Peter D. Thomas
(Investigator 13, 1990 July)
One of the most
difficult aspects of investigation into such phenomena as ghosts, UFOs,
monsters, and other bizarre events is that in few cases is the incident
repeatable or reproducible on demand.
The evidence for
the phenomenon or event is almost invariably anecdotal — that is, it
depends upon the description of one or more witnesses and, as such, may
be acceptable as evidence in a court of law but is not indisputable
Reduced to the
simplest terms, if you believe a witness implicitly, then the event had
objective reality — it actually happened.
A court of law
cannot take this simple course, particularly in a case of serious
crime. Because a witness, A, stands up in the box and swears that he
saw B shoot and kill C, that is not proof that B is guilty. A may be
committing perjury, either because he shot C himself and hopes to save
his own skin, or because he wants B out of the way and so accuses him
of the crime which was in objective fact committed by D. Or, A may be
mistaken in his identification of B who looks much like D.
However if in
addition, evidence is submitted that B's fingerprints were found on the
gun, a bullet with marks matching the barrel of which was taken from
the body of the deceased C, a jury is likely to be satisfied that there
is no reasonable doubt that B was guilty. The anecdotal evidence of A
has confirmed the objective, scientific evidence yielded by an
examination in a laboratory of the gun, the bullet and the corpse.
distinction in legal practice between evidence and proof may become
blurred in other fields. For instance, in the case of a UFO sighting,
the anecdotal evidence of several credible witnesses is usually
accepted by researchers as proof that a sighting is a real phenomenon
and not fictitious or imaginary. In legal terms this is not proof, and
nor is it acceptable to the sceptic or the scientist who must have
evidence reproducible at will, or a process or event which can be
studied objectively during its manifestation.
by the sceptical scientific investigator of concrete, objective proof
that a phenomenon has occurred, is followed by the need to examine the
phenomenon and determine its nature in terms of the known laws of the
lightning. It is extremely difficult to predict just when and where
this will occur. But that doesn't make it impossible to study it and
determine its cause and effects. Once Benjamin Franklin had discovered
by a simple (but dangerous) experiment with a kite that it was an
electrical phenomenon, it was relatively straightforward to generate
lightning in the laboratory.
So we need have no scruples about accepting lightning as a genuine phenomenon with an objective existence, and physical cause.
scientific sceptic applies the same rigorous discipline to religious
dogma, beliefs or events, the proof of objective existence is usually
not possible. The evidence for all the events on which the great
religions of the world are founded is at best anecdotal, or based on
hearsay, and little of that evidence would be admitted to a modern
court of law.
the arresting of the sun; the parting of the Red Sea; the walls of
Jericho; the Virgin Birth; the resurrection; the miracles of healing
and of changing water into wine — many more examples are available -–
cannot be accepted as real and objective by a scientific sceptic who
applies the same rules of evidence and proof which are used to
investigate UFO sightings, psychic healing, or a ghostly manifestation.
Unless those religious events and miracles have rational explanations
within the limitations of known physical laws, they must be rejected.
It is a
well-documented fact that the incidence of psychological disorders
among psychiatrists is higher than that of any other profession.
That may well
stem from the stress and frustration of working in a field which
purports but fails to cure people of those same psychological
disorders. As Dr. Paul Wilson (of Queensland University) said:
"[Psychologists and psychiatrists] have failed utterly to demonstrate
that they can 'treat' or 'rehabilitate' human beings better than anyone
else can." Prof. Hans Eysenck concluded (1960J that psychotherapy was
no better than any service offered by any other helpers, such as G.P.s,
and the specialized body of knowledge which psychologists and
psychiatrists professed to have was, according to the evidence,
non-existent. They are dispensable professions that, according to Dr.
Fuller Torrey in his book "The Death of Psychiatry", deserve to die.
There is a grave
danger in sceptical investigation of UFOs, ghosts, psychic phenomena,
etc., that the investigator may succumb to schizophrenia or worse if he
applies the same standards of evidence to his religious beliefs as
those which are used to investigate frauds, fakes and psychic crooks.
The true atheist
has no such problem. If he denies the reality or existence of anything
non-material, anything based on anecdotal evidence, anything that
cannot be examined, tested and reproduced by the accepted and known
principles of the physical sciences, then he can consistently reject
the ideas of life after death, life before birth, an omnipotent
Creator, a spirit world, psychic phenomena, and the rest.
If all life,
indeed, the whole visible universe, is merely the result of an
accident, an unimaginable cosmic Big Bang, there is no need to admit
the existence or reality of anything which doesn't fit into the logical
laws of cause and effect enshrined in the physical sciences. The
atheist can go through his short span of physical existence, cocooned
by his comfortable knowledge of reality. He knows that that span will
end in oblivion, because once the body is clinically dead, there is no
further communication with the physical world.
Here, then, is
the blueprint for the researcher — the true sceptic, as distinct from
the dabbler. His or her motto must be — to paraphrase the old jingle:
"Scientific truth will always be
Things that you can touch and see."
then becomes no more than belief in things that you can neither touch
nor see, and which have no objective reality. Marx and Lenin and the
Russian revolutionaries maintained that all religion was superstition,
the "opiate of the people", and rejected it as having no part in the
Communist state, which was based on Socialist Realism. This wholesome
approach has been supported by famous scientists in the Western world,
such as H.G. Wells and Prof. Haldane, who were able to pursue their
studies into the nature of the physical world unencumbered by
The sceptic has
no alternative but to clear his mind of schizophrenia-inducing
superstition before he can lay any claim to being scientific and
objective in his pursuit of the paranormal. Otherwise, he is liable to
fall into the trap of the religious bigot who says "My beliefs are
correct; yours are wrong."
problem is presented by anecdotal evidence. Obviously all witnesses are
not equally qualified. The testimony of an expert witness in a law
court, rightly or wrongly, is usually given more credence than that of
our friend A, mentioned earlier, and his ilk.
solution to the problem of witness credibility, and an elementary
precaution in evaluating anecdotal evidence, is to assess the internal
evidence contained in the text. The first test is to spot any
contradictions and resolve them. This will help to eliminate hoaxes.
to sanity is presented by the intellectual shock of having to consider
evidence of a kind which is completely outside the previous experience
of a researcher. The natural intellectual reaction is "Impossible!"
"Rubbish!" or some similar negative, subjective response, which
immediately sets up a barrier to objective, impartial research. Such a
case would be presented by the subject under hypnosis who, in response
to a question, announces that he or she is aboard a flying saucer on a
trip to Mars, and then describes the ship, the planet, etc., and holds
a conversation with the inhabitants. The extremes of reaction are, on
one hand, that of the gullible "sponge" who uncritically "soaks up" the
story; on the other, that of the hardnosed "expert" who refuses to look
further because "stones can't fall from the sky".
knowledge is a particular trap. The OED defines an empiricist as a
person relying solely on experiment, or a quack. In this category would
be the person who uses an Ouija board to get predictions or communicate
with the dead. Empirical knowledge is perhaps the converse of anecdotal
evidence. It is the random but controlled collection of evidence by
pursuing experiments without any theoretical backing or rationale,
while the collection of anecdotal evidence leads to the pursuit of
theories without experimental backing.
scientific research is made most effectively by using the trinity of
theory, empirical knowledge, and anecdotal evidence in balanced
proportions. To reject one or other, or to rely entirely on one or
other, is as bad, and dangerous, as going to the extremes of scepticism