Life on the frontier
The Hollywood view of scientists is of intelligent but socially inept, (nerds) amoral people inhabiting dark laboratories discovering something sinister or dangerous.
The reality is more likely to be a harassed individual working in a university spending most of their time writing grant applications and papers. There is always too little time for actual research (never mind taking over the world).
Science tends to be increasingly misunderstood by the general public as it seen as remote. This is a shame because science is incredibly exciting. If you think about it, science is probing the wild frontier of human knowledge. Scientists are discovering things that no other human has ever known.
One of the most extraordinary things about science is the way that remote inferences can be made from seemingly trivial observations. It is literally possible for a physicist, sitting at her computer, to infer the state of an atom on the far side of the universe. To do this requires a knowledge of the way things work on Earth coupled with an observation from a telescope or satellite. It all works because science builds on existing knowledge and then applies logic.
There is no reason why this same approach can't be used on our own wild frontier - the paranormal. The scientific method can be used to infer what has happened when someone sees something weird.
Why ASSAP does use scientific study
ASSAP welcomes members with any attitude towards the paranormal; believers, skeptics and all those in-between. What they have in common is a recognition that science offers the best way of studying the paranormal.
That is not to say that ASSAP members need to be scientists or even know anything about science. ASSAP aims to transfer knowledge of the scientific method from those who have been trained in it to others. ASSAP is an educational charity and sharing knowledge is a key aim.
Can science probe the paranormal?
Some people say that the paranormal represents something beyond science. It represents a realm beyond the physical that cannot be probed by scientific methods.
However, consider the following. If a person sees a ghost then something scientifically measurable has happened. There may be something physical to see or hear which could be photographed or recorded. Even if there is no detectable physical ghost, there might be a measurable stimulus (like a magnetic field) that is inducing the experience in the witness. Even if that is not true, we are only a few years from being able to measure and read the sensory input and its interpretation inside human brains. So even if a ghost only appears in the brain, we will soon be able to see where it comes from.
The point is, for an apparently paranormal event to be witnessed, it has to interface with the physical world in some way, even if it is only in someone's mind. Therefore, there must be something to measure. And if there is something to measure then science can get involved.
Science is good at working things out by measuring them. Whether the paranormal turns out to be exotic science or just the 'normal' in an unfamiliar guise, science is the best tool to tease apart the details. It's use of logic, inference, theorising and experiment is uniquely good at separating fact from fantasy.
A great many beliefs have grown up around paranormal phenomena but few agree with the evidence found by serious investigators. Unless such beliefs are first discarded, and the subject approached a neutral way, it seems unlikely any great progress will be made.
For more on science and applying it to the paranormal, see here.
What is science?
Science is, in essence, verifiable knowledge. Unlike some other philosophical systems, science is not an immutable set of beliefs. All scientific theories are provisional. As long as they pass all the current tests, they remain part of scientific thinking. However, they can be superceded at any time by new evidence. Demonstrable facts are everything.
The formal conduct of science involves logic, argument, debate and experiment. When scientific papers are published they are subject to peer review. Because there are no authorities that can say how an experiment is 'supposed' to turn out, other experts in the field examine the methods used to ensure they are sound. Only then can the paper be published.
The scientific method
The scientific method is as follows. Someone makes an observation of some phenomenon. They form a theory about what may be the cause of their observation. They use this theory to predict something not so far observed. This prediction must differentiate their theory from other possible explanations. Finally, they try experiments (or make observations) to see if their prediction is correct. If it is, they have support for their theory. It is not proof since all scientific theories are provisional. A new observation could disprove the theory at any time. The theory would then need to be modified or even discarded in favour of a new one. A theory is not considered scientific unless there is a way to disprove it.
The scientific method has proved highly successful. It is scientific discoveries that have allowed technology to flourish. Without it you would not be reading these words.
Scientists are sometimes accused of not being open-minded. However, science is always provisional and can be changed by new evidence. That really IS open-minded!
© Maurice Townsend 2006