Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

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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.

Cranktastic

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I am thoroughly enjoying The Philosophy of Pseudoscience on Kindle, edited by M. Pigliucci and M. Boudry. In chapter 8 by Erich Good, there is a discussion on that character we call the “crank”.

I have a gmail folder labeled “cranks”. I don’t often get through their 2000 word screeds of rambling jargon and ALL CAPS. But I feel it’s important to save these for later reference. That is, I don’t think they will be vindicated in their “Truth of Genesis”, etc., proposals but I’d best keep evidence just in case they contact me by other means (like my home phone) or if they get arrested, or harass other people. The latter is a typical behavior.

A crank is described as a “social isolate, a single person with an unusual, implausible, scientifically unworkable vision of how nature works.”

Some other characteristics of cranks are as follows:

  • Do not engage in science-like activities or associate with other scientists
  • Goal is to overturn, not contribute to, modern knowledge
  • Advance theories that are contrary to our existing knowledge and implausible to scientists in the field.
  • Work apart from orthodox scientists, do not belong to scientific societies or academies (because they are ignorant know-nothings to the crank)
  • A tendency towards paranoia accompanied by delusions of grandeur – they are visionaries and must continue the valiant quest to bring the Truth to the world.
  • Feel unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. (They use the Galileo gambit – but Galileo was persecuted only by the church, not his colleagues. And, you, sir or madam, are NO Galileo.)

Sounds sort of religious, eh? Hmm. Like creationists.

Goode also noted that most cranks are men but I get a few from woman – the HIV-AIDS denialist lady, for example, and¬†Melba Ketchum (also a creationist, I’d guess) is a prime example showing most of the features above. Her Bigfoot DNA results clashed with evolutionary theory and to this day she thinks she deserves a Nobel prize and that she was unfairly excluded from scientific publication. The premise that the work is not good is not even considered.

Cranks are deluded.

I don’t appreciate cranks who send me email every day. I don’t respond. They are marked as spam. The deluge of nonsense from cranks continues in an unbroken gradient to the crap that appears every day from paranormal or fringe bloggers. Some of these folks are the best friends of cranks and allow them a stage for their kooky ideas. I get that the cranky ideas are interesting and sometimes fun to entertain. But not to me. I realized that I am turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the daily “news” flashes announcing “UFO sighted!” or “Bigfoot video!!” IT’S ALL CRANKY CRAP (uh oh, I used all caps, I must be cranky.) Is there a chance I’ll miss something good by ignoring this stream? Perhaps. But 99.999% of it is worthless and a waste of everyone’s time. I’ll take my chances. If it’s worth anything, it will come around via a reality-based source.

It’s a sad state to waste time pursuing nonsense. There is nothing we can do about those so obsessed with aliens or shapeshifters or all-encompassing worldwide conspiracies. True believers are so mired in a fantasy world of their own making that they miss real life, fail to appreciate reliable knowledge and they can’t rejoice in progress. They seem to only want to go backwards. I couldn’t say why but it’s nothing my response will change.

Reference:

Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem by Massimo Pigliucci, Maarten Boudry (2013). Kindle Edition.

A ruse by any other name still stinks

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As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it‚Äôs probably not.

There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.

Made for TV hoaxes

Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.

In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.

Was this paranormal activity? (There were obvious signs that it was not.) It was such a fun video that it was passed around extensively. Finally, in December, it was revealed as a hoax for a TV show. The reveal happened on a broadcast that did not get good ratings. Most people may still assume the video was actual evidence for paranormal activity.

The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!

The prank was released on YouTube as part of a marketing stunt by UKTV‚Äôs entertainment channel, Watch, to launch the show “The Happenings”. I really wanted that bioluminescent beastie to be real.

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Video: Media Guide to Skepticism

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A while back, I produced with the help of many others, this guide to skepticism for beginners and for journalists and whomever else was interested.

In May of 2013, I was asked to come to L.A. to do a live presentation on the topic and a Q and A session as well for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The video is now online. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of me and Barbara Drescher talking and demonstrating.

It’s gotten some nice views and compliments already, so enjoy.

Are paranormalists picked on by society?

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Skeptics often get put down for speaking out against a community’s or a individual’s cherished belief. They call us downers or haters, ignorant or closed-minded (all are often baseless accusations). Or, as some of emails and comments from wankers suggest, I’m a “whiney bitch”. I don’t appreciate that crap because you don’t know me, you just see what I write and project your own feelings onto it – argue about what I say, don’t judge my personality or call me names because you look like an idiot. Attacking the person is easier and more cowardly than dealing with the claims themselves. I just ignore those people or let it roll off with a laugh.

In order to progress in a field, there must be civil discussion, but there will also be disputes. I try to keep it civil as long as others do. But everyone won’t be friendly or supportive – that’s a given.

Here’s the thing… as much as I hate being pigeonholed into the stereotype of mean skeptic, I wonder how paranormalists who are very interested and committed to their subjects get along in society?

Ghost hunting and Bigfoot tracking is popular and mainstream from my perspective, but not understood or appreciated by everyone. Do these folks get harassed by others – their friends, family and work colleagues – for their perceived unusual interests? I’d suspect they sure do. They have as much passion and drive to understand their subject area as skeptics do, they just choose a different approach to it.

It’s not fair for me to complain about getting picked on for a skeptical stance when I think people get picked on for a credulous stance too. I’d like to hear about it. How is your interest in fringe topics perceived? Is it cool to be an investigator of fringe topics? Or is it ridiculed? Are you respected or rejected? Lauded or laughed at?

[Note: Comments are moderated which is why you don't see the "whiney bitch" stuff get through. So it might take a bit for your approved comments to be posted. Also, for purposes of this post, I'm using "paranormalist", for lack of a better word, in a way that means anyone who subscribes to the idea there are things to discover that are currently outside of scientific acceptance, which includes ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, psi, etc. I mean no offense to those who think these phenomena have a non-supernatural explanation yet to be found.]

Friday Doubt and About: Cut the crap

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I’d like to touch on a few points this week, really quickly…

It’s clear that those who continue to refer to me as dismissive and a “scoftic” are not actually paying attention but are ironically just being dismissive scoftics. That’s incredibly closed minded. You look foolish calling people “skeptards” and such. If you don’t get the value of critical thinking in life then you are in for either temporary bliss due to ignorance until it bites you in the ass or real trouble sooner rather than later. Life is short and it’s all you got. Choose wisely who you follow and goals you wish to pursue.

I will assume you are a good person with good intentions by default. Please don’t try to pull a fast one. If you wish to associate in a worthwhile way, I’m all for it. Some groups and people clearly are not. I will not “be nice” to them anymore since they are not returning the courtesy. I hold out hope that will change. But I’m not naive.

Some people and groups are courageous enough to step away from the stereotype of the ARIG¬†and to be open to advice and constructive criticism. That is really awesome. I’m very happy to give credit to even-handed and well-intentioned research groups, websites and writers who show thoughtfulness and diligence as well as respect to others. There are a few. Just as I appreciate their efforts to engage with me, an apparent “outsider”, I appreciate their efforts to NOT be the generalized awful paranormal research group or Bigfoot trackers. I wish them all the best in their search for answers and am happy to help if I can.

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Bigfootery and the skeptic, or “Get offa my lawn!”

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I’ve attracted some attention from online Bigfoot forums and blogs lately. The up side of that is that I’ve made connections with super people like Brian Brown of The Bigfoot Show who invited me on as a guest. The show is here and I hope you give a listen because it’s important for what I have to say next. [1]

Recently, the BFRO (Bigfoot Field Research Org) Facebook group called me out as being antagonistic after posting a news story I wrote for Doubtful News. It was good information, ¬†important to share so I thought, and said nothing about the BFRO. The moderator and maybe four or five others (out of a group of nearly 3500) expressed annoyance with my participation on the forum. They were not familiar with my writing about cryptozoology, they were not aware of who I was or what my purpose is. I got the feeling they categorized me as a “know it all” skeptic who has never had a personal experience and so it was ridiculous for me to even be there. (They questioned my credentials so I posted my bio, but less than 7 people actually viewed it according to my web stats.)

Pointing out my other work in order to help clarify my position was called “self promotion”. One of my comments was deleted and I was told to “be nice” (I was, they just didn’t like what I had to say). So, I left. There was no point in discussing anything there. It was not my goal to be argumentative but when someone directly confronts me on something, I feel compelled to reply if I feel it’s worth it. After I left the thread, a commenter noted that I was ‘trouble’, other forum admins had been warned about me. I’m labeled. Gee, that’s childish. Good to know I can’t “hang out” in Bigfoot forums anymore. I’m crushed.¬†Oh well…

So, a couple of observations here.

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