Nature of the Unknown
Hello there! Welcome to Part 4 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 say something is “unknown” or “mysterious.” People use these words all the time, often without really understanding what they mean.
To start, let me begin by telling you about a UFO I saw. I’ve had my share of unusual and seemingly mystical experiences. For instance, I once saw a UFO flying over Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early one morning as I waited at a traffic light facing south, I glanced out my window and saw a huge white disc slowly hovering above the city, between my position and the Sandia Mountains that abut the city. I was amazed, and tried to figure out how large the disk might be. I knew it had to be flying lower than 10,400 feet (the altitude of the mountains), and given its size, I figured that the object had to be several hundred feet long.
As I watched carefully, though, I realized that the image was not over the city twenty miles away, but on my window about a foot away from my face. The disc was a reflection of the morning sun off the chrome of the car to my right, which had sidled up next to me as we stopped. When the traffic light turned green, the car moved ahead and its reflection went right along with it. Until I realized that I was seeing an optical illusion, the image looked for all the world like a large, luminescent hovering UFO. For a few exciting moments, I had little doubt about what I was seeing. I’ve also had apparently prophetic dreams, deja vu, and odd coincidences. Yet each time I was able to find logical, science-based explanations for what I experienced.
The Nature of the Unknown
Often in discussions of paranormal topics, the subjects themselves (ghost, Bigfoot, etc.) are treated as if there was a universally agreed-upon definition of what these things are, or what their nature is. But these terms are simply names for specific experiences, not discrete objects or entities. Simply calling something a Bigfoot or ghost does not explain anything, as no one knows that Bigfoot or ghosts exist, much less their nature. The conversation goes something like this:
“I saw a Bigfoot.”
“How do you know it was a Bigfoot?”
“It was large and dark and hairy and standing on two legs.”
“Okay, so you saw something large, dark, hairy, and standing on two legs. But no one knows for certain what a Bigfoot is. So how can you positively identify what you saw as a Bigfoot?”
If a truthful eyewitness states, “I saw something in the hallway that I can’t identify,” that is a valid and accurate statement. If the eyewitness instead states, “I saw a ghost in the hallway,” the person is making an unwarranted assumption and a leap of logic—and this is true even if the person actually did see some unknown, paranormal entity.
It’s basic logic: You can’t claim to positively identify something without knowing the specific nature of that thing. Correctly identifying X necessarily means you must know what X is, what established characteristics distinguish it from Y and Z; there’s no way around it. Thus labels like chupacabra, ghost, fairy, Bigfoot, and so on are useful only as descriptive shorthand; for an investigator is it more accurate and useful to think of them as descriptors for an experience. There may be other things that share those characteristics—bears are large, dark, hairy, and sometimes stand on two feet.
Once the mystery is approached from this angle, it becomes potentially solvable. A scientific paranormal investigator can no more test, analyze, or examine a Bigfoot or ghost than a botanist can study a wahoozle or a car mechanic can run a test on a frammis. The investigation becomes one not of identifying the Bigfoot or ghost but of trying to understand what the eyewitness experienced, what the person interpreted as a Bigfoot or a ghost. This step is one of the most important, and a common reason why investigations fail, or end up with ambiguous results. You must use meaningful labels to understand the phenomenon.
This is not, as some might object, an a priori dismissal of the supernatural explanation. If what the eyewitness experienced truly is paranormal, if ghosts or Bigfoot exist, then their nature will be revealed through the scientific process. But before reaching for the paranormal explanation, we must consider known, alternative explanations.
In every single paranormal topic, from UFOs to Bigfoot to ghosts to miracles, there are solved cases and examples of mundane things that were mistaken for the paranormal. Those explanations must be examined and ruled out first. If all the scientific, natural explanations can be justifiably dismissed, we are left with supernatural ones. As Sherlock Holmes states in The Sign of Four, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
From the séances and Spiritualist movement in the 1800s to TV’s Ghost Hunters, people have been searching for hard evidence of the paranormal for centuries, with a 100% failure rate. People have been trying to prove the existence of ghosts since at least the 1800s, and yet we are no closer to finding out what ghosts are. The evidence for ghosts, Bigfoot, or psychic powers is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago, or a century ago.
Why is the “final evidence” and conclusive proof so elusive? There are only two possible explanations for this. The first is that these phenomena do not exist, and all the evidence for them are the result of hoaxes, honest mistakes, misidentifications, and psychological misperceptions. So far the overwhelming weight of evidence supports this conclusion. This doesn’t mean that the search should end, just that the reason for the lack of good evidence must be dealt with.
The second possibility is that these things are real and do exist—but that the efforts to prove their existence have so far failed because the search is being done in the wrong way, and researchers are not verifying their assumptions and asking the right questions. The methods used to investigate these mysterious over the past decades have, with a few exceptions, been overwhelmingly non-scientific. Much “research” in the paranormal is notable for its sloppy scholarship, bad logic, and poor scientific methodologies. Many researchers into psychic ability (called psi) readily admit this. It doesn’t seem to occur to the non-scientific paranormal investigators that (assuming the phenomenon they seek is real) they must do something different.
One common (but apocryphal) definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For fifty years, the search for Bigfoot has relied on exactly the same methods and types of evidence: eyewitness sightings, “mysterious” tracks or prints, ambiguous photos and videos. All that effort, and yet not a single verifiable fact about Bigfoot is known. The search for Bigfoot has so far been a complete and unqualified failure. For well over a century, the search for ghosts has relied mostly on sightings and séances. In the last decade or so ghost hunters have employed new technology (such as EMF detectors and night vision cameras), yet all the high-tech gear has yet to yield a single piece of hard evidence for ghosts. The same pattern can be found in nearly every area of paranormal, from ESP to crop circles to astrology: the evidence gets no better over the years and decades because they are using the wrong methods.
It’s time for the majority of “paranormal experts” and researchers to change tactics; it’s time to use the most reliable methods known to mankind to help unravel the mysteries. It’s time for science.
Not only should mysteries be investigated scientifically, but in fact mysteries cannot be solved without scientific methods. My colleagues and I, using scientific methods, have solved hundreds of mysteries. We have found answers and solutions to everything from astrology to zombies, ESP to ghosts. Yet non-scientific (i.e., most) “paranormal investigators” never find conclusive evidence; theirs is an open-ended quest fueled by evidence that is marginal at best.
If you are very fortunate in your investigations, you might experience some sort of paranormal (or seemingly paranormal) event. However it’s far more likely that you’ll be interviewing people who claim to have witnessed amazing or mysterious events. In the next part we’ll examine some of the techniques in understanding what people see, and why.