Monsters, ghosts, and UFOS may or may not exist. But fields of study devoted to these topics have sprung up over the last few decades. How do pseudosciences like cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology stack up against the scientific method?
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 so it will probably take us several articles to fully cover it. Yesterday, we presented the problem and established the importance of the scientific method in scientific research. Today, we’ll see how well fields such as cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology stack up against the scientific method.
“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
Cryptozoology, Ghost Hunting, & Ufology
Cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology are devoted to the study of unknown animals (or cryptids), ghosts, and UFOs, respectively. Yesterday, we stated our opinion that few of the researchers in these fields utilize the scientific method. Instead, the vast majority focus their efforts on trying to support their theories, rather than attempting to refute them. However, a few (okay, many) bad apples doesn’t necessarily discredit these fields of study. Can cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology be practiced as protosciences as opposed to pseudosciences?
The scientific method requires one to observe phenomena, ask a question about it, and then form a hypothesis that answers the question. For example, one might hear reports of a strange ape-like creature roaming the Pacific Northwest. A researcher might legitimately inquire as to the nature of this creature. But what hypothesis should he or she form?
One potential hypothesis is: “The eyewitness reports were caused by sightings of a heretofore undiscovered animal.” But this is problematic because there’s no way to prove it false. Indeed, forming falsifiable, testable hypotheses is exceedingly difficult in these fields since we can’t be certain whether or not the monster/ghost/UFO actually exists.
Another potential hypothesis is: “The eyewitness reports were caused by sightings of a bear.” This is a falsifiable, somewhat testable hypothesis. This route might allow a researcher to cancel out alternative theories. However, it does nothing to strengthen the case for an unknown animal.
And therein lies the rub. The only way to prove an unknown “monster” exists is to either capture one or find the carcass of a dead one. On the other hand, there’s no way to disprove its existence. Therefore, even the most diligent cryptozoologist won’t be able to make full use of the scientific method. And without the scientific method, a field of study can never reach the level of protoscience, let alone mainstream science.
The Evidence Problem
There’s one more thing to consider. The scientific method requires one to gather evidence that can be tested and verified by other researchers. It would appear cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology are sorely lacking in this regard.
As we see it, there are three types of scientific evidence. Physical evidence is something you can see or touch. Second-hand physical evidence includes things like photographs and footprint plasters. Anecdotal evidence is basically eyewitness accounts. Physical evidence for monsters, ghosts, and UFOs is practically nonexistent. Cryptozoologists have gathered some DNA samples for possible “cryptids.” However, since there’s no possible comparison, the best conclusion one can draw from such evidence is that it doesn’t match certain other creatures. There’s just no way to be certain whether or not it matches a cryptid. Again, the problem of falsification rears its ugly head.
Second-hand physical evidence for monsters, ghosts, and UFOS is fairly common. However, this evidence is difficult to test or trust. You might be able to eliminate certain possibilities. However, you can never eliminate the possibility of a hoax.
By far, anecdotal evidence is the most common form of evidence gathered by crytozoologists, ghost hunters, and ufologists. Unfortunately, eyewitness testimony has little value, regardless of the purveyor’s social standing. It cannot be tested nor is it falsifiable. Also, most people are untrained observers and thus, make for poor eyewitnesses. They forget details. Sometimes they add extra ones. They can easily mistake one creature for another. As a result, anecdotal evidence is notoriously poor in quality.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Take
Cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology appear to suffer from two major flaws. First, there’s no way to form falsifiable hypotheses that will shed light on the existence of monsters, ghosts, or UFOs. And second, the available evidence for these things is weak at best. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it would appear the aspiring researcher is better off avoiding the scientific method altogether and instead, doing everything possible to get his or her hands on actual physical evidence. Hence, the sorry state of research in these fields today.
Is there a way out of this mess? Perhaps. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the “paradigm shift” theory of Thomas Kuhn. Maybe the problems seemingly inherent to cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and ufology aren’t their fault but rather, the fault of science itself.Or maybe not.
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?