Why Scientific Skeptics Fail in the Study of the Paranormal
If you are serious about finding the root cause of paranormal phenomena, this article is for you.
My unique experience as an intelligence analyst provides me a rare perspective into the investigation of suspected paranormal phenomena. I read articles and look at evidence from skeptics and believers and I cannot help but be disappointed. Many investigators don’t investigate, they simply collect things they cannot explain. This doesn’t mean that the events are unexplainable, it simply means those individuals can’t explain it. Instead of taking the steps to analyze their evidence and seek outside verification, they wrongly claim all of their evidence is evidence of the paranormal. But I am writing today not to take on believers but the skeptics. The skeptics have labelled themselves as the logical alternative to the work of other investigators and claim everything else is pseudo-science. They are critical of any explanation that cannot be completely justified under current scientific understanding and quick to apply any so-termed scientific explanation as the root cause of a paranormal phenomenon.
Please note that skeptics range in viewpoints in methodology. This article is not meant to characterize every skeptic as guilty of faulty logic and lazy science, but I have found that these trends are representative of a large part of the skeptical community.
Skeptics and Occam’s Razor
Skeptics have a strange obedience to Occam’s Razor. If you are not familiar with Occam’s razor it states among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. If you are a critical thinker there is a key word that should have your senses tingling: Usually, is a very important word in this phrase. William of Occam never intended for the idea to be applied across the board, in fact Occam’s Razor recognizes the simplest solution is not always the best or correct solution.
But let’s get back to the point; Occam’s razor is a cornerstone of many skeptic’s approach to the investigation of the paranormal. In fact one of the most famous skeptics, Joe Nickell, frequently quotes Occam’s razor and uses that as his guidance for weighing competing hypotheses.
Sometimes there are multiple possible explanations, whereupon the principle of Occam’s razor applies (named for the fourteenth-century philosopher William of Ockham). It holds that the simplest tenable explanation-the one requiring the fewest assumptions-is to be preferred. To date, science has not required a supernatural explanation for anything.
Assumptions are tricky. Let’s say I have a suspected Bigfoot track. It looks like a human foot just bigger, but because the track is old the details are degraded. If I say this is evidence of Bigfoot immediately I assume that it is not a fake track and it is not the result of misidentification. So I take a step back and attempt to verify the track be going to an expert. The expert examines the track and determines that it appears to be legitimate and not the work of any known creature. My assumptions are covered right? Not quite. This is where it gets sticky. When it comes to strange physical evidence and outliers even experts can disagree. In fact if I took that track to another expert with more experience in deer tracks, his assessment could be that the track is from the folded front legs of a deer and not an unknown animal. By trusting the first expert I assume he is correct and aware of all possible explanations, he may not be. In fact assumptions are very subjective. What one calls an assumption another calls fact, and what one considers an extreme assumption another would consider a logical stretch. It is very difficult to determine a methodology for isolating and weighing assumptions in competing hypotheses.
The abnormal is called that for a reason; it is not widely known or easy to explain. If there truly is an unknown root cause of a phenomenon, that cause may indeed have more assumptions than a scientific explanation which has no proven link to the phenomenon. What do we classify as a legitimate assumption? Where do we draw the line in the verification of evidence? Are assumptions weighted? Clearly one assumption can be more of a stretch than another. How do we account for this? This is where bias can affect the selection of competing hypotheses and one of the key issues with using Occam’s Razor as a methodology for investigating suspected paranormal phenomena.
Let’s be honest, limited evidence is a defining characteristic of paranormal investigations. There are always a lot of questions and only a few available facts. Our job is to figure out what explanation best fits the facts. A lack of evidence will greatly influence the conclusion if we use Occam’s Razor. If we lack evidence to prove a certain component of an explanation then we make an assumption. Example, let’s say explanation 1 is the paranormal explanation and explanation 2 is a more scientific explanation. Explanation 2 may not clearly explain one or several of the characteristics of the phenomenon but it is in-line with some of the evidence. We know explanation 2 can occur because it is proven so it has fewer assumptions. Explanation 1 on the other hand may justify all of the characteristics, be in line with all of the physical evidence, but because we lack certain evidence, explanation 1 will be ranked below explanation 2. By Occam’s razor the scientific explanation is more correct. A lack of evidence is certainly an issue but so is an incomplete explanation. Both indicate the possibility of an incorrect explanation of the phenomenon. Ultimately what is more important, the explanation with the fewest assumptions or the explanation most in-line with characteristics of the phenomenon? My vote is for the latter.
If we choose the former we adopt a methodology that is virtually incapable of proving anything paranormal. Here’s another example. Let’s assume ghosts are real; how would Occam’s Razor prove it against competing hypothesis? We can come up with a hundred possible explanations for ghost-phenomena, all that are scientific-based. EMF detectors are picking up faulty wiring or radio waves, pipes and boards settling are the causes of strange noises or a reflection in a shiny surface appears to be a ghost in a window. All of these explanations would hold less assumptions than the existence of an actual ghost. In fact the only way we could prove the existence of a ghost was more likely than the scientific explanations would be to provide direct physical evidence or be able to study the phenomena in a lab environment. But the nature of this phenomena, should it be true would make this extremely difficult if not impossible.
Matt’s Methodology for Problem-Solving
The point to take away from this is skeptics take Occam ’s Razor too seriously. It is an interesting anecdote but using this as the sole methodology for explaining suspected paranormal phenomena, or any unexplained happenings, is problematic. It invites a simple, and even incomplete, scientific hypothesis to stifle new discovery simply because what is new and unknown is often complex in explanation. In fact to always revert to the simple solution is to ignore a key point of Occam’s Razor where William of Occam acknowledges the simplest solution is not always the correct one. But this is where the abnormal, the outliers and the unexplained often live; the result of complex and sometimes unknown forces. If we all live by Occam’s razor we destroy the chance of discovering something truly new in favor of a simpler and incorrect explanation.
Let me offer an alternative to Occam’s razor, we’ll call it Matt’s methodology for problem-solving: Among competing hypothesis, the hypothesis that best represents the available evidence, can be linked to the phenomenon with respect to time and location, and that is able to logically account for all of the characteristics of the applicable phenomenon, is most often the correct hypothesis. But ultimately this methodology is limited by the available information. More information and evidence will provide a greater degree of certainty.
As an interesting note, controversy with the use of Occam’s razor in the scientific community is not new. On several occasions including the discovery of ball lightning and the particle-wave theory the value of Occam’s Razor came into question.
Skeptics often accuse paranormal investigators of pseudo-science but I want to introduce you to the skeptic’s version, lazy science. Lazy science involves many aspects, but it can include explanations that don’t explain the evidence or characteristics of the phenomenon, or it can be assuming an explanation is conclusive without any testing or proof that it applies to a given phenomenon. Lazy science can also involve a skeptic proving a single piece of evidence as a fake then leveraging that proof to condemn the entire body of evidence without further analysis.
Let’s look at an example from Joe Nickell titled States of Mind: Some Perceived ET Encounters published November/December 2012:
In fact, there is nothing remarkable about a scar going unremembered, especially in an out-of-sight location. As well, “missing time” may result from nothing more than the percipient having been lost in thought. As to the supposed recall under hypnosis, that is simply mistaking imagination for memory. Hypnosis is merely an invitation to fantasize (Baker and Nickell 1992, 216–31). (Being easily hypnotized is even one of the indicators, though not diagnostic in itself, of a personality type that is characterized by proneness to fantasy [Wilson and Barber 1983]—discussed more fully later.) For these reasons, on Anderson I called for MUFON and others to immediately stop using hypnosis to elicit “memories” in UFO cases.
In one paragraph Mr. Nickell manages to dismiss many claims related to alien encounters. Pretty impressive? Well not so fast. Let’s break this down; “there is nothing remarkable about a scar going unremembered, especially in an out-of-sight location.” This is a bit of misdirection. Here Mr. Nickell leads us to believe that witnesses are simply finding a scar that they could have forgotten about previously. While this would be perfectly logical it is not representative of the actual accounts. These accounts range from very abnormal scars to new scars being located on a consistent basis with no known origin. It is misleading to simplify the characteristics of the phenomenon in such terms.
Next, “‘missing time’ may result from nothing more than the percipient having been lost in thought.” Sure this MAY be the explanation but it MAY NOT too. We need more to draw any conclusions. I have read some of these accounts of missing time and I can say that my own moments of being lost in thought do not correlate with their accounts. More work is needed before we can draw any conclusions here one way or another. There may be a perfectly logical explanation, but let’s make sure we do the diligence before applying generic conclusions.
I could take on the hypnosis passage as well, and should point out that Mr. Nickel cites his own work when discussing “hypnosis is an invitation to fanaticize,” but I think the point is clear.
The way Mr. Nickell should have handled these claims is to analyze the abundance of witness testimony in detail. Next define these individual, top-level characteristics like missing time, unexplained scars. After that define sub-characteristics of each top-level characteristic. For example for missing time we need to see if there is a correlation between descriptions of location, what the witness was doing at the time and any other correlating observations. Then Mr. Nickell can propose his explanation and point by point explain how his explanation applies to each of these sub-characteristics. This is a systematic process that ensures the explanation is addressing the totality of the evidence.
But skeptics rarely address these phenomenon systematically and in detail. Generalization is an important tool for the skeptic to explain away suspected paranormal phenomenon. In fact many skeptical explanations have not even gone through the most basic level of analysis to determine if at least the conditions around the phenomenon are in line with the proposed explanation. So every time a skeptic uses the term “pseudo-science” let us apply the label of “lazy science” where it belongs.
Downfall of the Skeptics
The default state of the skeptic is doubt and the default state of the believer is belief, but the objective investigator relies on the evidence to guide belief or lack thereof.
Let’s recap the key issues in most skeptical investigations:
- Will always weigh an incomplete science-based explanation higher than a paranormal explanation due to assumptions.
- Assumptions are very subjective, so it is easy to justify why one hypothesis is weighted over another, but a second person could weigh those assumptions quite differently.
- The methodology punishes a lack of evidence.
- Skeptics infrequently engage in testing or conditions analysis to determine if an explanation could actually occur in the conditions of the reported phenomenon.
- Consistently simplify and generalize characteristics of suspected paranormal phenomenon which makes it easier to apply a scientific explanation and dismiss the unknown as easily explained.
- Show a clear bias towards proving everything can be explained through conventional scientific wisdom and skeptical methodology. They allow this bias to significantly influence explanations and it is clear in the work of many skeptics.
- Show little to no work to analyze competing hypotheses, instead work towards proving their own hypothesis only.
- Assume a science-based hypothesis is directly indicative of the root cause without any in-depth analysis or testing.
Just as one would require hard evidence for proof of the paranormal I expect to have hard evidence of the normal… Why? Because in every suspected paranormal event we have several possible root causes for the phenomena, many of which are not paranormal. Just because an explanation makes sense, it does not mean it applies to a specific phenomenon. We need something to link it; we need proof it is applicable in the case at hand.
The battle is over scientific-simplicity versus logic. Logic uses the evidence and corroboration to look for what is most likely while skeptics look for the simplest solution which will always be based in science. We are investigating the anomalous, the outliers and the strange. By their very nature these are the product of a complex or yet unknown set of occurrences. Assuming the simplest explanation is the root cause is careless and disregards the nature of these phenomena. These events deserve a higher level of proof.
We have to realize that the skeptic’s role is to challenge the paranormal by providing a scientific explanation. Skeptics already know the solution to every suspected paranormal phenomenon: They know it is rooted in science. They have no real interest in determining root cause, in fact their methodology and bias makes many skeptics incapable of objective investigation. The skeptic is a great source of possible alternate hypotheses, but an unproven hypothesis is not an answer; it only provides more questions.
I whole-heartedly believe science can provide the solution to many suspected unexplained phenomena; however, I recognize that a biased methodology and lazy science will not lead us to the truth. I also recognize the possibility of discovering a root cause beyond the current understanding of science. The methodology must accommodate this possibility and the skeptic’s methodology only serves to validate science-based explanations, even when they are inadequate or inappropriate.
Where intelligence Analysis can help
In the field of intelligence analysis we deal with very similar problem sets. We have limited evidence, complex arrays of variables which are impossible to account for in total, and difficult problems that make scientific testing methods impossible to use effectively. In the end we must develop assessments. What will the enemy do next? When will they do it? Essentially, we attempt to predict the future and understand the present from the limited information available. An important lesson the intelligence community has learned the hard way is the simplest solution is not always the best solution because what you think is simple is different from reality. The limited number of variables that we understand leave many unknowns, and while we can apply our experiences (called bias in the intel world) to determine what we would do if we were the enemy, many times we are wrong. Why? Because we only see puzzle pieces. We don’t have the luxury of trying to figure out one piece at a time as scientists can, there are too many unknowns. We have also learned not to discount the incredible. In fact many analytical techniques were created to help analysts determine the unlikely but extremely dangerous possibilities, because we realized that what we consider unlikely and out of reach for a specific terrorist group, is based on our limited perspective and bias. Unless I can read the mind of those individuals I can never fully understand the big picture or what they are capable of. Keeping this in mind we build many assessments; brainstorming all kinds of possibilities. Then we look at the evidence, what we know for certain. Which assessments fit with the evidence and which do not? After we narrow the list then we look at which assessments best matches the characteristics of the group. What matches their historical trends and what do current indicators tell us about our assessments? Then several of the top assessments are typically provided with ranking of how likely they are. We provide these alternatives because we know we are essentially using educated guessing and we want the consumer to know about other possibilities.
We also need to stop dealing in certainties. Take some lessons from the intelligence world. Many have died before we learned to build a process based on bias-elimination and logic. Analytical thinking involves a process that can objectively analyze possible conclusions and rank likelihood in a clearly defined and systematic manner. We must remember that Occam’s razor states the simplest solution is OFTEN the best solution. When we deal with strange happenings that may involve outliers and anomalous the philosophy that often applies in other situations, only serves to create bias in the face of strange occurrences. Instead we should rely heavily on logic and critical thinking and take a methodology that involves a likelihood of being correct as developing certainty is impossible in many cases. There is simply too much missing information and ultimately because an explanation can explain the phenomena does not make it the cause.
Red glowing eyes in the forest can be simply explained be car taillights. That is the Occam’s razor-type answer to that strange occurrence, but we need to move beyond this. It is a possible explanation but it does not mean it is the true root cause of the phenomenon. We need more to link this possibility to observations of the actual phenomena. We can see if there are roads vehicles could travel on near the sighting area. No roads mean no vehicles and no vehicles mean no fake red eyes. We can also go to the locations of the sightings and attempt to recreate the phenomena using vehicles. These will never provide 100% certainty, but they can get us very close. And if through further investigation we find no evidence to support any other explanation for the phenomena, and we could not disprove the taillight theory, then the taillight theory is the most likely explanation for the glowing red eyes. Unfortunately skeptics and believers alike are often not willing to accept this burden of proving a hypothesis through logical analysis and real-world testing, but in my eyes without this, it is simply an unsubstantiated hypothesis, not worthy of any label as a conclusive explanation. It is simply a possibility.
In closing we can never truly investigate claims of the paranormal when the methodology is designed to put a scientific explanation to everything, even when it does not adequately explain the occurrence. We can use science to form hypotheses and use the scientific method to test these hypotheses. But in the end, logic and critical thinking transcends science. It is foolish to assume everything abnormal can and should be explained with everything we know. Instead we should seek the most logical possible solution that satisfies all characteristics of the phenomenon. This may be based in known scientific principals or it may indicate something new entirely, but to weigh science over logic is short-sided and leaves us incapable to prove anything truly beyond the current understanding of science. We must rely on a methodology that can evenly weigh all hypotheses and fairly rate them based on correlation to the characteristics of the event and the available evidence. Anyone can come up with a scientific explanation, the challenge is in proving it. Skeptics… I’ll be waiting.
In reading this article I hope you realize the skeptic has no real interest in uncovering the root cause. That is not their goal. Their goal is to apply a scientific-based explanation. If the shoe doesn’t fit, well it is based on science and science is simpler than other explanations, so the skeptic’s explanation is always the most valid one. Skeptics provide interesting ideas but ultimately fall short when it comes to proving anything. There is a gap in the role of paranormal research. We need more objective investigators and we need to convert skeptics through first-hand experiences.
Proof positive of the paranormal will take a long time and a great deal of effort to reach. But the work of objective investigators is undermined by some believers and skeptics. Science is about expanding our knowledge of the world around us through observation, research and experimentation. Efforts by these groups only hinder the process of new discovery and invalidate legitimate work towards the betterment of man.