Category Archives: Science and Nature
About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. 
As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Read the rest of this entry
Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.
How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.
Balticon is a conference done by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. I was asked to participate in their new mini-skeptic track that was developed by Marv Zelkowitz of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS). I thought it was a success. Throughout the day I was there, on Sunday, I saw a big skeptical respresentation. But, also, there were many people who hold that critical, thoughtful mindset but don’t associate themselves with that community. I was glad to speak to them.
My talk was on Being Scientifical: Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. I looked at 1000 web sites of these groups in the U.S. who investigate ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, and general paranormal phenomena. By mimicking science, or doing what they think is science (hence “scientifical”), amateur investigation groups appear serious and credible to the public. This image is effective in selling the public the idea that they find legitimate evidence of the paranormal. It’s concerning.
As a follow up to my last post on why cryptozoology may or may not be called a pseudoscience (depending on your criteria), I was reminding of the idea of “deviant” science as discussed by Dolby.
When a “deviant” science, or what might be labeled pejoratively as “pseudoscience” by mainstream scientists or commentators, appeals to a niche group and takes off primarily outside the scientific community, active enthusiasts keep it afloat instead of allowing it to die off like most popular trends. One can argue that this process has happened to many fringe topics such as UFOlogy, cryptozoology and ghosts (possibly add Creationism and global warming denialism as well). Here is a gem of a quote I found while researching “deviant” science:
“…work [on this deviant topic] is disseminated to a wider more passive group from which further enthusiasts are drawn…[T]hose with a mild and passive interest in the deviant science are sufficient in number to provide a market for further journalistic activity. They buy books and read popular articles on the subject. As their critical standards are usually not very high, the commercial pressures of writing for as large a market as possible encourage professional writers to write at a low intellectual level and discourage the display of the apparatus of scholarship. Popular literary traditions in deviant science therefore may be of low quality…”
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When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.
Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?
Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.
Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.
I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology. Read the rest of this entry
We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.
The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here. Read the rest of this entry
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. Read the rest of this entry
The Internet allows people like me to put my views and opinions out there. In return, I must accept criticism of them. Criticism is the primary means to locate and fix errors; to make progress.
Everyone gets commentators that simply don’t like what you said in your post. It’s a struggle to know when to be “fair” in accepting and addressing criticism and where to draw the line, rejecting there ever-lengthening, obfuscating remarks?
Call me traditional, but if I disagree with a blog post or article, I like to have backup for my opinion – a reference or a coherent argument, for example. Not so for many people who comment on a science-based post. I think the problem is that they are not on the same page. Literally. They do not read it with the same worldview in which I wrote it.
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Those who consider prediction* a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with the primary goal which is safety. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.
Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and those prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows.
For some forecasted events (such as volcanic eruption and severe weather), there is time to deliver the message and prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes because there are no widely accepted precursors and data-based forecasts are long-term probabilities — relatively unhelpful for short-term preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media. Read the rest of this entry
I previously posted about how it’s unethical to endorse dowsing if you are a geologist bound by a professional code that includes using the best scientific procedures and evidence. Condoning a process which is scientifically questionable or invalid is a breach of this code.
A similar argument can be made for earthquake prediction. There have been several instances where scientists (and many more non-scientists) have predicted through various means when and where an earthquake will occur. Currently, there is a storm of criticism leveled at author (not scientist), Simon Winchester after he wrote this article strongly suggesting without evidence that the Pacific coast area is next in line for a big quake due to the strain at “a barely tolerable level” (whatever that means).
These next two blog entries will explore natural disaster prediction. First, it’s important to distinguish between prophesizing, predicting and forecasting. Read the rest of this entry