Can the Para become Normal and the Pseudo Science?

Karen Stollznow
From ghosts, aliens and vampires to faith healing, iridology and aura therapy, will pseudoscience and the paranormal ever become accepted as fact? Can pseudoscience become science, and can the paranormal become normal?

This isn’t as far-​​fetched as it first sounds. You probably know that the Earth was once believed to be flat, while people thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Until very recently, the Continental Drift theory was rejected by some scientists. Even now, the Global Warming cause and effect debate rages on…

A common argument is that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs about pseudoscience and the paranormal. But to believe doesn’t entitle us to know. Fact is fact, it is objective reality, regardless of what we choose to believe. To paraphrase skeptic Roland Seidel, science is about the things that are the same for everyone, whether they believe in them or not!

Which beliefs and practices become mainstream, and which ones remain as fringe, depends on the claim, the evidence, and the testing. So, here are some basic precepts of testing, to see if we can prove or disprove a belief or theory. First of all, we need to use the scientific method. Why? Because it’s a proven method, and we want our medication to work, our planes to come down only when they’re supposed to, and we want to be able to predict earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions accurately, in a way that psychics never have…

Let’s consider a skeptical approach to a ghost hunt. So-​​called “Scientific tools” (such as EMF readers and Thermal Imaging Cameras) shouldn’t be confused with the “Scientific Method”. Any evidence needs to be legitimate, and we shouldn’t accept a claim on the basis of insufficient or poor evidence. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” At any rate, anecdotal evidence doesn’t count as real evidence. As interesting as stories of ghost sightings can be, and as trustworthy the informant, eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable.

Finally, any results or conclusions need to be held up to scrutiny by knowledgeable people. (Preferably those external to your own research. For example, scholars are held up to peer review.) This isn’t snobbery, it is self-​​regulation. So, seek a photographic expert to comment on the orbs in your photos.

Another skeptical tool is that of Occam’s Razor. This is a principle that advocates simplicity in scientific theory. Simply, look for the simple explanation. For example, history tells us that gargoyles were used as ornamental water spouts on buildings. This ordinary and uncomplicated explanation is preferable to the more outlandish belief that gargoyles were used to frighten away evil spirits.

Try to find simple explanations for any possible occurrence. Does an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) capture the disembodied voice of an entity existing on some parallel plane, or is it simply a recording of a human voice in the background? Is a cheeky poltergeist causing lights to flash, and the TV to switch itself on and off, or does the house have electrical problems? Always look for natural, plain and logical explanations.

Explanations should change our perspective about a phenomenon. Some supposed paranormal events are eventually disproven, such as the Wick Effect, which explains what is commonly believed to be Spontaneous Human Combustion. But some controversial theories end up becoming established as true. In such cases, discoveries are made, theories are developed, they are proven scientifically, and finally recognised by the scientific community. This knowledge gradually become absorbed, accepted and understood by our social communities. The Germ Theory of disease, that organisms invisible to the naked eye can cause illnesses, is such an example. This was once a contentious idea. Today, you don’t have to be a scientist to know you should cover your mouth when you cough; that you shouldn’t slice a cake with a knife that’s just carved a raw chicken, and you should wear gloves to clean the bathroom.

This is not to claim that science knows everything. It is ethical, honest and factual to admit, “I don’t know,” if we simply don’t know. But, we do know a lot, and science can make some strong assumptions, based on what is known. We need to be willing to examine all possibilities, but also one to understand natural limitations. For example, because of the laws of gravity, it is highly unlikely that anyone could build an anti-​​gravity machine. Because of radiometric age dating, we know that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years in age, and not a mere 6000 years old (according to Creationist belief). Because Elvis is dead, it’s highly unlikely that he is still alive.

The paranormal and pseudoscience are broad labels, and cover a diverse array of phenomena. Some ideas are immediately ridiculous, such as Breatharianism, the belief that people can live on air but without food. Other ideas are worth testing, such as the idea that a specific herb might decrease the duration and severity of a cold. Clearly, some theories are more plausible than others. Therefore, we might need to re-​​think which beliefs and theories could feasibly become “normal”, and in what ways they could be true.

Does life exist on other planets? Perhaps…but we will probably find some sort of microscopic thermophiles on Mars, rather than floating, glowing, green aliens with disproportionately huge eyes and a fetish for anal probes.

Could a new species or animal be discovered? Possibly…but this is more likely to be a discovery of some sort of insect or plant, rather than a Bigfoot, big cat, fairy, hobgoblin or Loch Ness Monster.

Can science fiction become science fact? Maybe…but it is more likely that there will be new developments in String Theory or Quantum Computing rather than discovering that homeopathy works.

Obviously, if the paranormal becomes normal, it is no longer paranormal. If pseudoscience becomes science, it is no longer pseudoscience.

Ultimately, science and skepticism seek truths. They aim to find out about the things that are the same for everyone, and educate everyone to believe in them too!