Paranormal is a general term (coined ca. 1915–1920) that designates experiences that lie outside "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation" or that indicates phenomena understood to be outside of science's current ability to explain or measure. Paranormal phenomena are distinct from certain hypothetical entities, such as dark matter and dark energy, only insofar as paranormal phenomena are inconsistent with the world as already understood through empirical observation coupled with scientific methodology.
Thousands of stories relating to paranormal phenomena are found in popular culture, folklore, and the recollections of individual subjects. In contrast, the scientific community, as referenced in statements made by organizations such as the United States National Science Foundation, maintains that scientific evidence does not support a variety of beliefs that have been characterized as paranormal.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Paranormal subjects
- 3 Paranormal research
- 4 Belief polls
- 5 Paranormal challenges
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
“Paranormal” has been in the English language since at least 1920. It consists of two parts: para and normal. In most definitions of the word paranormal, it is described as anything that is beyond or contrary to what is deemed scientifically possible. The definition implies that the scientific explanation of the world around us is the 'normal' part of the word and 'para' makes up the above, beyond, beside, contrary, or against part of the meaning.
Para has a Greek and Latin origin. Its most common meaning (the Greek usage) is 'similar to' or 'near to', as in paragraph. In Latin, para means 'above,' 'against,' 'counter,' 'outside,' or 'beyond'. For example, parapluie in French means 'counter-rain' – an umbrella. It can be construed, then, that the term paranormal is derived from the Latin use of the prefix 'para', meaning 'against, counter, outside or beyond the norm.'
Ghosts and other spiritual entities
A ghost is a manifestation of the spirit or soul of a person. Alternative theories expand on that idea and include belief in the ghosts of deceased animals. Sometimes the term "ghost" is used synonymously with any spirit or demon, however in popular usage the term typically refers to a deceased person's spirit.
The belief in ghosts as souls of the departed is closely tied to the concept of animism, an ancient belief which attributed souls to everything in nature. As the 19th-century anthropologist James Frazer explained in his classic work, The Golden Bough, souls were seen as the creature within that animated the body. Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it was widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.
A widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists speculate that this may also stem from early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person, most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person's breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist. This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of "breath" in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as animating Adam with a breath.
Numerous theories have been proposed by scientists to provide normal explanations for ghost sightings. Although the evidence for ghosts is largely anecdotal, the belief in ghosts throughout history has remained widespread and persistent.
Extraterrestrial life and UFOs
The possibility of extraterrestrial life is not, by itself, a paranormal subject. Many scientists are actively engaged in the search for unicellular life within the solar system, carrying out studies on the surface of Mars and examining meteors that have fallen to Earth. Projects such as SETI are conducting an astronomical search for radio activity that would show evidence of intelligent life outside the solar system. Scientific theories of how life developed on Earth allow for the possibility that life developed on other planets as well. The paranormal aspect of extraterrestrial life centers largely around the belief in unidentified flying objects and the phenomena said to be associated with them.
Early in the history of UFO culture, believers divided themselves into two camps. The first held a rather conservative view of the phenomena, interpreting them as unexplained occurrences that merited serious study. They began calling themselves "ufologists" in the 1950s and felt that logical analysis of sighting reports would validate the notion of extraterrestrial visitation.
The second camp consisted of individuals who coupled ideas of extraterrestrial visitation with beliefs from existing quasi-religious movements. These individuals typically were enthusiasts of occultism and the paranormal. Many had backgrounds as active Theosophists, Spiritualists, or were followers of other esoteric doctrines. In contemporary times, many of these beliefs have coalesced into New Age spiritual movements.
Both secular and spiritual believers describe UFOs as having abilities beyond what are considered possible according to known aerodynamic constraints and physical laws. The transitory events surrounding many UFO sightings also limits the opportunity for repeat testing required by the scientific method. Acceptance of UFO theories by the larger scientific community is further hindered by the many possible hoaxes associated with UFO culture.
A cryptid is an animal whose existence is not confirmed by science. The study of these creatures is known as cryptozoology. Those that study the existence of cryptids are called cryptozoologists. Cryptids have been sighted and documented for centuries. There are hundreds of creatures thought to be in existence today. Some of the more popular cryptids include Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Mothman, the Jersey Devil, and werewolves.
Approaching the paranormal from a research perspective is often difficult because of the lack of acceptable physical evidence from most of the purported phenomena. By definition, the paranormal does not conform to conventional expectations of nature. Therefore, a phenomenon cannot be confirmed as paranormal using the scientific method because, if it could be, it would no longer fit the definition. (However, confirmation would result in the phenomenon being reclassified as part of science.) Despite this problem, studies on the paranormal are periodically conducted by researchers from various disciplines. Some researchers simply study the beliefs in the paranormal regardless of whether the phenomena are considered to objectively exist. This section deals with various approaches to the paranormal: anecdotal, experimental, and participant-observer approaches and the skeptical investigation approach.
An anecdotal approach to the paranormal involves the collection of stories told about the paranormal.
Charles Fort (1874–1932) is perhaps the best known collector of paranormal anecdotes. Fort is said to have compiled as many as 40,000 notes on unexplained paranormal experiences, though there were no doubt many more than these. These notes came from what he called "the orthodox conventionality of Science", which were odd events originally reported in magazines and newspapers such as The Times and scientific journals such as Scientific American, Nature and Science". From this research Fort wrote seven books, though only four survive. These are: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932); one book was written between New Lands and Lo! but it was abandoned and absorbed into Lo!.
Reported events that he collected include teleportation (a term Fort is generally credited with coining); poltergeist events, falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range; crop circles; unaccountable noises and explosions; spontaneous fires; levitation; ball lightning (a term explicitly used by Fort); unidentified flying objects; mysterious appearances and disappearances; giant wheels of light in the oceans; and animals found outside their normal ranges (see phantom cat). He offered many reports of OOPArts, abbreviation for "out of place" artifacts: strange items found in unlikely locations. He also is perhaps the first person to explain strange human appearances and disappearances by the hypothesis of alien abduction, and was an early proponent of the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
Fort is considered by many as the father of modern paranormalism, which is the study of the paranormal.
The magazine Fortean Times continues Charles Fort's approach, regularly reporting anecdotal accounts of the paranormal.
Such anecdotal collections, lacking the reproducibility of empirical evidence, are not amenable to scientific investigation. The anecdotal approach is not a scientific approach to the paranormal because it leaves verification dependent on the credibility of the party presenting the evidence. Nevertheless, it is a common approach to paranormal phenomena.
Experimental investigation of the paranormal has been conducted by parapsychologists. Although parapsychology has its roots in earlier research, it began using the experimental approach in the 1930s under the direction of J. B. Rhine (1895–1980). Rhine popularized the now famous methodology of using card-guessing and dice-rolling experiments in a laboratory in the hopes of finding a statistical validation of extra-sensory perception.
In 1957, the Parapsychological Association was formed as the preeminent society for parapsychologists. In 1969, they became affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That affiliation, along with a general openness to psychic and occult phenomena in the 1970s, led to a decade of increased parapsychological research. During this time, other notable organizations were also formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970), the Institute of Parascience (1971), the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, the Institute for Noetic Sciences (1973), and the International Kirlian Research Association (1975). Each of these groups performed experiments on paranormal subjects to varying degrees. Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute during this time.
With the increase in parapsychological investigation, there came an increase in opposition to both the findings of parapsychologists and the granting of any formal recognition of the field. Criticisms of the field were focused in the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (1976), now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and its periodical, Skeptical Inquirer. Eventually, more mainstream scientists became critical of parapsychology as an endeavor, and statements by the National Academies of Science and the National Science Foundation cast a pall on the claims of evidence for parapsychology. Today, many cite parapsychology as an example of a pseudoscience.
Though there are still some parapsychologists active today, interest and activity has waned considerably since the 1970s. To date there have been no experimental results that have gained wide acceptance in the scientific community as valid evidence of the paranormal.
While parapsychologists look for quantitative evidence of the paranormal in laboratories, a great number of people immerse themselves in qualitative research through participant-observer approaches to the paranormal. Participant-observer methodologies have overlaps with other essentially qualitative approaches as well, including phenomenological research that seeks largely to describe subjects as they are experienced, rather than to explain them.
Participant-observation suggests that by immersing oneself in the subject being studied, a researcher is presumed to gain understanding of the subject. Criticisms of participant-observation as a data-gathering technique are similar to criticisms of other approaches to the paranormal, but also include an increased threat to the objectivity of the researcher, unsystematic gathering of data, reliance on subjective measurement, and possible observer effects (observation may distort the observed behavior). Specific data gathering methods, such as recording EMF readings at haunted locations have their own criticisms beyond those attributed to the participant-observation approach itself.
The participant-observer approach to the paranormal has gained increased visibility and popularity through reality television programs like Ghost Hunters, and the formation of independent ghost hunting groups that advocate immersive research at alleged paranormal locations. One popular website for ghost hunting enthusiasts lists over 300 of these organizations throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.
Skeptical scientific investigation
Scientific skeptics advocate critical investigation of claims of paranormal phenomena: applying the scientific method to reach a rational, scientific explanation of the phenomena to account for the paranormal claims, taking into account that alleged paranormal abilities and occurrences are sometimes hoaxes or misinterpretations of natural phenomena. A way of summarizing this method is by the application of Occam's razor, which suggests that the simplest solution is usually the correct one. The standard scientific models gives an explanation for what appears to be paranormal phenomena is usually a misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or anomalous variation of natural phenomena, rather than an actual paranormal phenomenon.
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), is an organisation that aims to publicise the scientific, skeptical approach. It carries out investigations aimed at understanding paranormal reports in terms of scientific understanding, and publishes its results in its journal, the Skeptical Inquirer.
Former stage magician James Randi is a well-known investigator of paranormal claims. As an investigator with a background in illusion, Randi feels that the simplest explanation for those claiming paranormal abilities is often trickery, illustrated by demonstrating that the spoon bending abilities of psychic Uri Geller can easily be duplicated by trained stage magicians. He is also the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation and its million dollar challenge offering a prize of US $1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event, under test conditions agreed to by both parties.
Anomalistics works on the premise that paranormal phenomena may be hoaxes, understood within current scientific models, or else be rationalized using an as yet unexplored avenue of science.
While the validity of the existence of paranormal phenomena is controversial and debated passionately by both proponents of the paranormal and by skeptics, surveys are useful in determining the beliefs of people in regards to paranormal phenomena. These opinions, while not constituting scientific evidence for or against, may give an indication of the mindset of a certain portion of the population (at least among those who answered the polls).
One survey of the beliefs of the general United States population regarding paranormal topics was conducted by the Gallup Organization in 2005. The survey found that 73 percent of those polled believed in at least one of the ten paranormal items presented in the survey. The ten items included in the survey were: extrasensory perception (41% held this belief), haunted houses (37%), ghosts (32%), telepathy (31%), clairvoyance (26%), astrology (25%), communication with the dead (21%), witches (21%), reincarnation (20%), and channeling spiritual entities (9%). These items were selected as they "require the belief that humans have more than the 'normal' five senses." Only one percent of respondents believed in all ten items.
Another survey conducted in 2006 by researchers from Australia's Monash University sought to determine what types of phenomena that people claim to have experienced and the effects these experiences have had on their lives. The study was conducted as an online survey with over 2,000 respondents from around the world participating. The results revealed that around 70% of the respondents believe to have had an unexplained paranormal event that changed their life, mostly in a positive way. About 70% also claimed to have seen, heard, or been touched by an animal or person that they knew was not there; 80% have reported having a premonition, and almost 50% stated they recalled a previous life.
Polls were conducted by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward of the University of Central Oklahoma in 2006, and compared to the results of a Gallup poll in 2001. They found fairly consistent results.
Percentage of US citizens polled belief not sure belief not sure Farha-Steward Gallup psychic/spiritual healing 56 26 54 19 ESP 28 39 50 20 haunted houses 40 25 42 16 demonic possession 40 28 41 16 ghosts/spirits of the dead 39 27 38 17 telepathy 24 34 36 26 extraterrestrials visited Earth in the past 17 34 33 27 clairvoyance and prophecy 24 33 32 23 communication with the dead 16 29 28 26 astrology 17 26 28 18 witches 26 19 26 15 reincarnation 15 28 25 20 channeling 10 29 15 21
Other surveys by different organizations at different times have found very similar results. A 2001 Gallup Poll found that the general public embraced the following: 54% of people believed in psychic/spiritual healing, 42% believed in haunted houses, 41% believed in satanic possession, 36% in telepathy, 25% in reincarnation, and 15% in channeling. A survey by Jeffrey S. Levin, associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk found that over 2/3 of the U.S. population reported having at least one mystical experience.
A 1996 Gallup poll estimated that 71% of the people in the United States believed that the government was covering up information about UFOs. A 2002 Roper poll conducted for the Sci Fi channel reported that 56% thought UFOs were real craft and 48% that aliens had visited the Earth.
A 2001 National Science Foundation survey found that 9 percent of people polled thought astrology was very scientific, and 31 percent thought it was somewhat scientific. About 32% of Americans surveyed stated that some numbers were lucky, while 46% of Europeans agreed with that claim. About 60% of all people polled believed in some form of Extra-sensory perception and 30% thought that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations."
In 1922, Scientific American offered two US $2,500 offers: (1) for the first authentic spirit photograph made under test conditions, and (2) for the first psychic to produce a "visible psychic manifestation." Harry Houdini was a member of the investigating committee. The first medium to be tested was George Valiantine, who claimed that in his presence spirits would speak through a trumpet that floated around a darkened room. For the test, Valiantine was placed in a room, the lights were extinguished, but unbeknownst to him his chair had been rigged to light a signal in an adjoining room if he ever left his seat. Because the light signals were tripped during his performance, Valiantine did not collect the award. The last to be examined by Scientific American was Mina Crandon in 1924.
Since then, many individuals and groups have offered similar monetary awards for proof of the paranormal in an observed setting. These prizes have a combined value of over $2.4 million dollars.
The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a prize of a million dollars to a person who can prove that they have supernatural or paranormal abilities under appropriate test conditions. No famous psychic has gone through with taking the challenge.
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
- Critical thinking
- James Randi
- Prizes for paranormal proof
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Pseudoscience Terminology Examples
AIDS denialism • Astrology • Body memory • Bogdanov Affair • Creation Science • Dianetics • Faith healing • Homeopathy • Intelligent design • Japhetic theory • Lunar effect • Lysenkoism • Melanin theory • Moon landing conspiracy theories • Nibiru collision • Parapsychology • Perpetual motion • Ufology
ResourcesList of topics characterized as pseudoscience
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