Pseudoscience and Paranormal Research

I don’t want to get too deep into this issue at the moment, as I think there will be other article and blog opportunities in the future to explore this more deeply, but I did want to write a quick response to an article I read recently on the Huffington Post that demanded a bit of thought longer than 140 characters.

For the past couple months, I’ve been following the Society for Psychical Research Twitter account, which retweets and shares a number of fascinating articles and stories about all aspects of current ESP research, whether these articles be positive or negative. Today as I was browsing the tweeter, I came across a really interesting article about Pseudoscience and how it corresponds to paranormal research, written by Stafford Betty. Normally, “pseudoscience” is a term thrown around by skeptics to demean research into “paranormal” or anomalous phenomena. And it bothers me to no end. A quick perusal of the wikipedia article about Pseudoscience raises my blood pressure almost immediately.

And so, reading an article that responds to this issue in support of the scientists doing serious research into this issue should make me happy, but unfortunately I have to be the guy who, while agreeing with the premise, disagrees with the justification (which usually means I get to upset everybody!).

The thing about Betty’s article is that he tries to defend paranormal research (again, the scientific work being done in laboratories rather than the ghost hunting work being done in the boob tube) as not being pseudoscience by justifying the validity of the potential for the phenomena to exist, rather than defending the science that’s being done.

Which, on the whole, the article is fine. He begins by pointing out the negative feedback in regards to a cover story about reincarnation research published in Virginia Magazine. (Most of this feedback is deeply biased and despite being promoted in the name of science, is in itself a stain on the true work of science). One such commenter called the work being done “pseudoscience”. Betty then used the rest of his article to briefly defend the topic of research (loosely, consciousness and whether its existence is a causal effect of brain biology or whether it’s something separate entirely), which I think he did well for a non-scholarly editorial defense.

The problem is that he never actually describes how the work being done isn’t a pseudoscience. He just justifies the potential for the phenomena to exist. Which is important. But, not what the article claimed to address in the headline. And, more to the problem at hand, another article pointedly defending paranormal research but missing the mark is more than fodder for the critics and these same science trolls who seek to discredit the research. It doesn’t advance much because most folks who are firmly on one side or the other on the issue don’t see past the neglected argument.

I’m not writing this blog to fill in the blanks, but simply to clarify them. I’m not a scientist, and there have been thousands of experiments executed by well-credentialed scientists over the past century into these more anomalous categories. Each set of experiments can be gauged on its own merit toward whether or not it’s pseudoscience.

To point out these blanks then, I want to first clarify the definition of Pseudoscience, (which I’ve snagged from Wikipedia, despite my frustrations with the rest of the article).

Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.[1] Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.

Now, there are some components of this definition that Betty addresses, primarily the issues of plausibility, which, ultimately, does work toward validating the the work against pseudoscience claims, especially when the commenters are disputing the plausibility of the issue. However, the real argument should be placed in defending the scientific structure of the work being done to validate or invalidate the claims of such anomalous phenomena. Because it is being done. It’s been worked on for a century now by people who know the scientific method, who trained and were educated as highly and deeply as any other scientist in any other field.

If an article is going to be written defending paranormal research against pseudoscientific claims, the real heart of such an article shouldn’t be the continued volleying of argument toward the plausibility of such phenomena (though obviously an interesting discussion, I’ve learned a long time ago that it’s useless against the close-minded). It’s the science that’s going to persuade people. It’s going to be illustrating the process, the breakdowns, the results, the recreations, the predictions, the implications.

The main buzzword in the pseudoscience argument isn’t plausibility (that’s just a buzzword in general), it’s the “scientific method”, a phrase that’s been rather unfortunately muddled for paranormal research in its application on many Ghost Hunting shows, who claim to be following the scientific method, when in reality, they aren’t. That’s undeniably pseudoscience. There are no delicately controlled, recreatable experiments. No predictions. Just lots of theory and multi-variabled experiments. It’s loosely scientific. There’s a basic structure that’s followed and is even respectable toward exploring the plausibility of such phenomena. But it’s not real science, and so falls into that pseudoscientific category.

But real genuine scientists are doing good work. And that work needs to be defended more thoroughly. The articles that need to be written are the ones that explore and break down whether these experiments that are being/have been done are good science. I’ve read dozens of overviews that suggest that yes, these scientists are doing thorough and recreatable work. They are restraining from theorizing and throwing around out-dated terms that carry folk definitions hundreds of years old. And they have results.

The articles that we need to see published on such sites as Huffington Post are the ones that go deeper than just butting heads over plausibility, but the ones that refute each of these other claims, defending the work (not just the theories or phenomena) as very much adhering to the scientific method, as producing strong evidence, as thoroughly tested, and with provable (and proven) claims.

Some experiments might not hold up. Some may very much hold up. But it’s time to move beyond the head-butting and help this well-deserving, genuinely scientific field see a positive light of day.

Karl Pfeiffer is not a scientist, but he’s deeply passionate about paranormal research. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, and he lectures across America about approaches to the paranormal. He graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Creative Writing and an emphasis on Religious Studies. He leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel and won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, appearing briefly on Ghost Hunters International. He’s also a photographer. 

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3 thoughts on “Pseudoscience and Paranormal Research

  1. Reblogged this on Paranormalogistically and commented:
    I completely agree with Karl on this issue of pseudoscience and science. Please enjoy this reblog.

  2. Ben says:

    There is no debate, parapsychology is a pseudoscience. Why? Because it makes no testable predictions, it’s concepts about “Psi” “PK”, magical “spiritual” forces or spooks are completely non-falsifiable and the subject has not produced a single repeatable experiment that can be replicated by neutral scientists. If it’s not repeatable it’s not science. There is not a shred of evidence for pseudoscience like clairvoyance or telepathy. It is wishful thinking and at complete odds with physics.

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