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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > November December 2015 > The Search for Negative Evidence

The Search for Negative Evidence

By their nature, paranormal claims depend not on positive but negative evidence, by which proponents attempt to use mysteries (“the unexplained”) to support their beliefs. In contrast, scientists seek to use positive evidence to solve mysteries.

Everyone loves a mystery. Solve one in science, and accolades are forthcoming. Not so, however, in the realm of the paranormal, where evidence, logic, and theories are often stood on their heads. Whereas forensic scientists, say, begin with the evidence and let it lead to the most likely solution to a mystery, “parascientists” typically begin with the desired answer and work backward to the evidence, employing confirmation bias: They look for that which seems to confirm their prior-held belief and seek to discredit whatever—or whoever—would argue against it.

For example, in the paranormal field of cryptozoology (a term coined by Ivan T. Sanderson to describe the study of “hidden” or unverified animals [Heuvelmans 1968, 508]), proponents of Bigfoot offer a large quantity of evidence. Unfortunately, it is of very poor quality: eyewitness reports, footprint casts, hair samples—just what is attributable to misperception or deception. It is all questionable evidence because, hoaxes aside, neither a live Bigfoot nor a carcass nor even a DNA specimen is available for scientific study.

The same situation holds true for other claims. They include psychic phenomena; ghosts, poltergeists, and demons; flying saucers and aliens; cryptids, such as the Loch Ness monster; spontaneous human combustion; faith healing and weeping statues; the Devil’s Triangle; and so on and on. Mainstream science has not verified as genuinely paranormal any of these objects, entities, or occurrences.

Arguing from Mysteries

Parascientists usually take a different tack. For them, investigation is not a quest to explain a mystery (what they deride as “trying to explain it away”) but rather to collect mysteries about whatever paranormalities they believe in, by which they hope to convince others there must be “something to it.” In short, they are not detectives but mystery mongers.

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