One of the truly fascinating things about the Internet and the vast sharing of information that comes with it is the ability to see how various people imagine science to be. Almost invariably, it’s wrong. Very few people it seems, outside of academia, truly understand what science is or even how it works. And this is important for understanding how science relates to the paranormal.
So here is your ordinary person’s guide to science.
Philosophy of Science
We begin with the philosophy of science. Why? Because science is a branch of philosophy. Before you can do science, you have to first agree on what it is. That’s philosophy. Ultimately, science is an agreement that the study of the natural world requires special rules for evidence. You can trace this all the way back to Ancient Greece and a philosopher named Aristotle.
He recognized that measuring things was the only way to create truly objective knowledge and that reasoning about the physical world must come from real world findings. Up until this time, there were those who believed that all knowledge could be gained through pure reasoning.
Creating scientific categories, such as biology, physics, psychology, parapsychology, zoology and botany, for example, is part of the philosophy of science.
You need philosophy to determine what a scientific theory is. The philosopher Karl Popper suggested that theories needed to be falsifiable to be scientific. That means that if there is no conceivable way to prove the theory wrong, it’s not a scientific theory.
So I say that the moon is made of cheese. We can test that theory by visiting the moon. If I say that the moon is actually a goddess, there is no conceivable way to test for that, so the theory, -whether it is correct or not-, is not scientific.
While there are some issues here, the basic idea is sound. A theory that is incapable of ever being proven wrong isn’t really a theory. (The Multiverse theory falls into this category. It’s forever un-provable.) This concept is important for understanding where science and paranormal science meet, and where they do not.
Science is Not Truth, It’s About What You Can Measure
A very important fact about science is that it is not the arbiter of truth. Science is about what we can measure and our idea about how things work can change with new information. If you can’t measure it, then science has nothing to say on the subject. Consciousness, for example, surely exists, you cannot experience reality without it, but it cannot be directly measured. Since you need consciousness to study consciousness, we can never have a truly objective view of it.
Emotions are not measurable and neither is pain, but no one can argue that they don’t exist. You and I exist mentally as unique humans, but science cannot observe our mental uniqueness directly. We can’t objectively observe inside another person’s mind.
We have to acknowledge that our most fundamental reality is our own experiences (aka “qualia”). These experiences are the only reality we will ever know. It is as close to truth as we will ever come. Science is when we examine those experiences closely, measure them, and form a collective agreement about them.
We have our personal memories and history itself, which we can never revisit and study except through what exists in the present. They affect us in the present and, in some cases, long into the future, yet they are beyond measurement.
My point here is that we’ve been taught to think of science as being synonymous with reality, but it can only describe things that are measurable and there is far more to reality than that even without delving into the paranormal. There is reality that is not measurable, but still exists.
Personal Experience Overrides Science
Science is ultimately just one way to gain knowledge. Personal experience, for example, teaches us far more than we could ever gain through science alone. Personal experience is such a powerful arbiter of truth for us, that it rightly (or wrongly) will override whatever we learn through science. If science says that something doesn’t exist, and we experience it directly, we typically don’t question our personal experience, we toss out the scientific opinion.
It’s important to remember that science is made up of people documenting specific personal experiences in a controlled way according to a particular format and then other people agreeing that their personal experiences doing very similar tasks had much the same results. This is done through experiments, peer review and publishing in scientific journals.
Naturally, some people have experiences that go beyond the norm of what most people experience. The experiences typically are neither measurable and nor replicable, so they fall outside the realm of science. But this doesn’t mean that they’re not real; only that we can’t independently confirm them. Just because you can’t study something scientifically, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. If you don’t understand that distinction, you don’t understand science.
The paranormal falls into a gray area between what’s measurable and what’s not. That’s why it’s referred to as paranormal and not normal. Maybe you can measure it, maybe you can’t.
Now that we’ve gotten past the theory, it’s time to move on to what happens in practice.
The Types of Sciences
Science typically take two forms: investigative, and lab work.
Investigative science typically involves subjects that can’t study as experiments. You can’t bring a volcano into a lab, nor study an indigenous tribe that way. Most anything involving field work, like archeology, can’t be done as an experiment because the environment in which the phenomena take place either makes that impossible or it is part of the context.
Likewise, you can’t study ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings outside their environment. They are typically tied to a location and can’t be studied and replicated like a lab experiment.
Surveys are investigative science.
And then you lab experiments. This is the image most of us have of science. A typical scenario goes like this: a scientist proposes a project and seeks funding. Once the funding is acquired, a study is performed, the results are written up and it is submitted to a scientific journal that specializes in that subject. Typically two other scientists from the field are requested to review the study, some back and forth dialog happens, corrections are made and if the study passes their review, the journal publishes the study. Voilà, science.
This is what parapsychology is. The paranormal is studied through lab experiments and confirmed through replications. It’s not exciting and the effects are small, but this is where the knowledge base is grounded and legitimacy is created.
But life is rarely that simple and you have to take into account how the real world operates to understand the difference between the idealized version of science and the real deal.
The Political Side
Science, like the rest of the world, follows the money. Most research normally occurs in areas where the most money can be made. Right now, for example, that’s batteries. There is a great deal of money to be made for the team that comes up with the first easily mass-produced, inexpensive, lightweight battery that makes an electric car price competitive with gas — powered vehicles. The promise of profit means that this area of research is mostly investor funded.
Less Funding For Psi and Parapsychology
As you get into more esoteric areas, there is less funding to be had, and most of it comes in the form of grants, funded by governments and if it’s even more esoteric, it generally gets funded by private endowments and grants. Parapsychology is very esoteric with a near zero chance of profits being made. It is also marginalized because of existing prejudices, so grant money is hard to come by.
In academia, where most original research occurs, you have a relatively large group of people trying for a limited pot of money. Because of this, science gets very political. The HIPPO rule is usually in effect, (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), meaning that your status matters more than your idea when you are applying for a grant. The higher the status, the more likely that your request will be granted. The thinking goes that the people who have been the most successful in the past have the best chance of success in the future. This also means that proven ideas that are expanded are far more likely to get funding than original ideas with no background of success.
But that is not the whole story. There is a tug of war between making sure that proven research continues to get funding and allowing novel research to introduce new ideas and concepts.
Nobody Ever Got Famous for a Replication
Reputations are made on successful new research, not replications and discovering dead ends, so you’ll find a whole boatload of new research with supposedly positive results and relatively few replications. This has led to an endless parade of small published studies that are highly regarded, but have never been replicated or whose results could have been random. The worse offenders have been in psychology and medicine, but this has affected other disciplines as well.
There’s nothing nefarious happening here; there is no attempt to deceive, (mostly,) rather, it’s just how the pressure of publish or perish works. An experiment might yield a lot of different data and then the researcher, (with their reputation on the line) in looking through it and trying to find something important, commits a type one error, -they find a positive result where there is really just random noise-. Basically, if you comb through enough data, something is going to achieve significance merely by chance. Peer review doesn’t always catch this kind of problem.
There are other problems that can occur, which I won’t get into, but the message here is clear: don’t believe everything you read about research findings.
One of the things I’ve always liked about parapsychology and paranormal research in general is that, because of the negative attitudes toward it and the lack of financial rewards, the field naturally weeds out people who aren’t genuinely curious. It is a field of innovative, independently — minded people who want to put out good research. It’s why parapsychology leads all other sciences by a wide margin in the percentage of double — blinded experiments.
Science isn’t Pure
Science is a messy process filled with human frailty that sometimes reveals truth, but just as often just brings up more questions. If you need to know about the functioning of our natural world, that is literally what science does. But once you move to the larger questions of the nature of our existence, you find yourself interacting with the paranormal. There the rules change and we find ourselves dealing with the line between the measurable and that which will always challenge scientific attempts at understanding.
Embrace science in all its glory, but pay attention to its limitations as well. It is not the final arbiter of our reality.