by Karen Frazier, Managing Editor
Paranormal Underground Magazine
I’d like to start off by assuring you all that I actually am a believer in ghosts. A big time believer. That belief, however, is based on nothing objective or scientific. It is based on my own personal experiences. In my private world, that works for me. However, occasionally I get in a discussion with others in the paranormal world who claim to have scientific proof that ghosts are real. They then point me to photographs, orbs on video and EVPs and say, “Voila! Scientific proof.” In spite of my personal belief in ghosts, to that I have to say, “Not so much.”
What would constitute scientific proof? Scientific proof starts with double blind, controlled variable studies based on solid scientific evidence where all things remain the same except for one small variable, which is manipulated for the purpose of research. In social sciences, such as political science, researchers can also use the comparative method, where they compare two things to draw conclusions based on statistically significant correlations. We do neither of these things in paranormal research.
Let’s break scientific method down. Most of you probably remember your fifth grade science fair. Scientific method hasn’t changed much since back then (in my case, waaaaaay back then). Start with a question. Once you have the question, formulate a hypothesis. Next, design your experiment to determine one small thing. Not the whole kit and kaboodle – one small thing.
So far, most paranormal researchers have only reached the hypothesis stage. (To those of you out there using actual, real, scientific method, I’m not talking about you. Don’t email me. I know you exist, although you are as rare as the Dodo bird.) I count myself in among this group, by the way. I am far from a scientist. I am not working scientifically, nor am I trying to actually provide scientific proof of the paranormal. I’m mostly asking – and answering – questions that will satisfy me and not science and the world as a whole. I am all-too aware of my own scientific failings when it comes to paranormal research.
So here most of us sit (including me) in the hypothesis stage. We have a question and we’ve formulated a hypothesis. Now, if we were to actually be good scientific researchers, our next step is to design controlled tests in which the variables all stay the same except for one. Once we’ve tested that variable and either proven or disproven our hypothesis as a result (more than once – it also has to be repeatable), then we can move on.
Currently, except in a few small cases, most paranormal researchers are working purely as theoreticians – not experimental scientists. Theories are good; however, they are just the start of the scientific process. One of the things I believe is that we don’t break down our questions into small enough bits to become an actual working hypothesis. “Do ghosts exist?” is way too big of a hunk to test scientifically. In chasing down that question, our attempts are far too big and too broad to be considered scientific study, and therefore the “evidence” we gain is too broad to be used as scientific evidence. Proving something scientifically is hard, tedious work that unfolds over months and years – not minutes, hours, and days. And it unfolds one tiny piece at a time – not as grand, unified proof that pops out as whole cloth. Often in the scientific process, researchers actually wind up with more questions in pursuit of hypotheses rather than proving or disproving them.
The problem in the paranormal is that people have become entrenched in their theories without ever coming up with well thought-out, scientific methods of testing them except by using thought experiments (Schrodinger’s cat was a thought experiment) or poorly designed equipment usage that has not gone through any of the scientific testing process described above. Therefore, when we get “evidence” on that equipment, there is only a theoretical basis to back it up as evidence, and not a scientific one. While this may be good enough for someone seeking answers for themselves, it certainly isn’t good enough to present to the world at large, and frankly the fact that we continue to do so makes paranormal research look somewhat silly to the world at large if what we claim we are seeking is scientific validity. The theories may be as right as rain, but very few people have found a decent way to move them out of thought and into actual physical experimentation.
What has happened in many cases is that paranormal researchers have become so enraptured of their own theories, that instead of actually testing them in a scientific manner, they have become as dogmatic about them as others are about religion. And once you’ve created something as a religion or belief system, then in my opinion, the level of proof that the public will accept becomes even higher than if you had merely approached it scientifically in the first place.
This all raises an interesting question. What is it that we are doing? Right now, we’re out there trying to learn, but to call what we’re doing scientific does a disservice to the paranormal field as a whole. Until we carefully design methods that test hypotheses, and then go about experimentation in a controlled fashion, we aren’t doing scientific research.
As I was writing this, another interesting question popped into my mind. One that I can’t answer, but I’d love to get some feedback about. If, we were truly to set paranormal research up as a science, where would it fall in the spectrum of science? Is it a physical science, like chemistry, biology or physics, or is it a social science like politics, sociology, and psychology? Or, does it fall in the realm of theology and philosophy? Any takers? I’ll look forward to your responses. You can post them here or, as always, email me at karenfrazier @ paranormalunderground dot net (remove spaces, replace dot with .)