ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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What are xenonormal studies?

The traditional way to research the paranormal is to look for evidence in its favour. This involves eliminating all possible natural causes, thus leaving the paranormal as the sole likely cause.

There are problems with this approach. Firstly, how does any individual researcher, or even a group, know all the possible natural explanations for an apparent paranormal event? In many cases, they don't! And even if they did, new science that appears after the case is complete, might suggest another possible natural explanation that the original investigators could not possibly have known at the time. For this latter reason, many old cases of apparent paranormal phenomena are regularly brought into question as time goes by.

But there is a useful alternative line of research - xenonormal studies. This is the study of natural causes for apparently paranormal reports. This approach has several useful advantages over traditional methods. Firstly, you don't need to wait for a spontaneous case to arise, you can study potential causes at any time. Secondly, you are building on existing (and particularly new) science, whereas paranormal study often requires totally new theories at odds with other existing science. Thirdly, xenonormal studies can inform people investigating apparently paranormal reports about what variables they should be looking for if they wish to eliminate natural causes (some of which are far from obvious). Indeed, without a thorough understanding of many possible natural causes, such case work is likely to be fatally flawed.

Finally, sometimes someone suggests a 'natural cause' for a paranormal report that is highly implausible or even plain impossible. Xenonormal studies can eliminate such natural causes from consideration, so saving every one time and effort.

Principles of xenonormal studies

Tree stumpThe most important principle of xenonormal studies is accurately reproducing the phenomena in reports of the paranormal. However, this is not simply an exercise in video special effects or conjuring tricks. The apparent phenomenon must be reproduced using only the objects, conditions and likely events at the time of the original report. You cannot introduce any unlikely outside factor to fix the problem. So, if you think a witness report of a dark human figure seen on a dark, wet windy night in February was actually a tree stump, you need to visit that very same stump in conditions as similar as you can, as soon as you can. The latter requirement is worth noting because a tree stump, if it is still alive, may grow new branches and change its appearance over time. For an example, see here.

A more general principle is to reproduce a commonly reported phenomenon, using only objects and conditions regularly present when the effect has been reported. So, for instance, you might reproduce orbs by taking photos with a compact digital camera using a flash. By experimenting, it should be possible to deduce the general principles involved in producing the effect and so produce a theory of its mechanism. You should ideally do scientific experiments to test your theory of how the effect works - see here for instance.

By establishing how an apparently paranormal effect actually comes about, you can produce a list of the conditions necessary. These conditions can then be looked for by investigators when researching a live case. They can be seen as a diagnostic toolkit.

Another important principle is to keep abreast of developments across scientific boundaries. Various discoveries in neuroscience, for instance, have recently proved important in understanding misperception, one of the key causes of paranormal reports. Many key scientific discoveries in the past have come from applying research from one area of science to another.

Partial explanations are worse than useless

Perhaps the most important principle of xenonormal studies is to obtain the most comprehensive, testable (and, ideally, easily demonstrable) explanations for phenomena which resemble the paranormal. Unfortunately, partial explanations are often offered for a case or phenomenon and these are worse than useless.

Paranormal researchers are, by definition, looking at uncommon and often quite minor anomalies that appear to defy our current understanding of how the universe works. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. There is a fine tradition in science of major new discoveries resulting from someone spotting something that 'did not quite fit' the existing consensus theory. But when paranormal investigators are offered partial explanations for something, they will quickly find cases or circumstances where it does 'not quite fit'. And since the point of anomaly research is to eliminate known natural causes, they will feel this actually strengthens their case for claiming something is indeed paranormal! So even where there IS a natural explanation for an incident, offering a partial version may lead to its being wrongly rejected. People suggesting natural explanations for a case or phenomenon should understand it properly beforehand!

Take orbs, for instance. Most paranormal researchers now accept that orbs are generally bits of dust. However, this partial explanation leaves a lot of latitude for people who think orbs are paranormal to carry on believing that. There are other key points to the 'orbs are dust' idea that need to be mentioned before it is a viable explanation. Firstly, orbs are out of focus, a point surprisingly few people bother to mention. If they weren't, they would not usually be circular. As anyone who has looked closely at domestic dust particles knows, most are linear fibres, not spheres. Secondly, the position of the dust particles is vitally important. Some people think that the dust is ON the lens of the camera and that cleaning the lens will eliminate 'non-paranormal orbs'. In reality, any dust on the lens of a camera does not appear in the picture. If the lens is really dusty, the whole picture may appear slightly fuzzy but it still won't produce orbs. Without such key components, any explanation of orbs is worse than useless.

Practical considerations

UFOMany apparently paranormal reports are caused by coincidence. So, if you think that a UFO photo may actually be a terrestrial balloon viewed from a specific angle, you need to take lots of photos of similar balloons until you get one that exactly matches the original shot (see here for instance). It could take a lot of photos until you get the right one. But then, if it wasn't a rare coincidence, people would be reporting such UFOs all the time, which clearly they do not. And it is still much quicker than waiting for a similar photo of a 'real' UFO to emerge, as in traditional research methods, which could take decades!

When out and about, you should always be on the look out for something that might appear paranormal to someone who might not recognise it for what it is. See here for examples of objects that resembled UFOs at a distance but revealed their true nature when the camera zoomed in.

Some examples of xenonormal studies

Orbs: While many paranormal researchers agree that orbs are bits of dust, this incomplete account cannot explain many of those aspects taken by some to imply a paranormal origin. For instance, if orbs are dust or insects, why are they circular instead of dust or insect-shaped? And how can an orb appear in one photo and not be in another taken just seconds later? And how can a camera pick up dust that is invisible to the naked eye?

Through extensive research it has been found that dust and insects only appear as orbs when they are in an 'orb zone' just in front of the camera - see this video. By looking at the predictions that flow naturally from this 'orb zone theory', you can answer the many objections put to a natural explanation for orbs that simply saying 'orbs are dust' does not address.

Flying rods: The traditional methods of studying something like flying rods would be to collect as many video samples as possible and then examine the clips carefully and interview the people who took them. The problem is that people taking videos often cannot remember the precise circumstances accurately. Furthermore, there is no video version of EXIF data to tell you vital things like the shutter speed.

So instead, a study of flying rods looked at the best known natural theory, that of blurred flying insects. By photographing them at various known shutter speeds with still cameras, it was possible to demonstrate how insects could turn into flying rods. Then, by applying knowledge gained from still photos, it was later possible to produce videos that reproduced the rods in a compelling way.

EVP: It has become popular to try to capture EVP on ghost vigils. The results are usually judged on the basis of whether recognisable words can be heard from the playback. Taking a xenonormal approach, an interesting question would be, how do we know that any particular sound is actually a voice and not just noise? By studying the science behind this 'speech detection problem', it became possible to manipulate ordinary non-vocal noises to sound like words using only techniques routinely used by people studying EVP (see here).

From these examples you can see that by working out how to reproduce an apparently paranormal effect, it is possible to see how it might arise naturally. This does not exclude the possibility that some such reports may indeed be paranormal but it gives a guide for what to look out for in order to exclude natural causes, but to a higher standard than was previously possible.

© Maurice Townsend 2011