Using Science to Investigate the Paranormal
Hello there! Welcome to Part 2 of my ten-part introduction to the basics of scientific paranormal investigation, adapted from my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and the workshop I give of the same title. It’s intended to give the layperson a taste of how a science-based paranormal investigator goes about solving mysteries. This time we’re going to take a look at what it means to use science to investigate the unexplained.
Let’s begin with definitions. A few years ago, following a talk at a conference, I was challenged by an obviously-less-than-skeptical attendee. “How can proven scientific methods of research be used,” he asked, “when by definition, the paranormal is that which defies scientific explanation?”
It’s a fair question, but based on a faulty premise. Paranormal does not mean something that defies scientific explanation. Using that definition, consciousness (something everyone experiences most of their lives) would be considered paranormal, since science can’t fully explain what it is or how it comes about. Or, to use another example, if the paranormal was simply something that science doesn’t understand, then germ theory (how germs cause disease) was “paranormal” in the 1700s, simply because scientists didn’t understand how it works. Many “paranormal” things can be (and have been) scientifically tested, from Bigfoot hair to psychic powers.
No, “paranormal” simply means something that appears to be supernatural or seems to violate natural laws. James Randi, in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, defines paranormal as “an adjective referring to events, abilities, and matters not yet defined or explained by science.” Joe Nickell provides a definition of paranormal in his book The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, that which is “supposedly beyond the range of science and normal human experience.”
Many so-called paranormal topics are not “outside the realm of science,” instead, if they exist, they will be incorporated into science. Contrary to many critics of skepticism, the reason that many mainstream scientists don’t study the paranormal is not because they are too timid to tackle something outside their worldview, but instead because there’s little hard evidence upon which to base an experiment or conduct research.
Science is simply a way of examining the world, a very effective method of analysis and investigation. You don’t need to be a scientist to do science (or to investigate unexplained mysteries), but you do need to understand the principles involved. As you follow my lessons and investigations, these principles will be illustrated again and again. Drawn largely from the scientific process, psychology, criminal investigation techniques, and logic, these are not boring rules to memorize, but powerful, real-world ideas for critically examining everything from crime scenes to psychic powers to personal decisions. Improbable occurrences do happen; just because something seems bizarre or unusual is reason only to look more closely, not dismiss it out of hand. A good scientific investigator is a skeptic, not a debunker or cynic.
The Goal of Investigation
If the goal of investigation is to understand an unexplained phenomenon, then the methods that produce information solving the mystery are the right ones; the methods that do not help solve the mystery are the wrong ones. It’s as simple as that.
Paranormal subjects are investigated just like any other subject: through critical thinking, evidence analysis, logic, and scientific methodologies. Of course, some methods of investigation are better than others. The best way to approach investigation is the same one that professional investigators and detectives use everyday: the scientific method.
Police detectives and crime scene investigators, for example, use time-tested, proven techniques and methods to solve crimes. Let’s say, for example, police are called to investigate a burglary. There are many different methods that detectives could potentially use to solve the crime. Police could consult a local psychic to identify the criminal, or they might simply wait for the criminal to turn himself in. Another way would be to carefully search for and scientifically examine evidence at the scene for fingerprints or DNA evidence. Any of these methods could theoretically solve the case, but only one way—methodical, scientific investigation—has proven useful in solving crimes and mysteries.
Why Scientific Investigation?
There are many ways humans find out about the world around us. The most common is through personal experience; we see or hear something, learn from it, and move on. For the most part personal experience works well for everyday things like learning not to lock your keys in the car. But personal experience can sometimes mislead us, especially when dealing with things that we don’t encounter every day—such as the paranormal.
Personal perception and experience tells us that our planet revolves around us. The sun moves across the sky from east to west, while we don’t appear to be moving at all. But personal experience is of course wrong; it is instead the Earth that revolves around the sun. Science reveals that the earth we walk on is also revolving at over 1,000 miles per hour (at the equator), contrary to personal experience.
Another example is lightning. For much of human history lightning was a mysterious, perhaps paranormal, phenomenon. Was it thunderbolts from the gods? Until experiments in 1752 (one of which was performed by Benjamin Franklin), the electrical nature of lightning was likely but unproven. Today scientists have a far better understanding of lightning; what was once mysterious and supernatural has now been largely explained. We know it is an electrical atmospheric discharge; yet science, as always, doesn’t have all the answers. Lightning yet holds many mysteries, including how it can generate X-rays. Though science doesn’t have all the details, it has many of them, and those parts that scientists still don’t understand won’t be filled by the earlier “mysterious” explanations. Science, not mysticism or pseudoscience, created most of the conveniences and essentials we enjoy daily.
So hopefully this has helped give you a grounding in what the paranormal is, and how science can be used to solve mysteries. In the next installment I’ll discuss the differences between ”unexplained” and “unexplainable,” and “possible” versus “probable.” Understanding these distinctions is critical to approaching the paranormal from a scientific point of view.