As so often, something to annoy everybody today. I wait to see if the sceptics or the ghosthunters will be more offended!
Okey dokey, I hope no one has been scared off by the word epistemological in my rather ponderous title! This is just one of my occasional pieces on scepticism, science and paranormal research, and I promise it won’t make your head hurt – it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m actually inspired by reading two “spooky” mags I found in WH Smiths ( a British newsagent), Ghost Voices and Paranormal. Really though, I’m just going to talk about the rather troubled relationship between science and the scientists and paranormal researchers, of both the parapsychologist and the ghost hunter varieties, though what I have to say is just as applicable to UFOlogists, cryptozoologists, and any other “woos” out there.
And you have read this a thousand times before right, because I’m going to say “hey guys, we need to like, start being scientific, and sceptical, and using the scientific method in our investigations? Wrong. I don’t actually believe in the scientific method, which will doubtless appal many of my friends, and in this piece I’m going to explain why.
We are all scientists aren’t we?
Many of you know that after my career in TV research (“career” here defined in the dictionary definition – “to plunge downwards without brakes or direction; a headlong descent”) — I worked for a couple of years for Richard Felix at Derby Gaol. There I had the privilege to meet hundreds of lovely people who were interested in and share my passion for psychical research/paranormal investigations. And each group I met tended to share one thing in common, with only a few avowedly psychic/spiritualist, charity groups, and just in for the laughs exceptions – they saw themselves as scientific, and talked a lot about how they were more scientific than other groups (and amusingly “more scientific than the Most Haunted team” – almost everyone said they were that, which I thought was tantamount to saying they were more romantic than Jack the Ripper, but let that pass). Everyone liked to think, and assured me, that they were fully scientific and aware of the scientific method, and many defined themselves as sceptical believers, in search of scientific proof.
I often thought about this; it’s easy to be critical, and I happen to have read rather a lot over the years on the scientific method, and while I believe people experience ghosts the more I examined the scientific method the more I became convinced that it was more elusive, and possibly more fictional, than the spectres of Godfrey Parkes or Kreed Kafer. I’m going to explain why later in this piece — but for now I’m going to quickly survey why these groups felt they were “scientific”.
In many cases, a scientific approach was seen as synonymous with a technological approach – having LOTS of hi-tech equipment was seen as “scientific ghosthunting”. In the early days this meant EMF meters – I have occasionally cynically suggested that the popularity of EMFs was down to the fact that the PKE meter of the film Ghostbusters does not exist, and so EMF’s were the ghosthunter’s Tricorder of choice – even if most people seem a bit vague on why ghosts should be in a frequency range utilised for domestic wiring circuits. As many of those employing them certainly had a technical knowledge of physics and electronics far exceeding my own, I bit my tongue — but I have never been convinced that having Thermal Imaging Cameras, KII meter, ultrasound infrasound and 101 dalamations in your backpack makes you a scientist. Sure scientists sometimes use hi-tech toys – but generally for specific purpose. There is a branch of science that employs a similar approach – ornithology…
Birdwatchers take lots of gear, sit around for hours, and try to see and record images of birdlife. This appears to be the method favoured by most ghosthunters of this ilk, using what I called the Safari approach – perhaps I should have called it the Bill Oddie approach. Or maybe the Patrick Moore approach – because after all some astronomers watch the skies, scanning with sensitive equipment in search of rare, perhaps, one of a kind phenomena, like asteroids or distant supernovae. (Perhaps I should name the groups whose preferred methodology is to use Ouija Boards to try and communicate with discarnate intelligences the Carl Sagan approach, after his advocacy of SETI – but seems a bit hard on Sagan!)
A few groups actually saw science as experimental: they wanted to set up experiments, and look closely at the results. The most common type of experiment I witnessed (other than direct observation, ie. sitting round in the dark waiting for the spook to show up) was probably experiments in EVP (electronic voice phenomena) – but not the EVP experiments of Raudive, or Neil ‘Geigertek’ Fellowes, or any of the modern researchers in to EVP/ITC – these were simpler affairs, usually involving leaving a tape recorder or dictaphone running and asking the spirits to speak or leave a message.
This approach again reminds me of SETI, or maybe seismograph monitoring, where instruments are employed to watch for anomalous signals — it certainly has the advantage that the results can be objectively examined, in a manner that “Sandra said she was touched on the knee by the ghost” is less susceptible to – and indeed, many sites exist where you can hear some very interesting results from these “experiments”. Ultimately the results remain subject to interpretation — but hey, it is an experiment, even if not in the sense that many advocates of experimental science would recognise.
I could go on – I probably will – but the most important question to me that arises is “why do these groups wish to claim the title of ‘scientific’ for their researches?” I think that is a really interesting question, and I will return to it at the end of this piece.
Enter the Sceptics
First, let me repeat my long held mantra that the sceptic/believer dichotomy is steaming pile of dingoes kidneys. Anyone who has hung out in parapsychological or sceptical circles will spot at once what I mean: 9/11 Truthers are sceptics, but they will have a rough time on the JREF. I am sceptical about the tooth fairy and bigfoot, less so about ghosts, and immensely about Father Christmas coming down my chimney on Christmas Eve. We all have as Renee Hayes reminded us long ago different “boggle thresholds”, and different levels of evidence to make us accept any given claim. (There is a lot of recent research in how political beliefs harden when exposed to certain discussions — Ill link t it some time; in accordance with ones preconceptions). I am probably fairly sceptical if I have reason to buy a used car, and if you mention Atlanteans let’s face it you have lost me. I’m easily convinced about lots of other things though, because I have not got the time to test the claim and read the research — I think this was what the questionable axiom “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” derives from – well that and ultimately a passage in David Hume.
Anyway, by sceptics I here refer to sceptics of the paranormal, such as my friends at the JREF, UKSkeptics, Sceptics in the Pub, and groups like CSI etc etc. Sceptical groups have proliferated in recent years — I make a brief analysis of the phenomenon in passing in my blog piece on the closure of Psychic News. They do much that is good and worthy, and I tend to like sceptics — I’m not sure the feeling is mutual, as a lot of them don’t really seem to know what to do with me, but hey ho! I’m not quite pukka, but I think they regard me as a well intentioned idiot. 🙂
These are the “Guardians of Order” I refer to in my title (not the former publishers of the excellent Nobilis rpg!) – sceptics who seek to fight for rationality and science against the deadly rising tide of superstition and woo. I’m not convinced their heroic vigilance achieves all that much – a few exceptions like James Randi and Penn & Teller might have an impact on popular consciousness, maybe add Sagan (though he is an odd one, and was rather more open minded than many people realise) Dawkins, Martin Gardner, Richard Wiseman and Sue Blackmore — but on the whole the societal tides of belief and disbelief in any given phenomena seem to move on irrespective of the would be opinion makers arguments, as I hint at in this early blog piece.
And their main critique of the ghost hunters, parapsychologists, and others they disparage as woo merchants?
NOT SCIENTIFIC. JUST PSEUDOSCIENCE
Right, let’s look at that claim. A lot of sceptic groups see their role as fighting Pseudoscience: it’s a word one hears bandied about a lot. They want to protect the sacred walls of Science from the monstrous regiment of woos and wacko’s clamouring for admission. And hey, I’m with them – if I can work out where to garrison, as I can’t find the bloody walls. In fact pretty much none of the theorists of science can — we just don’t know who to protect the old dear, because we can’t agree where the battlements lie.
I ‘m a huge fan of science, and the immense benefits it has given us. I don’t want to die at age twenty of an infected foot (which is admittedly unlikely given as i am now forty one), or be infested with parasites, or be scared by shadows or be convinced my fate is determined by Mercury in Trine with Uranus. I’m all up for fighting the good fight – I’m just hampered by actually knowing some philosophy of science. The problem is the Demarcation problem – if you are not familiar with the debate, then the wikipedia entry is a sound place to start, and the Stanford Encyclopedia article will real get your teeth in to it
There is simply no simple way to say what is a science, and what is a pseudoscience. Shocking? Yes: but generally held to be true, because to define a pseudoscience requires one to be able to say what the Scientific Method actually consists of, and that is hard, because (at least in mine and many others opinion) there is no such thing as the Scientific Method.
Joining a lot of sceptical or research organisations these days seems to require one to subscribe to, and understand the Scientific Method – and it is here I come unstuck. While I am known for my critiques of many post-modernist approaches to knowledge, and am a firm believer in an objective consensually knowable universe, I just don’t know how we do science. Or rather I do, and therein lies the problem.
Now in fact you can easily point me to many websites on the Scientific Method – for example again the wikipedia article is very sound. I make no apologies for using wikipedia to introduce complex concepts – it’s often pretty good stuff, and here is an example.
As you can see there is general agreement on some aspects of science; the problem is when you look at specific disciplines, it all breaks down. Astronomers and archeologists use very different approaches to those favoured by cellular and molecular biologists, who differ from those studying morphology, who vary from the methods employed by psychologists, sociologists and neurologists. Experimentation is very much privileged over sa the observations preferred by Cosmologists or Naturalists – you ever tried to experiment with a Big Bang or Cosmic Inflation, or to experimentally study a moth species proliferation over Northwest Canada? – and as hinted earlier, some of the methods used by ghosthunters are in the loosest sense scientific, and analogous to methods employed in “real” sciences.
It’ s unlikely you covered these issues in your science class at school – because philosophy of science seems to produce vitriolic hatred in many working scientists nd science educators, who would gladly shoot all the philosophers and just get back to the lab? I admit my evidence for this assertion is merely experiential and anecdotal – and of course there are noble exceptions, many of whom seem to hang out on the JREF for some reason, like Athon and others — but there rally does seem to be an immense disquiet as soon as one asks questions about where the boundaries of science lie, and how we actually know stuff. There are exceptions – many scientists seem to be enchanted with Sir Karl Popper, and his falsification principle, but you still get umbrage when you point out that for a long time he questioned if the Theory of Evolution was a scientific theory, as his systematic approach logically renders it a historical question, outside the purview of science.
And very few will have read perhaps one of the greatest minds of modern philosophy of science, or at least the most interesting, Paul Feyrabend. In Against Method and Science in a Free Society Feyrabend ruthlessly assaults our preconceptions about the scientific method, playfully demolishing the whole house of cards, pointing out the inconsistencies, the way science as it has been done has never matched the false Popperian idyll, and calling for what he terms “epistemological anarchism” – the death of method, a science that is rationally accountable but is not limited to certain acceptable ways of being “scientific”. I think after reading Feyrabend there was no going back for me – Kuhn had shown me how Science works in sociological and cultural context, but it was Feyrabend who finally blew away the whole edifice of respectability and made me determined to freely enquire and damn the consequences, in a spirit of Fortean openness to the improbable.
Yet like Feyrabend I do not actually embrace irrationality – I see science as a complex multi-faceted set of methodologies, rather than a single monolithic method. There are many sciences, which use different methodologies, different ways of arriving at truths – but one can rationally test the value of the claims, and to doubt the claim there is a single “scientific method” while it may sometimes lead to one being regarded as a heretic (and hell I was always a heretic!) does not generally in philosophy of science raise any eyebrows these days. It is among the self appointed champions of scientific orthodoxy, paranormalist or sceptic, that asking questions about how we know things, and what methodologies are “scientific”, and where the boundaries of science are, that one gets a slightly unpleasant reaction.
I think they are vital questions – as you may have gathered, I don’t think many ghost groups use anything I would personally meaningfully term “scientific method”, but that does not mean I will automatically ignore their results, vilify them, or demand they subscribe to some doctrinal methodological procedure of hypothesis formation, control variables, conduct experiment and write up results, or whatever. I happen to think Falsification is a wonderful tool, and when trying to solve mathematical or logical puzzles often employ it, but it is not the only way of knowing, and neither is experimental science.
And so I remain, stubbornly, but rationally, a heretic.
If you were effected by any of the issues raised in this blog piece and feel a strong an urge to punch CJ, might I suggest this excellent little book on the philosophy of science as a great starting point in creating uncertainties, raising doubts and questioning what you think you already know nd why I am so obviously wrong.