Science vs. the Paranormal:
An Instructional Kit

Compiled by Sheri Kashman
In Collaboration with Barry Beyerstein, Ph.D.

Revised and edited by CSICOP staff

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TABLE OF CONTENTS


ADDRESS TO TEACHERS

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) is pleased and excited to have the opportunity to introduce Science vs. the Paranormal: An Instructional Kit to teachers and students at the elementary and secondary grade levels. CSICOP strongly believes that students should have the opportunity to learn and begin using critical thinking skills at an early age. As teachers, you can help them do this. And the paranormal is an easy-to-understand and interesting subject area with which to begin.

The goal of these materials, and others in development, is to introduce paranormal topics in a critical manner. Popular media, movies, books, as well as general childhood and adolescent play (for example, the telling of "ghost stories") tend to reinforce belief in paranormal happenings. While CSICOP acknowledges the importance of fantasy, imagination, and creativity in the growing mind, we also hope to combine those qualities with an inquiring and critical investigative mind. With this kit, students will have the opportunity to study an interesting, "un-academic" topic and develop essential critical thinking skills at the same time. Through this effort, we think students will naturally want to continue to investigate and debate the plausibility of such phenomena as UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, and ghosts.

Finally, we hope that you and your students have fun with this kit. The subject area is diverse and interesting, and we don't wish to discourage students from interest or study in the paranormal or to deny the existence of these occurrences. Rather, the kit is meant to equip students with a penchant for investigation and evaluating evidence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) gratefully thanks Dr. Helen Edey, Mr. Sandy Brenner, and the Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation for generously providing funding for this project.


  • Webster's dictionary defines paranormal phenomena, or "the paranormal," as phenomena beyond the range of what is scientifically known or recognizable ("rare," "unusual," "supernatural").
  • Paranormal phenomena generally include bizarre or unusual occurrences that do not have an apparent or obvious explanation.
  • In defining the paranormal, a distinction is made between very rare occurrences that can be accounted for scientifically and those that appear to lie outside the laws of science and the natural world.
  • The term "paranormal" is often invoked in cases where rational explanation and evidence are not readily available or are difficult to obtain.
  • Unidentified flying objects (UFOs)
  • Ghosts and haunted houses
  • Extraterrestrials
  • Bigfoot, Ogopogo, and the Loch Ness Monster
  • Fortunetelling and prophecy
  • Clairvoyance, telekinesis, channeling
  • Firewalking
  • Time travel
  • Guardian angels, fairies, and elves
  • Spontaneous human combustion

A 1985 study (Rotton and Kelley, Psychological Reports, 1985) found that 49.7% of students at a Florida university believed people act "strangely" during a full moon.

Percentage of respondents who believe in:

ESP

39%
UFOs 22%
Ghosts 20%
Reincarnation 14%

Source: Roper Reports, July 1997

Which of any of the following do you believe at least to some degree?
Belief 1997 1976
Spiritualism 52% 12%
Faith Healing 45% 10%
Astrology 37% 17%
UFOs 30% 24%
Reincarnation 25% 9%
Fortune Telling 14% 4%

Source: Yankelovich Partners, 1998
(1976 N=8,709; N=1,000 Margin of error=+/-3-5%)

  • Media (TV shows such as The X-Files, news reports and specials, books, comics)
  • Mythology
  • Popular belief and hearsay
  • Rumors and urban legends (e.g., the haunted house down the street)
  • Natural curiosity (e.g., playing with Ouija boards, holding seances with friends)

WHY DOUBT THE PARANORMAL?

What's wrong with believing in haunted houses and Bigfoot? Why question the existence of psychic abilities and extraterrestrial visitors? The problem is that many people believe these phenomena are real without having sufficient evidence to support their beliefs. Few people who believe in t he paranormal phenomena stop to ask themselves: How do I know? What evidence do I have? Is there some alternative explanation? This is where critical thinking comes in.

Sometimes we let our desire to believe overwhelm our evidence for believing. But wanting something to be true does not make it true. When examining our world, we need to be aware of the ways in which we may fool ourselves or others may fool us.

Students need to learn how to ask probing questions, consider alternatives, and identify what constitutes evidence; we hope that the materials made available in this kit will help develop these skills. Students also need to know that being a critical thinker does not mean having a closed mind; in fact, it's just the opposite. Critical inquiry demands an open mind, but it demands an open mind in conjunction with the use of reason.

The Scientific Method

Perhaps the field that best embodies these principles of critical thinking is science. To get the best possible information about the world around us, scientists use what is called the scientific method. Although there is no single definition or description of the scientific method, any procedure that serves to systematically eliminate reasonable grounds for doubt can be considered scientific. (Schick and Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things, 1995).

The scientific method is a way of solving problems, not a particular solution to them. Many people think that only highly educated scientists can conduct scientific experiments, but once a person learns the ideas and principles behind the methods of science, nearly anyone can design and conduct an experiment. Engaging students in the methods of science early on can instill in them an interest in the world around them and a level of comfort with the scientific process.

The method consists of the following steps:
  • 1 Explanation. Think up possible specific explanations, or hypotheses, that may explain what you observe about the world. Why do you think birds can fly? Is it because they are lighter than air? Is it because they have some supernatural power? Or is it because their wings push down on the air as they fly? Why might crystals dissolve in water? Try to come up with as many explanations as you can that fit what you have observed. Hypotheses tell you what to look for, what information is relevant.
  • 2 Observation. Observe the subject of your hypotheses. Do birds fly all the time? What are they doing when they fly? If you stir sugar into a liquid, you may ask where the sugar crystals go. Is the liquid sweeter when the sugar crystals dissolve? Both involve observing the subject of your scientific inquiry.
  • 3 Generalization. For each hypothesis proposed, what else follows from, or is implied by, that hypothesis? For example, if you want to test the hypothesis that birds fly because they are lighter than air, what else would that entail? Would that mean that birds have no weight? If one explanation for disappearing sugar crystals is that they are actually still there, but just become transparent in water, what does that imply?
  • 4 Testing. Think of a way to test a hypothesis. If you think birds fly because they are lighter than air, find a bird (in a pet store, for example) and hold it. If you think that crystals simply become invisible in water, dump the water out and try to find the sugar crystals. Continue with the rest of your hypotheses to see if you can disprove them. When you find an explanation that logically fits what you have observed, that is a likely answer to your question.

These are simple examples that can be used to show students just how easy the scientific method can be. They don't need expensive laboratory equipment to perform science experiments. All they need is an understanding of the methods of science.

Practical Benefits of Critical Inquiry

Finally, consider these practical benefits of critical thinking:
  • Protection from manipulation
    For the most part, so-called supernatural occurrences do not affect the average individual beyond passing interest and enjoyment. However, for some people such phenomena hold a stronger appeal, particularly where spiritual interests are concerned. Such phenomena as firewalking, psychic readings, channeling, and invoking guardian angels currently enjoy high status among pop-psychology and New Age movements. Consequently, an abundance of books, seminars, counseling sessions, and courses (some costing upwards of $1,000 to attend) have emerged. The problem is not with the interest and learning involved, but with the lack of evidence and information provided to consumers who are taught to believe these phenomena are "real." In short, consumers of such materials are misled.
  • Personal enjoyment
    The paranormal is an interesting and exciting field that can be all the more enjoyable when investigated and questioned from a skeptical standpoint. While an uncritical belief in the paranormal is a passive approach to learning, skepticism actively involves the individual in the exciting process of attaining knowledge.
  • Intellectual development
    There is perhaps no other field of study so open to the questioning and posing of alternative explanations than the paranormal. The very controversial nature of paranormal phenomena demands evaluation  of competing explanations. In evaluating such claims, the skeptical  inquirer reaps extensive benefits for practicing critical evaluation in other areas of everyday life.
  • Prevention of fear and irrational thinking (fear of the unknown)
    For many individuals, fear of the unknown results in irrational thoughts and actions carried out to protect them from ghosts, aliens, bogeymen, etc. With the frequent UFO sightings and alien abduction reports in the media, for example, some individuals, particularly in high-report areas, may come to live in a fearful state of anticipation that they will be next. Furthermore, simply believing that some things cannot be explained provokes discomfort and fear in many individuals.
  • Prevention of fatalistic thinking and the establishment of a sense of personal control
    Many alleged paranormal phenomena (such as prophecy and fortunetelling) imply that we are at the hands of fate, that our lives are determined in advance despite individual action and choice. In questioning the paranormal and recognizing alternative explanations, we build a sense that we can, in fact, alter our circumstances and establish a sense of control over our lives.

MATERIALS OVERVIEW

Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics by Dan Barker

  • Presents an introduction to critical thinking in an easy-to-read, cartoon style
  • Defines "skeptic" and "skeptical inquiry"
  • Describes a beginner's skeptical inquiry into a haunted house and the search for evidence
  • Engages and involves the reader in the skeptical process
  • Introduces the critical evaluation of science
  • Describes the rules of science and the importance of honesty in science

Grade Level: Middle School

Beyond Belief: Explorations in the Paranormal - CSICOP video hosted by Steve Shaw

  • Introduces CSICOP and its purposes and aims
  • Introduces the dangers of believing in everything one sees or hears and the effects and influence of paranormal stories
  • Explains two basic principles of critical thought:
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof
    The burden of proving an extraordinary claim lies solely on the person making the claim
  • Discusses and examines the claims of astrology; CSICOP puts famous astrologers to the test
  • Examines a famous UFO hoax (the Ed Walters hoax in Gulf Breeze, Florida)
  • Discusses other paranormal occurrences (e.g., firewalking) and describes how common magic tricks are done

Grade Level: Middle School / High School

The Outer Edge: Classical Investigations of the Paranormal edited by Joe Nickell, Barry Karr, and Tom Genoni; thirteen classic articles selected from Skeptical Inquirer magazine, the official journal of CSICOP

  • Introduces CSICOP and its objectives
  • Introduces skepticism with respect to the paranormal as well as its importance in everyday situations
  • Discusses the advantages and disadvantages of skepticism, including cautions and guidelines of skeptical thinking
  • Introduces articles on: Full moons and human behavior, astrology, extraterrestrials (including the Roswell Incident), fortunetelling and psychic readings, near-death experiences, firewalking, spontaneous human combustion, poltergeists, and Bigfoot

Grade Level: High School

The Magic Detectives: Join Them in Solving Strange Mysteries! by Joe Nickell

  • Involves the students in investigation, proofreading, and critical evaluation
  • Includes 30 short mysteries of the paranormal that students help solve. Topics include: firewaking, haunted houses, the Amityville Horror, reincarnation, and more
  • Promotes rational over irrational thought, science over superstition
  • Generates discussion and offers assignment suggestions

Grade Level: Middle School

Bringing UFOs Down to Earth by Philip J. Klass

  • Presents information in an easy-to-read format for young people
  • Describes what occurs when individuals "sight" UFOs and what sighted UFOs generally turn out to be
  • Describes plausible renditions of sightings and then recasts them in an "everyday" light
  • Concludes that there is no credible evidence for the existence of UFOs

Grade Level: Elementary


SUGGESTED DISCUSSIONS AND ASSIGNMENTS

Recommendations

Additional copies of Science Kit materials are also available.

The Outer Edge, Beyond Belief, and the Skeptical Inquirer magazine are available from:

CSICOP / Skeptical Inquirer
PO Box 703
Amherst, NY 14226
(716) 636-1425
skeptinq@aol.com

The Magic Detectives, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, and Bringing UFOs Down to Earth are available from:

Prometheus Books
59 John Glenn Drive
Amherst, NY 14228
(716) 691-0133

The Outer Edge $10.00
The Magic Detectives $10.95
Maybe Yes, Maybe No $15.95
Bringing UFOs Down to Earth $10.95
Video: Beyond Belief $25.00
Additional issues of Skeptical Inquirer $5.00 each

For more information on pseudoscience and the paranormal you can contact:

CSICOP / Skeptical Inquirer c/o Barry Karr
PO Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226
(716) 636-1425 - skeptinq@aol.com - www.csicop.org

Additional Reading List:

Paranormal Borderlands of Science, edited by Ken Frazier
Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Ken Frazier
The Hundredth Monkey, edited by Ken Frazier
Encounters with the Paranormal, edited by Ken Frazier
The UFO Invasion, edited by Frazier, Nickell, and Karr
Flim-Flam, by James Randi
Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, by Martin Gardner
Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, by Terence Hines
Secrets of the Supernatural, by Joe Nickell
The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, edited by Gordon Stein

(all above titles are available from Prometheus Books)

How to Think About Weird Things, by Schick and Vaughn

(available from Mayfield Publishing Co., 1280 Villa St., Mountain View, CA 94041)

  • Begin with class discussions of personal experiences or stories students have heard about the paranormal as well as individual thoughts on the truth of these claims. Have the students been exposed to claims of the paranormal, either firsthand or otherwise? How have they dealt with those claims? What were the consequences of hearing about or making those claims? Did they tell a parent or authority figure about the alleged occurrence and, if so, what was her or his reaction? What do they currently think about these claims? As a supplement to this discussion, you may want to talk about paranormal claims in the popular media (e.g., television programs such as The X-Files and movies such as Men in Black, Harry Potter, Atlantis and Independence Day.)
  • Have the students read the introductory book Maybe Yes, Maybe No. To check for comprehension, generate class discussion by asking students to put themselves in the place of Andrea (the main character) and her friends. How would they handle the claims about the haunted house? What would their reaction be? How might they go about evaluating and questioning these claims? What questions besides the ones Andrea asks might they pose? How would they fell if they were the ones making the claims (i.e., would they try to bolster the already insubstantial evidence with false claims)?
  • Assign readings on specific paranormal claims from various recommended readings lists and discuss them in class. Were the students able to understand the claims and relevant factors involved? What were their first impressions (i.e., were they convinced)? If they were convinced by the claims initially, what were the factors that contributed to this belief? If they weren't convinced, why not? Once the claims were explained in a rational or scientific framework, were the students still convinced by the original paranormal claim or did they come to agree with the "skeptical investigator"? Why or why not? Are there any other possible alternative explanations for the claim? (It is not the intended goal that students accept the socially desirable answer and side with the scientific explanation; rather it is hoped that students will evaluate both sides and generate their own beliefs, potentially devising pros and cons for each.)
  • Include a discussion on critical evaluation/skepticism in areas other than the paranormal, expanding the use of critical thinking to everyday concerns. While the paranormal provides one of the best avenues to teaching critical thinking, numerous everyday situations also require the skill. Discuss the following and any other relevant situations with students and have them come up with critical responses and evaluations:
  1. rumors heard in school
  2. discrimination towards minorities
  3. surveys, questionnaires, statistics
  4. truthfulness of advertising
  5. boastful people
  6. material taught in books and texts
Practice Essays

Once students have read and discussed several paranormal accounts, have them choose a reading and write a short report in which they answer some of the questions posed above.

Book Reviews and Oral Reports

Have students choose a paranormal subject and review a book on the topic. This may be either an individual or group effort. Set aside class time for them to go to the library and investigate potential sources. If the school library has insufficient materials on the subject, you may want to consider a field trip to a city or community library. The book review itself should include: a) a brief overview of the book's premise; b) reasons to believe the premise (e.g., reasons why UFOs or ghosts exist); c) reasons not to believe the book's premise; d) personal opinion. You may also want to consider having the students present the report in class.

Mini-Mysteries

Photocopy selected mini-mysteries from The Magic Detectives without the solution and distribute to students. Assign each student a mystery to read and evaluate overnight or over the weekend. Discuss the mysteries in class and generate possible solutions. Then read the solution to the class and discuss reactions and any alternative solutions.

Personal Experience Essays

Assign a critical essay about a "paranormal" occurrence in their own lives or the lives of people they know. The essay should include: 1) a brief description of the event; 2) initial reaction to the event; and 3) current reaction to the event, given what they have learned in class and through assignments.

Surveys of Popular Beliefs

Have students collectively prepare a questionnaire to survey other classmates, peers, and family about their beliefs regarding the paranormal. Students may either use direct yes or no questions about beliefs ("Does not believe in ghosts" vs. "Does believe in ghosts") or may include indirect questions, such as "Have you ever seen a ghost?" Once the questionnaires are completed and returned, have the students compile the results into averages.

Current Events

Have students collect articles and other information about the paranormal from various media sources (newspapers, television news reports, documentaries, etc.). Discuss any relevant materials at the beginning of each class.

Presentations and Skits

Have students act out convincing demonstrations and/or skits of various paranormal phenomena such as mind reading or ghost sightings. Skits should be left to the students' discretion, but in general, they may want to include a portrayal of the event itself, the claim, and the reactions and/or debunking by others.

Paranormal Creations

Assign group projects such as making realistic UFO photographs, preparing stock mind-reading analyses (as found in The Outer Edge), or making spirit pictures (as found in The Magic Detectives) to show others how paranormal phenomena can be faked.

Debate Session

Divide the class into two sections, one for and one against the paranormal, and have students debate an issue. For example, one side might be a group of people who have sighted a UFO, and the other could be scientific investigators attempting to provide scientific rationales for the sightings.

Television Reports

Have students watch popular television shows that include paranormal depictions (e.g., X-Files) and come up with possible explanations or ways of going about investigating a particular phenomenon portrayed on the show.

Local Paranormal Investigations

If there is a "paranormal occurrence" in your area, such as a haunted house or recent UFO sighting, arrange a field trip to the site and allow students to investigate the scene. Have students interview witnesses if possible.

Magic Show

If possible, invite a magician to class to demonstrate and discuss illusions. Discuss the difference between such entertaining situations as magic shows and illusions versus the manipulative and misleading analyses offered by so-called psychics, astrologers, and fortunetellers. Is one or the other more acceptable and why? How is this justified?

Special Event Field Trips

If you have a local science center in your area, watch for special events relating to paranormal issues. Often, planetariums and museums organize displays and offer discussions and seminars on such topics.

Supplementary Material

As available, supplement project materials with relevant films, documentaries and reading materials.


ABOUT CSICOP

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community, the media, and the public. It also promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues. To carry out these objectives the Committee:

  • Sponsors publications
  • Conducts public outreach efforts
  • Maintains an international network of people and groups interested in critically examining paranormal, fringe-science, and other claims, and in contributing to consumer education
  • Encourages research by objective and impartial inquiry in areas where it is needed
  • Convenes conferences and meetings
  • Conducts educational programs at all age levels
  • Does not reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, but examines them objectively and carefully

The Committee is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization, started over twenty years ago. The Skeptical Inquirer, published six times a year, is its official journal. The Committee maintains an international network of fellows, consultants, and affiliated organizations. Subcommittees are established to examine key issues such as health claims and alternative medicine, parapsychology, astrology, UFOs, and the media representation of paranormal events.