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Created: November 19, 2009
Last modified: July 22, 2010

bridging science
and parascience

A couple interesting things happened in the two weeks preceding this article - comments, really, just well-timed enough to prompt me to write it. The first, after a presentation Beau and I (Andy) made for a group of high school students, one of the chaperones pulled me aside to tell me that I was wrong in asserting that what we do is science. Specifically, he implied that because what we do isn't falsifiable, it isn't science.

The second comment came from none other than an interview with Steve Gonsalves (of "Ghost Hunter" fame) in which he is quoted saying what they do isn't science, but pseudoscience.

The two comments together forced me to ask a very serious question: "What do we do?"

This is my answer.

What is science? Without delving into the semantics of the word itself, science is a method - a process. A simplified outline of this process can be found on Wikipedia:

  •   Define the question
  •   Gather information and resources (observe)
  •   Form hypothesis
  •   Perform experiment and collect data
  •   Analyze data
  •   Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  •   Publish results
  •   Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, only appears to be science. It looks similar, maybe even sounds similar, but chunks of the process are missing. It's literally fake science.

I would like to point out now that the word "falsifiable" does not appear in the Wikipedia outline. That's because it's a very conjecturable notion. Falsifiability is often nothing more than an aspect of framing the initial question, and is actually a problem with the philosphy of science more than a function of its method. There's a core problem with scientific method (still unresolved) between the opposing notions of induction and deduction.

Induction is when you look at a set of observed data and try to expand commonalities to include all unobserved data. A simple example of this happens when I say "every crow I've ever seen is black, therefore all crows are black." The obvious problem is that until you have seen all crows, it's really only a guess, isn't it?

To overcome this apparent problem, a guy named Popper - reasoning that science cannot be justifiably asserted this way - added the idea of falsification. All that's really changed is that he tacked a question onto the assertion. At the end of "Every crow I've ever seen is black, therefore all crows are black," he might say, "So, are all crows black?" If you find one that's not black, the answer to the question / statement is false - all crows are not black - and the statement has been falsified.

What Popper failed to inculde in his reasoning, however, are the concepts of Classification and Definition. If being black is part of the definition of being a crow, then finding a non-black crow forces some rethinking of the definition. How important to the definition is the bird's color? If science universally agrees that to be a crow it has to be black, then finding a bird that in every other way resembles a crow except for its color makes the question moot - a white crow is not a crow at all. It's a subset of, or something very similar to, a crow.

Frankly, this is where science falls in upon itself and becomes contingent on Philosophy. In order to classify a crow, you have to first decide what are the important features of being a crow. Observation, definition, and classification - the foundation of all science - is entirely dependent on the philosophy of "being."

Now the funny part... the only bearing this talk about falsification has on what we do relates to that one guy - that chaperone - who said what we do isn't science. If you understood everything I said about falsifiability, then you know the real question is "is falsifiability part of the definition of science?" The answer is no. There are whole fields of science that exist primarily as forms of observing, classifying, and defining nature - such as botany and zoology. Of course, there are hypotheses and structural questions that can be asked within these sciences, but the fact remains that their fundamental question is always unfalsifiable. That simple question is: "*What* *is* *this*?"

That said, and if the Wikipedia outline is a valid definition of science, I can state without reservation that what we at the KRI do IS SCIENCE.

It doesn't matter to me whether Steve Gonsalves believes what he does is science - some of the things I've heard and seen from "Ghost Hunters" have certainly implied to me that what they do only pretends to be science - but I'm not sure Steve fully understands how that word is perceived, nor the value of what his group does. TAPS may do a lot of things that appear to be "scientific," but I don't see science as being what they're actually after. Although they've stated in various episodes that they're looking for answers, I've never really seen them so much as ask any good questions.

To me, TAPS much more closely resembles a group of big game hunters than scientists or researchers. And, I would like to add, moves science forward as much as anything else. What separates Zoology from Cryptozoology is often only a matter of "bagging the big buck." The Eastern Coyote is a great example: it was first observed in New Hampshire in the 40's but finally captured here in the 60's. There was a great deal of evidence in the intervening years that a new species of animal had found its way into the state, but it wasn't until a speciment was actually bagged that its rightful place in the Order of the Species was finally resolved. Sometimes its okay for science to have a few good hunters working for them.

One final question, however, remains. I said "... IF the Wikipedia outline is a valid definition..." Is it? I think not. Science has come a long way from its roots in philosophy, fighting constantly with religion, pseudoscience, and every kind of crackpot, wacko, and zealot anyone can imagine along the way. Science may be a method, but legitimate science is an authoritarianist state. To join, certain dues must be paid, and certain credentials earned. And this is a huge problem for 99% of the community pursuing research into paranormal phenomena. Once you cut out the pseudoscientists, the larger part of the remaining core are uncredentialed, and uncertain whether what we do is "good science."

And it most probably isn't. It's parascience.

Most of the remaining paranormal community means well, and works hard at doing the kinds of things we believe necessary to bring our efforts a more careful look by Academia. Sometimes we do good, and sometimes we don't. What we need is a bridge - some kind of working model that will bring us more legitimate attention. We need to work with accepted scientists and legitimate sciences to find out where the phenomena we observe truly fit, and how best to obtain good working data, and what kind of repeatable tests we can make on the things we observe. We need academically acceptable standards. We need to bridge that gap between amateur and scientist, between science and what we do...: call it Parascience. They're not as far apart as most skeptics think, but still much farther apart than most people realize.