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Butterfly effectParanormal butterfly effect

Imagine a case where it was reported that two separate witnesses saw the same ghost at the same time. Obviously hallucination can be ruled out as a possible cause as people cannot share such subjective 'experiences'. The case may, in time, become famous, used as an example to refute the idea that ghosts are hallucinations.

However, the same case, if investigated differently might appear far less sensational. If, for instance, it was established that the first witness pointed out the ghost to the other and described it. The second witness could then have been heavily influenced by suggestion. If the two witnesses subsequently discussed their sighting in detail, on the spot, the accounts could have been made to agree even more closely. Suddenly, the case is not one undermining hallucination but instead supporting psychological suggestion.

Both investigations produced the same basic facts - two witnesses see the same ghost separately and agree on its appearance and behaviour. However, the second investigation uncovered crucial details that fatally undermine the idea that the two witnesses saw the ghost independently. As a result, the conclusions of each investigation is radically different.

So what has this to do with butterflies? The radically different conclusions of the case reports in the example show the effects of chaos. Just as the flap of a butterfly's wings in one continent is said to be able to set off a storm on another, a tiny difference in detail between the two reports ends up making a huge difference to their conclusions. Differences in other details of the investigation, such as the results of a subsequent vigil, would have nothing like the same fundamental effect.

Butterfly points

A paranormal case usually turns on its few 'butterfly points' - those key incidents that determine if it is likely to be interpreted as xenonormal or paranormal. Perhaps surprisingly, not many cases involve more than one or two such points. Often, many of the other incidents in a haunting, for instance, could easily have xenonormal causes. In other circumstances they might well be interpreted as the normal sights, sounds and smells of a place (see New House Effect) that often go unnoticed. Thus, without the butterfly points there would be no case at all!

To identify the 'butterfly points' of a case, ask yourself this: what specific individual incidents make it appear paranormal? In the example above, it is clearly the sighting of the ghost. Investigators should concentrate as much effort as possible in extracting every possible detail about such crucial events. They need to know exactly what happened in sufficient detail to stage a realistic recreation. Indeed, doing such a recreation on site is a valuable technique, which could identify possible xenonormal causes that might otherwise not be obvious. It can also identify factors that may have been missed from the original witness testimony (eg. things that should, or perhaps should not, have been seen if events happened as described).

Once an incident has been interpreted in a particular way it can affect how everyone understands it. The original witnesses may 'alter' (albeit unconsciously) their memories of the incident to conform with it. People who read the report of the incident may see it as clear cut and unequivocal when, in fact, it was not (because vital details are missing). Others, who know of the case but have never read the original report, may form a completely biased view of the case based on the overall conclusions. A case can become an apparently sensational 'proof' of the paranormal when, in reality, it was simply never investigated in sufficient detail!

Investigation hint

When investigating an anomalous case, you should identify the 'butterfly points', on which the paranormality or otherwise relies, as early as possible. You should then ensure that these incidents are investigated in more detail than anything else. Try to recreate the incidents on site, if possible, to look at all possibilities. If 'new' possible causes suggest themselves, you could re-interview the witnesses to see if anything might have been missed.

Remember that the way in which you investigate the butterfly points could alter your final conclusion completely.

© Maurice Townsend 2009