I often express an opinion that gets me in a little bit of hot water with my paranormal peers. Still, I just can’t help myself. I guess I’ve got a big mouth (and an even bigger pen).
So what is this opinion I so obnoxiously espouse? When we investigate the paranormal the way we investigate the paranormal, we are not doing science. That’s right. Not science. With a nod to those who are really doing actual science (Loyd Auerbach, Barry Taff, Gary Schwartz and others like them), it’s frustrating when I see and hear of paranormal groups that proudly promise they are scientific in their approach. To paraphrase Lloyd Bensten, 1988′s Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, “I know scientists. Scientists are friends of mine. And you, sir, are no scientist.”
Still want to keep reading? I hope you will, because I believe there’s tremendous value in what you do. It’s just not science.
When science occurs, it follows a very strict set of protocols. Controls are put in place, variables carefully monitored, and the empirical data determines the direction of the research – not belief, opinion, or anecdotes. Science has its place in paranormal research, and there are some scientists out there doing amazing work using strict scientific protocols.
Once, Paranormal Underground’s science editor JD Harrison (a man who is, himself, a social scientist) set up a scientific experiment regarding EVPs. We invited the participation of the magazine’s readers. Many expressed enthusiasm until they discovered what the initial stages of the experiment entailed, which was establishing a baseline. Before our would-be experimenters could go all willy nilly running through haunted houses waving recorders around and shouting at ghosts, JD asked that they set a recorder in a quiet room in a non-haunted location for an extended period, analyze the results, and then submit them to him. Not a single person who’d showed such enthusiasm in the beginning agreed to participate in this part of the experiment. Science can be tedious that way, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
What paranormal investigators do is altogether different from such painstaking research. While we do gather data, we do so under uncontrolled conditions. While some of us also track environmental conditions in order to monitor the gazillion variables in a haunted location, we typically make gross generalizations based on large swaths of information rather than small bits of data. From this, we float hypotheses about what may be happening, but in doing so we make a ton of assumptions. The result is we tend to engage confirmation bias in order to support what we believe (or interpret) the data is telling us.
This type of field research many teams do can be great for gathering anecdotal information supported by small amounts of actual data. The problem is we then lack the time, patience, and scientific framework for sorting the data we do receive into any scientifically testable hypothesis.
What we’re doing is not science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. While true scientific research into the human soul and human consciousness exists, the more we can gather stories, anecdotes, and personal experiences backed up by interesting tidbits of what we call evidence (EVPs, video, photographs, and anomalous environmental readings), the closer we may get to understanding what exactly is going on.
To make the leap the evidence and readings we gather, as well as the experiences we have, occur because ghosts are present may seem natural, but we are still expressing a belief instead of a scientific fact.
People often accuse me of sitting on the fence when it comes to the paranormal. I’m typically pretty careful what I say and how I characterize my statements, so I can understand why people tell me this. I do sit on the fence, and I think that’s okay. I do believe that unusual and anomalous events occur. I lean towards the belief ghosts cause many of these events, but I can’t state with 100 percent certainty this is true. If I were in a civil courtroom, I might even be able to present a preponderance of evidence to support this belief in ghosts. But in this case, I don’t have science on my side. I’ve read others’ data, and it certainly supports my belief the soul carries on, but even empirical scientific data isn’t there yet. Maybe someday it will be, or maybe the data will lead us in a whole different direction that none of us ever anticipated.
I can understand why paranormal teams want to characterize what we do as science. In a world that rolls its eyes at people who’ve had spiritual and/or paranormal experiences, many believe claiming to be scentific helps create a sense of legitimacy around the work. I believe differently, however. I believe when we claim we’re doing science when we’re so clearly not, we open ourselves up to even more criticism because we’re not being honest about what we do.
I would never put down paranormal investigators who are serious about their work. I am one of you. I believe very strongly in what I am doing. The information I receive and experiences I have in the course of investigations never fail to surprise and delight me.But it’s not science, and that’s okay with me.
Karen is the host of Paranormal Underground Radio, a writer for Paranormal Underground Magazine, and an investigator with South Sound Paranormal Research in Washington State. You can read Karen’s daily blog on the SSPR website.