Studying modern day amateur scientists and researchers or “What the hell was that?”

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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 interesting 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 general public sees as “doing science”.

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10 thoughts on “Studying modern day amateur scientists and researchers or “What the hell was that?”

  1. One thing you should look at is the use of “sciencey” language. As a small exercise some years ago, I teamed up with a linguist to do some discourse analysis on an Art Bell interview of Roger Leir (the podiatrist who removes alien implants from people), and pointed out some of the contradictions of how science is portrayed in fringe endeavors (science as a method is good, but only when it is populist and not done by specialists or most professionals; but rigorous science as most scientists see it is not good as it is too restrictive/debunkery and so improved forms of inquiry and understanding are superior [Leir talked about indigo children in the interview])

    • idoubtit

      I have been looking at this actually, it is important. I have two books that address this: Conjuring Science and Science Talk. But, I don’t have many other references. If you know of any, please email them to me. Thanks.

  2. Incredibly interested to see how this turns out. 1000 ghost hunter websites? You must see dancing skeleton .gifs in your sleep. I don’t envy the work you’re putting into this. Will you eventually ending sharing your results?

  3. Have you looked into Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudo-science, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time?” (You might be familiar with it already.)

  4. Hi idoubtit, I am not sure how you could remove all ambiguity from scientific tests on paranormal investigation. If “scientists” could measure what is seen by the “human eye” you may think of some type of photography, but what if it were psychological, like a mirage or a rorschach ink blot. I’ve only seen paranormal activity when I wasn’t looking for it, so that could involve some quantum mechanics; like Schrödinger’s cat. So, maybe if I was looking for it, then it wouldn’t have “seen” it, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist.

  5. In the course of pursuing hobbies individuals do land up setting their hands onto something new. However, as the researchers community has started tailing themselves either to degrees or fat emoluments which are offered only at universities or companies research has no more remained original. It has become tailored to the immediate needs of excigency. True though amatuerist do not always reach the right end, yet one has to laud their inner zeal to find something new in this world which professionals seldom have. Research after getting institutionalized has become debased. Researchers have become nothing but information gatherers like journalists.

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