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.

Defending the faith of cryptozoology

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My latest post, regarding the rational vs non-rational response to the new cryptozoology book by Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science, went live on Huffington Post yesterday.

Cryptozoology Gets Respect While Bigfooters Behave Badly.

When critical thinkers approach the subject of Bigfoot (or cryptozoology in general) with a focus on the evidence, they are met with reproach. We are challenging much more than the claim; we challenge their belief. They will resort to what Biblical literalists will do to evolutionists – they demonize, call us names, misquote, pick at small mistakes, and take words and ideas out of context. They create an extreme position and shoot it down (called a “straw man” argument) because it’s a power play to make them feel superior. (Note that some aggressive “skeptics” will do that and it’s not fair play in that case either.) All the while, they skirt the MAJOR flaws in their own conclusions.

Bigfoot-themed and other cryptozoology blogs and forums are typically hostile to skeptics, even moderate ones like myself. They can’t understand why we even want to participate since we are going to “deny” everything. Gee, sorry for being interested in the topic and in getting a good answer for peoples’ experiences. Questioning is not denying, it’s thinking.

A while back I challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and make a fair assessment. Some seem to have read it. Three known men gave it ridiculous reviews. They only read the parts that interested them and presumed judgement on the whole book. That is intellectually dishonest and really shallow, not to mention extremely arrogant, behavior. This is why we can’t take self-proclaimed cryptozoological experts seriously. They treat their subject more like a religion, based on faith.

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Doubt and About for last week in May

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Geez, it’s summer and my calendar is jam packed. I just got back from a FANTASTIC trip to L.A. to do a presentation for the JREF which will be on YouTube as outreach in a few weeks.

But my NECSS talk “Sounds Sciencey” has now appeared on YouTube. Check it out and see what you think. I have to rewatch it. I’ve gotten some feedback from the skeptic side. Not sure how it will play with the paranormal crowd. Please note that your talks are tailored to the audience you are speaking to. Therefore, each one will be somewhat different depending on that focus. When it goes out to the internet, it plays differently and the reaction will, subsequently be different. It’s important to keep this in mind if you don’t want to come off badly to one audience or another. But my job was to speak to the NECSS (science/skeptical) crowd.

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Paranormal politicking

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My interests are in paranormal topics, coalition building, policy, and problem solving. Having visited the paranormal side on several occasions, I’m one of those skeptics that is not hated or despised by those that disagree with the “skeptical” scene. Distilled rom those interests, one of my goals is to find a way to interact effectively with the paranormal community and maybe come up with new ways of doing things. In order to do that, you can’t just jump in and expect change. It’s complicated so I try to explore the issues.

That serves as an introduction to an introduction…

I started reading Jeremy Northcote’s The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth: A Sociological Account. It’s already marked up from when I referred to it for my thesis project but it was time I read it through. Odd that sometimes you pick up a book years later and it resonates with you in a completely different way from the first encounter with it, thanks to life experience and current events.

So, I digested the introduction and I found some zinger ideas that I wanted to write down and contemplate anyway so I might as well share them and see how everyone feels about it (in consideration of my propensity to be collaborative).

The following are notes and ideas taken from the Introduction, pages 1-11. Continue reading

When I’m disliked by only one side, then I know I have a problem

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Some of you may know I now blog for Huffington Post as well as the usual outlets. Some of you have been kind enough to read and retweet. I appreciate that. My latest piece is out.

Suspend Your Skepticism and Just Listen.

I’ve been circulating in the Skeptisphere for a good long while. But I have not forgotten the value of being challenged and seeing alternative views. This draws me to paranormal conferences and events. I go there to be immersed in highly unskeptical ideas. It is immediately clear, to me at least, that I am out of my comfort zone at these events. I do not feel free to talk to anyone lest they determine I am not of their “ilk” and decide I should be shunned. But I am curious, and no one berates me for wanting to listen and observe. What is it about the paranormal culture that draws people here? Why is this population of people happy to spend a weekend engaged in these particularly paranormal activities, listening to speakers and making new friends?

This is a piece I wrote after I returned from a paranormal conference. I would strongly suggest all capital-S skeptics read it and would love to know what you think. I find myself cringing when I hear people (e.g. “skeptics”) laugh at paranormal believers (not beliefs but BELIEVERS) and soundly state “Bigfoot is a myth. Grow up!” How narrowly you see people. Skeptics lack empathy in many cases. You may decry me for giving paranormalists the time of day but I think they have something to say about being human. I’ve not been treated kindly by some in the skeptic-athesist community and I’ve been stabbed in the back and teased by some of the “skeptical believers” (I don’t accept their soft definition of “skeptic”) and of course you’re doomed if you are the Skeptic on a pro-paranormal forum. But, honestly, I’m so used to that. I write policy for a living. If I make everyone happy or NO one happy, I’m doing something right. It’s when I am only liked by one camp that I know I have a serious bias problem.

On the flip side, a new Sounds Sciencey was published this week as well. Continue reading

Govern Yourself Accordingly: Virtual Skeptics #23

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This was a good one except for the fact that Brian was a blur. But to you, he was in darkness. Very “bigfoot”. It pays to tune in to see what sort of tech problems we have. The camera glitch was caused by us doing some jack in the box shenanigans prior to the “on air” time. We are silly.

I realized how much I adore and respect these people. We don’t fight. So, we might be boring, no drama. But, really, that’s a GOOD thing. We are all adults here. Committed to serious stuff… like showing our pets on camera. :-)

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In Search Of… my first exposure to the paranormal

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Here’s a funny story…

When I was little, my mom loved the show In Search Of… It was my first introduction to paranormal topics and also to Leonard Nimoy, believe it or not (which reminds me of another show that first introduced me to Jack Palance).

In Search Of… was so influential to my interest in paranormal topics. It was where I saw the Patterson Gimlin Bigfoot film. It was where I first saw the famous Loch Ness monster photos. It was where I heard about the Bermuda Triangle and Amelia Earhart. It was my primer to all these topics I still think about and write about today.

Well now, it’s out on DVD. 152 episodes on 21 discs. 63 hours!

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New cryptozoology: less credulous, more scientific

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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

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Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

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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”

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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