Cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology are pseudosciences. But that doesn’t mean researchers in these fields can’t use the tools of science to improve their work. How does one practice pseudoscience…using real science?
A giant squid attacks a ship
Illustration in Hetzel version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Drawn by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Pseudoscience – A Background
For the last few months, we’ve been following numerous “pseudoscience 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 and it’s taken us several articles to fully cover it. Six days ago, we presented the problem and established the importance of the scientific method. Five days ago, we looked at how well fields such as cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology stack up against the scientific method (answer: not good). Yesterday, we examined the so-called “scientific paradigm” argument that pseudosciences just haven’t been accepted by mainstream science yet.
By now, we’ve established (at least in our minds) that fields like cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology are pseudosciences. But that doesn’t mean pseudosciences can’t be practiced in a professional manner. How can pseudoscience researchers use the methods of science to improve their work?
“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
The Problem of Falsifiability
Cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology have two major problems. First, they lack falsifiability. In other words, you can prove the existence of a cryptid, ghost, or UFO by finding one. But you can never prove nonexistence.The lack of falsifiability is a major problem. It’s the primary reason real scientists stay away from these fields. It also helps explain the extremely poor quality of research in pseudoscience fields. Real scientists create hypotheses to explain phenomena and then do everything possible to refute them. Pseudoscientists, unable to refute their hypotheses, are forced to do the opposite.
“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.” ~ David Meyer, Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOs: Protosciences…or Pseudosciences?
The Evidence Problem?
And this leads us to the second major problem. Pseudoscientists generally marshal evidence to support their theories. But most of the “evidence” for cryptids, ghosts, and UFOs is anecdotal and thus, extremely weak.
So, we’ve got two major problems. First, practitioners are forced to use flawed hypotheses. Second, the evidence gathered is weak and used in an incorrect fashion.
Improving Pseudoscience through…Science?
Let’s return to our example from two days ago. Assume you hear reports of a strange ape-like creature roaming the Pacific Northwest. The nature of this creature is a legitimate, scientific question. How do you proceed?
Most amateur cryptozoologists will race to the scene. They’ll camp out and roam around the woods for awhile. Eventually, they’ll give up and go home, leaving an unsolved mystery in their wake.
More experienced practitioners will attempt to utilize the scientific method. They’ll begin with a hypothesis such as: “The eyewitness reports were caused by sightings of a heretofore undiscovered animal.” Then they’ll head to the region and conduct an exhaustive investigation. They’ll interview witnesses and create a narrow search window. They’ll scour the area for footprints and hair follicles. They’ll set traps and deploy expensive cameras in the vicinity, hoping to catch an image of the creature. Eventually, they’ll use this evidence to support their original hypothesis.
The second method is preferable to the first one. Eyewitness testimony is used to narrow the search window and evidence is gathered in a systematic fashion. However, the initial hypothesis fails the falsifiability test. Regardless of the evidence, there’s no way to prove the creature doesn’t exist. Thus, the evidence only serves one purpose…to support the original hypothesis.So, how should our hypothetical cryptozoologist proceed? Simple…by doing real science.
A proper hypothesis should follow Occam’s razor, or the principle of parsimony. In other words, the researcher should consider numerous hypotheses and choose the simplest one (defined as the hypothesis that requires the fewest assumptions). Thus, the original hypothesis might be restated as: “The eyewitness reports were caused by sightings of a bear.”
The investigation then proceeds as in the second example. Eyewitness testimony is used to narrow the search window and evidence is gathered in a systematic fashion. However, this time the evidence gathered is used to refute the hypothesis. If a bear is ruled out, the next most likely hypothesis is considered. And then the next and then the next and so on…
One Remaining Problem…
So, that’s how one would conduct a real scientific expedition in a pseudoscience field. Unfortunately, that leaves us with one problem. It’s impossible to rule out all alternative hypotheses. And even if a pseudoscience researcher believes he or she has done so, it still doesn’t prove the existence of the monster, ghost, or UFO. Unfortunately, this problem is unsolvable.
There’s only one way to prove the existence of the unknown. And that’s through physical evidence…i.e. an actual monster, ghost, or UFO. Thus, it’s understandable that few people choose to employ the scientific method and rule out alternatives. It’s far easier (and far more fun) to attempt to prove existence via the available evidence, weak though it may be.
This problem is exacerbated by the large population of “true believers.” UFO enthusiasts, for example, believe ardently in UFOs. Nothing can convince them otherwise. They’re not interested in skepticism. Instead, they’re only interested in evidence that supports their pre-determined beliefs. Hence, they provide a steady fan base for pseudoscience research.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Take
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution here. Real scientific research regarding monsters, ghosts, and UFOs is possible. However, the best it can do is eliminate alternative theories for a strange phenomena.
Not that this a bad thing. Eliminating alternative theories has value. In addition, the application of the scientific method may have other results, such as leading researchers to do more rigorous and skeptical analysis.
At the end of the day, we believe the best thing a pseudoscience researcher can do is to keep an open mind and to always employ Occam’s razor. It might not be as much fun…but it’s the only way to get closer to the truth.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Coverage of Monsters, Ghosts, & UFOS: Sciences or Pseudosciences?