Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications.

I found there was not much that was actually scientific about their stated methods and publically available results. It was actually worse than I thought. Not only were they not even close to scientific methodology, philosophy or established norms, but they grossly misunderstood what it means to be scientific. [2]

Everyone wants science on their side. In the cases where the scientific consensus is NOT on your side, advocates for a position readily cobble together what they can that appears to be science. Perhaps that’s good enough for the public to buy into their argument. Perhaps they even accept it as legitimate. With a population that is sadly illiterate in how science works, faking it is an easy thing to do.

ARIGs exhibit “scienceyness” by presenting an image of how they think science should look – serious, detailed, systematic, technological, and sophisticated. They do this not only by throwing the words “science” and “scientific” around a lot, but also by use of jargon (“scientese”) and lots of equipment.

Ask any non-paranormally oriented investigator how to come to the best conclusion. It’s not through whiz-bang gadgets but by careful examination, observation and logical thought. Sometimes only a notebook and a keen eye are necessary. There is no discrete “scientific method”. It’s more of a mindset than a formal technique. And, it’s a quest for the BEST answer, not the answer you want.

The point of being scientific is be logical, to find a framework that fits your hypothesis and test within that, always being prepared to discard the ideas that don’t cut it. Scientifically-gained knowledge reflects the laws of nature, fits in with what have already established to be true, makes sense and, therefore, is reliable. Being scientific in answering a question about nature is the most reliable method we humans have devised.

Television and fiction give us a simplified and optimistic representation of science. It ends up being about the symbolism, not the ethos, of a scientist. What we see are the test tubes, the fancy words, the suggestion of complexity – all stereotypes of science. Since ARIG participants are not trained scientists, their guide to being scientific is the same as that to which the public has access. [3]

When a person or group adopt what they think is a scientific method, but fail to adopt the established practices and ethos of the scientific community that makes it so strong, they are not being scientific, but scientifical. Scientifical is a slang term I found that I thought described what most ARIGs do really well: they mimic. They produce a scientifical image. The public buys it. Go to a presentation by some local ghost hunters or even look at the comments on postboards for their fan sites. The public believes ARIGs are serious, credible researchers. Amateur groups have done a fine job of marketing themselves as authorities and experts on ghosts, UFOs and cryptids. One reason why they have succeeded is because the orthodox scientists eschew any involvement with such topics. The public has a great need to look to experts to answer questions. So, they gravitate to these socially-derived “experts” because they tell a good story. It sounds believable, it sounds scientific, it sounds legitimate.

By examining ARIGs publicly available presentations, reports and results, one can find a plethora of examples demonstrating scientific confusion, haphazard and subjective data collection, shoddy reporting, lack of critical analysis and unsubstantiated conclusions. ARIG data collection looks scientific because it’s often methodical and sometimes rigorous. [4] Of course there is all the technology. What the data from equipment truly represents is not clearly established. Instead, data sets are scoured for anomalies, which are extracted and categorized as paranormal.

Investigation writeups do not include the absolute BASICS of a scientific report: identification of a problem (unless a paranormal experience is assumed to have occurred), references to existing knowledge, and careful explanation of procedures to answer specific questions. The research questions OUGHT to be did anything happen here and, if so, what’s the most logical explanation. Instead, they seek to validate their paranormal beliefs. They presuppose a paranormal event. They are advocates for a pro-paranormal world view. That’s not science. It’s actually the opposite of science. When the desired answer is assumed and the rest is just decorative, it’s sham inquiry.

As I had anticipated, ARIGs use the culturally established authority of “science” as a stamp of legitimacy. They view sciencey-ness as a way to exhibit their seriousness and commitment to truth; it is used to project competence, professionalism, accuracy and honesty. Yet, they have only borrowed the authority of science instead of undertaking a rigorous process that would be much more difficult and perhaps a lot less fun. [5]

The media creates our image, however distorted, about how all of science works. The public sees more fake science portrayals than real in everyday life. Since the public is so easily accepting of the scientifical as a substitute for the genuinely scientific, we might be in some trouble.

1. Based on my research thesis data. If you really want a copy of this, I can provide it.

2. ARIGs, defined as amateur groups, are not run by scientists nor do they even suggest that members should have any scientific background. According to member profiles on the sites, almost none do.

3. This is a good argument for getting more real scientists into the spotlight and out to the public, but that’s a separate issue.

4. Many ARIG sites will state outright that they don’t want thrill seekers or those not willing to commit to their codes of conduct and long hours.

5. I feel quite positive about the fact that ARIGs ARE trying their best to do science. It shows they want to be taken seriously and know using science is a best practice. But, you can’t learn a skill like that by winging it. You need training and guidance from professionals. I don’t mean “paranormal professionals,” either. In my opinion, any pro-paranormal group or individual who teach classes about the “science of ghost hunting” ought to be laughed out of town. Sadly, they aren’t.

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Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.