This one is for Andrew Gelman, with whom I've been having a number of interesting conversations about the sense in which models are to statistics what stories are to narratives. In the social sciences, we might say it depends on how we construe "the people": either as a "population" to be interpreted statistically, or as a "history" to be interpreted narratively. In the first case we build models and test them, in the second we tell stories and ... well, see how they go over. Models are beholden to probabilities, stories to plausibility. That sort of thing.
When I read about Michael Shermer's "anomalous" wedding music, I thought of Andrew right away. After all, he's been consistently critical of Daryl Bem's ESP research but he likes a good story as much as the next guy. So let me tell the story, and then explain what I think it has to do with our scientific models.
Shermer got married this summer. His fiancé, now wife, Jennifer Graf, had shipped her things to Beverley Hills from Köln, including a number of heirlooms from her grandfather, who had been very important to her as a child. Among the items was a transistor radio that Shermer tried and failed to get to work. Three months later, in the days leading up the wedding, "Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away." Then, on the day of the wedding, a strange thing happened: the radio suddenly started working, "a romantic love song wafted" from it. The next day, it stopped again, and it hasn't worked since.
The moral of this story, of course, is that any old radio will do. No, I'm kidding. It is, of course, as Shermer tells us, that Graf's grandfather was there with them after all, had in effect given her away. The moral, indeed, is, as she is to have said, "I am not alone." And, because Michael Shermer is a world-famous "skeptic" and champion of science, this story has additional significance. "[T]he eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well." The moral of the story, that is, is that, modern science and skepticism notwithstanding, it is possible for the dead to communicate their opinions to the living.
Charles Eisenstein, writing for the new-age magazine Reality Sandwich (which was founded by Daniel Pinchbeck, by the way), has declared Shermer's conversion a "miracle". (He is more impressed with the fact that this happened to Michael Shermer than that it happened at all, presumably because he believes this sort of thing happens all the time.) Perhaps, he suggests, this "portend[s] a fundamental transition. Perhaps it signals the unraveling of the epistemologic hegemony of science." Shermer is indeed among the more prominent ideologues of science, so maybe it does, but there's another sense in which this story, even when it happens to ordinary people might shake our scientific models "to the core".
Consider the common reaction in comment fields and skeptics' forums. Actually, consider Shermer's own remark (which his critics do little more than echo):
Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there's bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.
This is the point I want to emphasise. We have no working model of the causal mechanism here, but we have a story that gets its significance from the (unproven) premise that the dead can communicate with the living—that they care about us, and that they approve and disapprove of our choices. That's a powerful narrative with deep moral implications.
If a "belief in science" means that we must reject this interpretation of the story, impoverishing Michael and Jennifer's memory of their wedding, and diminishing the significance of their marriage vows, then surely science is a somewhat petty business. Indeed, it comes to function as a rather mean and spiteful god, preventing us from enjoying the wonders that befall us, robbing our lives of meaning. But if science will not step in here and rule out the spiritistic interpretation, then where does that leave us? Aren't we then always entitled to go with whatever interpretation feels right? The obvious counter-example that comes to mind here is vaccination, the case against which is based on coincidences between getting the shots and developing autism. If we believe the models that show us that vaccines do not cause autism, aren't Michael Shermer and Jennifer Graf likewise condemned to live in a world where their beautiful wedding story just ain't true? I, for one, don't have the heart to tell them.