The Case for Paranormology

The term ‘Paranormal’ is thrown around a lot. Depending on the context, it can evoke feelings of quackery, of charlatanism, of mystery or of absurdity. It can be easily dismissed as being nothing more than a catch-all for anything that cannot be explained readily.

There is a danger in this way of thinking, for it defines a stance that does not allow for inquiry. This is at odds with science, since the very nature of science is inquiry.

It bears repeating: to dismiss an unexplainable event or phenomena by claiming that it would be, in fact, perfectly natural and understandable were we not ignorant to the cause defeats the purpose of science.

It may well be that these strange happening may one day be explained away and demonstrated repeatedly in a laboratory, and that they may become mundane to the people of the future. That is laziness.

It may well be that most cases of doors that open and close by themselves can be shown to be drafts of wind. It may be that the majority of footsteps are, in fact, the regular pulse of beams contracting. It may be that disembodied voices are often animals or wind gusts or insects on a microphone, or that orbs in photographs are regularly found to be dust particles. This is all to be expected, especially if we use the principle of Occam’s Razor.

To put all cases down to the mundane without investigation, though, is pig-headed.

On the flip-side, to treat all paranormal happenings as supernatural or other-worldly suffers from exactly the same problem. In short, without properly investigating and analysing a case, one can be accused of being lazy and pig-headed.

This is where we need to pause and think. Is it possible to investigate every case of the unexplainable? Of course not. It would be beyond the capacity of anyone and, for the most part, futile. That does not excuse us from investigating some of the unexplainable.

To do this, we need to accept the outcome of any investigation, no matter how it looks on its face, is uncertain. In other words, if we were to treat a case in an objective manner, using nothing but facts, observations and correlations and disregarding hunches, feelings and guesswork, we can be assured that the conclusion is sound, even if that conclusion is ‘inconclusive’.

Paranormology, the study of the paranormal, has a right to exist, to be taken seriously and to be treated as any other branch of science, so long as the research is conducted in a suitably rigorous fashion.

We don’t know what may come of such studies. Serendipity comes about when least expected, and often from fields bearing no relation. That’s one of the beauties of removing preconceptions – we are more likely to discover when our eyes are wide open.

Correlation and Equipment

The first concern for experiments is how one goes about recording observations. If we wish to detect an environmental change, such as temperature or pressure or ambient light, we can use sensors that react in a predictable way to record those changes. The question is, of course, how do we know that environmental changes have a bearing on the presence or absence of paranormal activity.

Furthermore, what constitutes paranormal activity? Is there a standard one can measure a phenomenon against to express its ‘paranormalness’? Is it a sliding scale, quantifiable or even qualifiable? Disembodied voices certainly count toward a paranormal experience, but unless those voices are captured on equipment to be reproduced later and can be discerned as spoken words, then how can we tag them as paranormal?

Herein lies one of the great conundrums and, while it is not insurmountable, it is certainly a problem that cannot be ignored. Personal experiences matter. The majority, one might argue, of evidence of paranormal activity comes from the anecdotal, the story, word of mouth. And, as we all know, people are fallible.

That must mean we ignore all anecdotal evidence? I argue against that. In fact, I would say that it would be a serious misjudgement to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In much the same way that proof beyond reasonable doubt is an excellent way to deal with imperfect evidence, we can use imperfect anecdotes, coupled with empirically derived evidence, to find correlations between reported activity and environmental factors.

If we can then establish a correlation, we can begin to predict where, and also what kind of, paranormal activity occurs. That is, we can establish a theory based on statistical data and test it. This alone is not enough to call the field a science, but it is certainly a start. Where to from there?

Investigations. Field research. Compilation of knowledge. Hypotheses and statistical analysis. Peer review. Published articles and heavy debate. All of these and more.

Hoaxes and Debunking

Any good scientist will keep an open mind when investigating. A decision about an investigation is not made during the investigation, but after, during analysis. Once all of the facts have been gathered and recorded and tested, once they’ve had acid poured on them and been withered to a clean result, then the investigation can be called.

That said, Paranormal forays are rife with hoaxes, both amateur and professional, and it is the duty of researchers to weed out the perpetrators and show them for what they are. Nothing is more dangerous to the field of Paranormology than those who seek to profit from it. It ruins any confidence in studies, it destroys public trust and drags it back into the darkness.

It may well be that 99% of all cases (not a real figure, but let’s run with it) are either hoaxes or naturally explainable. This leaves 1% that deserves the attention of a sharp mind. Does a miner abandon a mine simply because the ground doesn’t contain 100% gold? Does a hunter abandon the forest because most birds aren’t game? Of course not!

There is the challenge for the scientist – to carry on in the face of overwhelming cases of normality, of shysters doing their all to trick them, of pranksters and liars. Does this mean that we must abandon the prospect of discovering something new, simply because it is unforgiving? Hardly.