What Makes An Odd Event Paranormal?

Strange things happen. All the time. And that is where the woo people and I part company; when the believing folks see something unusual, it seems their first reaction is to assume a paranormal explanation, but my own reaction to something out of the ordinary tends to be something like, “What the f…?”

There aren’t an awful lot of things the paranormal people claim to have seen that I, too, have not – in some form or another. The difference, though, is that my own reaction to something I observe but have no immediate explanation for, is to wonder about it, and if I can’t think of and confirm a rational explanation, I put it on hold. Often, the best I can do is to try to work out what is more or less likely in any given situation and just leave it at that.

Think of it this way: if one of my employees turned up late for work and said that it was because of a punctured tyre on his or her car, then I might believe it, just because car tyres really do exist and they sometimes do get punctured. It’s happened to me a number of times, so I can confirm that the proposed scenario is quite possible, even if the employee is telling lies because he or she just overslept.

But what if my employee said they were late because they had been temporarily abducted by aliens from another galaxy and their lateness was due to extended anal probing by grey-coloured humanoids who are creating alien-human hybrids with a view to infiltrating the highest levels of governments across the world in order to facilitate a take-over of Earth? Only die-hard believers in UFOs and alien visitation would entertain such a thought for more than a few milliseconds.

Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. When something odd happens, the choice you have is to think it through, or to jump to a preconceived conclusion. That is what the believers tend to do, especially if there’s something in it for them – publicity, perhaps, or even a cash reward if it increases business, as it often does for places where a good ghost story might increase revenue. There are lots of pubs, for instance, that have a ghost story attached. It’s never bad for business to have a ghost around.

That’s one reason I was interested in yet another ghost story highlighted on the Skeptic’s Boot blog (and I recommend you head over there to read it, and then follow the blog – it’s very good). Long story short: a customer’s glass of lager suddenly exploded, therefore “ghostly explanation,” supported by still pictures from CCTV; and even better, actual video from a different, but similar, event, where you can see the customer’s glass shatter in a very dramatic fashion.

The Skeptic’s Boot offers a reasonable and plausible explanation of what might have actually happened, and I am particularly interested because something very similar happened to me a year or two ago.

What happened to me was as simple as this: I made myself a cup of coffee and started to drink it. I was using the same glass cup I had used for a number of years, and had taken just a few sips from it. The cup was just over half full, but as it sat there beside me on my desk, it suddenly shattered and coffee was all over my desk. The sudden bang as it happened took me by surprise, alright.

Although the Skeptic’s Boot offers a perfectly rational explanation for the exploding glasses (possibly a glass still hot from the pub’s glass washer being stressed when a cold drink was put into it), the same explanation would not easily fit in with my own experience. My own cup is usually washed in warm, not hot, water, and in any case adding a hot liquid to a warm glass shouldn’t really cause a sudden, catastrophic failure of that kind, surely? I had used it hundreds of times, after all.

As you might guess, my own reaction to a personal experience that is odd is, to say the least, to try to find a plausible explanation before I start to invoke paranormal or supernatural answers. In my own example, I can’t give a definitive and confirmable answer as to what happened, but I can make an educated guess. Glass production has to be very precise so that the object created is going to be stable and safe to use. When glass products are made, it is important that the temperature is controlled throughout the process. The glass has to be made at very high temperatures, but more importantly, the objects made have to be cooled very, very slowly, otherwise the glass itself becomes stressed and therefore liable to go wrong, so to speak.

I think my own glass coffee cup was already stressed before I bought it. It worked fine for a number of years before it exploded right beside me, but it’s also possible that sometime recently when it had been handled, it might have been damaged. I know it had been dropped several times without apparent damage, but I think all it would take to make any internal stresses reveal themselves would be just the slightest scratch on the surface – possibly from a fall, or rough handling when it was placed onto the dish rack with other cups, plates and cutlery. But why should anyone propose a paranormal explanation for something that is much more likely to just be “one of those things”?

I tend to become rather exasperated when the believers accuse sceptics of simply making up what are, to them, “implausible excuses” to explain what is obvious to any believer: it’s a ghost, a poltergeist, a malevolent spirit, karma, or [insert preferred woo here].

The way to find out what is actually going on in a strange situation is to try to rule out normal explanations before coming to a paranormal or supernatural conclusion. And if you can’t find the cause of the problem, then you really need to put the thing on the back burner until there is more information available. Often, as in the above cases, no further information might come to light (yet), so all you can do is regard it as a bit of a curiosity. There are many natural ways for strange things to happen, so assuming the paranormal (which has never been proven to be real) is just irrational.

Paranormal activity cannot be considered as a possible cause of any unusual event until such time that someone can demonstrate that the paranormal has any basis in reality. Stressed glass is real, and so it can be put on the list of possible explanations for the above events. Ghosts have never been proven to be real, so they can’t be put on any list of possibilities. And of course, it’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove a paranormal hypothesis; the burden of proof is on anyone who makes such a claim. Giving preference to a paranormal explanation over a natural (even if tentative) explanation, is just bad thinking.

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12 responses to “What Makes An Odd Event Paranormal?

  1. Chris Phillips

    Of course this is fair enough for anecdotal cases, but the strongest evidence for the paranormal comes from the experimental studies from the last 80 years and more. I would guess that’s the kind of thing people have in mind when they complain about sceptics not engaging with the evidence.

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    • Chris, thanks for your comment.

      Sceptics are routinely accused of not studying the evidence for paranormal claims. It is assumed – and often stated outright – that if they would only study that evidence, then they would soon be converted to a belief in the paranormal.

      Unfortunately, research by parapsychologists always fails the real litmus test, i.e., the findings of paranormal researchers cannot be replicated by others. It’s not really that sceptics don’t engage with the evidence, it’s just that the evidence doesn’t hold up when it is critically examined.

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  2. But of course, the extent to which anomalous findings are replicable is one of the most important questions that’s at issue between “proponents” and “sceptics”. Opinions differ. Any view on either side needs to be argued and backed up with evidence, not just asserted.

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    • I don’t think it’s up to a sceptic to provide “evidence.” The burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim. So far, the best that can be said is that various paranormal claims are unproven, rather than disproven. But the fact that more than a hundred and fifty years of paranormal research has failed to prove a single example of such a claim suggests that it probably isn’t real.

      What the paranormal proponents don’t acknowledge is the fact that even within mainstream science there is always debate and argument; it is not unusual for some scientist’s cherished hypothesis to be trashed because his or her results can’t be replicated, and/or there is found to be a flaw in their methodology. It isn’t just the parapsychologists it happens to. In science, it is an everyday fact of life. Parapsychology is not being singled out for special treatment from a hostile establishment.

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  3. Chris Phillips

    “I don’t think it’s up to a sceptic to provide “evidence.” The burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim.”

    Obviously, my comment referred to the claim you made about the lack of replication. You wrote: “Unfortunately, research by parapsychologists always fails the real litmus test, i.e., the findings of paranormal researchers cannot be replicated by others.”

    As I said, the extent to which the findings have been replicated is one of the most important things that’s at issue between “proponents” and “skeptics”. If a “skeptic” says they haven’t been replicated, that claim needs to be backed up with evidence, just as much as a claim by a “proponent” that they have been replicated.

    If anything, I’d have hoped “skeptics” would hold themselves to higher standards of evidence and argument than the people they are criticising. Is that an unreasonable expectation?

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    • Again, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. If any paranormal research has been replicated by independent researchers, then it is up to the claimants to publicise the fact. You are asking sceptics to prove a negative – a common ploy used by the believers and proponents of the paranormal.

      Sceptics are not the ones who are trying to prove anything. If any paranormal claims have been confirmed (by independent experimental replication), then show it and sceptics will be willing to examine it to see if it stands up to scrutiny.

      I could cite many examples of paranormal claimants being tested by independent researchers, but then failing those tests. But none of that means that the paranormal itself does not exist, just that those tested failed at that time on that day. It is still up to the people who claim that the paranormal is real to prove it.

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  4. Chris Phillips

    “Again, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim.”

    Well, I’m really not sure how I can put it any more clearly.

    You are the person who made the claim I’m discussing. I’ll quote it again. You wrote: “Unfortunately, research by parapsychologists always fails the real litmus test, i.e., the findings of paranormal researchers cannot be replicated by others.”
    [my emphasis]

    Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Randi-style testing of “paranormal claimants.” I’m talking about laboratory experiments such as the Ganzfeld studies, the Maimonides dream studies and so on. If you’re not familiar with the literature, there is a useful review by Baptista et al. in Chapter 15 of the recently published “Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century.” You say sceptics are willing to examine the data. I think if you do so you will see that the situation is nowhere near as simple as you’ve suggested.

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    • There are innumerable examples of independent researchers trying and failing to replicate the paranormal claims of various parapsychologists. You must be aware of the many tests performed by people like Chris French, Richard Wiseman, Ray Hyman and others. Maybe I have missed the examples of some of those researchers actually confirming the existence of the paranormal, but I think that’s unlikely. Then again, I’m a sceptic and my mind can be changed if you would be kind enough to provide a link to any such confirmation that has now been published in a reputable, bona fide academic journal (not one of the in-house pseudo-journals produced by some parapsychologists and which are unaccredited and have no official recognition outside of their own circle of believers).

      Better still, give an example of an established scientific theory that has now been discarded and replaced by a better, paranormal or supernatural one.

      I don’t intend to even attempt to list the various claims that have failed an objective, scientific test, it would take far too long and would inevitably be incomplete anyway because it would be a never-ending task.

      When I look at possible explanations for paranormal claims, though, I don’t actually reject the (extremely remote) possibility that they might be real, although I think a natural explanation is much more likely. But the burden of proof is still with those who propose a paranormal or supernatural explanation for odd events. It is simply not up to me or anyone else to disprove any claimed paranormal phenomenon.

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  5. I’m totally in agreement, Swiftsure. If paranormal claims could be shown to have any basis in reality then the researcher, scientist, whatever, who first found it would be hugely famous.

    Purveyors of woo, which includes paranormal claims, imply this idea of scientists sitting around, rejecting evidence because they don’t want existing preconceptions undermined. Yet that isn’t how it works. If paranormal claims had any validity then it would by now have been found. The reality is that good science is able to weed out truth by a proper assessment of evidence. Those supporting claims of the supernatural, paranormal, and the like, work to a lower standard of evidenced reason; in short, bad science.

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    • Geoff, you’re right. Bad science, and also bad thinking.

      If I met someone who did not believe that satnav was a real thing, then I might invite them to go for a drive with me and just show them. I wouldn’t have to argue about whether someone wrote a book about it, I would just do it; and if they still didn’t believe it, then I might tap in a request for directions to the nearest mental hospital and drop them off there.

      On the other hand, when I ask the paranormal proponents to demonstrate their claims in the same way, they accuse me of being unreasonable. I’m supposed to just accept that “it doesn’t work like that,” or something. But they really think that I am the one who is being unreasonable.

      Sometimes I wonder if I should move my mental slider from the scientific and logical end of the scale, and just give it a heroic swipe to the sarcastic end. [Note to self: no, don’t do that; try to keep it serious and reserve the sarcasm for the truly deserving.]

      I will just carry on fighting bad thinking with better thinking.

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  6. Chris Phillips

    I’ve already recommended a recent review on some relevant aspects of the experimental literature. I think it would give you a much more accurate idea of the issues and the arguments on both sides.

    To an extent, I can understand people not wanting to spend time learning about a subject if they’re convinced it’s all rubbish anyway. But I think if people are advocating a scientific approach they should confine themselves to commenting about things they have adequate knowledge of.

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    • The book you quoted is available on Amazon for £60.00. I am not prepared to spend that kind of money on a “review” of “some relevant aspects” of paranormal research. I have spent money in the past on books recommended by various believers, only to find they are just the same list of unproven and unreplicated claims of paranormal wishful thinking. A waste of money, in other words.

      I certainly advocate a scientific approach, and it just happens to be something for which I do have adequate training and knowledge. And although I would not be so uncharitable as to proclaim all paranormal claims as being “rubbish,” as you put it, I would say that after more than a hundred and fifty years of serious parapsychological research, the proponents have nothing to show for their efforts, and psychics still don’t win the lottery. And there is also no need to invoke the paranormal just because a glass suddenly breaks (that’s what my post was about, after all).

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