Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?

There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.

Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.

“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.

The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.

Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).

What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)

Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena miraculous, a result of religious, occult (or magical) forces that are outside of human doings. These forces don’t adhere to boundaries of nature, which are waived. Perhaps the entity decides not to be detectable, for example. When that happens, we can’t test it, capture it or measure it. We just broke science. Our understanding stops if the explanation allows for supernatural entities to suspend natural laws on a whim. We end up with a form of “[Insert entity name here] did it.” Game over.

Paranormal events can appear to be supernatural but that in no way is proof that they are. Some unaccounted for natural explanation can be the cause. There is really no way to have excluded all natural possibilities in an investigation. We just may not have all the information. So to say something is the result of “paranormal” or “supernatural” activity is faulty logic. It can appear to be but you can’t say that it is for sure.

If you look at older anomalistic literature, you’ll find the word “preternatural” — a perfectly cromulent word — in place of paranormal. It’s not used as much anymore but it denotes a situation where the phenomenon appears outside the bounds of what we consider normal. It’s not supernatural, just extraordinary.

An even better word to use for weird natural phenomena — like strange falls from the sky (frogs, fish, colored rain), mystery sounds and lights, odd weather phenomena, etc. (things that might also be called Fortean) — would be paranatural. Events seem beyond natural because they are rare, unusual and we can’t quite pinpoint how they happened, but we need not revoke natural laws to have them occur. It’s similar to preternatural but sounds more modern.

Sorry about the word salad in this post but terminology is rather important for effective communication in order to avoid being misunderstood. These various words reflect the degree to which you want to go beyond observable, experimentally derived evidence. They get progressively LESS likely to be the correct designation: Paranatural -> paranormal/preternatural -> supernatural (which we can’t actually “prove”).

Pedantry over. We now resume normal communication.

This was originally posted at Huffington Post May 19, 2013.

American gypsy psychics: Book review

I was enticed to read this book, American Gypsy, by Oksana Marafioti,  after the Rose Marks trial. Marks was from an infamous Romani family who had repeatedly been charged and now found guilty of fraud due to their psychic-related business dealings.

amgypI didn’t know if this book had anything regarding the Romani [Gypsy] culture but I was interested in why Rose’s greatest fear was not being able to provide for her family and her loss of freedom in jail.

I did find some understanding here and it was a fun and enjoyable read as well.

Regarding the psychic issues: The writers mother can read coffee grounds as prophecy. She was encouraged to use this skill when money was tight and it worked. The author admits that the readings were more like psychotherapy, where people just needed to talk to feel better. Continue reading

Paper on Amateur paranormal investigation groups: Being Scientifical

I finished my thesis last year on amateur paranormal investigation groups. Many of you have requested copies. It can be purchased but not many would want to spend the money for that so I’m giving it away via PDF.

Continue reading

Bigfoot “facts” for kids?

Bigfoot Evidence has posted a link to a website called “Is Bigfoot Real” [refrain from clicking unless absolutely necessary] which contains a page called “Bigfoot Facts for Kids”.

The so called “facts” given are as follows:

  • Where Has Bigfoot Been Seen? Bigfoot has been spotted all over the world. People often see Bigfoot in wooded areas or high in the mountains.
  • What Does Bigfoot Eat? Bigfoot is an omnivore. This means he eats both plants and animals. Researchers say Bigfoot eats nuts, berries, fish and deer.
  • How Does Bigfoot Act? Bigfoot is shy. He likes to live with others of his own kind but doesn’t like being around people. He doesn’t like to have his picture taken so it’s hard to get him on film. Bigfoot talks to each other by making loud calls across long distances.
  • Does Bigfoot Hurt People? No, Bigfoot doesn’t try to hurt people on purpose. Sometimes though, when people accidentally wander into his territory, he’s been known to throw rocks at them to frighten them away. Bigfoot isn’t trying to be mean. He’s just trying to protect his home and family. Continue reading

Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.

“Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible.”

“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”

Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

Continue reading

Want to shed the pseudoscience label? Try harder.

When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.

Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?

Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.

Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.

I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology. Continue reading

Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here. Continue reading

An actual good guide for young paranormal investigators

I like to occasionally check out the juvenile literature section of the local library to see what is in the paranormal-themed books for kids. I picked up this book from the library recently:
Ghosts: And Real-Life Ghost Hunters (24/7: Science Behind the Scenes: Mystery Files) by Michael Teitelbaum, 2008, and was pleasantly surprised. What a nice book for the curious kid aged 8-12. Continue reading

Solving Unexplained Mysteries: A review of “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by B. Radford

This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.

As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com)  as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.

This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Continuing miseducation classes

Where can you learn Photoshop, CPR and Civil War history all in one place at a reasonable price? Continuing education offerings at local community colleges include useful courses in computer and technology fields, healthcare and safety occupations, business management and languages. General interest courses are offered in history, gardening, hobbies and include local trips and tours. In terms of offerings to the community, that’s great.

Local community colleges offer affordable, good quality educational opportunities to those students who might not be able to attend larger campuses of higher education. The average citizen would reasonably assume that since these mostly non-credit courses are offered in affiliation with the college, they are taught by qualified professionals. The Continuing Ed course catalog is distributed by the college and, as such, dons the patina of respectability associated with the school. Continue reading

Trying to boost your local tourism? Become a hauntrepreneur.

I came across this story about “haunted” Lafayette, Indiana.

It’s a typical soft news story about local authors and their new book of collected yarns. It also provided a little Fortean kick since, according to Mysterious America by Loren Coleman, place names that include “Fayette” or “Lafayette” have unusual activity or bad luck associated with them. I won’t go into depth about how that is totally selective cherry-picking and uninteresting. But, it is both.

In Lafayette, the authors rightly thought that a combination of interesting stories and local history would be winner. “I thought people would read about history if a ghost story was attached.” The article notes that the authors are “not ghost hunters, but writers who decided to document people’s stories about supernatural folklore.” They use the usual disclaimer, “We leave it up to the reader to decide whether they believe it or not.”

There’s a problem with that idea. These stories aren’t categorized outright as fiction. They get shelved under “local interest” or “travel”. The concept of ghosts as genuine entities lacks scientific validity. The stories, however, can fall nicely into folklore as suggested. So, file ghost stories under “fiction” or “folklore” and quit treating them as “true stories”.
Continue reading

Ghost hunting entertainment – Paranormal State lecture

ParanormalStatePenn State’s Harrisburg campus hosted a presentation by Paranormal State’s Ryan Buell (with Sergey along) on October 2. The event attracted over 60 people of all ages. Primarily, the crowd was students, some with their parents. There were obviously several fans of the show. Continue reading

The red herring

Conclusion to “Sham Inquiry
The coelacanth is a red herring

Mainstream science, which is respected and functions very well with its current methodology, excludes those fields who don’t pass muster. For a theory to be considered as an explanation for observations of the natural world, even the public realizes it ought to be scientific. Using supernatural qualities as necessary components in your theory will get you excluded from consideration outright by the scientific community. The public, on the other hand, finds the paranormal quite fascinating and is willing to give consideration to those that put on a good show. Continue reading

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Continue reading

Cryptozoology – Sham Inquiry

Cryptozoology is “the study of hidden animals” (called ‘cryptids’). More precisely, it is the pursuit of animals that science does not recognize as existing and, in some situations, be considered ‘monster hunting’ in comparison to the ghost hunters in a forthcoming discussion.

Like the closely related field of UFOlogy, cryptozoology can accurately be described as “a simulacrum of systematic rationality…quite impressive to many…nonbelievers.” Continue reading

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Cryptozoology
Ghost hunting
Creationism
——————-
[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

Back to Sham Inquiry contents page.

Weak evidence

Quality of evidence

A frequent complaint from the fringe is that the scientific community is dismissive of the actual evidence for their extraordinary claim. Proponents of psi or UFOs will cite reams of evidence. The scientific community’s standard response is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. That is, the evidence must be high quality, obtained through rigorous testing, with all other explanations accounted for. Overly precautionary experiments are required to support theories that seek to overturn established knowledge. Rampant fraud and gullibility exposed in some fields, especially psi research, require that extra safeguards be used in this research. This is not a double standard because, as Gardner notes for conventional studies, “gerbils don’t cheat” [1]. But humans do, sometimes inadvertently.

Many poorly tested pseudosciences have a characteristic over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Similar to anecdotes, myths and legends will be used to support a claim. This type of evidence can not be confirmed and is subject to mistakes and misinterpretation. Science considers anecdotal evidence very weak because of the degree of subjectiveness.

In the public view, anecdotal evidence is very persuasive. It is a primary means by which we communicate ideas to each other. To deny an eyewitness account suggests that the researcher considers the eyewitness a lier, under the influence of some altering substance or mentally unstable.

Collected modern and historical anecdotes, bits of circumstantial and questionable evidence, and non-replicated results form an impressive body of evidence to the nonscientist. Even the scientist may feel that there “must be something to it”. The important attention to quality is lost. Lots of weak evidence does not collectively make strong evidence. In an analogy, skeptical investigator Ben Radford equates this to trying to make a cup of strong coffee out of a lot of weak brew [2]. The scientific community is unimpressed and, quite justifiably, turns away.

————
[1] Gardner, M. (1981). Science Good Bad & Bogus, Prometheus Books.
[2] Radford, B. (2009). Personal communication, April 27, 2009.

Back to Sham Inquiry contents page.