Science vs Pseudo-science

Science and Pseudoscience
Structured Landscape, 2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 40"x50", Pam Wellington
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.

Investigator with voice recorder, Landon House, Maryland, photo taken by Pam Wellington 2010

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.

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.

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.     1
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.    2

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.

The new scientific theories do open doors for the paranormal, and for new scientific explorations, experiments and theories. However, we need to stick to scientific method if we want to be taken seriously as a science.

I learned in my research that the English really are on the cutting edge of this. They seem to be the ones taking all of this Parapsychology seriously, having conferences, publishing papers, and offering it as a doctorate degree. It's no wonder every single video I found had a person speaking with an English accent.

These people, and one Professor Chris French in particular, have no problem saying that Parapsychology is a science. According to him, it has all of the marks of a real science. It is to be taken seriously as such. However, he endorses it with a great big qualification. If the scientists, or so-called scientists who claim scientific procedure when investigating claims of the paranormal, resort to any of the above mentioned warning signs of bad science, then no. It's not, they are not, and the conclusions are not scientific.

Here are some of the things on the list that I feel are the most prevalent among the paranormal community:

1. Anachronistic thinking. I can't tell you how much I hate this about the paranormal community; this harking back to the good old days of dousing rods, crystal balls, Ouija boards, pendulums, astrology, and all sorts of old school terms and thinking that are outmoded, ancient, occult and have been proven false. If you are going to consider yourself a scientist, you simply have to put this stuff away, along with your orbs.

2. Looking for mysteries. Just because science has not explained hauntings, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena, does not mean that the absence of scientific proof means that is proof that ghosts are "real". It just means no one has come up with concrete evidence pro or con yet. The paranormal does not have to be relegated to the mysterious and unknowable, as so many paranormal investigators, ironically, do. It's only a mystery until its explained by science.

3. Reluctance to allow critical investigation. This is the one that really hurts us. There is a very negative attitude toward allowing the scientific community to take a look at our "evidence." We don't even seem willing to allow other groups access to our own evidence. We keep things under our coats. Why is that? It is really hurting our reputation. If we are collecting real data, real evidence of the paranormal, then others should be allowed to examine it. What are we afraid of?

4. The grab-bag approach to evidence. Just because there have been reports of haunting by the hundreds of thousands down through the ages, does not make it true.  Yes, we do tend to argue that ghosts and haunting are real because so many have reported sightings and experiences.

However, this is the one argument that I believe, in my opinion, is dead wrong. Science loves to refer to mathematics and logic and list it as a mark of real science; lack of such a sign is pseudoscience. Then why cannot the preponderance of sheer numbers of sightings down through the ages be evidence of said hauntings? That's perfect logic.

Also, I agree that personal experience and testimonial cannot and should not be taken as evidence alone. But, I do believe it should be considered as part of the whole picture. Not everyone lies. Not everyone is delusional, not everyone is crazy or holds a personal agenda. Some people are reliable, sincere, honest, and good observers. Their stories and personal experiences need to be thrown in with the other evidence as part of the whole; as evidence.   To a scientist, the personal anecdote of any individual is too subjective, too personal, to colored by belief systems, past experience, emotion. And I say, so what? (So are materialist scientists, aren't they?) Why can't all of those human experiences, fear, belief, subjectivity, emotion, past memories, become part of the big picture also? Science has been way too inhumane in it's evaluation of evidence and has, I believe, thrown out the baby with the bathwater way too often, by excluding, ad hoc, all forms of personal experience. It's time to include it in the mix. (See my article on the Extraordinary Project).

Die-hard skeptics also, if they cannot disprove an hypothesis in the paranormal realm, or debunk evidence, will simply declare the witness to be "crazy, delusional, or suffering from a belief system of religion." How convenient. I know of one such famous skeptic author who falls back upon this argument so often that the last few chapters in one of his books is filled with nothing but "they are all crazy, lunatics, delusional, etc." Can so many reliable human beings be so very crazy so very often? I question his logic, and his methods, and his science. The skeptic shall remain nameless. I am not crazy, after all.

5. Its' fund of knowledge contains untestable or even false hypothesis which are in conflict with a large body of knowledge.  One perfect example of this is the persistent and irritating as hell belief in orbs as paranormal. Orbs have been demonstrated over and over by people within and without the paranormal community as a problem due to digital photography, light and lens effects. Dust, bugs, water vapor cause orbs on lenses of digital cameras. There is a reason why you do not see them with the naked eye, because they are not really there. Then there are the folks who take pictures of orbs and blow them up, zoom in really close, and then see faces, concluding from this that orbs are disembodied human spirits floating around us; spirits of the dearly departed, only not quite so departed. This is matrixing.  I have seen charts of colors of orbs and what the colors mean. This is a perfect example of pseudoscience. It is a false hypothesis which is in direct conflict with a large body of well established and accepted knowledge.
orbs, Gettysburg, PA, photo by Pam Wellington, 2009

6. Use of impressive sounding jargon whose primary purpose is to lend claims a facade of scientific respectability.  One of the scientists who's lecture I watched, James Ladyman, a Philosopher of Science and author, called this "Bullshit" with a capital B. According to Dr. Ladyman, this behavior is common in the scientific community, as well as every other walk of life, especially politics. It is the ability some people have to talk and talk and talk and say nothing, but sound very impressive while saying it. The use of jargon, "EMF, energy fields, attachments, portals, EVPs, and all of the electronic gadgets to go with the lingo, make it all sound so scientific and legitimate. Nonetheless, its all Bullshit. Lots and lots of it.     3

I am an educator. I have been teaching for 20 years. No other field can sling BS with more gusto and impressive lingo than educators. What results is a lot of verbiage, and absolutely no content; nothing that can be translated into anything comprehensible. Nothing. And they are so good at it. The only thing worse than educators at Bullshit is politicians talking about education. It took me about ten seconds to find a perfect example.
Here you go:
 "Professional development goes beyond the term 'training' with its implications of learning skills, and encompasses a definition that includes formal and informal means of helping teachers not only learn new skills but also develop new insights into pedagogy and their own practice, and explore new or advanced understandings of content and resources. This definition of professional development includes support for teachers as they encounter the challenges that come with putting into practice their evolving understandings about the use of technology to support inquiry-based learning.... Current technologies offer resources to meet these challenges and provide teachers with a cluster of supports that help them continue to grow in their professional skills, understandings, and interests."

What is this actually saying? I'm not sure. I am never sure when I read something like this, that claims to actually clarify an issue. It doesn't really say anything. This is my world from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm. Monday through Friday. No wonder I delve into the paranormal.

So what do paranormal investigators and parapsychologists do right? What is it, if anything, that they do that is science? Let's take a closer look at what science is and if anything paranormal investigators do is real science.
  • Replicate-ability, the ability to replicate data
The paranormal certainly allows for this, especially when referring to Parapsychology, where telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, remote viewing, etc, can be tested in a lab under controlled conditions, as many times as needed, to as many subjects as needed.

In paranormal investigations of hauntings, it's not quite as easy to replicate conditions, but certainly not impossible, and is often done. If the team goes to the same location many times over a span of time, then conditions may be set up for replication of data. I was once a member of a team that had a two week time span of access to a haunted location. We were able to set up video and let it run, non-stop, for two weeks. It was extremely valuable, and got us some very interesting and unexplainable results. It also resulted in the team being able to really study the data and thoroughly debunk.

One incident I remember very well. We caught a strange white image that moved slightly on video. It appeared to glow. It also appeared to be some distance from the camera. We closely examined the location, went outside to look from different angles, etc. We could not explain the phenomena. So I suggested that we move the video backwards slowly until we get to the place where the phenomena first appears. A spider appears on camera spinning a web, he drops down right in front of the camera. The close-up of the strand of web appears as a glowing white blob. Phenomena explained.

 In the basement we set up a hunting camera. It automatically takes pictures at 30 second intervals, and also goes off if it detects movement. We caught an image of a silhouette of a cat, hanging in mid air, right level with the camera lens, and a human form holding it. It was very unusual, and we could not explain it. There was nothing in the basement, and nothing in front of the camera. There was no cat in the house, and no access to the house by anyone other than the team. The cat, if there was a cat, could not have jumped in front of the camera, or have leaped off of a ledge in front of the camera. There was no surface from which to jump. Unless you believe that a cat can jump 6.5 feet straight into the air from the ground. The entire house was covered on video, and no intruder was detected. So...paranormal? Maybe. Certainly unexplainable. And it was the result of being able to be in one location for an extended period of time.  The phantom cat was caught toward the end of the two weeks of filming.

 I am always disturbed and irritated by teams who go into locations for eight hours or less, set up, tare down, leave, all in the space of one short evening, then declare a site to be haunted or not haunted. You cannot learn anything in one evening. It's absurd. This behavior is not replicate-able.  It's not science. So, if paranormal investigating wants to move into the realm of replicate-able science, it needs to act more like real, professional investigators; like crime scene investigators, meticulous in collecting data, unbiased, professional, thorough, looking for any and all clues, collecting any and all data.
  • Core knowledge
 Parapsychology has a body of core knowledge. Much of it is connected to Psychology. But there has been study and experiments going on for decades in this field. Paranormal investigating also has a core knowledge body, but it is not centralized, and not shared with other investigators and certainly not shared with the scientific community as a whole. This is very hard to understand. I think it comes from a fear that the scientific community will disregard them, or even mock them. In order to gain respect, you have to be willing to take risks and share your data with others. If it is challenged or discredited, the more's the better for the field itself. Scientists do this with each other all the time. It's how a science grows, and truth comes out. It's worth the risk.

  • Core procedures
 Parapsychology uses core procedures that have been developed in psychology and science for a long time. This is why there is a doctorate in Parapsychology that can be earned at universities in the UK.

 There is recognition in the field and outside of it that this is a worthy and legitimate science. It also has connections to other fields of science. However, like Psychoanalysis, it is questioned by many scientists regarding the basis for it being a science. Many believe it not to be. The data is not always replicate-able. The core knowledge is constantly changing, the core procedures debatable. Even though it is coming into question, it is still a science. This is what scientists do; they question their own assumptions and are not afraid to debate among their peers. The intellectual debate is robust and not stagnant.

Paranormal investigating has no core procedures. It's everyone for him or herself. The range of procedures runs the gamut, from very scientific, data collecting, replicate-able, over time, to using occult ideas and objects, using ritual and procedure that has been disproved eons ago by science, that taps into belief systems that are of religious origins, or based upon superstition or the occult. I have heard the excuses over and over again.

 "No one knows for sure, so why not try it? No one can tell me what to do or how to do it. I can try anything and it has to be accepted. It's my own private set of rules. I don't have to answer to anyone, especially the materialistic, atheistic, scientific community. They won't listen anyway." And on it goes. It's really a list of excuses for not being consistent or scientific.

This is why so many groups refuse any sort of certification in the field. They refuse to acknowledge expertise, or a body of people who can claim to know anything, or be an expert in this field at all. Read my article on certification. It's absurd to conclude that this field cannot certify expertise, or has a body of core knowledge, core procedures, replicate-ability, or a community which can work together, sharing data and evidence, ideas and knowledge. It's quite sad. Until the community begins to allow at least the idea of expertise and certification, it will never grow, evolve, or be taken seriously.

Use of controlled conditions

Parapsychology has controlled conditions, the same that are used in psychology and science. They are not as orthodox as other sciences but they are in place. Paranormal investigating, for the most part, sees itself as having very little control over conditions of an investigation. There are some basics that are usually observed, such as controlling access to the location, sweeping for high EMF, documenting the client's testimony of experiences, and sometimes doing an extensive psychological profile on the witnesses, as well as extensive research into the history of the location and the people.  But, there is an acknowledgement that conditions constantly change, and that is the very nature of the paranormal; it's not normal.

Connections with other branches of science

This is self inflicted. The paranormal community flatly refuses to share data, evidence, locations, or results. It keeps it's data close and secret, lest any other groups steal it's evidence and claim it for themselves. It's a field filled with jealously. Everyone wants their own TV show, fame and fortune. There is back stabbing galore, Just read the nonsense on websites and facebook. What is sad is that, if we come together, share data, work together, put aside petty jealousies and the ambition to become a TV star, we might actually get somewhere with the scientists. They do it. They have their own problems with jealousy, faking of evidence, forging of data, and petty ambitions, but, for the most part, they get around it and find ways to come together. They have academic conferences, lectures, hold classes, meet, publish in journals, talk to each other and find ways to work together. It works for them most of the time. Why can't it work for us?

In conclusion, Science and the paranormal are in no way mutually exclusive. A lot of what parapsychologists do is very scientific. A lot of what good paranormal investigators do is also good science.  Science itself has opened up onto vast intellectual undertakings in the quantum mechanics realm, which are beginning to make the paranormal no longer so very weird or beyond the possible as we once thought. We have to decide which we really want to be, a science or a pseudoscience. Remember, science is not an it, it's a method of seeking truth. The lines are blurry, but there are lines. I think it is worth it to seek out the scientific method and use it to study data, collect  evidence, and theorize and hypothesize, discuss, share, and experiment.

Lists and facts regarding science and pseudoscience are from my notes taken from public lectures by the following, viewed on YouTube:

1. 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,"November 30, 2013

2. Rupert Sheldrake, Biologist, on Science, "The most brilliant fifteen minutes." February 26, 2014.

3. Professor James Ladyman, "On Pseudoscience and Bullshit," February 19, 2014.


Popular Posts