When I first adopted the term zetetic to find an original name for a private newsletter dealing with scientific perspectives on anomalies, I thought that archaic term would likely avoid controversy. That was eleven years ago and mainly was the result of my looking for a term to replace the original title, Explorations, which some of my readers objected had already been adopted by other publications. Zetetic's dictionary meaning was simply "skeptical inquirer," and the last modern use of the term had been by the Flat Earth Society in the 19th century. But what started out to be an uncontroversial label soon emerged in my mind as perhaps the most controversial label of all. Through serendipity -some might argue synchronicity- I had stumbled on something now very significant to me, for I found upon researching the term that it both well describes and shapes my current orientation towards anomalies.
The term zetetic (both a noun and an adjective) was first applied to the followers of the Greek skeptical philosopher Pyrrho of Ellis (ca. 365-275 B.C.). Pyrrho urged suspension of judgement about facts, that we should "be without beliefs, disinclined to take a stand one way or another, and steadfast in this attitude" (Stough, 1969: 26 n.23). But, as Richard H. Popkin has noted, Pyrrhonism should not be confused with Academic Skepticism that stemmed from Socrates' statement that "All I know is that I know nothing," the view that no knowledge can be certain. The zetetics took a more moderate position. As Popkin points out in his history of skepticism:
The Pyrrhonists considered that both the Dogmatists and the Academics asserted too much, one group saying "Something can be known," and the other saying that "Nothing can be known." Instead, the Pyrrhonians proposed to suspend judge merit on all questions on which there seemed to be conflicting evidence, including the question whether or not something can be known.... The Pyrrhonian sceptics tried to avoid committing themselves on any and all guestions, even as to whether their arguments were sound. Scepticism for them was an ability, or mental attitude, for opposing evidence both pro and con on any question about what was non-evident, so that one would suspend judgement on the question.... Scepticism was a cure for the disease called Dogmatism or rashness. But unlike Academic scepticism, which came to a negative conclusion from its doubts, Pyrrhonian scepticism made no such assertion, merely saying that scepticism is a purge that eliminates everything including itself. The Pyrrhonist, then, lives undogmatically, following his natural inclinations, the appearances he is aware of, and the laws and customs of his society, without ever committing himself toany judgement about them. [Popkin, 1979: xv]
Like a proper zetetic, I remain uncertain about the ultimate correctness of this perspective, but as a working scientist, I find its practical function in avoiding dogmatism is most valuable. That is, this orientation is heuristic in that it emphasizes questions rather than answers. It fits the aims of what Gunter (1980) has called "Story Book" science (if not that actually practiced) while it avoids mistaking the goals of scientific method with science's current substantive content. But perhaps most important of all, I find this form of skepticism congruent with the fallabilism of modern philosophies of science and with the injunction of Charles Sanders Pierce that the foremost duty of the philosopher-scientist is to do nothing that might block inquiry (Pierce, 1966: 56).
Regretfully, the term "skeptic" today is being used by many who adopt that label for themselves in a misleading way. To many, it is falsely equated with the term "rationalist." The dictionary meaning of the term indicates that a skeptic is one who raises doubts. Thus the word is meant to reflect nonbelief rather than disbelief. But when we look at those who trumpet that they are skeptics towards claims of anomalies, we find disbelievers and debunkers rather than those who express uncertainty or doubt. The public "skeptics" of today present us with answers rather than questions. As philosopher W.V. Quine (himself, ironically, one among such modern public "skeptics") neatly made the distinction:
It is important to distinguish between disbelief and nonbelief-- between believing a sentence is false and merely not believing it true. Disbelief is a case of belief; to believe a sentence false is to believe the negation of the sentence true. We disbelieve that there are ghosts; we believe that there are none. Nonbelief is a state of suspended judgement; neither believing the sentence true nor believing it false. [Quine and Ullian, 1978: 12]
Of course, none of this is to suggest that disbelief is always in error or that there is not bunk that needs to be debunked. I only point out that disbelief should not be confused with skepticism and nonbelief. This confusion is far from a new problem, and James H. Hyslop --who would probably disagree with Quine about ghosts-- noted the confusion in a article in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research when he wrote:
The average man today thinks he is a sceptic because he does not believe in a given allegation. The fact is that scepticism is not unbelief in the sense of denial nor in the sense of being opposed to a given belief, but it is critical ignorance. Few men show this characteristic. They are too much ashamed of denying what they do not know something about. The public has gotten into the attitude of mind which it likes to call scepticism, but which is nothing more or less than dogmatism hiding under false colors. It thinks that belief is the only thing that can be biased and does not dream that denial can be biased, and in fact that the bias of denial is not only less justifiable but far worse than the bias of belief. It has not basis upon which to rest at all except belief. But people have come to think that denial or doubt is the mark of intelligence, when in fact true scepticism is much nearer being a markof ignorance. True scepticism means that we do not know, not that such a thing is not true. To know that a thing is not true is knowledge, not doubt, and hence is subject to bias. It is all the worse when it parades itself as a trustworthy student of truth and in fact is only trying to deny it. The average mind assumes that belief disqualifies a man from studying a problem and that the only person who can investigate it is the man who does not believe anything about it. If the doubter has no opinions and is not biased by preconceptions of his own, and if he does not have an interest in an opposing theory, it is true that he may be better qualified than the believer to investigate, but the majority of those who parade as sceptics in the matter usually have some theory of their own to sustain against that which they claim not to believe, and hence are as much biased as the despised believer.... Open-mindedness is the only scepticism that can claim immunity from prejudice. [Hyslop, 1909: 29-30].
Though Hyslop called our attention to this confusion 75 years ago, most anomaly researchers, instead of observing this distinction between nonbelief and disbelief, seem to have accepted the critics' own definition of themselves as skeptics and constantly misrefer to them as such. This has resulted in a most artificial polarization betwen believers and disbelievers, misrepresents both the options and the reality of the opinions held, and makes us zetetics -- the true skeptics -- either invisible or forced to choose sides or be thought of as "the enemy" by both sides.
In his now classic discussion of the normative structure of science, Robert K. Merton included organized skepticism along with universalism, communism and disinterestedness among the institutional imperatives of science (Merton, 1973: 270). He referred to this as the "temporary suspension of judqement and the detached scrutiny of beliefs in terms of empirical and logical criteria," and then pointed out that this practice "may come into conflict with other attitudes toward the same data which have been crystallized and often ritualized by other institutions" (Merton, 1973: 277). I would suggest to you that this conflict also cccurs between one part of the scientific community and another. As our scientific institutions have developed, this becomes an internal as well as an external problem. And as these institutions have become integrated into other institutions, vested interests and non-scientific concerns (such as the control of economic resources) develop. And I suggest that as science grows into so called "Big Science," the norm of organized skepticism begins to conflict frequently with the norm of disinterestedness. This can lead to attempts by defenders of the majority of "orthodox" viewpoint to attempt to merely discredit rather than disprove competitive minority views (especially maverick claims), and this results in what Ray Wyman (1980) has pointed out is a form of "pathological science."
As Thomas S. Kuhn (1977) has termed it, there is an "essential tension" within science since it must on the one hand preserve its accumulated knowledge by acting cautiously and conservatively while on the other hand remain an open system ready to take in new and potentially revolutionary data and concepts. This balance is maintained through a number of methodological prescriptions which make it difficult but not impossible for the claimant of an anomaly to obtain acceptance of the claim. First, science places the burden of proof on the claimant. Second, the proof for a claim must in some sense be commensurate with the character of the claim. Thus, an extraordinary claim requires "extraordinary" (meaning stronger than usual) proof. This latter prescription seems related to the rule of parsimony in science that states that the simpler adequate explanation is the one to accept.
Now I would call your attention to the fact that these rather conservative rules for evidence of extraordinary claims mean that a claim that is inadequately supported results in a simple nonacceptance of the claim. Evidence is, then, a matter of degree, and not having enough results in a claimant's not satisfying the burden of proof. It does not mean disconfirmation of the claim. The proof is insubstantial, and the claim is unaccepted rather than refuted. The claimant is, in effect, told either to give up or go back to find stronger evidence and arguments for a possible later day in the court of science. As a practical matter, an unproved fact is a non-fact. Science assumes the negative about unproved claims; it gives such claims low priority and low probability and ignores them. Since science is essentially descriptive (creating explanations through abstracted generalizations made about ascertained facts), it is not prescriptive (Taylor, 1963: 342). Science can speak of the highly improbable; it can not properly speak of the impossible. But as a practical matter, the highly improbable is treated as though it were impossible. Working on a perpetual motion machine is almost certainly a waste of time, but once we deem it absolutely a waste of time, we close the door on such research and violate the equilibrium of the "essential tension" and disobey Peirce's injunction by blocking inquiry. The scientist who works on a perpetual motion machine may be playing the longest shot of all, and he may be conducting stupid science, but it is not necessarily false or pseudoscience.
Since the scientific community sets its priorities based upon the notions of probable pay-offs and importance of problems, the claimant of an unproven anomaly is playing a long shot and is unlikely to obtain scarce resources. And the unproven idea or anomaly may be, and usually is, ignored or treated as would be a false idea. So, I would suggest that this actually allows for greater tolerance than is often accorded claims of the extraordinary. If we really have faith in the scientific rules and the self-correcting mechanisms of science, we have little to fear from unusual low-probability or even crackpot ideas. We don't have to disprove an idea to discount it: we merely need to show its failure to bear its burden of proof. Further, I would suggest that concern with discrediting rather than disproving claims actually shows a lack of confidence in the normal adjudication system of science. Just as a proper system of justice does not require vigilantes, so does a proper scientific adjudication process not need any extra-scientific inquisition to protect us from alleged pseudoscience and so-called irrationality.
Organized skepticism in science is a two-edged sword. It allows us to question orthodoxy as well as unorthodoxy. Its proper functioning depends upon our tolerance and our ability to live with a certain degree of uncertainty and dissonance in our ranks. Robert K. Merton has spoken of the sociological ambivalence built into social roles (Merton, 1976). The conflict produced by science's need for both conservation and openness--what Kuhn speaks of as creating the "essential tension" proper to science-- demands the organized skepticism (so integral to science and which produces its self-correcting pattern of change that most of us think of as progress) which contributes greatly to that ambivalence. The tension has also been characterized as a struggle to avoid both kinds of what statisticians refer to as Type I and Type II errors. We don't wish to conclude something anomalous is out there when it is not, but we also do not want to overlook some rare anomaly, some weak signal amidst much noise (Truzzi, 1979a and b).
Most of my fellow critics of anomalies have characterized their own harsher and debunking-oriented approach as representing a "hard-line" skepticism while my zeteticism is described as a "softer-line" variety. I think this misrepresents the reality of our differences. The public is indeed often misled, and we need to have critical views presented to them to balance those of the proponents. Bunk needs to be debunked; fraud needs to be exposed; error needs to be corrected; and real pseudoscience-and it does exist--needs to be shown up for what it is. But fraud, error and even pseudoscience have all existed within ordinary science, that is within legitimate, orthodox science. And much that gets labelled "pseudoscience" actually is not, for much so-called pseudoscience consists of scientific research programs (what I have called protosciences) being applied to investigate unorthodox or controversial matters (Truzzi, and ). I do not agree with those who equate science with a body of content; for me, science centrally remains a method. A science that studies unicorns may (and properly done, should most likely) find that no unicorns exist: but the search for unicorns can be conducted in scientific fashion. Critics forget that a person does not have to believe in ESP to be parapsychologist or in UFOs to be a ufologist. Part of what science does is to determine whether or not variables exist; so to that degree, a science can investigate "nothing."
The reason that the zetetic may appear to take a softer critical line may be the result not so much of a less critical view of the extraordinary but of a more critical view of the ordinary with which it is contrasted. Those who leap to call parapsychology a pseudoscience might do well to look more closely at the social sciences in general. Those who laugh at the implausibility of a possible plesiosaur in Loch Ness should take a close look at the arguments and evidence put forward for the Big Bang or Black Holes. Those who think it unreasonable to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects might do well to look carefully at the arguments and evidence of those who promote current attempts at contacting extraterrestrial intelligence allegedly present in other solar systems. Those who complain about the unscientific status of psychic counselors should be willing to examine the scientific status of orthodox psychotherapy and make truly scientific comparisons. Those who sneer at phoney prophets in our midst might also do well to look at the prognosticators in economics and sociology who hold official positions as "scientific forecasters." Those who concern themselves about newspaper horoscopes and their influence might do well to look at what the "real" so-called helping professions are doing. The scientist who claims to be a true skeptic, a zetetic, is willing to investigate empirically the claims of the American Medical Association as well as those of the faith healer; and, more important, he should be willing to compare the empirical results for both before defending one and comdemning the other.
The skeptical posture of the scientist, I suggest, is one which T.H. Huxley termed agnosticism. Today, that term usually is thought to refer only to an orientation towards the question of the existence of a deity. But when Huxley first put the term forward, he meant it far more generally. And -note a moral for today-- the term was meant to avoid the dogmas of both the Rationalists and the Religionists; in the Metaphysical Society of 1889. Huxley wrote:
Agnosticism in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a simple principle: That principle is of great antiquity... it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him. [Huxley, 1889]
Huxley recognized that such tolerance was an ideal and not something he alway was able to put into practice, for he went on to say:
The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproven today maybe proved by the help of new discoveries tomorrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction. Agnostics who never fail in carrying out their principles are, I am afraid, as rare as other people of whom the same consistency can be truthfully predicated. But if you were to meet such a phoenix and tell him that you had discovered that two and two makes five, he would patiently ask you to state your reasons for that conviction, and express his readiness to agree with you if he found them satisfactory. The apostolic injunction to "suffer fools gladly" should be the rule of life of a true agnostic. I am deeply conscious of how far I myself fall short of this ideal, but it is my personal conception of what agnostics should be. [Huxley, 1889]
Like Huxley, I think this a good ideal to uphold for the scientist, but it remains difficult to place it into practice. I therefore modify it somewhat. I contend that every scientist has a right to his/her own priorities. So, when a presumed crackpot approaches you with a wild idea, I do not think you are duty bound to listen and evaluate it. You have the full right to simply say you are too busy or to ignore such claimants. The claimant does not have a right to your time. But I contend that if a hearing is granted, it should be a fair and open-minded hearing based on consideration of the arguments and evidence. And if the arguments and evidence have some merits, even if they are inadequate to bear the burden of proof, we should be willing to admit such merits while still failing to accept (rather than necessarily denying) the claim. We must remember that evidence is always a matter of degree, and usually not overwhelming. And we must be willing to admit that even if we reject much evidence and argument, that there are likely to be "loose ends" that often can not be easily explained away. Most of all, we must remember that the goal of science is to explain rather than explain away phenomena. Skepticism should seek to be constructive, to advance science, rather than purely destructive and perhaps thereby to block inquiry.
Having now considered some of the characteristics of skepticism in science, let me turn now to the subject of anomalies.
The dictionary definition of an anomaly as a "deviation from the common rule" or "something that deviates in excess of normal variation" is rather vague and somewhat misleading in that this definition also fits "irregularity' or "abnormality." As commonly used in the literature concerned with anomalies, the term emphasizes that an anomaly is something unexplained. An anomaly is something that is not covered by our current generalizations about how the world operates. It is something strange and unaccounted for. As we look at the term's use in the literature, it becomes rather multi-dimensional and is more like a constructed type or a fuzzy set (Westrum and Truzzi, 1978: 70). In its pure state, an anomaly might be something that (1) actually occurs (that is, something both perceived and validated), (2) is not explained by some accepted scientific theory, (3) is perceived to be something which is in need of explanation, and (4) contradicts what we might expect from applying our accepted scientific models. In practice, an anomaly is often "impure" in terms of these four criteria. But I would suggest that (2), the anomaly's lack of fit with accepted theory, is the necessary element common to any real anomaly. It is a fact in search of an explanation.
This brings us to an important distinction. Coming to us from psychical research, the term paranormal (usually limited to psychological anomalies in psychical research) was created to designate phenomena considered natural — not supernatural — and which eventually should find scientific explanation but thus far have escaped such explanations (Truzzi, 1978). The term supernormal has been used in somewhat the same way. The clear intention of those using the term paranormal was to avoid using the term supernatural. They wished to emphasize that the phenomena was aberrant but not beyond natural science; it was simply a matter of scientific explanation catching up with such maverick facts. Unfortunately, many critics of the paranormal continue to equate anything purportedly paranormal with the supernatural. This is particularly ironic since those who truly believe in the supernatural (such as the Roman Catholic church when it speaks of miracles) have long understood that a paranormal explanation precludes a supernatural one. Following the proper use of the term paranormal, we can logically speak of the parasciences which deal with anomalies in their respective domains. Thus, we can speak not only of parapsychology but also of such fields as parasociology, paraphysics, etc. In each case we refer to the study of anomalies within some discipline for which they seem potentially relevant.
In fact, however, given a particular anomalous event, we really don't know in advance which current science will eventually develop an explanation for it. Thus, something like extra-chance correct guessing scores may now be part of parapsychology, but in the end the explanation may lie elsewhere. For example, if it turns out that such anomalies are due to some statistical malassumption that might cause us to develop some new statistical theory for the way such things are distributed in nature: the phenomenon may then better belong to parastatistics. Similarly, unidentified aerial phenomena may eventually be explained via meteorology, astronomy, psychophysiology, or some other discipline (or even by all of these in part since we may be dealing with different phenomena at different times). Thus, I would suggest the term put forward by Roger W. Westcott (1973 and 1980), anomalistics, to speak of the interdisciplinary approach to anomalies of which the various parasciences are branches.
Returning now to the term paranormal, this term avoids our confusing true anomalies with the merely irregular or rare event that does have current scientific explanations. Such latter events are usually termed abnormal. Thus, a man 8 feet tall would be abnormal but not paranormal, whereas a man who could breath water and live would be paranormal. Similarly, a virgin giving birth to a female would be abnormal (since parthenogenesis would offer an explanation for such a rarity), while a virgin giving birth to a male would be paranormal (to say the least!).
Since the key element in the definition of an anomaly is its relationship or lack of relationship to theory, this means that all anomalies are relative to some specific theory. The degree of anomalousness or extraordinariness of some event can only be specified in relation to the theory it fails to fit. The term anomaly specifies a relationship between an event and a theory; the event is not anomalous in and of itself. Science usually contains many theories, and they are by no means integrated or even consistent with one another. Thus, a claim like precognition may present serious problems for the physicist but few for the geologist. Not all scientists will view an event as equally extraordinary. This disunity may be functional, as when biologists ignored the physicists who said that the youthful age of the sun would make biological evolution impossible over the postulated great lengths of time. The physicists later discovered fusion and changed their estimate of the age of our sun, so in this case physics lagged behind the biologists' theories even though we usually think of physics as the more fundamental science.
I find that in the broadest sense there are three general orientations towards anomalies. For many scientists, anomalies are mainly troublesome and to be ignored or denied. They view anomalies as what Charles Fort called "damned facts." For such scientists, anomalies are at best an irritant. At worst, they view anomalies as challenges to what is fundamentally held dear and so are to be opposed, sometimes at almost any cost. The object, for such scientists, is not to explain but to explain away the anomaly.
The second orientation commonly found is that of the mystery monger, the person who relishes the fact that a phenomenon is unexplained. This, alas, is quite frequently the attitude held by many who call themselves "Forteans" (Clark, 1983). They enjoy the mystery and even gloat over the inability of scientists to account for the anomaly. They don't want to explain or explain away anomalies; they want to uncover more of them, and their goal may -- in the extreme case -- be anti-scientific in spirit; for they seek mysteries rather than explanations of them. In reading some Forteans, one clearly gets the impression that even an unconventional normal explanation by science would be a disappointment.
The third orientation -the one I espouse- consists of seeing anomalies not merely as challenges but as opportunities. Anomalies are actually the major source for theoretical change and conceptual progress in science. Though we should be highly cautious about accepting claims of anomalies, we should look forward to finding valid ones because it is by explaining these abberations that we will expand our theories and create new theories. From this perspective, anomalies are important and valuable because they lead to new and greater forms of scientific explanation. Thus, anomalies should be seen as constructive rather than destructive, as forces inspiring scientific growth and progress.
Let me turn now to some of the various dimensions or categories of anomalies.
- The anomaly may be legitimately unexplained or paranormal rather than something at first inexplicable but
actually covered by known laws, something merely abnormal (as just discussed) or a pseudo-anomaly.
- The anomaly may be a scientific anomaly, something paranormal and ultimately explicable in terms of science, as
opposed to something actually outside the natural order, something not paranormal but supernatural or
metaphysical. The latter would include not only such things as divine miracles but also perhaps any possibly
unique event in nature, a kind of cosmic hiccup or burp, something without pattern or impossible to generalize
about or find lawful order in. Science is law seeking, and it is at least conceptually possible that some things
may happen that are simply outside all regularities, some things I would term preternatural.
- The anomaly can vary in its relationship to scientific theory. Thus, it can be unnested, that is, simply a stray
phenomenon that seems to have no body of theory to deal with it one way or another. Or, more typically, the
anomaly can be nested, that is, can pretty clearly be seen as something that should be covered by a certain theory
even if it is not. Nested anomalies can vary greatly in the degree to which they fail to fit within the existing
theoretical net. Some anomalies merely fit poorly while others seem to contradict central parts of the theory. The
nested anomaly that contradicts important parts of the accepted body of theory relevant to it is the one most
troublesome and most likely to be denied legitimacy/validity.
- An anomaly may be something spontaneous in nature or may be something which only can be experimentally produced.
And if it is experimentally prcducible, it may vary in the degree to which it is reproducible. Replication can be
occasional only or vary all the way up to repeatability upon demand. In general, anomalies tend towards being
spontaneous or only occasionally repeatable, and that is usually one of the reasons their very existence is
- Anomalies exist to some degree in every scientific area and are usually acknowledged as such. Thus, there are
accepted anomalies which are not controversial. These are usually viewed as minor puzzles to be solved, as not
very troublesome loose ends. But most anomalies deemed interesting have a strugqle to gain acceptance. Most
anomalies are merely alleged anomalies. They remain unestablished. Some are validated anomalies in that most
scientists ' might agree that they really exist; but this is unusual, and it is imperative that the anomalist
recognizes that most of the time he is dealing with merely alleged anomalies.
- An anomaly may be something that occurs rarely in nature or something that occurs frequently, even if it is a
spontaneous anomaly. Frequency must be considered relative to the temporal dimension. Thus, something may appear
to be rare but may actually have occurred on many occasions over a long period of time or, conversely, an event
may occur a number of times within a short period but never happened previously or afterwards.
- An anomaly may vary along the spatial dimension. That is, an anomaly may be widely dispersed or narrowly
- An anomaly may be rarely or frequently seen (whether or not it cccurs rarely or frequently).
- An anomaly be rarely or frequently reported (whether or not it is rarely or frequently seen).
- The anomaly may be an anomalous thing, or it may be an anomalous relationship between quite normal things. I
have elsewhere termed anomalous things crypto-events and anomalous relationships, para-events (Truzzi, 1977).
Things are relatively easily validated. You simply "bring in the body" and show it to the skeptics. But
falsification of the crypto-event may be especially difficult since the thing (e.g., a Bigfoot) could have been
elsewhere than where you looked. The reverse is true for the para-event. Since a relationship is something to be
inferred from the data, alternative explanations are usually possible. Thus, validation for any para-event is most
difficult. But we can usually agree that a certain correlation from which we would make our inference of the
para-event should be obtained in a given experiment. So, if we fail to find it, that is usually accepted as a
falsification of the claimed para-event. Anomalistics, then, consists of both cryptosciences (which study hidden
things, e.g., as cryptozoology studies anomalous animals) and parasciences (which study anomalous relationships
between things, e.g., as parapsychology studies anomalous psi processes), and these two branches of anomalistics
have different strategic problems as they seek acceptance/legitimacy within the general scientific community.
- an anomaly may appear bizarre or mundane. From a scientific standpoint, this should largely be irrelevant. But
it clearly makes a difference to the way many will evaluate the degree of extraordinariness of the claim. An
anomaly high on strangeness will have more trouble getting accepted even though it may have less trouble getting
noticed in the first place.
Having considered some of the major dimensions of anomalies, let me now try to integrate some of these observations with my earlier remarks about skepticism.
The Zetetic Approach to Anomalies
When speaking of the extraordinary in science, we need to consider both extraordinary events and extraordinary theories (explanations). We should first seek to explain extraordinary events in terms of ordinary theories, and only upon failing should we move on to extraordinary explanations (Truzzi, 1978a). But, alas, the anomaly literature is full of far too many attempts to explain ordinary events with extraordinary theories.
Any anomaly claim will normally consist of three elements: (1) the anomalous event itself, (2) the report or narrative about that event, and (3) the reporter or narrator of the report or narrative account (Truzzi, 1978a). Critics can attack the claim at any or all of these three points. The event can be viewed as too improbable, the narrative as too implausible, and/or the narrator as not credible. Each of these elements can be assessed independently, and the skeptic usually begins with doubts about the claimed event itself. He then properly focuses his arguments and evidence against the narrative account. But it is common for criticism to extend to the credibility of the narrator, this sometimes taking the form of irrelevant ad hominem attacks on the narrator's motives.
Attacks on the credibility of the narrator follow a pattern. The reporter of the anomaly can be attacked through the use of a number of negative labels. He can be called a crank, a crackpot, an incompetent, or a charlatan. All these labels have been used to designate what the critic sees as a "pseudoscientist" (far to often a magic word invoked to exorcise heresy). A crank is simply one who tenaciously clings to a deviant or minority position. This is normally done via rational arguments and evidence. We have many cranks in ordinary as well as extraordinay science. Ron Westrum has pointed out that there are both reactionary cranks (those who cling to old, discarded ideas) and radical cranks (who espouse wild new ideas). Cranks are "difficult" persons (cranky?) but not irrational. A crackpot is one who supports a wild idea (also either reactionary or radical) but does so irrationally, i.e., without proper arguments and/or evidence. He is a scientific "nut." The terms crank and crackpot represent references to the argumentative style of the proponent so labelled.
An incompetent is simply one who makes unintentional errors, out of inability or ignorance. Ordinary science is full of incompetence, as is any professional field. But a charlatan is one who makes intentional errors; he is a fraud.
When the proponent of an anomaly is an insider in science (what Isaac Asimov has termed an endo-heretic), critics tend to be more tolerant and usually pull punches and reduce even the crackpot or charlatan in our midst to mere crank or incompetent. But if the proponent is an outsider (an exoheretic), critics tend towards exaggeration, elevating the mere crank or incompetent into the role of a crackpot or charlatan
We might also note that critics may themselves be members of the science community (what I would term endo-critics) or outsiders such as philosophers, science writers, or even magicians (exo-critics). Exo-critics seem to be even more concerned with social control over the boundary between science and pseudoscience than endo-critics. And such exo-critics may play the role of what Ray Hyman has termed "hit men" in science, brought in to discredit deviant claims and claimants and to "protect the public." At its worst, this takes a holier-than- thou (more-scientific-than-thou?) posture, and such vigilantes can act rather like inquisitors for a Church of Scientism (see the discussion in Feyeraband, 1978: 91-96)
It has been observed that acceptance of an anomaly can come about through either (1) an adequate degree of replicability (for some critics of some claims this may mean repeatability upon demand); (2) a new acceptable theory to house the alleged maverick fact, thereby reducing or eliminating its anomalous character; or (3) some practical application of the anomaly (a purely pragmatic and atheoretic approach). (3) is actually a version of (1) since usefulness implies repeatability, but the level of adequacy in replication would be lower for (1) since the a theoretical argument side-steps contradiction of existing theories.
If extraordinary claims require commensurate "extraordinary" proof, the requirements (in terms of quality or quantity, not in terms of the standards) diminish with a reduction in the extraordinariness of the claimed anomaly. And if we are to judge how anomalous a claim is, we first need to explicate clearly what impact the existence of the anomaly would have on our theories. An unnested anomaly should require less evidence than a nested anomaly. If we look closely, we frequently find that a common view of how anomalous something is maybe confused with how "strange" or "bizarre" the claim may seem. Possibility of the event is confused with plausibility of the narrative (Truzzi, 1978a). Almost no one believes in unicorns today, but finding living unicorns would have very little impact on current zoology. Telepathy would be far less revolutionary for psychological theory than would be precognition, so telepathy should require less proof. And a living plesiosaur in Loch Ness would be far less extraordinary a claim than would be a living mermaid or a centaur. We need to far more carefully explicate how scientifically extraordinary a claim really is and then weigh the evidence in light of that assessment.
It should also follow that claimants can reduce need for evidence by minimizing the revolutionary character of their claims. This can usually be done by taking a more atheoretic approach when presenting evidence. Like Sherlock Holmes, we should eliminate the unnecessary elements and consider the bare bones first. We especially should try to dissociate our anomaly from any occult or metaphysical frameworks (even if these inspired our investigation). Parapsychologists keep reminding us that they are not occultists and are not part of Spiritualism. Cosmologists remind us that they are not arguing for traditional astrology. Some ufolgists remind us that they are investigating unidentified aerial phenomena and are not proponents of identifying extraterrestrial craft. In general, this means any anomaly should first be presented as a question rather than as part of some extraordinary answer. Exotic correlations, for example as in Michel Gauguelin's "Mars Effect" or in parapsychology's extra-chance guessing scores, should first be presented as mere correlations before leaping to conclusions about causal relations (Truzzi, 1982). Too often what might have been accepted as a legitimate puzzle is repudiated because the claimant insists he has found a fulcrum to place his lever for scientific revolution and paradigm shift.
But the claimant finds himself in a paradoxical position. By thus reducing his anomaly claim, he may trivialize its importance, and that results in its being assigned a lower priority for scientific investigation. So, the claimant is usually forced to seek attention and resources by stressing the revolutionary character of his claim. But the more important the anomaly is in this way, the greater is the degree of proof demanded; and raising the threshold for adequate evidence makes criticism easier. This often forces the proponent of the anomaly to seek support outside of science, either from the public or -worse- from occult or metaphysical supporters; this then further mobilizes antagonism among scientists.
But if the proponent is trapped in this spiral, surely the critic is not. The goal of the scientist is to explain whatever anomalies truly exist. So the critic -independent of the proponent% posture- has an obligation to examine the strongest evidence for the least theoretic version of any anomaly claim.
Finally, we need to recognize that the importance of an anomaly maybe primarily extra-scientific (Truzzi, 1981). Psychologists may properly assign low priority to parapsychological research given the level of proof so far offered. But the military and security-concerned branches of government may recognize that even such long shots would have enormous impact if even only partially valid. So, scientists may rationally assign low or high priorities based on their specific reasons for wishing to avoid a Type I or a Type II error, and opposite assessments of priority can rationally emerge from different orientations and stemming from nonscientific factors. Critics of government research into anomalies sometimes neglect to consider such factors. But so, alas, do some proponents. Thus, covert government interest in UFOs does not necessarily mean greater covert belief in the reality of UFOS. It may merely reflect government's different criteria for the importance of avoiding a Type II error. It may even be the case that such misunderstanding is partly the reason that government agencies feel obligated to keep their work covert. A similar argument applies to covert government work in parapsychology; such work does not necessarily indicate covert government belief in the reality of psi.
I have tried to consider some of the interrelationships that emerge from applying a zetetic approach to anomalies research. As always with proper zeteticism, I leave you with more questions than answers about these matters. But I think these are some of the right questions that need to be asked if we are to make progress in dealing with scientific anomalies.
An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, . My thanks to Sidney Genden, Charles Akers, and Ron Westrum for their astute critical reactions and suggestions (some of which were not fully heeded) to the original version of this paper.
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