On the shoulders of giants: Using references

Science as knowledge is cumulative. It is built upon that which was discovered by those that came before. The profession of science relies on getting (and giving) credit where it’s due and demonstrating you know what the heck you are talking about (1).

Good nonfiction books (not just science books) have references to show that the authors have based their writings on the foundation of what others have established and they acknowledge those authors for their work.

I use a list of references in a book or paper to judge the quality of the research. A nice comprehensive list not only shows that the author was diligent about citing sources for their info (i.e., was a careful researcher), but also tells me that he/she has made an effort to become familiar with the literature that’s already out there. This process is called literature review and it’s a primary step in doing scientific research. It sort of makes you “well versed” which you ought to attempt to be before writing a book of your own.

I wrote a review of one book, here, in which a big issue was that there were no references. I can’t check the sources, I can look for mistakes or more information. It especially bugged me since the claims made by the story teller were outrageous.

For paranormal subjects, reports or articles in books, magazines and on websites typically espouse a pro-paranormal position. You can view thousands of case reports by amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs) they have publicly posted on their websites. There are many paranormal and ghost hunter magazines out there and dozens of ghost hunter “how-to” guides (2). Take a look at their references (if there are any).

A glaring omission of ARIG’s case reports are their lack of references. In many respects, they look nothing like scientific reports. Their write-ups of investigations are not only fraught with awful grammar and spelling (3), but they are incomplete, non-detailed, unclear, subjective and wholly speculative (4). I have not come across many that contained good references or based conclusions of the investigation on knowledge previously established. They are “off the cuff”, sloppy and useless.

Occasionally, I find some articles on paranormal sites that use references. Typically these are titled “Ghosts 101” or similar names, as if they are class materials. They might point to news articles, other pro-paranormal magazines or occasional published books (5). Worst of all, they will cite Wikipedia (6) or point to other websites that have no references either.

It’s rare but possible they will point to a journal study. Ideally, you would want your work underpinned by several studies that support and bolster the claims you are making, not just one or two studies in fringe journals (7). That doesn’t happen in pro-paranormal research. When published studies are cited, it’s a good practice to actually check these references and try to make sense of them (8). A common tactic is to season a claim with sciencey goodness like “Einstein”, “Edison”, or “quantum theory” (9) . In these cases, the interpretation of the referenced work may be way off base or entirely wrong. But, it sure sounds impressive.

Good research is hard. An interesting research finding is understood only in terms of an already sturdy weave of previous results and established facts. Paranormal theorists don’t have established facts and findings to rely on. Instead, they construct their new “knowledge” out of whole cloth, speculating and making up “scientifical” theories that sound plausible but are currently unsupported (10). There are some journals that publish paranormal-themed research (11). However, I’m not too impressed by citing the results of a single study. Unfortunately, these studies are not often comprehensive or been reproduced.

ARIG research done this way will never pass for scientific research. It’s too weak. The conclusions may sound appealing and perhaps convincing to the nonscientist or to the paranormal believer but they are foundationless.

Notes

1. Ziman, J.M. (2000). Real Science: What it is, and What it Means.
2. For example, see Warren, J.P. (2003). How to Hunt Ghosts and Southhall, R. (2008). How to be a Ghost Hunter.
3. http://www.canadohtalakeghosthuntersociety.webs.com/ (all around awful)
4. http://www.souheganparanormalinvestigators.com/Investigations.html and http://centraltexasparanormalsociety.com/?page_id=890 (subjective and casual); See Tuscaloosa Paranormal’s Ghost Hunting 101 at http://is.gd/s0yJ2C (no references); http://www.gkparanormalinvestigation.com/investigations.html (amateurish, unsupported claims); http://www.ghostresearch.org/Investigations/ (nice reports but no references and too subjective).
5. http://shadowboxent.brinkster.net/what.html Points to author’s book for more info.
6. http://www.afterdarkparanormalinvestigations.50megs.com/catalog.html
7. http://veritas.arizona.edu/
8. This one has references! http://is.gd/peiQDd But the report itself is weak in analysis and conclusions. Extra points for graphs.
9. http://opengateiprg.com/Quantum_Paranormal.html
10. Examine any of these articles from TAPS. No references. http://www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com/articles/articles.html#general. Also see this statement chalk-full of completely unsupported made-up nonsense. http://www.njghostresearch.org/rrbridges.htm
11. Journal of Near-Death Studies, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, The Journal of Parapsychology.

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