Supernatural Magazine

Science And Pseudoscience Part 1

I’ve been interested in Parapsychology and the paranormal since I was 13 years old, when I had my first experience with a haunting at my grandparent’s farm in Camden, Maine. I have gone through various phases of study and practice over the years, from doing para-psychological studies, writing a research paper for my Psychology class in college on a person with psychic abilities, to practicing Transcendental Meditation, which I no longer do, to becoming a paranormal investigator, to my now ambivalent position on the paranormal, while still a committed seeker of truth. It’s complicated.

When I came across the video presentation by a scientist from the UK, Professor Chris French, from the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmith University, filmed at The Center for Inquiry UK at Conway Hall, London, England, titled, “on Parapsychology and Science”,on November 30, 2013, giving a lecture on the difference between science and pseudoscience regarding Parapsychology and the paranormal, I was excited. Finally, someone who tells me where this field stands.

Here is my breakdown on the definition of science vs pseudoscience. You decide which you believe paranormal study to be. If it does not have a really, really long-winded, impressive, official-sounding title, it’s not science. See previous paragraph. Kidding. This article is going to have it’s dry moments, so bare with me.

There has been a great deal of batting about of the term “science” regarding the paranormal over the years. When the TV show, “Ghost Hunters” first aired, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson claimed that they were using scientific techniques to investigate claims the paranormal. As a paranormal investigator myself, I have been a member of a few groups who prided themselves in their claim of using a scientific approach to paranormal investigating; trying to debunk claims, gather and use collected data and evidence from video, camera film, voice recorders, temperature readings, EMF gauges, rem-pods, motion detectors, Mel meters, Flir thermal cameras, full spectrum cameras, Ghost Box, Ovilus, Ghost Toy Box, Frank’s Box, the Gansfeld Effect, etc.

Is this really science? Are the number of electronic gadgets in your arsenal signs that you are a scientist? You would think so by the ever elongating list of gadgets used to investigate. On the paranormal TV shows, the claim of using “science” to investigate claims of the paranormal is the norm. It’s hard to know what they mean. My sense is that they mean that they are using electronics, gadgets, devices, and gathering data, trying to be objective and debunk, and drawing conclusions from their data. Is this science or is it something else?

The first and most difficult thing to do in resolving this debate, if it is ever to be resolved, is to define the terms. What is science, exactly, and how can you tell if something is a pseudoscience or a real science? I thought this part would be easy. It’s not. Of course it’s not.

According to scientists, there is no strict definition of science. Great. However, there are benchmarks of good science, even though there is no easy, hard and fast definition.

Science can be best described as having most, if not all of the following:

• Replicate-ability, the ability to replicate data

• Core knowledge

• Core procedures

• Use of controlled conditions

• Connections with other branches of science

Hypothesis and Falsification

Sir Frances Bacon defined science as the ability to make observations from an hypothesis and to be able to prove or disprove the hypothesis. In good science, according to Karl Popper, you only need one contradiction of an hypothesis to prove the hypothesis to be false. A single contradictory observation proves an hypothesis false. If this happens, it is not necessarily true that the entire hypothesis is false, but must then be revised. All hypothesis are provisionally accepted until falsified, then they are either abandoned or revised. This is termed falsification, and is an important variable to being an actual science.

However, the very nature of science seems to be that there are no certainties. Science is, in it’s very nature, not an “it” but a method, a way of studying, thinking, proving, and hypothesizing about things. In the scientific community, scientists are encouraged to come together to debate, experiment, and prove. Science encourages challenge, and is unified in it’s common methods. Science provides the venues for such coming together to debate. We, the general public, put our trust in the scientific community and it’s methods.

Protoscience

Somewhere in between science and pseudoscience is something termed Protoscience. (Stent 1972). Protoscience is defined as prematurity in science, as follows: A discovery is premature if it’s implications cannot be connected by a series of simple, logical steps to generally accepted knowledge. Typical of Protoscience is a field that sees itself as “ahead of its time”. The theory of continental drift is one example of what once was a Protoscience. Alfred Wegener, in 1912, put forth the theory of continental drift, but the idea wasn’t proven true until the 1960s, long after it was put forth.

Other examples of Protoscience have functioned as the precursors of real science, or paradigms. For instance, the roots of the science of chemistry are in alchemy. The roots of physics are in astrology, which is also the root of astronomy. To many involved in paranormal study, Parapsychology and the study of the paranormal is ahead of its time and will someday become a science, with discoveries and hypothesis that can and will be proven. At this time, it is considered by many to be a Protoscience. Now to the difficult and rather long description of what pseudoscience is. Since it is agreed that there is no strict definition of science, there is also no strict definition of pseudoscience. However, there are marks, signs and characteristics that something is a pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience

A simple definition of pseudoscience is claims and methods that are falsely presented as science. “It’s a difference of degree rather than kind. Science and pseudoscience can be thought of as open concepts which possess intrinsically fuzzy boundaries and an indefinitely extendable list of indicators.” Lilienfeld, Lynn and Lohr, 2003. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. And as in night vs. day, we know for sure when it is night and when it is day, but there is a fuzzy boundary between the two. That does not mean we cannot recognize the facts about night vs. day.

Here is a laundry list of things to look for when attempting to determine if something (parapsychology or paranormal study) is pseudoscience. It or they do not have to own all of these attributes, but will have many of these marks. Even one of these calls into question the science as actual science.

The Marks of Pseudoscience

1. Anachronistic thinking. The tendency to return to outmoded theories that have already been shown to be unworkable. For instance, the belief that the earth is flat. Some people feel that young earth creationism fits into this anachronistic thinking, because of all of the fossil evidence of the ancient age of the earth, they still refuse to believe it.

2. Looking for mysteries. The assumption that if conventional theorists cannot supply completely watertight explanations for every single case then they should admit that the pseudoscience claim is valid.

3. Reluctance to allow critical investigation. One example is the Shroud of Turin. For many years no access was allowed to scientists to test the actual shroud.

4. Appeal to myths. The tendency to assume that ancient myths are literally true and that they can be explained in terms of hypothesized special conditions that held true at the time, but no longer do so. They argue that the myth itself offers confirmation of the hypothesis. This is seen in the book, Chariots of the Gods.

5. The grab-bag approach to evidence. The attitude that sheer quantity of evidence makes up for any deficiency in the quality of individual pieces of evidence. A good example of this is the Bermuda Triangle. There is almost always a logical explanation for the disappearance of individual planes or boats in the region. But the shear number of boats and planes which have disappeared is a grab-bag proof of the truth of the phenomena. (I am revisiting this issue later in regard to paranormal experience.)

6. Irrefutable Hypothesis: such as astrology, Marxism or Psychoanalysis as examples. You can’t or, better put, you are not allowed to, argue with actual evidence. The young earth theory uses this type of thinking. How do they explain the geological evidence? The fact that light is coming from stars millions of light years away? Are there rings on the trees in the garden of Eden? Do Adam and Eve have belly buttons? The young earth creationist would say yes, they do. They would say that God created light on it’s way to earth, trees with rings, men with belly buttons, to test man’s faith. Therefore, their hypothesis is not allowed to be challenged with any argument.

7. Refusal to revise in light of criticism. The tendency to argue that pseudoscientific beliefs are better than conventional scientific beliefs, because conventional science is constantly rejecting or refining its theories.

Here are more attributes of pseudoscience (as if you needed any more).

• Its theory of knowledge is subjective, containing aspects accessible only to the initiated.

• It’s formal background is modest, with only rare involvement with math or logic.

• Its fund of knowledge contains untestable or even false hypothesis which are in conflict with a large body of knowledge.

• Its methods are neither checkable by alternative methods nor justifiable in terms of well-confirmed theories.

• It borrows nothing from neighboring fields, there is no overlap with another field of research.

• It has no specific background of relatively confirmed theories.

• It has an unchanging body of belief, whereas scientific inquiry teems with novelty.

• It has a world view admitting elusive immaterial entities, such as disembodied minds, whereas science countenances only changing concrete things.

Then there is Lilienfeld’s 2005 Features of Pseudoscience: (yes, there is more).

• A tendency to invoke ad hoc hypothesis which can be thought of as “escape hatches” or loopholes, as a means of immunizing claims of falsification.

• An absence of self correction and an accompanying intellectual stagnation.

• An emphasis on confirmation rather than refutation.

• A tendency to place the burden of proof on the skeptics, not proponents of claims.

• Excessive reliance on anecdotal and testimonial evidence to substantiate claims.

• Evasion of the scrutiny afforded by peer review.

• Absence of connectivity, that is, a failure to build on existing scientific knowledge.

• Use of impressive sounding jargon whose primary purpose is to lend claims a facade of scientific respectability.

• An absence of boundary conditions, that is, a failure to specify the settings under which claims do not hold.

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Now that we have some feel for how to identify pseudoscience, let’s muddy the waters a bit.

Falsification revisited

Scientists admit that no good scientist goes out of his way to falsify their own hypothesis, or abandons their hypothesis when it fails once. So that is something that we can throw out as an aspect of pseudoscience. Scientists admit to doing it and so do pseudoscientists. So the one clear thing that defines the very word science is fuzzy: falsification. Scientists admit to not trying to falsify their own hypothesis, especially if it is already well established. (The theory of Evolution is a perfect example of this, in my opinion.) Paranormal investigators, in my opinion and in my experience, do a bit more, or at least as much as scientists do, to falsify their own data. Many are committed to the methods of debunking phenomena, that is, finding an alternative, natural, explainable reason for the phenomena, other than supernatural. On an episode of Ghost Hunters, Jason Hawes said that approximately 80% or more of reported paranormal phenomena is proven to be of natural causes in TAPS investigations. This is doing what the scientists do; falsifying. It’s the most important earmark of a real science.

Scientists and Dogma

There is a dogma to the scientific community in general, that precludes any acceptance of paranormal phenomena; it is the dogma of the scientists’ materialist world view. Here is a list by Rupert Sheldrake, a Biologist and author:

1. Total amount of matter and energy remains the same. The conservation of matter and energy.

2. Laws of nature never change.

3. Matter is unconscious.

4. There are no paths in nature.

5. Genetics is material.

6. The brain is strictly material

7. The mind exists only inside the head, the brain.

8. Psychic phenomena cannot happen because the brain is inside the head and psychic phenomena happens outside of the head.

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However, there is now a big problem with this scientific dogma. According to some in their own scientific community, it no longer holds true, especially when considering things like Quantum Physics theory, which has recently concluded that there is such a thing as “dark matter” and “dark energy”, which means that there now is matter and energy in addition to the original conservation of matter and energy of the universe. Actually, there is so much that it now, in theory, makes up about 96 percent of all matter and energy in the universe…huh?? So the first dogma of science is no longer true, and the rest fall like dominoes. (according to Rupert Sheldrake, biologist). With the advent of Einstein’s physics, which replaced the paradigm of Newtonian theory, we now have Quantum Mechanics, which seems to have opened up a Pandora’s Box of new possibilities regarding the nature of the universe and the very nature of reality, time, space, and consciousness. And this is science, folks, not pseudoscience. This is based on mathematics, geometry, astrophysics, quantum physics, etc. So, the door is opened, through science, to unlocking a new reality where perhaps the mind isn’t seated in the brain, perhaps psychic phenomena can happen outside of the brain, perhaps we and the universe are more than material things, stuff, matter. There goes the scientist’s material universe and material dogma, all shot to hell.

Pamela Wellington

Pamela Wellington

Author of “What The Phenomena” Blog on all things Paranormal.Worked as a paranormal investigator with Mason/Dixon Paranormal Society from 2007-2010. Harrisburg Area Paranormal Society from 2010-2011. Have been writing a popular blog on the Paranormal since 2012. I have published in Paranormal Magazine UK, I have a Masters of Fine Art from Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, Maryland and a B.S. in Art Education from Millersville University, Pennsylvania. I write reviews of Paranormal TV shows,