Monsters, ghosts, and UFOS may or may not exist. But fields of study devoted to these phenomena have sprung up over the last few decades. How should we classify cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology? Are they protosciences (emerging areas of study)? Or are they pseudosciences?
For the last few months, we’ve been following numerous pseudoscientific expeditions that have received little coverage in the press (you can find our coverage of the Baltic Anomaly expeditions, TIGHAR’s Amelia Earhart expedition, and the Newmac Expedition at the bottom of this page). At the same time, we’re also considering mounting our own expedition.
As such, we’ve been trying to figure out how to conduct true “scientific investigations” in fields of study usually considered to be pseudosciences. Is it even possible? If so, how would one go about planning such an investigation?
This is a big topic so it will probably take us several articles to fully cover it. We’ll use this first article to present the problem and establish the importance of the scientific method in scientific research.
Superstitions to Science
There are five general ways people attempt to answer scientific questions. They range from superstitions to mainstream science.
- Superstitions: Superstition is the linking of cause and effect using supernatural forces rather than natural science.
- Pseudoscience: Pseudoscience refers to scientific-like ideas that fall short of actual science. Usually, research in these areas lacks evidence or the ability to duplicate experiments. As such, the scientific method is not properly employed.
- Fringe Science: Fringe science employs the scientific method. However, it is highly speculative and its results are widely rejected within the general scientific community.
- Protoscience: Protoscience also employs the scientific method. It refers to new areas of scientific investigation that have yet to be firmly established. Sometimes these areas fail to pan out and become pseudosciences or fringe sciences. Other times, such as with plate tectonics, they become widely accepted as mainstream sciences. Cryonics could be termed a current protoscience.
- Mainstream Science: An established and respected field of scientific study.
The issue of what separates science from pseudoscience is known as the demarcation problem. This is actually a difficult problem and remains a point of contention among many researchers. Most scholars believe the scientific method must be utilized in true science. Karl Popper suggested that scientific statements must be falsifiable, or capable of being refuted by a physical experiment.
Arguably, falsification is required when making proper use of the scientific method. Thus, for our purposes, we’ll postulate that true science requires the ability to test hypotheses using the scientific method.
The Importance of the Scientific Method
The scientific method is a self-correcting body of techniques used to gain knowledge. While there isn’t an established procedure, there are several steps which are generally utilized by the scientific community. Here’s one possible iteration of these steps.
- Observe phenomena.
- Define a question about the phenomena.
- Form a testable hypothesis answering the question.
- Rigorously test the hypothesis in ways that can be repeated.
- Analyze the data.
- Either reject or don’t reject the hypothesis (note: not rejecting the hypothesis doesn’t mean accepting it). If hypothesis is rejected, form a new hypothesis and repeat steps 3-6.
- Publish results so others can peer-review the work.
Good science isn’t about proclaiming a hypothesis to be fact. Rather, it’s about doing everything you can to refute your own hypothesis. This requires creating unique and creative tests in order to rule out alternative theories. But even if these tests are done in a comprehensive fashion, an unassailed hypothesis still isn’t fact. It merely hasn’t been refuted yet. It might hold up under thousands of different tests. But all it takes is one test to send it to the dustbin of history.
“Science is about trying to prove that you’re wrong and then sort of grudgingly accepting that you haven’t been able to prove yourself wrong.” ~ Gary Taubes, Q&A with Gary Taubes
Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOs
Crytozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology are devoted to the study of unknown animals (or cryptids), ghosts, and UFOs, respectively. Practitioners tend to think of themselves as scientists. They’ve even adopted many scientific practices. They use scientific jargon and employ technical equipment in the field. Many researchers join organizations and publish research papers. To the casual observer, it all looks very scientific. Unfortunately, it’s often not even close.
Many researchers in these fields are hopelessly biased. A proper scientific investigation attempts to explain phenomena with hypotheses based on the most logical explanations. Then scientists attempt to refute those hypotheses. However, pseudoscientists often do the exact opposite. They establish pseudoscientific hypotheses and then marshal evidence to support their own hypotheses. Incidentally, we accused TIGHAR of doing this exact same thing recently while searching for Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed Electra.
The presence of poor researchers is unfortunate. However, it doesn’t necessarily discredit these fields of study. Can crytozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology be practiced as real protosciences as opposed to pseudosciences?
Guerrilla Explorer’s Take
Well, that’s it for today. In summary, we believe true science (protoscience and mainstream science) requires its practitioners to make rigorous use of the scientific method. Most cryptozoologists, ghost hunters, and ufologists appear to fail that test. But is that just due to the individuals themselves? Or are these fields of study doomed by their very nature? We’ll take a closer look at that issue tomorrow.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Coverage of Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOS: Sciences or Pseudosciences?
- 7/17/12: Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOs: Protosciences…or Pseudosciences?
- 7/18/12: Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOs vs. Science: Part II?
- 7/22/12: Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOs: A Paradigm Shift?
- 7/23/12: Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOs: Conducting Pseudoscience?