Unexplained Versus Unexplainable, Possible Versus Probable
Hello there! Welcome to Part 3 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 the ideas underlying the paranormal and unexplained.
By now some of you may be saying to yourselves, “Okay, fine… When do we get to go look for ghosts and monsters?”
Well slow down, Speedy. I’ll get to that in another installment or two. Before you fire up the Mystery Machine and rush into an investigation we need to make sure we understand what we’re looking for. Not understanding these things is where many ghost hunters and paranormal investigators go wrong. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your investigation is over before it began.
It is important to distinguish between unexplained and unexplainable. Confusing the two is a very common error. There are countless phenomena that at one point were mysterious and unexplained, ranging from how diseases spread to why the sun rises and sets. As the ancient scientist Hippocrates observed, “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.” Eminent biologist Richard Dawkins calls it the “argument from personal incredulity,” basically, “If I can’t explain it, then no one can.”
Yet just because one person can’t find an explanation for something they experience—whether an amazing coincidence, a strange object in the sky, a ghostly figure in a graveyard, or a mysterious circle in a wheat field—doesn’t mean that someone else may not know exactly what the person experienced. No one knows everything; that’s why we have experts. If something we can’t diagnose is wrong with our bodies, we don’t just call it unexplained, we seek out a doctor with specialized knowledge.
If our car won’t start one morning, we don’t just throw up our arms and call it a mystery; we go to a mechanic. In both instances, the doctor or mechanic will use what is essentially a scientific, analytical process to find the problem: testing, analyzing, comparing, and narrowing down possibilities. But when it comes to unusual phenomena and personal experiences, people rarely seek out experienced scientific investigators. Instead, they simply proclaim it a paranormal mystery.
The scientific process is not easy; things that are truly useful rarely are. But they are necessary to help investigators separate truth from fiction, error from significance. It’s very easy to make a claim about something, while thoroughly investigating a phenomenon can be a difficult job. For example, if a person says she just saw a strange light in the sky, that claim takes literally seconds to make. Investigating that sighting (assuming it’s not a hoax or prank) could take weeks or even months while other eyewitnesses are sought, wind conditions are checked, flight plans from any nearby airports are examined, and so on. For this reason, the burden of proof is on the claimant.
If someone tells me he discovered a giant ape in his garage, it’s up to him to provide proof that what he says is true, not on me to prove there isn’t a giant ape in his garage. The same applies to all the unusual mysteries I’ve researched. Investigators do not have big budgets and unlimited resources to look into every report of something unusual, and therefore we try to choose the “best evidence” cases, where proving the truth or falsity of a claim will be most significant.
Open-Mindedness and Skepticism: Possibilities Versus Probabilities
Often in paranormal issues, the question arises as to whether it is possible that the phenomenon has a supernatural or paranormal explanation. The correct, scientific answer is yes, it’s possible. It’s possible that (despite a lack of good evidence) ghosts, psychics, lake monsters, and dragons exist. The question, “Is it possible?” which is so revered and often touted, is both a superficial argument and a logical fallacy. Since no one is omniscient, no one has all the answers and therefore absolute certainty is not a criterion, especially in matters of fact and science. Is it possible that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, but instead some factor no one has yet discovered? Is it possible that O.J. Simpson did not kill his ex-wife and her lover? Is it possible that Princess Diana is actually alive and living in seclusion, that it was a hired impostor who was killed in that Paris tunnel? Is it possible that men didn’t land on the moon, and the whole event was faked? Is it possible that we are all simply brains in a vat, or characters in someone’s dream, and all our experiences seem real but are instead not?
Yes, all these things are possible, and no one can prove conclusively they are not. The question is not what is possible, but instead what the evidence shows, and what is reasonable. The “possible” argument is just a superficial red herring. It is, in short, a very weak foundation for either personal philosophy or legal argument.
While some skeptics get accused of being closed-minded, I have actually found that the opposite is true. For example, I often encounter people who are convinced that they saw a ghost or a Bigfoot; they are 100% convinced, because, they tell me, “I saw it with my own eyes, and I know what I saw.” Which is interesting, because it’s clear that they are closed-minded, not I. I am open-minded about the possibility that these creatures exist; I don’t know (and can’t prove) that they do or don’t. But the people who “know”—who are absolutely certain—that these things exist are not open minded to the possibility that they don’t exist. The answer has been decided for them, and no evidence or argument will sway them from their conviction that they could be mistaken or that these things exist. As long as you are willing to accept evidence either way (especially evidence against what you believe), you are being open-minded and a good investigator.
The goal of scientific and skeptical investigation is not debunking or disproving; the goal is the truth. A good investigator must be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. When I go into a haunted house investigation, I personally don’t know (and don’t care) if there are ghosts there or not. It really doesn’t matter to me; what matters is solving the mystery. If the solution to a mystery is that there’s a ghost in a house, that’s great. If the solution to the mystery is that there’s not a ghost in a house, that’s fine too, as long as I can figure out what people thought was a ghost.
One common charge leveled against skeptics and scientists is that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon (psychic abilities, ghosts, extraterrestrial visitors, etc.) because it would destroy their worldview. Skeptics and scientists, they say, are deeply personally and professional invested in defending the scientific “status quo.” This claim is heard over and over again, often from New Age writers, UFO buffs, and the like.
It is, of course, a myth. Take, for example, the recent news that a laboratory may have proven that it’s possible to exceed the speed of light. The scientists and researchers who were skeptical of the new faster than light claims are not skeptical because accepting that Einstein was wrong about something would lead to a nervous breakdown, or that their whole worldview would crumble beneath them, or that they would have to accept that science doesn’t know everything. The reason scientists are skeptical is because the new study contradicts all previous experiments. That’s what good science does: When you do a study or experiment-especially one whose results conflict with earlier conclusions, you study it closely and question it before accepting the results.
Scientific testing is incredibly difficult work. Designing a well-controlled experiment can take months (or years), and no experiment is perfect. There are always some variables beyond the experimenter’s control that must be accounted for. The goal is to design better and better studies as time goes on, fixing problems in previous studies and refining the methodologies.
What was the reaction from scientists? “Burn the witch, this is heresy and cannot be true?” No, it’s, “Well, that’s interesting… Let’s take a closer look at the experiment to make sure the results are valid.”
Furthermore, the very fact that this experiment was conducted in the first place proves that scientists are hardly afraid of challenging the dominant scientific beliefs and paradigms. If scientists were truly reluctant to rock the scientific boat (“Maybe we shouldn’t do this because we need preserve Einstein’s legacy”), they wouldn’t have done the study. In science, those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Disproving one of Einstein’s best-known predictions would earn the scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel prize.
Similarly, if some day I can prove that Bigfoot exists, or that ghosts exist, I would be the first person in history to do that. I would become instantly world-famous (and I’m sure I’d find a way to get rich off it too!). I’d love to find definitive proof of the paranormal…. hopefully you would too, which is why you’re here—and why you’ll love the next installment, where I’ll discuss the nature of the unknown…and my experience with a UFO!