By Dr. Charles F. Gritzner

A fascinating array of unexplained phenomena—those for which explanation, at least as suggested by some individuals, falls within the realm of the paranormal or supernatural—generally are regarded as being “off limits” to respectable scientific investigation.  Rather than aggressively seeking scientifically derived responses to challenge those explanations offered by (often) “crack-pot” theorists, the scientific community, with but few exceptions, has avoided research and remained strangely silent on such topics.

Whereas such topics may be perceived as being “bizarre” and beyond the scope of scientific inquiry by some critics, many of them fall squarely within the purview established by traditional canons of science and scholarly inquiry including geography.  Some such phenomena fall within the realm of physical geography.  Others are cultural in nature, and subject to analysis within the context of such cultural themes as region, diffusion, ecology, interaction, environmental perception, and landscape.  Many enigmatic features or events have origins in folk culture, although some have been adopted by and often embellished upon by contemporary popular cultures.  Some features, such as UFOs, crop circles, and the chupacabra phenomenon, originated within and were perpetuated by contemporary society.   

One can seek information on a plethora of unexplained phenomena in literally thousands of books and articles, specialized periodicals, videos, on line, and in many other sources.  Numerous research centers [for some time, three were devoted to the study of crop circles alone!] and both professional and lay organizations exist for the study and dissemination of information pertaining to enigmatic phenomena.  Shops and hawkers cater to the interests of the “faithful,” specializing in printed and electronic media, T-shirts, jewelry, and other related items. 

SCIENCE AND UNUSUAL UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENA

Science, in essence, is a systematic attempt to explain the unknown.  The supernatural (transcending the laws of nature; attributed to an invisible agent, such as God, ghosts, or spirits); the paranormal (phenomena seemingly not able to be explained by accepted principles of contemporary science); the inexplicable or unexplained (incapable of being explained or accounted for on the basis of existing knowledge); and the anomalous (abnormal) have lured the curious, the dreamer, the explorer, and the scientist since time immemorial.  “Anomalies,” according to Richard Broughton, “are what fuel scientific advances.”   Yet, in his book Parapsychology:  The Controversial Science (London:  Rider, 1991), Broughton refers to such studies as being “intellectually unpopular,” and cautions that for a scientist studying phenomena on the margins of the acceptable, the most important “intellectual tool is an appropriate amount of `critical doubt’.”  With this contention, I certainly agree!

Research on paranormal phenomena, indeed, is generally frowned upon by the scientific community.  The late Dr. John Mack, former Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, was investigated by his institution—subject to possible termination—as a result of his popular book on alien abductions.  Since beginning my own research on various “paranormal” phenomena several decades ago, I have learned of several professors who have lost positions and/or have been relegated to the “crackpot fringe” purportedly because of their interest in the paranormal.  My own research (and position at South Dakota State University) was severely criticized on more than one occasion. 

“Great spirits,” as Einstein once commented, “have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” In regard to “impossible” happenings, simply consider for a moment . . . If we, as geographers, told a group of laymen that they were traveling more than a million miles an hour, they surely would believe we were daft!  Yet, the combined velocity of earth and solar system movement is known to be several million miles per hour.

Imagine the incredulity of someone living at the dawn of the 20th century and being told that human footprints would appear on the lunar surface within sixty-nine years, or that within a comparable time people would sit in the comfort of their own homes watching events from around the world, in color, and instantaneously!  Some “supernatural” phenomena of today may prove to be no more implausible than were these examples at one time.  We believe only what our culture allows us to grasp at any given point in time.

Our own discipline often has suffered from intellectual provincialism.  As a young student, I recall that Wegener’s theory of Continental Drift (1924) was disregarded by all “reputable” Earth scientists.  When, in the early 1960s, I presented a paper on Pre-Columbian New World Contact at a regional meeting of the Association of American Geographers, several of my LSU faculty colleagues cautioned that it would not be in my best professional interest to become “Another crack-pot on the lunatic fringe.”  Archaeologically, until recent decades there was a near universal belief that the earliest Americans arrived via the Bering Strait land bridge some 10-15,000 years ago.   

Yet today the theory of plate tectonics (“continental drift”) is no longer questioned; numerous pre-Columbian New World contacts—via both Atlantic and Pacific routes—have been established beyond reasonable doubt; and the route (coastal?) and date of initial entry (20,000+ years ago?) into the Americas is undergoing serious challenge as new evidence is unearthed.

A GEOGRAPHY OF UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENA

Figure 1. The plane is about to disappear. They question is “Why?” (Photograph was taken by Zok Pavlovic)

The purpose of this paper is to propose that explanations for a diverse array of unexplained “unusual” phenomena might be discovered through application of traditional scientific rigor and geographic research.  I am unaware of any other geographer who has paid serious (i.e., “scientific”) attention to unexplained abnormal phenomena (1).  Yet many such features or events exist that appear to be ideally suited to traditional geographic analysis.  J. K. Wright, in his 1946 AAG Presidential Address, “Terra Incognitae—The Place of the Imagination in Geography,” urged geographers to reach beyond the traditional topics of study.  He noted that:

In the periphery that lies outside the core area of scientific geography there are alluring terra incognitae. . .we may at least extend our interest and encouragement to those who daringly strike out upon other routes. . .All science should be scholarly, but not all scholarship can be rigorously scientific. . .the Terrae incognitae of the periphery contain fertile ground awaiting cultivation. . .

 FEATURES THAT LEND THEMSELVES TO GEOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS

My serious study of “abnormal” unexplained features began with a list of approximately 350 that was soon narrowed to 22 topics.  Ultimately, 12 to 15 features were selected, based on a rather rigid set of research parameters.  In order to qualify as being “geographical,” features had to meet the following criteria:   

  • Must exist, or be at least allegedly “tangible” in some form;
  • Must at least appear to exist beyond the traditional realm of human understanding and (at least to most observers) defy logical explanation using contemporary scientific knowledge;
  • Must have been witnessed or experienced by multiple observers (preferably over an extended time period);
  • Must have either a physical (natural environmental) or cultural (group belief) manifestation;
  • Must be a feature/condition that lends itself to traditional geographic and scientific methods of analysis  

In essence, the criteria should conform to those normally associated with geographic research and teaching.  Features, for example: 

  • Can be described in terms of their nature and characteristics;
  • Can be mapped, making possible spatial analysis designed to identify revealing patterns of distribution; 
  • Can be analyzed, with particular attention given to distribution patterns that may reveal relationships, including associations with one or more elements of the natural environment and/or culture(s) with which the feature is associated;

Finally, when studied geographically, the features perhaps can be explained in rational terms.

In studying paranormal phenomena, the human factor also must be taken into consideration.  The following factors often play a significant role in what is seen, experienced, or believed:

  • Culturally based belief systems;
  • Group and individual perceptions (“Seeing is believing,” it often is said, but do we “see what we believe, or believe what we see?”)
  • Psychological receptivity:
  1. Conformist responses (one looks up, everyone looks up—and may see. . . )
  2. Collective delusions (belief in some strange, unexplained event that is “taking place,”   e.g., UFO’s)
  3. Mass hysteria (group response to collective delusion)

THE ULTIMATE QUESTION

In conclusion, the ultimate question is, “Are they (Is It) Really Out There?”  In many instances, we simply do not know.  I do believe, however, that a great number of unexplained phenomena are “out there” (i.e., exist in some tangible form) and that they beg serious scientific study and rational explanation.  For too long, so called answers to most paranormal questions have been provided by non-scientists for whom such elusive agents as “UFO’s” or “extraterrestrials” are offered in explanation.  The scientific community itself generally has looked askance at its practitioners who have transcended the boundaries of what is regarded as being “reasonable” and subject to “rational” analysis.  This provincialism has discouraged serious academic research on abnormal phenomena.  

In the case of the crop circle “enigma,” application of a geographic perspective–asking basic questions about location and relationships between and among phenomena–has provided new dimensions to my knowledge of this intriguing phenomenon.  Whereas I cannot claim to have completely “solved the mystery” of their origin, I do believe that my research (and that of some others) has contributed some very plausible answers, specifically that they all are of human provenance.    As a cultural geographer, I further suggest that in regard to the abnormal unexplained, many current scientific paradigms of Western culture may be inadequate to explain all reality.  New data must be considered, new perspectives must be developed on the analysis of old data, and new theories must be proposed.  We must always keep an open, yet cautious, mind while expanding our sphere of research interests to these intriguing–and in many instances soundly geographic—sets of unexplained phenomena.  No mystery is ever closed to an open mind.  Yet, as Art Bell noted, “Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out!”

(1) See my review of Dr. Gritzner’s latest book on paranormal in Ghosts, Lights, Legends, Conflict.

Unexplained Phenomena As Popular Culture