Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

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.

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Defending the faith of cryptozoology

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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Paranormal politicking

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.Read More »

In Search Of… my first exposure to the paranormal

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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Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

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.Read More »

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

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.Read More »

Scientific or Scientifical?

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. [1]

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 More »

Paranormal-themed nonfiction TV: A list

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 More »

Monster Stories from Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the locale for oodles of strange stories, from the ghosts of Gettysburg to Thunderbirds of the northern forests, from the Jersey Devil sightings along the Delaware to UFOs in Kecksburg (and all across the state).  A 135-page book by Patty A. Wilson chronicles, specifically, Monsters in Pennsylvania: Mysterious Creatures in the Keystone State. As a monster fan myself (I hold a PhD in Cryptozoology from Thunderwood College [wink, wink], I was eager to check out the tales of local monsters.Read More »

Paranormal investigators doing good, but going wrong

There are so many ghost hunting groups wandering around in the dark that they trip over each other. I attempted to count paranormal investigation groups and gave up at around 1500 without even searching Facebook. We all have our opinions about what they try to do – find evidence of life after death. Those of us aware of how scientific methodology and answering a question works in practice are critical of their equipment, and, dare I say, pseudoscientific, activities.  However, I might surprise some of you by saying that they also do a lot of good.

Many paranormal investigation groups will state explicitly and foremost that their goal is to aid people who have had a frightening, confusing experience. I’ve concluded that most do think they are doing a positive thing by either validating an experience for someone or by explaining it through objective (and more often subjective) evidence.

They also support causes such as historic preservation and cemetery preservation/restoration. They enjoy teaching people about cultural landmarks and memorable characters of the past. They encourage curiosity and imagination. Can’t say those aren’t worthy efforts; let’s give them that.Read More »

Studying modern day amateur scientists and researchers or “What the hell was that?”

I’m off inside my own head these days…

My main project is my Masters’ thesis in Science and the Public. I started gathering data this summer; fall will be consumed with crunching data, making sense of it and writing it up. I’ll graduate in February, barring any unforeseen disasters.

The hardest part about a thesis is formulating a research question and designing a low-cost, reasonable study that will appropriately answer that question. It took me months to work that out. This was an important struggle because it teaches you that science has rules. These rules are pretty wicked to follow if you want to do it right – you must be perfectly clear about what you are asking and the results you expect to get. No ambiguities allowed. Everything must be defined. You must do the work. No shortcuts.

I’ve decided to focus on something that means something personal to me and can answer a question that hasn’t been addressed before in this context.
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Footprints that go nowhere

Tom Biscardi’s Searching for Bigfoot gang appears to have taken up the reins where MonsterQuest left off, by leading expeditions to stake out sights where evidence of Bigfoot surfaces. In response to a highly dubious piece of evidence, that looked more like a clump of leaves than an ape, they rushed to PA a few months ago to camp out for a day or so. Recently, they went to North Carolina to follow up on the collection of a footprint.
http://www.wsoctv.com/news/23937399/detail.html

Maybe they can get their own TV show too? Join the crowd of seekers seeking to prove the unknown on television. I’d watch.

The breaking story about the new footprint didn’t even make me pause. We have 50 over years of Bigfoot prints and stories. No shortage there. I even have a colleague who mentioned he thought he found a Bigfoot print in his garden in central PA. Ideally, trace evidence (and anecdotes) should be a clue to lead you to a bigger story. But they are questionable if interpreted on their own. So little data is available from them that we head quickly off the cliff and tumble into wild speculation.

How many have prints and anecdotes have lead us to hoaxes? Many hoaxes have been foisted on the public, media and scientists alike.
How many are unresolved (because so little information is available to decide on a cause)? Most would fall into this category. We just don’t know what happened. Don’t jump to an unwarranted conclusion.
How many have lead us to better evidence to support the existance of an unknown animal out there? Still waiting. The trail goes cold real fast.

Bigfoot prints are news because they are iconic pop culture references. Bigfoot = footprint. We all know what the footprint is supposed to look like before we see it. We are conditioned to respond to it. I’m now conditioned to respond to it with a “meh”. Do they really give us any new information at all? Nothing comes from them.

Footprints take us nowhere. Bigfoot researchers have to raise the standards. We’ve been around and around this block too many times. There’s nothing new to see here, just one’s own tracks covering the same old ground.

Continuing miseducation classes

Where can you learn Photoshop, CPR and Civil War history all in one place at a reasonable price? Continuing education offerings at local community colleges include useful courses in computer and technology fields, healthcare and safety occupations, business management and languages. General interest courses are offered in history, gardening, hobbies and include local trips and tours. In terms of offerings to the community, that’s great.

Local community colleges offer affordable, good quality educational opportunities to those students who might not be able to attend larger campuses of higher education. The average citizen would reasonably assume that since these mostly non-credit courses are offered in affiliation with the college, they are taught by qualified professionals. The Continuing Ed course catalog is distributed by the college and, as such, dons the patina of respectability associated with the school. Read More »

Trying to boost your local tourism? Become a hauntrepreneur.

I came across this story about “haunted” Lafayette, Indiana.

It’s a typical soft news story about local authors and their new book of collected yarns. It also provided a little Fortean kick since, according to Mysterious America by Loren Coleman, place names that include “Fayette” or “Lafayette” have unusual activity or bad luck associated with them. I won’t go into depth about how that is totally selective cherry-picking and uninteresting. But, it is both.

In Lafayette, the authors rightly thought that a combination of interesting stories and local history would be winner. “I thought people would read about history if a ghost story was attached.” The article notes that the authors are “not ghost hunters, but writers who decided to document people’s stories about supernatural folklore.” They use the usual disclaimer, “We leave it up to the reader to decide whether they believe it or not.”

There’s a problem with that idea. These stories aren’t categorized outright as fiction. They get shelved under “local interest” or “travel”. The concept of ghosts as genuine entities lacks scientific validity. The stories, however, can fall nicely into folklore as suggested. So, file ghost stories under “fiction” or “folklore” and quit treating them as “true stories”.
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Will The Othersiders just scare themselves?

The Othersiders is a new show on Cartoon Network where teen friends visit alleged haunted locations and perform so-called investigations, similar to the Ghost Hunters and Ghost Trackers. It’s fun to be scared and to imagine ghosts exists and places are haunted. I love all things paranormal and really wish  these supernatural concepts were supported by something more than good stories. Alas, poor ghost, I find popular ghost hunting activities extremely unscientific and self-deceiving.

The Othersiders will premier on June 17 – I have not seen any episodes yet (note the post date). From the website, we see they will be using the standard fair of sciencey-looking equipment – temperature indicators, electromagnetic field meters, night vision cameras (everything is in green), tape recorders.  Do they know what they are measuring or looking at? Since science has never described what a ghost should be or act like, why should one assume they are measuring the effects of a ghost?

There are also several other red flags on the website that suggest what the intent of this show will be. There is a ghost figure in the spinning night vision camera and other equipment, spooky sounds, “facts” about the places that are not facts at all but based on anecdotes, and the token skeptic who needs “hard core proof”.  The team members say “It’s real, it’s happening.” Sure it is, but WHAT is happening? I don’t think our interpretations will be exactly the same. However, I’m not in a creepy place at night expecting the unexpected.

Call me psychic (then again, please don’t), but I predict The Othersiders will follow the same formulaic pattern of all the other ghost shows. I bet I can make some spooky predictions about how it will go. See how many come true:

  • Investigators will visit places already aware of the popular haunting stories of the place, predisposing them to expect an experience. They will know which areas have the best stories. Bet on them being uncomfortable in these locations. They have been primed.
  • The focus will be on belief and terms like ‘proof ‘and ‘evidence’ will feed into that belief, not dispute it.  Stories and personal experiences will count heavily towards influencing belief.
  • There will be a lot of “I don’t know what that was but it was very weird.” (Cue the jump to paranormal conclusion.) Token skeptic will be shaken up. It’s hard to be left out when everyone else is having fun with the story.

“After each investigation, we’ll put up our verdict and let you make your own decision,” notes the website. This is a standard disclaimer for all paranormal-themed shows. You decide (after we show you an edited, biased, unconfirmed version of the events). Remember, it’s not real. It’s an edited, manipulated situation on TV.

I find interesting how obvious it is when “paranormal investigators” scare themselves and each other. They have started with the assumption that what they are investigating is paranormal. Bad move, very unscientific. What is most disturbing about these shows is that they send a message to impressionable teens trying to make sense of the world – the paranormal is a genuine explanation. Instead of being happy with, “Gee, that was weird”, they assume, “It was a spirit that haunts this place.” After 200 years of looking for ghosts, we still lack substantial evidence for spirit entities  – the best we have are stories and personal experiences. If we just get more of that from The Othersiders, what a waste. We could sure use something different.

If I am wrong and The Othersiders promotes critical thinking and logical explanations, not the supernatural, I will certainly applaud the creators. So, watch it, look for these themes, and ask questions.

Questions: Are they promoting a pro-paranormal viewpoint? What are some more normal explanations for these occurrences? Are activities being manipulated – are you being primed for what to see and hear at the locations and from the instruments?  Are they so psyched about ghosts that they find every little movement and noise to be “paranormal”?  Do they consider those or discard them in favor of more interesting causes – like spirits? Are they just freaking themselves out?