Applying Scientific Methods to Paranormal Investigation
Hello there! Welcome to Part 8 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.
So far in the series I’ve covered a lot of ground (nearly 10,000 words!) on how to investigate strange and unusual claims. In the previous two parts I gave three examples of some mysteries that I investigated. Parts 9 and 10 in this series will have a mystery or two for you to solve for yourself, but before you tackle that I should discuss the basics of scientific methodology. In many ways solving a mystery is like solving a crime or murder, and police work is based on scientific methods: collecting and examining evidence, constructing alternative theories about how the murder was committed and by whom, using science to test those theories, and so on.
Lewis Vaughn, in his book The Power of Critical Thinking, lists five steps involved in a scientific process: 1) Identify the problem or pose a question; 2) Devise a hypothesis to explain the event or phenomenon; 3) Derive a test implication or prediction; 4) Perform the test; and 5) Accept or reject the hypothesis.
When using these steps to investigate mysteries, identifying a problem will help frame the key questions. Sometimes the question comes down to whether a given phenomenon exists (for example, is there actually a Bermuda Triangle where unknown, deadly forces are at work, or is it merely a fictional construct?). Often the problem is identifying the nature or origin of a phenomenon (for example, there is no question that crop circles exist; the issue is who or what made them).
Devising a hypothesis involves seeking alternative explanations. Usually the first theory (or paranormal explanation) provided to an investigator will be the last one to be examined. Often it is not examined at all, because investigations begin with the most likely explanation, and normal explanations are found before the investigator gets to the paranormal ones.
This is basic detective methodology, and applies to any mystery, “paranormal” or otherwise. For example, police know that homicide victims are usually killed by someone the person knows (such as a friend or family member). Stranger slayings are very rare, so detectives naturally begin by looking at the most likely suspects (hypotheses) first. If, in the course of the investigation, it becomes clear that the victim was not killed by someone he or she knew, only then do the police begin investigating the less likely suspects (hypotheses). This is a variation of the principle of Occam’s Razor (discussed later).
When examining a photograph claimed to be of a ghost, for example, an investigator would devise a series of hypotheses that might include a hoax; a camera artifact (such as a flash reflection); an optical illusion; a real person mistakenly photographed; and finally a ghost. If the subject is a weeping statute, potential alternative explanations might include a hoax; a natural phenomenon (such as condensation); an optical illusion; and finally that the statue is weeping miraculous tears.
This initial focus on naturalistic, normal explanations has the added benefit of giving the investigator a place to start. Since the very nature of paranormal phenomenon is by definition unknown, devising valid hypotheses and tests to examine that phenomenon is very difficult, if not impossible. A ghost might be any size or form; it may or may not appear in photographs, it may or may not leave “cold spots,” and so on. With so many variables (and without even an established, evidence-based definition of ghost), collecting evidence of ghosts can be like grabbing a fistful of rain.
On the other hand, by starting with alternative explanations whose characteristics are known, an investigator can accept or reject those hypotheses. This is also where research and experience become very helpful. For example, when presented with a UFO photo, one immediate possibility that must be examined is the photo’s authenticity: is it a hoax? In order to explore that explanation, it is very helpful to know something about previous hoaxed photographs, specifically hoaxed UFO photos (as well as “UFO” photos that turned out to have natural causes). If the investigator is examining reports of a lake monster, one possible explanation might be that eyewitnesses were seeing large fish or other animals; in order to explore that idea, it is helpful to have done research on what animals live in and around the lake.
Once alternative explanations are selected, they are individually tested. Each explanation or hypothesis will have its own logical implications. In the study of logic this is called a conditional syllogism and takes the form of, “If A, then B,” or “If A is true, then B should be true.”
If a ghost creates the sound of mysterious footsteps in an empty hallway, then an investigator should be able to hear or record them. If a crop circle is the work of hoaxers, then investigators can expect to find certain specific characteristics. If a ghostly image captured on a surveillance camera is a piece of floating cotton, then putting a piece of floating cotton in front of the camera (under the same circumstances) should re-create the ghost.
Testing in some cases may mean actual experimental testing (for example, one might test the hypothesis about floating cottonwood debris by doing an experiment with a camera). More broadly, testing means carefully comparing the claims against other, independent information. Sometimes alternative explanations can be rejected quickly, for good reasons. For example, if there are multiple eyewitnesses to some paranormal phenomenon who saw it under different conditions, it is less likely to be an optical illusion.
Once the test is done, the results will guide the investigation. If the hypothesis was successful and fit the facts, then the case is solved; if not, then the next most likely explanation should be tested.
For the next part, I’ll give you two mysteries to solve using some of the tips and techniques I’ve discussed. It will be your turn to be the detective!