Center for Scientific Anomalies Research
© Copyright 1998 by Marcello Truzzi
What is Anomalistics?
The term “anomalistics” was coined by anthropologist Roger W. Wescott (1973 and 1980) and refers to the emerging interdisciplinary study of scientific anomalies (alleged extraordinary events unexplained by currently accepted scientific theory). The approach is today loosely represented by a number of independent organizations and publications, most notably: the Society for Scientific Exploration and its journal, founded by astrophysicist Peter Sturrock; science writer William Corliss’s multi-volume The Sourcebook Project; sociologist Marcello Truzzi’s Center for Scientific Anomalies Research and its journal Zetetic Scholar; editor Steve Moore’s Fortean Studies, and science writers Patrick Huyghe’s and Dennis Stacy’s journal The Anomalist. Those who take this approach are called “anomalists.”
Anomalistics has two central features. First, its concerns are purely scientific. It deals only with empirical claims of the extraordinary and is not concerned with alleged metaphysical, theological or supernatural phenomena. As such, it insists on the testability of claims (including both verifiability and falsifiability), seeks parsimonious explanations, places the burden of proof on the claimant, and expects evidence of a claim to be commensurate with its degree of extraordinariness (anomalousness). Though it recognizes that unexplained phenomena exist, it does not presume these are unexplainable but seeks to discover old or to develop new appropriate scientific explanations.
As a scientific enterprise, anomalistics is normatively skeptical and demands inquiry prior to judgement, but skepticism means doubt rather than denial (which is itself a claim, a negative one, for which science also demands proof). Though claims without adequate evidence are usually unproved, this is not confused with evidence of disproof. As methodologists have noted, an absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence. Since science must remain an open system capable of modification with new evidence, anomalistics seeks to keep the door ajar even for the most radical claimants willing to engage in scientific discourse. This approach recognizes the need to avoid both the Type I error – thinking something special is happening when it really is not – and the Type II error – thinking nothing special is happening when something special, perhaps rare, actually occurs (Truzzi, 1979a and 1981). While recognizing that a legitimate anomaly may constitute a crisis for conventional theories in science, anomalistics also sees them as an opportunity for progressive change in science. Thus, anomalies are viewed not as nuisances but as welcome discoveries that may lead to the expansion of our scientific understanding (Truzzi, 1979b).
The second key feature of anomalistics is that it is interdisciplinary. It is so in two ways:
1. A reported anomaly is not presumed to have its ultimate explanation in a particular branch of science. Once all conventional scientific explanations have been rejected, the eventual explanation for an anomaly may turn out to be something new but in an unexpected field. For example, data reporting experiments suggesting telepathy may eventually be best explained by a revision in our assumptions about statistics; or some reports of UFOs might eventually be best explained in terms of neurophysiology rather than astronomy or meteorology.
2. Anomalistics is also interdisciplinary in that it seeks an understanding of scientific adjudication across disciplines. This often involves not only the physical and social sciences, but also the philosophy of science.
Anomalists search for patterns in the acceptance and rejection of new scientific ideas, and this may involve the history, sociology, and psychology of science as well as the scientific fields themselves.
What Anomalistics Is Not
Anomalistics may best be understood by comparing it with some of the alternative approaches to anomalies. These would include three major organized groups: proponents, mystery mongers, and scoffers. Proponents of anomaly claims range from those involved with the occult and mystical to those who seek scientific legitimacy and are what I have termed protoscientific (Truzzi, 1972). Anomalistics is primarily concerned with the claims of protoscientists, for they seek entry into the scientific community and agree to play by the rules of scientific method. Perhaps the most advanced of the protosciences is parapsychology since it, unlike cryptozoology or ufology has obtained an affiliation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Protoscientific proponents are concerned with specific areas of anomalies and usually champion their significance for a single science (e.g., parapsychologists see themselves as revisionists of psychology), whereas anomalists may be interested in the same specific anomaly but frame it in a broader context and recognize that the anomaly examined may ultimately best be explained by another branch of science (for example, the data of parapsychology may turn out to be understood best in terms of quantum physics rather than psychology). Anomalistics attempts an integrative overview of all the protosciences and their relations with the accepted sciences.
Going further than the proponents, some who claim anomalies can correctly be described as mystery mongers. Many students of anomalies, such as those associated with Fortean groups (followers of the writer Charles Fort who catalogued what he called the “damned facts” that science dogmatically ignores) fit into this category. These claimants enjoy calling attention to what seem to be unexplained phenomena that show the limitations of science. Their writings give the distinct impression that even if a radically new scientific explanation could be found for these phenomena, it would produce disappointment rather than celebration. At their most extreme, their attitude is fundamentally anti-scientific, for such mystery mongers want to embarrass rather than advance science. Unlike anomalists, who see anomalies as a wake-up call that tells us of a need for new, improved and more comprehensive scientific theories, mystery mongers seek the extraordinary for its own sake. The mystery monger mainly wants to be entertained by nature’s “freak show” which stands outside the main entrance to science’s central “circus.”
In diametric opposition to the mystery mongers, who love things unexplained, there are the scoffers who seem to loath a mystery. Though many in this category who dismiss and ridicule anomaly claims call themselves “skeptics,” they often are really “pseudo-skeptics” because they deny rather than doubt anomaly claims (Truzzi, 1987b). While taking a skeptical view towards anomaly claims, they seem less inclined to take the same critical stance towards orthodox theories. For example, they may attack alternative methods in medicine (e.g., for a lack of double-blind studies) while ignoring that similar criticisms can be levelled against much conventional medicine (e.g., these scoffers rarely complain about the absence of double-blind tests for the results of surgery).
Many claims of anomalies are bunk and deserve proper debunking, so anomalists may engage in legitimate debunking. However, those I term scoffers often make judgements without full inquiry, and they may be more interested in discrediting an anomaly claim than in dispassionately investigating it (Hyman, 1980). Since scoffers sometimes manage to discredit anomaly claims (e.g., through ridicule or ad hominem attacks) without presenting any solid disproof, such activities really constitute pseudo-debunking.
A characteristic of many scoffers is their pejorative characterization of proponents as “promoters” and sometimes even the most protoscientific anomaly claimants are labelled as “pseudoscientists” or practitioners of “pathological science.” In their most extreme form, scoffers represent a form of quasi-religious Scientism that treats minority or deviant viewpoints in science as heresies (Truzzi, 1996).
What Anomalists Do: The Four Functions Of Anomalistics
1. Anomalistics seeks to aid in the evaluation of a wide variety of anomaly claims proposed by both scientists and protoscientists. It seeks to bring historical and sociological perspective to the issues, calling attention to non-rational factors and sources of bias often present among both proponents and their critics. It acts as a watchdog for violations of scientific rigor by all parties involved in the “litigations” over anomaly claims. Anomalists recognize that most anomaly claims are probably mistaken and stresses distinguishing between anomalies merely alleged and those validated. It recognizes, too, that evidence always varies in quality and degree, and it seeks to assess the weight of all evidence without the complete dismissal of weak evidence (such as anecdotal or experiential reports) that many scientists too often simply reject as totally inadmissable.
2. Anomalistics seeks to better understand the process of scientific adjudication and to make that process both more just and rational. A valid anomaly is just a fact in search of theory to explain it. And an anomaly is extraordinary only relative to what we view as ordinary. Anomalistics therefore recognizes that a claim can only be considered anomalous in the context of a specific scientific theory. An anomaly for which we can specify a theory that should be able to house or accommodate it but does not, is termed a nested anomaly (Westrum and Truzzi, 1978). Nested anomalies seem to contradict some accepted theories’ expectations and so may be denied by those theories. For example, a valid case of clairvoyance would be a nested anomaly because it violates currently accepted perception theory in psychology. It is important to recognize that a nested anomaly in the context of one area of theory in science may be considered less extraordinary in the framework of some other area of scientific theory. For example, clairvoyance, viewed as a non-local information transfer, may seem more tenable (less anomalous) to a scientist working within quantum physics. There are also unnested anomalies, those that do not contradict any accepted scientific theory but only appear bizarre and unexpected. For example, the discovery of a unicorn (here meaning merely a normal horse with a single horn) may be highly improbable, but such an animal would violate no accepted laws in zoology (as might a centaur). Since unnested anomalies seem strange or weird merely in terms of our psychological expectations, their degree of scientific anomolousness (extraordinariness) has been exaggerated by both the mystery mongers and the scoffers who dispute them.
3. Anomalistics attempts to build a rational conceptual framework both for categorizing and assessing anomaly claims. It examines the various approaches to extraordinary claims and differentiates those that stem from scientific, non-scientific and anti-scientific perspectives (Truzzi, 1972 and 1996). It gives much attention to developing a typology of anomalies and “unpacking” many of the concepts routinely used in discussing them. Anomalistics distinguishes extraordinary events from extraordinary theories about events. In looking at the former, it separates issues over the credibility of the narrator, the plausibility of the narrative, and the probability/extraordinariness of the event (Truzzi, 1978a). It clarifies terms commonly confused such as the supernatural, the natural, the preternatural, the abnormal and the paranormal (Truzzi 1977 and 1978b). And, perhaps most significantly, anomalistics distinguishes between cryptoscientific and parascientific anomalies (Truzzi, 1987a). Cryptoscientific claims refer to extraordinary things or objects (e.g., a yeti or a UFO), whereas parascientific claims refer to extraordinary processes or relationships between what may be quite ordinary things (e.g., a claim of mental telepathy or of a planetary influence on human personality). Such categorizations have important implications for our understanding of the assessment of anomaly claims. For example, a cryptoscientific claim is at least theoretically easy to validate (for one need capture and produce only a single giant sea serpent to establish its existence), but it may be difficult to falsify (for the thing may be avoiding detection or be elsewhere in the world); whereas a parascientific claim may theoretically be easy to falsify (e.g., an hypothesized relationship may not appear in an experiment), but it may be difficult to validate (for alternative explanations must be rejected and replication is usually demanded).
4. Anomalistics seeks to act in the role of an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) to the scientific community in its process of adjudication. Because anomalistics has no vested interest in either to the existence or nonexistence of any claimed anomaly, it is possible for it to concentrate on inquiry and the search for empirical truth rather than upon advocacy. Whereas other groups concerned with anomalies should properly act as attorneys for or against the claims, they sometimes improperly try to take the roles of judge and jury, too. Anomalists more modestly try to stand somewhat outside the disputes and examine the adjudication process itself. Their position is comparable to role of an amicus curiae in the legal system. In effect, anomalists file independent briefs to help the “court” (in this case the scientific community at large) arrive at better judgements. For example, anomalists may shed light on issues like how much and what sort of evidence should be necessary to prove what sort of anomaly, and whether the burden of proof science demands should merely be for a preponderance of evidence or (as is too often and perhaps even unfalsifiably demanded) proof beyond any reasonable doubt. It also can help us ascertain when evidence for or against an anomaly is either merely suggestive (interesting), or compelling (appears significant and likely), or convincing (appears to be valid.)
Hyman, Ray, 1980. “Pathological Science: Towards a Proper Diagnosis and Remedy,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 6, 31-43.
Truzzi, Marcello, 1972. “Definitions and Dimensions of the Occult: Towards a Sociological Perspective,” Journal of Popular Culture, 5, 635-646.
—, 1977. “From the Editor: Parameters of the Paranormal,” The Zetetic [now The Skeptical Inquirer ], 1, 2, 4-8.
—, 1978a. “On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 1, 11-19.
—, 1978b. “Editorial: A Word on Terminology,” Zetetic Scholar, No.2, 64-65.
—, 1979a. “Editorial [re Type I and Type II errors and the paranormal],” Zetetic Scholar, No. 3/4, 2.
—, 1979b. “Discussion: On the Reception of Unconventional Scientific Claims,” in Seymour M. Mauskopf, editor, The Reception of Unconventional Science [AAAS Selected Symposium 25]. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
—, 1981. “Editorial [Extra-scientific factors and Type II error],” Zetetic Scholar, No. 8, 3-4.
—, 1987a. “Zetetic Ruminations on Skepticism and Anomalies in Science,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 12/13, 7-20.
—, 1987b. “Editorial: On Pseudo-Skepticism,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 12/13, 3-4.
—, 1996. “Pseudoscience,” in Gordon Stein, editor, Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. Pp. 560-575.
Wescott, Roger W., 1973. “Anomalistics: The Outline of an Emerging Area of Investigation,” Paper prepared for Interface Learning Systems.
—, 1980. “Introducing Anomalistics: A New Field of Interdisciplinary Study,” Kronos, 5, 36-50.
Westrum, Ron, and Truzzi, Marcello, 1978. “Anomalies: A Bibliographic Introduction with Some Cautionary Remarks, Zetetic Scholar, No. 2, 69-78.