Pop Culture & The Paranormal

Written by Matthew James Didier
Published: Monday, 28 December 2009 17:13

There's a holy grail of a sort when it comes to books about proper investigations into paranormal phenomena... and that is anything with a legitimate guarantee of any sort.

Recently, while perusing a message forum, I came across a note that truly tweaked my interest... indeed, it actually tweaked a memory! I had read a book on "How To" by this person, and was thrilled to see the following words, (slightly edited below to maintain surprise,) lit up in pixels on my screen. It's a comment from one person discussing the paranormal to another...


"Ever read (the author in question's) investigations? He almost always finds a rational explanation, and it's always interesting."


Wow! A semi-promise of a holy grail, indeed! I was thrilled and decided to rekindle my memories by leafing through the book... especially as "scientific investigations" was the practical thrust of the thread of these messages!


I can directly quote some of the book, (in compliance with the current Canadian Copyright Law Bill C-42, Part III, Sect. 29. Sect. 29.1, Sect. 29.2, and acting in compliance with Sect.s 29.3 -> 30 as a review and/or for educational purposes under "Fair Dealing",) and would like to share some of it's wonderful words of wisdom.


The author, (actually, authors as it is a co-written work,) cite their own "Scientific Attitudes" as modified from several other excellent sources... and number one is quite striking!


It's about "empiricism"...
1. Empiricism
Simply said, a scientist prefers to "look and see." You do not argue about whether it is raining outside -- just stick a hand out the window.
Funny. In essence, the given example is a poor version of empiricism and not at all acceptable to any scientific process I know of. How does one sticking a hand out a window prove rain? Has this person never lived in an apartment and had upstairs neighbours that over-water plants on a balcony? Perhaps snow never melts from their roof? What were the atmospheric conditions at the time of this decision?

In essence, without the full data, the experimentation is simply conclusions based on sketchy evidence and proclamation... and would most certainly not be acceptable if "we" (paranormal types,) gave it as such. The very authors of this book would rightfully shred such poor science!

"Empiricism", or "empirical data" must be reproducible and effectively inarguable. Had the situation been grey skies, forecasted rain, and precipitation being noted in several visible locations with a date, time, and vicinity given for future cross-reference with  trusted meteorological sources, combined with the "wet hand" from the window, then indeed, it would be an empirical fact... but the act of simply thrusting a hand out a window doth not empiricism make.
Carrying on with the same "Scientific Attitudes"....
2. Determination
"Cause-and-effect" underlie everything. In simple mechanisms, an action causes a reaction, and effects do not occur without causes. This does not mean that some processes are not random or chaotic. But a causative agent does not produce one effect today and another effect tomorrow.
...as admirably demonstrated by lottery draws using equally weighted balls dropping from tumblers... almost always the same numbers come up, right?
Now, in defence of the rather strange statement above, the authors do point out there is some randomization possible in terms of "cause" and "effect"... but it is mysterious why they would then say, "But every cause does produce the same effect." Perhaps this is true in terms of Newtonian physics, but if I push a car down a hill, it will roll down the hill no doubt provided I did things right... but which way it turns and what it ends up doing when deceleration finally ceases the movement is (probably) completely random and, more importantly, most like going to be a little different to every witness and in it's overall effect.
Granted, accepting that requires "effort" and legitimate observation and notation... something that probably, in this series of "Scientific Attitudes" is not necessary.
The next "Attitude" in this book is utterly acceptable to most... and that's all problems have a solution somewhere, so we agree here without reservation... but methinks that perhaps, our versions of those "solutions" and what is required to make them... say... "empirical" data... are probably differing from the authors.
Moving on to #4, which is...
4. Parsimony
Prefer the simple explanation to the complex;
Ah! Where would Science be without citing something along the lines of that old Franciscan friar, William of Ockham's sharp shaving instrument... or "Occam's Razor"... which, in essence, is the idea that the "simplest and easiest solution is probably the correct one."
Sadly, William often used, "It's God's will!" with his famed razor to shut down possible investigations into things... and the other issue is that the "razor" is also a tool, not an end result... but none-the-less, it's bandied about as a catch-all absolutely "empirical" response to odd things by many...
Ergo: If I'm around say, six hundred years ago... and I notice floods come from torrential rain downpours which include thunder and lightening... then it's obvious the Gods' are unhappy and hurling fire and roaring disapproval at the Earthlings below, and eventually, washing their huts into the sea.
It answers all the questions simply... and therefore, no further examination is needed.
Y'know, I think (personally,) that unless the answer comes with empirical evidence, I'll keep looking at the problem... even if Gods are hurling electricity and dropping bowling balls on the clouds overhead...
My thirst to find actual answers, as William of Ockham would point out, is most likely God's plan for me... so be cool with it.
#5. Scientific Manipulation
 Yes, this is number five in this book... let me let you read it again...
#5. Scientific Manipulation
Any idea, even though it may be simple and conform to apparent observations must usually be confirmed by work that teases out the possibility that the effects are caused by other factors.
Yes, if your findings are not "empirical" enough to show the desired response you wished to achieve, manipulate the data or, at least, get people to concentrate on other (possibly unrelated) things that seem to hold up your own hypothesis.
Neutrality? Simply showing the found data for better or worse? Not in this list of "Scientific Attitudes"!
#6. Skepticism
 ...or in Canada and the UK, scepticism...
Nearly all statements make assumptions about prior conditions.
 Normally, this is simply called a "hypothesis"... but let's carry on...
A scientist reaches a dead end in research...
...which is why we have the scientific method... to  say, "I've tried this and my hypothesis was incorrect."... but again, let's carry on...
 ...and has to go back and determine if all the assumptions made are true or how the world operates.
Oh wait... how is this "scepticism"? This simply seems like the outlaying of a (proper) scientific methodology...
TO THE BAT-DICTIONARY ROBIN!!!! (Well, Miriam-Webster... as it is an American book I'm speaking of here...)
pronunciation: \ˈskep-tə-ˌsi-zəm\
Function: noun
 1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
2a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
2b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
3 : doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)


 So, effectively, the above ALSO translates, according to this "scientific" book, to any scientific protocol looking into... well... anything?
"An attitude of doubt" is the same as "a scientist" reaching a dead-end in "research"?
Now, I could be wrong...  but I could have sworn this was a "finding" or, again, a scientific methodology... not the noun "skepticism"... but again, one must work in the paradigm of this scientific tome and these "Scientific Attitudes"...
The next one in the list, not worthy of a full mention, is "precision" and talks about how science likes precision in it's data... well, really, who doesn't?... but looking through the above, perhaps the authors of this book might re-consider their stance on precision... considering they equate "scepticism" with the actual scientific method (of which, scepticism or "doubt" is a good thing to employ while using this tool of knowledge,)  and have such a fondness for "simplest answers" without investigation being considered empiricism... but I digress...
I agree whole-heartedly with the 8th entry in the "Scientific Attitude" list, which is about "Respect for Paradigms", which basically says that if your empirical data does not jive with accepted scientific principals and laws, it's time to re-evaluate the whole shooting match. Where we no doubt part company as shown above is that I'm willing to say that the empirical data looks odd and puts "Y" "accepted" principal in doubt... so let's look both to find out why... the authors seem to say that if the empirical data looks odd and puts "Y" "accepted" principal in doubt... then it's either time to manipulate the finding to keep "Y" in place without question or toss the whole of the new data in the rubbish as it won't be an "easy and simple" answer.
#9.  A Respect for Power of Theoretical Structure
Diederich describes how a scientist is unlikely to adopt the attitude: "That's all right in theory but it won't work in practice." He notes that the theory is "all right" only if it works in practice. Indeed the rightness of a theory is in the end what the scientist is working toward; no science facts are accumulated at random. (This is an understanding that many science fair students must learn!)
...and something that seems to run a touch contrary to some of the "Scientific Attitudes" above... because you apparently absolutely can come up with an untested (and possibly untestable) hypothesis and attach it to an event and provided it meets the paradigm of acceptable knowledge while being an easy answer with "accepted" (not our own version of accepted, mind you,) empiricism, you have a winner!
In respect for the author of a sort, I won't even grace the #10 point with a note... which is about admitting one is wrong when the data shows absolutely you were... and  changing an opinion... because I've followed one of the authors, and I've seen him be wrong... and I've NEVER seen an admission of being incorrect personally. I'm sure they're out there, but for one starter, how about admitting these "attitudes" I'm having fun with are probably a bad idea...
#11. Loyalty to Reality
Dr. Urey did not convert to just any new idea, but accepted a model that matched reality better. He would never have considered holding to an old conclusion just because his name was associated with it.
More's my own pity that I am not 100% familiar with the late Nobel prize-winning Harold Urey (who I'm pretty certain is cited here,)  but I'm equally certain that the subject matter of Dr.Urey's speciality (physical chemist with a speciality in isotopes,) had more data and info to work with and from than a paranormal investigator... which is what this book reports to be speaking to. It's like comparing the study of Afircan Gorillas in the wild to the study of neutrino particles... They are both science and rather interesting, but one really can't place Dian Fossey's work in the same category of the folks in Project Poltergeist... well, unless you're writing about "Scientific Attitudes"... that I guess it's okay.
What's sad is, again, the author can't offer their OWN specimen of changing their mind when the evidence stacked up against their cherished hypothesis... perhaps they are infallible... despite, according to the book, a wealth of experience... flawless experience, apparently.
12. Aversion to Superstition and an Automatic Preference for Scientific Explanation
No scientist can know all of the experimental evidence underlying current science concepts and therefore must adopt some views without understanding their basis. A scientist rejects superstition and prefers science paradigms out of an appreciation for the power of reality-based knowledge.
So, if we read this correctly, scientists don't understand stuff, so that toss it out as their adopted viewpoint provided it meets with "reality-based" knowledge...
...although we don't know what the current limit of understood "reality-based" science currently is.
In layman's terms, according to these "Scientific Attitudes", scientists go off half-cocked on things they don't understand provided they meet a paradigm that's acceptable.
I sure hope medical science doesn't REALLY work this way...
I wasn't going to include the next one... until I read the last part...
13. A Thirst for Knowledge, an "Intellectual Drive"
Scientists are addicted puzzle-solvers. The little piece of the puzzle that doesn't fit is the most interesting. However, as Diederich notes, scientists are willing to live with incompleteness rather than "fill the gaps with off-hand explanations."
So, better to leave a puzzle incomplete rather than working up a proper scientific response... you know, question, hypothesis, experiment, observations, conclusions... that sort of thing?
I guess it goes back to "science" embracing Willy of Ockham's ouchy-sharp thing... Better to fall back on no answer or an "easy" answer than look for the actual one.
Again, please don't let medical science be this way... that would be truly frightening.

Now, I wasn't going to do #14... as I want to avoid making this TOO long an article... but I did want to separate this sentence in #14 about "Suspended Judgement"...

Again Diederich describes: "A scientist tries hard not to form an opinion on a given issue until he has investigated it, because it is so hard to give up opinions already formed, and they tend to make us find the facts that support the opinions."

The organisation that the authors' belong to have a "three rule" notation that's made the rounds often through various outlets... one of these three is...


"Don't bother me with the facts, my mind's made up!"


I also often quote Epictetus who once said it is "impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows."


Granted, in accepting any of this, one must then look above and scratch several of these "Scientific Attitudes"... because we need to ONLY work from that which is know... not try to see if there's something we might not know.


...moving on...


To show I'm not completely against these "Attitudes", I whole-heartedly agree with #15 which is, in effect, to ensure all assumptions in a presentation of findings are clearly labelled as just that... assumptions.


Of course, in certain spheres, this is a one-way street...


The knocking on the wall could be a ghost... We need to investigate on-site.


The knocking on the wall is not a ghost... it's... um... the "Old Hag" syndrome which is nothing by sleep paralysis and hallucinations! No investigation required... until we find out it was experienced by more than one witness, then we will conveniently either forget that we ever "looked into" the case or come up with the next easiest answer as per William of Ockham's shaving implement!


Reading the two ideas above, which do you feel might yield something legitimately empirical... and yet, empiricism is "prime" in this list.


16. Ability to Separate Fundamental Concepts from the Irrelevant or Unimportant

Some young scientists get bogged down in observations and data that are of little importance to the concept they want to investigate.


After all, if we say the Gods are hurling fire at us while juggling bowling balls in the clouds, why waste time looking for other possibilities?


As a (albeit failed/interrupted) mathematical student... and a professional computer technician by trade, I do absolutely agree with the #17 "Attitude" which is, indeed, mathematics as a truly universal language. It is true, all you math-phobes... pretty much everything in the universe can (eventually with some effort,) be brought into focus with numbers... This isn't any snarky-sarcasm here... I mean this and agree with this...


Of course, there's #18...


18. An Appreciation of Probabilities and Statistics

Correlations do not prove cause-and-effect, but some pseudoscience arises when a chance occurrence is taken as "proof." Individuals who insist on an all-or-nothing world and who have little experience with statistics will have difficulty understanding the concept of an event occurring by chance.


Before getting started here, it does my heart good to see that the word, "psuedoscience" is NOT in any of the five spell-checking dictionaries I use... had to get that out first.


So, only pseudoscience is guilty of this... no one else, of course!

How's that "infrasound causes everything" hypothesis working out for you? No?

Okay, how about "ambient elevated EM fields causing frontal lobe hallucinations"? Again, not working?

Well, "Sleep Paralysis" and "The Hypnopompic/Hypnogogic States" have surely cleared up everythin... no?

NO WORRIES! I mean, mass hallucination is OBVIOUSLY the root of... not again?


So, looking at the above "catch-alls" thrown out by several members of an esteemed "scientific" organisation, and I can give MANY more examples of "coveralls" that didn't match up to the cases being explored, should I assume that a group that DOES put these out is actually a "pseudoscience" org? I mean, they are latching onto a catch-all without perfect or empirical evidence... so...


 Moving on again...


19. An Understanding That All Knowledge Has Tolerance Limits

All careful analyses of the world reveal values that scatter at least slightly around an average point; a human's core body temperature is about so many degrees and objects fall at a certain rate of acceleration, but there is some variation. There is no absolute certainty.


Um, okay... I half expect to see the words "Purple", "Monkey", and "Dishwasher" in this rather odd statement... but I get the drift... As an EXAMPLE, the human core temperature SHOULD be within a specific tolerant limit without causing issues... although there is some room for movement, there isn't a lot of room to wiggle about with this temperature...


Okay... so we should not tolerate any information too far out of the normal and accepted logs of established knowledge.


Yup, think about where we'd be if THAT was a hard-and-fast rule...


Heavier than air craft can't fly. Being in a vehicle that travels faster than 30 (or so) miles an hour would put such a strain on your internal organs as to suffocate you almost immediately upon obtaining that speed. Illness is caused by bad smells that mess up the humours of the blood. We will never achieve any craft that will exit our own atmosphere. The sun revolves around the Earth... I can go on...


Just DON'T challenge what is know, gosh darn it! It'll always work out badly in the end... akin to taking your internal body temperature to 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Just see the example above! Purple monkey dishwasher. Yup,THIS is the PUREST (apparently) "Scientific Attitude".


20. Empathy for the Human Condition

Contrary to popular belief, there is a value system in science and it is based on humans being the only organisms that can "imagine" things that are not triggered by stimuli present at the immediate time in their environment; we are, therefore, the only creatures to "look" back at our past and plan forward to our future.


Bet you didn't know birds didn't make nests, beavers didn't build lodges, and gophers didn't burrow, did you?


This is why when you are reading a moving book, you imagine yourself in the position of another person and you think "I know what the author means and feels." Practices that ignore this empathy and resultant values for human life produce inaccurate science.


...which is why one of the author's of this book has called people frauds, mentally unbalanced, hoaxers, and sham artists without thorough examination and qualification...  Even one of his contemporaries called him an "armchair debunker on many claims".


The group which he is attached to regularly calls any person who has a faith or claim outside the norm as "woo-woos" and mocks them... because mocking teaches people everything to make informed decisions... and being called a "woo-woo" has changed so many people's views on so many things... and shows ABSOLUTE understanding of the human condition.



I could go on... this book contains items that would make an Ontario Grade Six student weep for the lack of understanding of scientific principals and even go into the concept that a "house clearing" can be accomplished by simply attending the home and making "loud noises with lots of light" (because that makes the "woos" think it's all better now,) but I believe I simply (in this case) wanted to show one very important thing...


The above "Twenty Scientific Attitudes" have flaws. Big flaws... and the people advocating them are obviously flawed and don't abide by some of them themselves (as even somewhat referenced in the book.)


...and yet, this book has, time and time again been bandied about as a proper "scientific" tome for looking into claims of the paranormal... despite it's supposed base "Scientific Attitudes" being rather sketchy at best... downright wrong at worst.


The book? "Missing Pieces - How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, & Other Mysteries"... by Robert A. Baker and Joe Nickell.


...and as my title suggests, there may be an "attitude" problem with this book... call it an empirical hunch.