I’m off inside my own head these days…
My main project is my Masters’ thesis in Science and the Public. I started gathering data this summer; fall will be consumed with crunching data, making sense of it and writing it up. I’ll graduate in February, barring any unforeseen disasters.
The hardest part about a thesis is formulating a research question and designing a low-cost, reasonable study that will appropriately answer that question. It took me months to work that out. This was an important struggle because it teaches you that science has rules. These rules are pretty wicked to follow if you want to do it right – you must be perfectly clear about what you are asking and the results you expect to get. No ambiguities allowed. Everything must be defined. You must do the work. No shortcuts.
I’ve decided to focus on something that means something personal to me and can answer a question that hasn’t been addressed before in this context.
I suspected and had heard from acquaintances that there must be over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the U.S. They have proliferated with the advent of ghost hunter television and do-it-yourself paranormal investigation. I was very interested in the idea of “sham inquiry” – where some activity presents the appearance of science but lacks the heart and guts. All over our society, sciencey trappings are used to give the appearance of seriousness and credibility. Can anyone do science? Do they do it right? If the activity is not science what are they doing and why? I am interested in how many paranormal investigation groups explicitly say they use a scientific method.
I focus on the amateur investigation group as the unit. The internet has allowed groups of people with common interests to form self-sustaining groups that “research” those topics that conventional science has mostly rejected – parapsychology, hauntings, unusual experiences and sightings. My study was designed to document how many of these groups there are in the U.S., what they do and how they do it. I look at their activities, some of which they state are “scientific”, and compare this with orthodox scientific practices. I should be able to determine if these groups make a meaningful contribution to knowledge via genuine inquiry or if it’s just a sham.
Many people fall on one side or the other of the fence on this one but the line between science and pseudoscience is not so clear cut. The demarcation is blurry. People have experiences they can not explain. Does that mean it’s a paranormal or supernatural experience? No. It means we don’t have the answer yet.
As of this date, I have collected well over 1000 websites of paranormal groups – ghosts & related phenomena, UFOs and cryptozoology (and other various mysterious occurrences). I’ve reviewed 600. I’m getting tired but persevering. I think the answers will be interesting and important. It will show an important insight into what the public sees as “doing science”.