Problems in Paranormal Research
Criticism of paranormal research has gone on for decades and isn’t likely to end anytime soon. And while some of this criticism is valid much of it is misguided or illogical. What’s more some of the biggest challenges facing the field of paranormal research are being ignored.
Use of Instruments
Skeptics often criticize paranormal investigators’ use of EMF detectors, infrared thermometers and similar devices as unscientific. The argument is none of these devices have been proven to measure a ghost or whatever phenomena is up for investigation. But this notion is baseless. There is no scientific requirement that an investigator must prove a phenomenon is related to some type of signal before a measuring device can be used. That entire idea is silly. How would you determine a correlation between EMF and a claimed ghost if we can’t use a device to measure EMF? At some point an investigator must make a leap and use a device to investigate a possible relationship.
I will say that the way these instruments are employed by many ghost hunters is unscientific. Furthermore devices like spirit communicators are not proven measuring instruments so they will not yield scientifically valid observations. Skeptical criticism here is often misplaced.
Science uses demarcation rules to separate reputable scientific work from non-science or pseudo-science. One of these rules is falsifiability. This rule says that a scientific claim must be able to be proven false. So if I claim Bigfoot exists, for this claim and research to be considered scientific, there should be a method to determine if the claim is false. The same goes with ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. The problem is how do you prove ghosts don’t exist? In short, you can’t; at least not yet anyway.
This puts the work of paranormal research in a tough spot because to get more involvement from the scientific community the claims would have to meet this demarcation rule, but it won’t meet that rule unless non-scientists can generate some testable evidence or claims. This is what I like to call…
The participation Problem
The participation problem is this pseudo-paradox where scientists won’t investigate claims of the paranormal because they do not meet the rules set by science. But even if true, how can these claims be scientific without some involvement from the scientific community. To generate testable claims or scientifically sound evidence it will likely require some serious involvement from the scientific community. I discuss this more on All About Occult.
And unfortunately some skeptics extend this to the idea if it can’t be scientifically tested it can’t be true. This idea ignores the fact that not everything can be tested scientifically today. Limits of current knowledge, restrictions in measurement and flaws in the system of science can prevent something that is entirely true from being proven scientifically.
Methodological naturalism is another demarcation rule that says supernatural claims are pseudo-science. While falsifiability allows a paranormal claim to be scientific if it can be tested, methodological naturalism denies the label of science to anything considered supernatural.
One of the biggest problems with this is a lack of any accepted definition for what is supernatural and what is natural. Would Bigfoot be considered supernatural or natural? How about the Loch Ness Monster? While ghosts and many other Fortean phenomena are considered supernatural, cryptids can fall into a grey area.
Another issue is what science considers natural is a product of time. Decades ago ball lightning and particle-wave theory would be hard to call natural. Thankfully some smart scientists followed the evidence and their own logic to prove these claims. Today these things are considered natural. The same could be true of paranormal phenomena. There may be a day when ghosts can be proven true, but we just don’t know.
The Research Problem
Probably the core issue of paranormal research is one that is largely ignored. That is the lack of hard research. While skeptics criticize ghost hunters and cryptozoologists of unscientific work, many of these degree-holding scientists are guilty of the same. They offer only topical analysis of paranormal topics that does not stand up to scrutiny or even resemble scholarly research. In fact many skeptics and believers only engage in topical discussion of the paranormal. The reality is this type of work sells books, magazines and ad space on websites, so people of all sides do it: It is not hard research and it does nothing to advance our understanding of paranormal claims. I fear many of those involved in paranormal “research” or “skepticism” are in it for a easy way to make money and an ego boost. Although they may be in denial of that fact.
So when I hear statements from believers like “we have definitive proof of a ghost” or a skeptic claims Bigfoot is flatly non-existent I can’t help but express doubt. Any rational mind who examines the field of paranormal research closely will find hundreds of books, thousands of articles, millions of personalities, but only a handful of organizations doing scholarly work.
And chances are you haven’t even heard of many of them. That’s because no one talks about the very short list of groups actually engaged in hard research of paranormal topics. I am beginning to accept that both sides find it more comfortable to stick with topical analysis than actually do hard research. After all that may dig up some uncomfortable realities that don’t agree with their egos.
And look at this site, TheParanormalAnalyst.com. I don’t like to brag but I think the work here is pretty good. I go through a lot of trouble to thoroughly research topics and cite sources but traffic to this site is abysmal when compared to the topical paranormal news sites. And I’m not alone. Hard research in the paranormal doesn’t sell. People either like the mystery or like a scientific explanation for every mystery even when it doesn’t fit. Hard research just isn’t cool. It doesn’t make money, there are really no grants, and it is lonely, thankless work. Paranormal research could advance significantly if more people supported the investigation groups that do things right.
But a lack of interest in hard research will not stop my efforts and should not stop anyone else. I have faith that eventually people will embrace hard research of the paranormal and then, we may finally have some answers.