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.
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.
dictionary defines paranormal phenomena, or "the paranormal,"
as phenomena beyond the range of what is scientifically known
or recognizable ("rare," "unusual," "supernatural").
phenomena generally include bizarre or unusual occurrences that
do not have an apparent or obvious explanation.
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
term "paranormal" is often invoked in cases where rational
explanation and evidence are not readily available or are difficult
- Unidentified flying
- Ghosts and haunted
- Bigfoot, Ogopogo,
and the Loch Ness Monster
- Time travel
- Guardian angels,
fairies, and elves
- Spontaneous human
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.
of respondents who believe in:
Roper Reports, July 1997
of any of the following do you believe at least to some degree?
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)
- Popular belief
- Rumors and urban
legends (e.g., the haunted house down the street)
- Natural curiosity
(e.g., playing with Ouija boards, holding seances with friends)
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.
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.
method consists of the following steps:
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
of fatalistic thinking and the establishment of a sense of personal
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.
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
- 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
Level: Middle School
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
Level: Middle School / High School
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
- 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
Level: High School
Magic Detectives: Join Them in Solving Strange Mysteries! by
- 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,
- Promotes rational
over irrational thought, science over superstition
- Generates discussion
and offers assignment suggestions
Level: Middle School
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"
- Concludes that
there is no credible evidence for the existence of UFOs
DISCUSSIONS AND ASSIGNMENTS
copies of Science Kit materials are also available.
Outer Edge, Beyond Belief, and the Skeptical Inquirer
magazine are available from:
/ Skeptical Inquirer
PO Box 703
Amherst, NY 14226
Magic Detectives, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, and Bringing UFOs
Down to Earth are available from:
59 John Glenn Drive
Amherst, NY 14228
Yes, Maybe No
UFOs Down to Earth
issues of Skeptical Inquirer
more information on pseudoscience and the paranormal you can contact:
/ Skeptical Inquirer c/o Barry Karr
PO Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226
(716) 636-1425 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Borderlands of Science, edited by Ken Frazier
Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Ken Frazier
Hundredth Monkey, edited by Ken Frazier
with the Paranormal, edited by Ken Frazier
UFO Invasion, edited by Frazier, Nickell, and Karr
by James Randi
Good, Bad and Bogus, by Martin Gardner
and the Paranormal, by Terence Hines
of the Supernatural, by Joe Nickell
Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, edited by Gordon
above titles are available from Prometheus Books)
Think About Weird Things, by Schick and Vaughn
from Mayfield Publishing Co., 1280 Villa St., Mountain View, CA 94041)
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)?
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
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
- rumors heard
taught in books and texts
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.
Reviews and Oral Reports
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
available, supplement project materials with relevant films, documentaries
and reading materials.
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:
- Conducts public
- Maintains an international
network of people and groups interested in critically examining paranormal,
fringe-science, and other claims, and in contributing to consumer
- Encourages research
by objective and impartial inquiry in areas where it is needed
- Convenes conferences
- 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.