This is a common occurrence in the world of paranormal investigations; paranormal believers and skeptics face off citing what a phenomenon could be, proposing their own hypotheses. Remember a proposed explanation, even if it is rooted in scientific principle is still a hypothesis until it is proven to be relevant and accounts for all characteristics of a given phenomenon through scientific testing.
The common line of the paranormal critic is that is we should not assume a strange sound is a ghost or a voice on a recorder is a ghost, but in fact it has a more logical explanation. But I take issue with this notion. Sure I think it is silly to assume a sound, shadow or anything else superficially unexplained is a ghost, but it is just as silly to assume a normal explanation. Both of these conditions pave the way for bias to be introduced into the explanation and analysis. If my goal is to seek a scientific cause for a suspected paranormal phenomenon, I can find one if I look hard enough. This is called confirmation bias.
We all have bias and it is impossible to eliminate, but it is possible to temporarily segregate it. We can have our own opinions and biases in our normal routine but as soon as we put on our investigator’s hat that bias needs to be put in a cage. We should never approach an investigation with any preconceived notion on what the root cause is. Instead we should brainstorm all possible explanations then conduct research and testing to determine if any of the hypotheses completely satisfy the characteristics of the phenomenon. If we are left with something unexplained then further study is needed. At no point is a presupposition of an outcome necessary to accomplish this task, in fact it only degrades one’s ability to conduct the investigation objectively.
But that was a little aside and not the main point. Often times believers and skeptics/critics trade hypotheses in an attempt to explain a suspected paranormal phenomenon. Much of this is done from an armchair: Through forums, blogs, websites and not through field research and testing. Unfortunately some critics seem to believe that when a scientific and a paranormal hypothesis are compared, the scientific hypothesis carries more weight. For an example of this read my analysis on Joe Nickell’s States of Mind. In this piece Mr. Nickell proposes several hypotheses to explain claims of alien encounters. He clearly uses qualifiers like probably, could be, may be to label each hypothesis as a possible explanation: However by the end of the piece Mr. Nickell insinuates that his explanation is the correct one and those that believe in the phenomenon are prone to fantasy. Yet never did he document any testing to prove any of his hypotheses were actually relevant and accounted for all of the characteristics of the phenomenon.
As you can probably imagine I disagree quite strongly on this point. An untested hypothesis, regardless of the content, is no more true or false than another untested hypothesis. Some scientists would disagree but I will point out that my allegiance is to critical thinking and logic, not scientific dogma. If someone calls ones-self a critical thinker they should be able to acknowledge that without testing, a hypothesis proves nothing. When did the scientific community accept superficial judgement on untested ideas? This flies in the face of critical thinking principals.
I think this comes down to our desire to have answers. Both sides would like to have an answer, but answers aren’t always easy to come by. When we have these paranormal claims we have to acknowledge that truth may be a long way off. Unfortunately there are very few people that can accept that notion. They cannot accept the fact that we have a logical stalemate: An absence of any clear winner.
How to Avoid Confirmation Bias – A Lesson for Skeptics and Believers Alike!
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