The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

So You Want to be a Paranormal Investigator, Part 3

This is the third part of a series of posts geared towards how to think about research if you are someone who wants to be a paranormal investigator. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

I had previously discussed issues with equipment and data-gathering.  But there is a deeper problem, which I discussed briefly in the previous entries: Even if you get truly and clearly anomolous readings or weird sightings that shouldn't be there, what do they mean?  Claims that temperature changes, eerie feelings, EMF fields, strange sounds, ionizing radiation, etc. are related to ghosts is always, without exception, based on assertions that are not backed up with any sort of bridging arguments linking the data to the conclusion.  Unless you have a clear idea of what you are looking for and, even more importantly, why you are looking for it, any information gathered is absolutely meaningless. You need theory.  Without theory, whatever it is that you are doing, it isn't research.

We need to be clear, though, and what, precisely, theory is.  Contrary to what most of the public believes, theory is not synonymous with "wild ass guess", and contrary to what your elementary school teach taught you, it doesn't mean "a tested hypothesis that hasn't yet become a law."

Wikipedia actually has a pretty good definition in it's entry on the word:

In modern science, the term "theory" refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support ("verify") or empirically contradict ("falsify") it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge,[2] in contrast to more common uses of the word "theory" that imply that something is unproven or speculative.[3]Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions

In other words, theory is the set of observations, concepts, laws, and bridging arguments that provide a framework for exploring a concept.  The germ theory of disease, for example, is the based around the concept that many illnesses are caused by microbiological agents, such as bacteria or viruses.  Gravitational theory incorporates our observational data regarding gravity, and also provides testable hypotheses concerning what gravity actually is and precisely what causes it to work.

An important aspect of theory is that it changes over time.  Gravitational theory was once limited to discussions of how gravity worked to make large objects attract each other.  It was descriptive, and sought to describe things such as the motions of the planets, as well as objects falling to Earth.  Over time, however, it grew, and now incorporates Einstein's general relativity, elements of particle physics, and so on.  It began with observations of objects on Earth as well as the movement of objects through the sky.  As more information was gathered, observations refined, and other physics questions probed and discoveries made, more and more information was added to gravitational theory.  It grew from being descriptive (telling us how things behaved) to being predictive (telling us how they should behave under different conditions), and is increasingly explanatory (telling us not only how things have been observed to behave, and how we should anticipate them to behave, but also why they behave that way - what is gravity, exactly, anyway?).

All legitimately scientific fields build theory in this way: phenomenon are observed, the way in which they occur is more closely scrutinized and data gathered, the new data allows predictions to be made (that is, allows you to formulate hypotheses), which in turn allows you to further refine observations, ideas, and explanations.  Theory allows you to keep track of the various parts of a field of study, keep them coherent, and keep them from getting lost or confused.  Without theory, any attempt at research is dead in the water.

Within paranormal research, there is very little in the way of theory-building.  This is due, in part, to the fact that there is little in the way of coherent data gathering.  All of the ghost hunters running around with all of the infrared cameras and EMF meters available isn't going to produce anything worthwhile if there isn't some sort of structure to the matter.  Why are EMF meters used?  Why are infrared thermometers used?  What are you really capturing on your digital voice recorder?  Who knows?  There's no reason to use any of this equipment, outside of "well, it's what those guys on TV do!" or "it's what the Shadowlands website says investigators should do."

Consider that physicists don't just run around with whatever pieces of equipment they can come up with and declare that their readings are indicative of, say, proton decay.  No, they work out what a proton actually is based on a variety of different lines of evidence, how it's structured, and what the necessary results of its decay would be. THEN they use specific pieces of equipment that detect the particular things for which they are searching to see if their basic hypothesis is correct.  Similarly, if you wish to do real, legitimate paranormal research, you must first choose the phenomenon that you wish to look into, then you must start collecting basic data, then you form research questions based on those observations, and then, and only then, do you start to work out which specialized tools are appropriate for what you are trying to discover.

So, if the paranormal phenomenon that you are interested in is ghosts (my own go-to, as shown by the fact that I have essentially geared this entire discussion towards it), you must first determine if there is even a phenomenon to be studied by collecting information from both accounts of alleged hauntings and from research on related fields - and you have to be very, very cautious in accounting for as many potential fields as possible.  In the case of allegedly haunted places, you are looking at claims based on perceptions and people's memories of events, so you have to make sure that you are accounting for current work in the fields of perception and memory.  Once you have used these fields to analyze the information that you have, you look for anomalies.  You then set about trying to make some sort of sense of these anomalies - is there a pattern to them?  Can they be explained by known phenomenon (for example, most "shadow people" sightings can be easily explained by a knowledge of how the eyes function)?  If they can not be explained cleanly by known phenomenon, is there a known phenomenon that kind-of fits it, and if so, is the observation in question better explained by altering the explanations of the known phenomenon in a reasonable way (say, by appealing to other known phenomenon that may influence the first), or is it really something new?  If it is something new, you once again gather information, looking for patterns, and seeing if there is anything that connects the data together.  Over time, you will start to see links, you will start to piece things together.  But it takes a long time, and it take alot of work, and it is something that is never going to be achieved by running around old houses using whatever random piece of equipment is in vogue with the ghost hunters this year. And, importantly, if you do this, while you may discover something new and interesting, if you are doing real research, then you absolutely must be open to the fact that you may find that exotic-seeming events may in fact be best explained through mundane phenomenon.  If you discover that ghost sightings are best explained by neurology, or bad reactions to certain chemicals, or pet allergies...well, then, that is what you discovered, and a real researcher accepts this.

Rather than this, however, the current fields of paranormal investigation in general, and ghost hunting in particular, is a weird, cobbled-together Frankenstein's monster of unsubstantiated claims, faddish devotion to particular tools, and concepts borrowed from fantasy stories dressed up to sound scientific (psychokinetic energies, quantum energies leading to psychic phenomenon, inter-dimensional beings, etc.), but always essentially being assertions or suppositions without evidential backing, or even a real line of logic leading to them.

But it was not always this way.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, real researchers began to look into questions regarding whether or not there is something more to us than our living bodies, whether or not there are things such as psychic powers, and whether reports of hauntings indicate and actual paranormal phenomenon or were simply quirks of human perception. 

This ended for a number of reasons - some social, but many scientific.  Initial tests on precognition and clairvoyance, for example, often seemed to show something, only to have later results demonstrate a regression to the mean, indicating that it was random chance at work.  In other realms of paranromal research, investigation often revealed fraud or simple mistakes.  Over time, without clear, favorable results, enthusiasm fizzled.  After a time, the only people willing to engage in this work were the people who were perfectly willing to ignore negative results, and to focus instead on what looked like positive results when taken out of the broader context of the total results.

In other words, most of the people who stayed in the game were unwilling to follow where their results led, and would instead falsify or ignore data.  In that sort of environment, it didn't take long for every claim to be considered at least viable, no matter how absurd.  And so it is that we have paranormal researchers yammering on about "stone tapes" and "quantum potentiation leading to life after death" and "everyone having psychic abilities" despite the fact that none of these claims have been demonstrated, and many (basically, any claim involving the words "quantum" or "dimension") being so divorced from the actual, legitimate scientific uses of the key words that they are, literally, gibberish.

So, if you really want to do real paranormal research, this needs to change.  There needs to be a concerted and honest effort to build up theory.  Data needs to be recorded honestly and cleanly, negative results need to be acknowledged as being just as valuable as positive results, and you have to abandon all great edifices of pseudo-scientific gobbly-gook and start from basics. 

And understand - when you approach professional scientific researchers, you will likely have to fight back their preconceptions about what you are doing.  It's not that they are "closed-minded fools", it's that they have encountered many would-be paranormal investigators in the past, and none of them have ever been willing to do the hard work of real research, and have instead insisted that unsupported assertions be taken as fact, that an ignorance of data gathering methods was somehow superior to a clear and thought-out research methodology, and that data should be accepted only when it is favorable.  In short, they will have crossed paths with people who are closed-minded and not willing to hear constructive criticism, and then been accused of being that themselves (I have encountered this myself, as has every researcher that I know).  It may not be fair for them to view you with the cynicism that decades of this have earned, but it is human nature, and you have to be ready for it.

Also, understand, criticism is an important part of real research.  Whenever I present results, I expect to be criticized, because there will always be something that I didn't think of but that should have been considered, or some piece of data of which I was unaware, or some other way to think of the results that never occurred to me.   If you spend time reading the work of various paranormal investigators, you will hear that the "mainstream" scientist are criticizing them out of fear, or loathing, or a desire to "shut out undesired voices."  Bullshit.  Criticism is an important part of science.  We criticize each other's work, because that is how we keep ourselves honest, and how we ensure that the best ideas, explanations, and data will eventually rise to the top (admittedly, sometimes it takes a while, but it gets there eventually).  If you are being criticized, it means that you are being treated like a scientist, not that you are being shut down.

It will be difficult, it often won't be fun.  But if you are serious about being a researcher/investigator, and not just being some goofy person who runs about with equipment that they don't actually understand, then you absolutely have to do this.  And if you do this, then any positive results that you may get will be meaningful, and will be real contributions.  If you don't do this, then your work will continue to be pseudo-science at best.

Good luck. P.S., if you are reading this and insisting that paranormal research has developed good, solid, theory, then I would point out that such theory regarding the sorts of things implied would allow for working applications of the concepts and powers studied. To that end, I will simply point you to this:

No comments: