The Unpacking Method/Argument and the Cup & Saucer Incident
Mar 10, 2002 10:29 AM
by Daniel Caldwell
SUBJECT: The Unpacking Method/Argument and the Cup &
James McClenon in his book titled "Deviant Science:
The Case of Parapsychology" has written about the
skeptical strategy of "unpacking" ANY successful
"The goal of the critic using this strategy is to
'unpack' and examine in detail any experiment, and to
demonstrate how methodological flaws COULD have
entered into the experimental process, thereby
producing an invalid results. . . . The critic
...thinks of some...methodological flaw that COULD
have occurred. . . .His or her 'unpacking' of
methodological assumptions tends to render the
experiment into an anecdotal form. . . .This
unpacking strategy makes the 'perfect' ESP experiment
an impossbility. Sooner or later, the critic will ask
for information that is no longer available, or for a
degree of experimental control and exactitude that is
desirable in principle but impossible in practice. . .
.[Another] rhetorical ploy is to demand total
perfection. It is ALWAYS POSSIBLE for critics to think
of more rigid methodological procedures after an
experiment has been conducted...The a priori arguments
of the critics mean it is highly logical to
assume that, within ALL experiments which successfully
'prove' the existence of psi, there must be an 'error
some place'." Caps added.
This unpacking method can ALSO be used on paranormal
experiences and events such as the "cup and saucer"
incident which has been discussed recently on this
forum. In fact this unpacking method can successfully
be used on any "normal" historical event.
Dr. Ray Hyman, a psychologist and also a skeptic of
the paranormal, has agreed that in using such A METHOD
OF ARGUMENT, "it is ALWAYS possible to 'imagine' SOME
scenario in which [for example] cheating no matter how
implausible, COULD HAVE occurred." Caps added.
Using such a METHOD is "illegitimate" [as Dr. Marcello
Truzzi, a sociologist and another skeptic of the
parnormal points out] because by its use, "one can
'HYPOTHETICALLY' explain away ANY result [even]
in science." Caps added.
In effect, this TYPE OF ARGUMENT and the process of
UNPACKING an experiment or a testimonial account
becomes a game in which the skeptic cannot lose.
Turning to the realm of normal historical inquiry, the
historians Barzun and Graff point out:
"If you receive a letter from a relative that 
bears what looks like her signature, that  refers
to family matters you and she commonly discuss, and
that  was postmarked in the city where she lives,
the probability is very great that she wrote it."
"The contrary hypothesis would need at least as many
opposing signs [of evidence] in order to take root in
your mind---though the possibility of forgery. . .is
Please note that the hypothesis that the letter is
really written by your relative is supported by three
positive signs of evidence. But as Barzun and Graff
point out, even in spite of all that, the
POSSIBILITY or PLAUSIBILITY of forgery is ALWAYS
A critic using the UNPACKING method could take the
ball at this step and try to explain away the three
pieces of evidence.
For example, the skeptic could argue:
"Isn't it possible or plausible that  the
relative's signature was forged, and, isn't it
possible or plausible that  some "forger" was
somehow privy to family matters, and, furthermore,
isn't it possible or plausible that  the forger
could have mailed the letter in the city where your
relative lives to throw you off the track?"
And if you objected to such speculation, the critic
"Prove to me that the three statements, I just listed,
aren't possible or plausible! Didn't Barzun and Graff
admit that THE POSSIBILITY OF FORGERY ...IS ALWAYS
But one should point out that POSSIBILITIES and
PLAUSIBILITIES [at step 2] are not to be confused with
PROBABLITIES [at step 4]. Barzun and Graffe clearly
enunciate an important dictum for the researcher:
"The rule of 'Give Evidence' is not be be violated. .
. .No matter how possible or plausible the author's
conjecture [at step 2 in the 4 step process] it cannot
be accepted as truth [at step 4] if he has only his
hunch [which is not evidence] to support it. Truth
rests not on possibility or plausibility but on
probability. Probability means the balance of chances
that, GIVEN SUCH AND SUCH EVIDENCE [at step 3], the
event it records happened in a certain way; or, in
other cases, that a supposed event did not in fact
take place." Caps added.
The above is given in the hope that some readers may
ponder on the underlying issues raised.
Daniel H. Caldwell
"...Contrast alone can enable us to appreciate things
at their right value; and unless a judge compares
notes and hears both sides he can hardly come to a
H.P. Blavatsky. The Theosophist, July, 1881, p. 218.
Do You Yahoo!?
Try FREE Yahoo! Mail - the world's greatest free email!
[Back to Top]
Dedicated to the Theosophical Philosophy and its Practical Application