Wednesday, 30 March 2016

I'm Quite Happy To Refer To The Paranormal As A "Field". Here's Why.

So I've come across a couple of interesting posts on Facebook this morning questioning whether those involved in paranormal research, who are unqualified in science, are justified in referring to it as a field or not. Here's an example from the excellent investigations team, Military Veterans Paranormal's facebook page (which you should really go and like, the investigations they've conducted, which I've read, have been commendable).

Whilst I don't necessarily disagree, and no one can deny that the majority of people engaged in paranormal research aren't qualified scientists, there are a couple of points I think we should consider this before we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Firstly, this may all just be semantics. Can we legitimately refer to paranormal research as a field? Technically, yes.  If you took the official definition of the word "field" i.e- "a particular branch of study or sphere of activity or interest." then paranormal research definitely fits. There's nothing strictly preventing hobbies from being described as fields. For example Stamp collecting describes what it takes to become an expert in the field of stamp-collecting. I doubt there is much complaint of how few scientists and professionals are involved in the endeavor.

That only covers the loosest definition of the term "field" of course, what about the stricter sense, the "field" of scientific research? The fact is the majority of those involved in paranormal research are hobbyists, lacking both a profession qualification or demeanor and more often than not the word "field" is adopted by an unqualified team or individual to appropriate an air of authority which can't be seen in groups methodology or approach.

Yet I'm still happy for them to use the term. Why?

Because it means these teams can be held to a higher standard. If they want their research to be considered part of a greater "field" of science, then they must submit this research to the rigours of that area of study. This means, amongst others things, peer review of findings and research. It means methodologies can be assessed without teams having the recourse to claim "well it's only a hobby". Allowing these teams to cry "just a hobby" lets them off the hook, it excuses shoddy practices and research. "Why should we have controls, or collect baseline readings at a location. This is just for fun."

For example, what was it that allowed me to review the "research" of David Rountree? It was the fact that he was claiming legitimacy for his research and "paper" and as such left himself open to robust peer review. It meant that myself and others could legitimately call foul and expose Rountree as a fraud when over 70% of his paper was found to be plagiarised. If Rountree had claimed it was a hobby piece, such an endeavour may well come across as overwrought and unnecessary. It's been my approach that teams claiming to be doing "research" as part of the "field" are fair-game. Its the claims of legitimacy that hold them to scrutiny.

Also, let's make no mistake: calling paranormal research a "field" will never make it part of academia and science isn't on such poor footing that doing so risks sullying its reputation. And if these groups dropped the term altogether then would that make a difference to how seriously believers take their claims? Would their findings be treated with less credulity? No, very likely not. I say let teams claim the paranormal is a field of research, then we can actively uphold levels of scrutiny, we can continue to press the importance of peer review and crucially we can keep scientific skepticism alive in a field that sorely fucking needs it without coming across as petty-killjoys.