Definitions Investigators Need to Know: Evidence, Hypothesis, Theory


Through my reading and dissection of articles from a wide range of authors it has became obvious to me that both sides of the aisle (paranormal believers and critics) do not understand some fundamental definitions of common terms.

Evidence: Paranormal critics frequently claim EVPs, EMFs or other readings are no evidence of ghosts. This is wrong. Evidence can be a measurement, report, physical object or record that relates to the phenomenon being investigated. Evidence is then applied to possible explanations. Evidence can support, refute or be of no relevance to each hypothesis. When we have an EMF that is uncorrelated and very little has been done to eliminate false positives this is a very low grade of evidence. In a logical method we may throw out this level of evidence from consideration or simply adopt a grading scheme in which this receives a low rating. I should also point out that while this low-rated piece of evidence can be used to support the hypothesis that is a ghost is paranormal, it would also support a hypothesis that the EVP is simply a product is stray EMF waves. The net effect of this cancels the evidence out. Of course the way the evidence is applied is dependent of the method being used.

Under the scientific method (the one from which paranormal critics judge) evidence is collected during an experiment to evaluate a hypothesis. An EMF could be considered evidence but would it support or refute the hypothesis? That largely depends on the design of the experiment. I find it difficult to say something is or isn’t evidence, that seems like a silly argument. Is it relevant evidence? Is it “high-grade” evidence? Those are the assertions that need to be made. More to the point if a correlation is established and the right controls are in place an EMF can be evidence of a paranormal phenomenon.

Now it may seem silly that I am trying to differentiate between using the term evidence incorrectly and calling evidence what it is, but it is important when we examine the methods. If the paranormal critics want to continue to evaluate paranormal investigators from a scientific point of view it would be beneficial if they were more careful in how they characterize evidence.

Hypothesis: A hypothesis is is an explanation or idea that has yet to be supported or proven through scientific testing. Most people use the term theory and hypothesis interchangeably but there is a big difference! Unfortunately some paranormal critics who claim to follow the scientific method seem to forget that their own ideas are just hypotheses. An untested science-based hypothesis is inherently no more true or relevant than a paranormal hypothesis without testing. Read more about this here. 

Theory: A theory is the next level in certainty for a hypothesis. To reach the level of theory a hypothesis would have to be proven true through several experiments conducted by several independent scientists. While were on this topic a law is the next level of certainty beyond theory. To give you some perspective there are very few laws in science. Even evolution is a theory.

Related Reading
What is and Isn’t Definitive Proof
Where’s the Proof? The Scientific Method Applies Both Ways
What Happens When We Have a Logical Stalemate… Science Wins??