What's in a name?

16th April 2022. Reading Time: 7 minutes General. 740 page views. 0 comments.

Do we need to name or label something just to understand it? Does the paranormal fall under the umbrella of cargo cult science? How can we better present our findings and information?

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

William Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet

Before we start, don't let the phrase 'cult' put you off because this article is no way inferring we are a part of a cult by being in the paranormal and you may be surprised by the end of this article and the direction it has taken.  I suppose it shows us the power that is attached to just a name.  You see the paranormal field is full of names and labels.  Are you a skeptic or are you a believer?  Maybe a skeptical believer.  Perhaps you are a ghost hunter or paranormal investigator.  Are you looking for spirits or ghosts?  Do you take a scientific or spiritual approach?  The list is never-ending.  While we may call ourselves different things, and be inspired by different backgrounds and motives, there are things we have in common.  So it makes me wonder ..... just what's in a name?

Do we need the labels?

Many years ago, when I first started researching the paranormal, I took great offence at being labelled a ghost hunter.  Many people do as they feel ghost hunters are after the thrill and literally looking for 'ghosts' while paranormal investigators are looking for answers and explanations but we sure wouldn't mind finding a ghost along the way.  The terms are often thrown around differently and with different intents.  Some people use the term ghost hunter in a more derogatory way as they look down on the way some people work.  Of course, it works the other way as well and people sometimes use the phrase academic in the same way as they do with a psychic medium and say it with a negative connotation.  It is because often we cast people into stereotypes within the paranormal field.  Of course, it is not a representation of the people in the paranormal field, but these stereotypes exist and whether we like it or not, we have probably used them ourselves.  

Check out my article Do we cast people into paranormal stereotypes? 

Does a name or label help us understand or process information?

When something happens, it is our human instinct to give it a name or put it into some sort of category.  The thing is though that knowing the name or being able to label something doesn't mean we understand it

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a Halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a Chung Ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.
Richard Feryman

Nobel Prize winner and American theoretical physicist Richard Feryman is behind the above which basically tells us that even though we know the name of something, that doesn't mean we understand it.  We are constantly naming things within the paranormal and having to put them into categories because it helps us to process the information, but not necessarily understand it.  We process it based on what we have been told or taught or even learned.  As an example, how do you know what a class A EVP is?  It was no doubt told to you by someone else and so on.  We can't agree on what one really is and we don't understand how it works - we can theorise but we don't really know.  The term however is passed along through fellow investigators, through books, tv programs and word of mouth.  

We may see what we label as a shadow figure.  Sure we can identify what we think a shadow looks like, but do we actually know what a shadow figure is?  We can speculate based on other people's experiences or what we have heard or been taught, but do we actually know?  The answer of course is no we don't.  In fact, we don't know anything when it comes to the paranormal, yet we have labelled a large portion of it.  Instead of focusing on the name or label of a person, activity or thing, we need to try an further understand that.  The way we try to do that is through paranormal investigation and research, but we also have to consider the question:

Is paranormal investigation a form of Cargo Cult Science?

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feryman

The above is making reference to performing a process yet not understanding it.  You are following a set of instructions, you can memorise it word for word and maybe even be able to talk about it in great detail ..... but that doesn't mean you understand it.  He references experimentation as having a focus on the outcome and not so much worrying about the method to get there as you are intending to arrive at the outcome you desire.  I could very easily liken this to paranormal investigating and the concept of gathering evidence.  We have different ideas on what the proper methods of paranormal investigation and evidence collection is.  Doing so in an alleged haunted location is not exactly going to be scientific controlled circumstances and I think we can all agree that most of us don't really think we are scientists when we are on a paranormal investigation. We know this and really most don't care because most people are really just looking for their own answers.

Any evidence collected will not hold up to scientific review and the paranormal in general is viewed as a pseudoscience.  You could maybe call it a form of what Feryman calls Cargo Cult Science.  Cargo cult science is defined as a pseudoscientific method of research that favours evidence that confirms an assumed hypothesis. In contrast with the scientific method, there is no vigorous effort to disprove or delimit the hypothesis.  

Feryman goes on to talk about when it comes to cargo cult science that we should publish findings no matter what the outcome and when I compare this to paranormal investigating I couldn't agree more.  We often see a lot of videos and articles and stories out there all showing or talking about something being paranormal.  There is only a small percentage that shows the other side of this.  One of the arguments and I use it as well is that particularly when it comes to videos, no one wants to watch a youtube video of someone sitting in a room for hours and nothing happens.  So it is here that we have to define the lines of entertainment and research.  They don't need to be completely separate because both can complement each other and we should also give the audience a little credit as well.  I do enjoy watching certain paranormal shows.  Do I think they are showing genuine paranormal activity?  No, I don't but I enjoy watching them.  I come to my own conclusions.  Perhaps we should all use a bit of Feryman's approach and what I am going to use as a closing statement.  I have always tried to present both sides when writing and often I have been told I am fence sitting or not leaning in either direction which I take as somewhat of a compliment because my aim is not to tell you what to think, it is to give you information to make you think and make up your own mind.  We need to stop telling people what to do based on what we think and believe and let them make up their own minds.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

You may enjoy reading Richard Feryman's paper on Cargo Cult Science 

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