost hunters who obsess over a single piece of unusual footage or a clairvoyant who forgets all the incorrect predictions in favor of the one or two (usually obvious) ones that are right.

ASIDE: Did any so-called psychic predict the death of Michael Jackson?  Probably not, since I don’t think anyone’s step forward to take credit yet for this amazing prognostication.

Sometimes, people will try to say that I’m too closed-minded or that my belief in reason and science is a type of faith itself.  Taken to extremes, this can be true.  Science has its moments of overzealous devotion and blindness.  Einstein hated quantum theory.  He just hated it.  Not because it wasn’t provable, but because he just didn’t like the idea.  He spent much of the later years of his life trying to disprove it.

He failed, proving that just because you’re a genius and just because you don’t like an idea, that doesn’t mean the idea is wrong.  And yes, that means I could be wrong about ghosts.  Or astrology.  Or numerology.  Or any number of supernatural beliefs.  (Whoops.  Not that I’m claiming to be a genius as this paragraph might imply.)

What’s strange is the amount of things science and reason has given us that we take for granted, without doubt or suspicion.  All but the most backward and superstitious of us doesn’t doubt the existence of Pluto, for instance.  Yet I’ve never seen the planet.  Still, every astrophysicist in the known universe agrees that it’s there.  Yet am I taking these people on faith?  Am I being naive?  How do I know that there’s not a worldwide conspiracy to make be believe Pluto is out there?

Short answer: I don’t.

Long answer: What does anyone have to gain by making up Pluto up?  What perceptual flaw could trick us into believing it exists?

But perhaps the Pluto argument is a bit esoteric.  Let’s think more locally.  What about Australia?  I’ve never been to Australia.  I don’t recall ever meeting an Australian person.  And while I’ve seen films that take place in Australia, I’ve also seen movies that took place in Middle Earth and on Tattooie, neither of which claim to be real places.

But Australia isn’t an anomaly.  People don’t point at hazy Australia-shaped images on maps and say, “Something is there.”  People don’t tell me that I have to believe in Australia to see it.  Or to go there.  And if I wanted to disbelieve in Australia and someone wanted to convince me otherwise, all they’d have to do was buy me a plane ticket and convince me to go.

But if I say there’s no such thing as bigfoot, all any believer can do is say he’s out there.  And they just “know” it.

I’m not trying to convince any believers to not believe.  Okay, maybe I am a little.  But I know it’s a losing battle.  Because the world of not-ghosts and non-psychics, the reality without bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, is the true invisible world.  Invisible because we don’t see it and don’t remember it when we do.  While every random EVP captured on tape and every “he’s a capricorn” moment gets the lion’s share of our attention.

Welcome to the Room Temperature Universe, gang.  Try not to take it for granted.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write.


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  1. Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    The ghost hunter shows are the worst with their constant cries of “What was that?” Oh, you mean that ruckus that conveniently took place while the camera guy was looking the other way? That was your producer dropping his lunchbox. Oh, it’s suddenly cold in there is it? Somehow I don’t believe you.

  2. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    Well, I actually do believe these “cold spots” exist. What I don’t believe is that a cold spot is truly inexplicable or that it’s proof of anything other than our own ability to detect temperature change. And I also believe that the noises caught are geniune and not manufactured. And that’s exactly my point here.

    The ghost hunters aren’t lying to us. They’re just victims of our nature to focus on the anomalies and ignore the conventional. So a dozen hours of “nothing special” footage is ignored while a single unusual occurance gets obsessed over.

    A mistake often made, even by skeptics, is that all claims of the paranormal must be a deliberate act of intelligent forces, whether otherworldly or fraud. Probably because we’re wired to see agency in everything, including random and undirected events.

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