Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

Standard

Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?

There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.

Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.

“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.

The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.

Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).

What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)

Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena miraculous, a result of religious, occult (or magical) forces that are outside of human doings. These forces don’t adhere to boundaries of nature, which are waived. Perhaps the entity decides not to be detectable, for example. When that happens, we can’t test it, capture it or measure it. We just broke science. Our understanding stops if the explanation allows for supernatural entities to suspend natural laws on a whim. We end up with a form of “[Insert entity name here] did it.” Game over.

Paranormal events can appear to be supernatural but that in no way is proof that they are. Some unaccounted for natural explanation can be the cause. There is really no way to have excluded all natural possibilities in an investigation. We just may not have all the information. So to say something is the result of “paranormal” or “supernatural” activity is faulty logic. It can appear to be but you can’t say that it is for sure.

If you look at older anomalistic literature, you’ll find the word “preternatural” — a perfectly cromulent word — in place of paranormal. It’s not used as much anymore but it denotes a situation where the phenomenon appears outside the bounds of what we consider normal. It’s not supernatural, just extraordinary.

An even better word to use for weird natural phenomena — like strange falls from the sky (frogs, fish, colored rain), mystery sounds and lights, odd weather phenomena, etc. (things that might also be called Fortean) — would be paranatural. Events seem beyond natural because they are rare, unusual and we can’t quite pinpoint how they happened, but we need not revoke natural laws to have them occur. It’s similar to preternatural but sounds more modern.

Sorry about the word salad in this post but terminology is rather important for effective communication in order to avoid being misunderstood. These various words reflect the degree to which you want to go beyond observable, experimentally derived evidence. They get progressively LESS likely to be the correct designation: Paranatural -> paranormal/preternatural -> supernatural (which we can’t actually “prove”).

Pedantry over. We now resume normal communication.

This was originally posted at Huffington Post May 19, 2013.

Freak Out Over Hairless Mystery Beasts

Standard

Hairless carcasses attract morbid attention. Is it a mutant? A monster? Well, it’s most likely an unfortunate local animal who fortunately left remains for us to photograph, gawk over, get grossed out about, and share around the world on social media.

tenby-beast

Tenby, Pembrokeshire, U.K.

We are coming up on the spring/summer season and we already have our first mystery beast of the year which washed up on the U.K. shore: The Tenby Mystery Carcass. The best guess for this is likely a badger, judging from the size, head, teeth and claws. It may look large and horse-like but note the footprints, it’s not large. It’s about medium-dog sized.

Even though they are strange and disgusting, I’m intrigued by these critters and can’t pass up a chance to post their pictures and speculate (with comparative evidence) about what it is.

Carcasses on the beach are unpleasant. They are smelly, bloated and missing important parts. There may be trauma to the body. Decomposition will make the creature look nasty and also makes it difficult to comprehend what they looked like alive, possibly so much so that we can’t relate them to a known animal. Often, as part of the decomposition in water, the hair falls out with just a little bit remaining as clues to what it looked like alive.

Covered in seaweed, one of the most interesting was dubbed the San Diego Demonoid due to its overall weirdness and HUGE canine teeth. Continue reading

Scientist states he has explanation(s) for sky noise but it only sounds sciencey

aurora
Standard

I’ve been closely following the story of strange noises from the sky that flared up in January. I wrote about them on Doubtful News.

The noises are widespread, varied in type, sometimes able to be explained and sometimes known to be hoaxed. But, because this spate of anomalies (a Fortean Flap, if you will) is in the so-called apocalyptic year 2012, the phenomena has attracted the acute attention of conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and people just concerned that something weird is happening with the planet.

“I don’t care if anybody gets it. I’m going as the Doppler Effect.”

Though the sky noises phenomena is fading away – the receiving frequency of these claims are lowering like the Doppler effect – reports are still trickling in.

Followers of sky sounds were excited by the news that an actual scientist who sounded like he knew what he was talking about described the causes of strange sounds.

Reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor, unfortunately, this article immediately raised a slew of red flags with me and others who are sensitive to what real science looks like and how not so established ideas try to dress themselves up in sciencey getups. A cursory look revealed that this piece has hallmarks of pseudoscience and creates far more confusion than clarity.

Continue reading

New cryptozoology: less credulous, more scientific

Standard

There is a stereotype about Bigfoot and Nessie devotees. Typically, they are middle-aged or older men, often with facial hair. They seem obsessed and the public might see them as a bit “off”.  It’s true that there is not that much diversity in the list of monster researchers. But, cryptozoology is changing.

Today’s researchers are examining questions from a new perspective. They can organize and communicate better thanks to the internet. There are new types of books and media. I feel positive about the future of the field of cryptozoology and excited for new things to come. At The Amazing Meeting 9 (TAM 9) in Las Vegas in July, gathered together was a group of people that had everything to do with my positive attitude.

All the people in this photo contribute to moving the subject of cryptozoology away from the stereotypes and the paranormal realm and into the circle of popular cultural and scientific understanding. This group is no less excited by the idea that cryptids are real, unknown animals. It’s just that we are realistic about it. We don’t assume the stories can be taken at face value because we know mistakes are made. We do not come in with a presupposed notion about what a person saw. Our scope is larger; our conclusions are based on what we know is likely true, not what we wish to be true.

From left: S. Hill, B. Smith, B. Radford, D. Prothero, J. Nickell, M. Crowley, K. Stollznow, D. Loxton

Photo by M. Crowley

Continue reading

Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

Standard

In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.

“Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible.”

“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”

Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it. Meanwhile, I found this commentary from a local who thinks his town needs one of them monsters to draw tourists and he is not beyond creating one from scratch. Continue reading

Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

Standard

The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.

UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing. Continue reading

Paranormal-themed nonfiction TV: A list

Standard

I was writing an article when I realized I needed a clear idea about when this whole amateur investigation reality-television thing became popular. So, I started a list. (I’m a good Googler.) Here is a list of TV shows (series) that portray the paranormal as real or examine it as possibly real. Some are reality-type shows, some are documentaries. (Therefore, I have also included some shows on here of a skeptical nature.) Some are not wholly paranormal-themed but they contain an element that suggests a particular subject or event is beyond that which is currently accepted in the scientific community. I realize the line can be blurry.

Since one of my areas of interest is how the media promotes a view of science and the scientific to the public, I think the popularity of these shows is important. There is some research into how paranormal/supernatural themed shows affect the public belief in the paranormal, but there is LITTLE to NO research on how reality-type shows affects this or, regarding my interest, how the public perceives the “scientificity” of these shows.

I cataloged 125 shows ranging in premier dates from 1949 to some upcoming ones on the horizon. Continue reading