Anyone even peripherally associated with the unexplained knows that we anomalists, as a whole, have a fairly serious crisis of credibility. In spite of some truly compelling information amassed over the decades, our theories are frequently met with derision and incredulity.
Sadly, we are too often our own worst enemies when it comes to portraying the paranormal in a serious fashion. Whether it's giving unnecessary attention to dubious "evidence" or something as simple as failing to engage as critical thinkers, we must all be aware of how our behavior reflects upon the community as a whole. Too often, even the most sensible of us inadvertently reinforce the stereotype of the "crackpot UFO researcher," the "tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist," or the "superstitious ghost hunter."
Unfortunately (and fortunately), we can't control the actions of others, and can only claim responsibility for ourselves.
In honoring that responsibility, I propose anomalists take a serious look at something which is simple to implement but could have a lasting effect on the perception of our field: language.
Here are three words to use less—not words that should be eliminated from the paranormal lexicon, just ones I'd like to see less frequently.
Are you a quantum physicist?
You are? Okay, use this word all you want to.
You're not? That's cool, too. Would you mind dialing back on how much you use "quantum?"
I understand how attractive the word can be. After all, it seems like hardly a day goes by that what we've been proposing for years—that reality is subjective and parallel dimensions might exist—isn't reinforced by new findings in quantum physics.
The problem is that just because you call something "quantum" mean it is, and it certainly doesn't answer anything. When used too much around anyone with even a cursory interest in physics, it sounds like the term is being used to spackle over holes in your logic. So when you say, "Aliens use quantum drives to disappear from our time-space," you're just giving skeptics more ammunition.
BONUS WORD: "Vibration." This one is a lot like "quantum" in that it does have some legitimate descriptive power, but is too often used in a vague way that dilutes its true heft.
That brings us to another term that we should use more sparingly. Micah Hanks has long used the terms "big s Skeptic" and "small s skeptic" to differentiate between those who are open-minded and inquisitive about the world around them (skeptics) and those who shut down any ideas which threaten to upset the current scientific paradigm (Skeptics). Long ago I adopted Hanks' nomenclature, and I think there's a lot of descriptive power in it. At the same time, I suggest we refine those terms a bit more.
I consider myself a (small s) skeptic. People continue to see strange things. Aliens? Maybe. Maybe not. A giant ape in North America? Maybe. Maybe not. News flash: saying there's something unexplained about UFOs doesn't mean you believe in aliens from Alpha Centauri. Saying there's something unexplained about bigfoot doesn't mean you think Harry & the Hendersons is non-fiction.
True skeptics are people who don't automatically accept claims on face value, but are open to ideas that fall outside of consensus reality. In the larger scientific world, Dr. Michio Kaku is someone I admire and would put in the category of a "small s skeptic."
In Hanks' model, folks who write off anomalous phenomena whole-cloth—folks like James Randi and Ben Radford—fall into the other camp, the Skeptics. This is the term I suggest we abandon. I propose that in reality, there should be only two terms: true skeptics and debunkers.
Anyone who immediately falls back upon ridicule and willingly ignores compelling data is a debunker. Let's just call it like it is, folks. In this model, even folks like Stephen Hawking are debunkers.
Please note: this isn't to say that these individuals are undeserving of our respect, nor that they aren't brilliant people in their own right. They just aren't engaging with anything outside their paradigm, and are locked into their orthodox world views, such as when Hawking proclaimed that "philosophy is dead" or that UFOs are only seen by crackpots. An incredible, yet narrow, mind.
Listen—I don't think everyone has to "believe" this stuff. I just want folks to acknowledge the data and to admit uncertainty. That admission of uncertainty is essential, regardless of how well ensconced our own views are in the society at large.
Let's call true skeptics "skeptics" and reactionary Skeptics "debunkers," and champion folks with open minds.
This word is tied directly into that notion of uncertainty: "proof."
One of the worst things we can do is to say that a document, photo, or video is "proof" of something. It isn't. I'm sorry, it just isn't, particularly in today's world where every high school student can grab a copy of Adobe Photoshop or After Effects and upload their work to the internet.
It breaks my heart to admit it, but there isn't proof of aliens, bigfoot, faeries, UFOs, lake monsters, etc. Now, that isn't to say there aren't bits of evidence that suggest these things have an objective component—there is quite a bit of that—but nothing has been proven.
The only anomalists who get to flirt with the word "proof" are those whose research meets scientifically-established rigor, i.e. the peer-review process. So far, the most consistent peer-reviewed data is in the field of consciousness, and I would venture to say that a lot of research is very close to "proving" the non-locality of consciousness, in spite of what mainstream science tells us.
(As a side note, I'm aware that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but sadly the world of consciousness research keeps having its goal posts moved back by the establishment. The work of folks like Dean Radin, Pim van Lommel, and Rupert Sheldrake is consistent and revolutionary enough that the entire world should be taking notice. Unfortunately, it isn't.)
Despair not, anomalists! We can still use the P-word with conviction from time-to-time. A document circulated around the NSA talking about UFOs may not be proof that UFOs are real, but it is proof that the government has an interest in these phenomena. A plaster cast of a 19-inch footprint isn't proof that bigfoot exists, but it is proof that some type of phenomenon left that impression.
So, language check: X comment by General Y isn't proof that an alien craft crashed at Z, but it may be highly suggestive of that. This photo of a blurry blob in a forest isn't proof that bigfoot is stealing your chickens, but it is compelling.
All this being said, I'm incredibly hopeful that, about at least some of the phenomena I've mentioned, we can break out the ol' P-word someday in the future.
This post may have ruffled a few feathers. I'd love to hear feedback. Anyone who disagrees, or thinks we should add more words—I'm all ears.
“It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.” – Richard P. Feynman
Image courtesy of http://lisibo.com/2012/09/building-spanish-dictionary-skills/