ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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WYSIWYG - pronounced 'wizzy-wig' - is a term most commonly used in computing. It stands for What You See Is What You Get. It refers to the idea that what you see on the computer screen is the same (or very close to) what appears when you print it out.

WYSIWYG thinking is a similar idea but applied to life in general and the paranormal in particular. Specifically, it means trying to understand things by taking them at 'face value'. So, with WSYIWYG thinking one might conclude that the Earth is flat because that's the way it looks. Of course, we all know that the Earth is really spherical and it is never more convincingly demonstrated than by seeing a photo of it from space. Although the Earth was shown to be spherical centuries ago by various means, the image of the planet from space is still a much more powerful argument. We humans have an in-built tendency to trust what we see as being reality.

So what has this to do with the paranormal? To illustrate, take the example of orbs. When someone, who is not a photographic expert, first sees orbs in their photos, they are usually puzzled. Some people think orbs are reflections or bits of dust on the lens or maybe a camera fault. Other people think they could be paranormal, particularly if the circumstances suggest such a connection, eg. the photo was taken at a haunted location.

It turns out that all of these possible explanations are wrong. They are all based on the observation of the circles in the photograph itself combined with some other knowledge (eg. of reflections, dust, camera, the location, etc). The problem is that phenomena like orbs require a bit more research to be explained. You need to go beyond the WSYIWYG approach, which is seeing an effect or phenomenon and combining that observation with some widely-held common knowledge.

The gap left by science

Science has shown us that almost nothing is just the way it looks. Every object you see, and the air you can't, are made up of tiny invisible atoms. The sun doesn't rise out the ground every day and cross the sky - the Earth rotates on its axis. Obviously, most people know these things because they are 'common knowledge'. However, when it comes to the paranormal, 'common knowledge' lets us down.

It is 'common knowledge' that 'ghosts are spirits'. However, this 'common knowledge' is not supported by real evidence and is, in fact, largely derived from legend and fiction! Unfortunately, science has not, so far, provided definitive explanations for paranormal phenomena. This is probably why legend and fiction fills the gap in 'common knowledge' instead.

Essentially, the WYSIWYG approach looks at an 'effect' (or phenomenon) and 'explains' it from 'common knowledge'. Science, by contrast, attempts to reproduce the effect by testing various theories experimentally. The WYSIWYG approach might work occasionally, more by luck than anything else, but the scientific one should work nearly all the time. That's because the scientific approach looks for factors other than the effect itself - factors that are not immediately obvious but are nevertheless present.

With orbs, for instance, all we have is the circles. We cannot usually see the dust responsible when we take photos. However, it is possible to reproduce orbs by scattering dust close in front of a camera lens while taking a flash photo. The dust shows up as 'orbs' because it is out of focus and strongly illuminated by the nearby flash. Thus, science can reproduce the conditions of orb formation using only conditions known to be present when orb photos are taken. What is more, the 'orb zone theory' can be tested because it makes predictions that cannot be explained by rival theories (such as 'orbs are spirits').

Personal experience

Personal experience forms an important part of the WSYIWYG approach. We humans learn by personal experience, which works fine for most things in everyday things. However, such an approach is limited to simple cases of 'cause and effect' - like hitting a ball into the air. However, with most things the effect is visible but the cause is not. Science demonstrates that hardly anything is WSYIWYG and that personal experience is often a poor guide to reality.

Personal experience can be very powerful. If you see a ghost for yourself, it can be hard to accept that it could be a misperception. Our brains can fool us so well that we truly 'see' a 'ghostly figure' that is, in fact, a tree viewed in poor light. We really 'hear' a voice in a snatch of sound, when it is really a recording of a distant table being moved or paper crumpled.

Going beyond WSYIWYG

Personal experience, and WSYIWYG thinking in general, which can be difficult to overcome, are not definitive guides to the reality of the world around us. Because of the 'science gap' in the paranormal, WSYIWYG thinking gets too big a role in paranormal investigation. This is seen in assumption-led investigation methods.

Scientific methods can be applied perfectly well to the paranormal, an example being 'magnetic ghosts'. It was observed, in the laboratory, that certain magnetic fields could stimulate ghost-like hallucinations. Just such fields have been found at a well-documented haunted location. This sort of approach goes beyond WSYIWYG thinking. It shows that the 'effect' (a ghostly sound) can be reproduced by factors not immediately obvious when it is being witnessed.

It can be difficult to break free of WSYIWYG thinking, particularly if you are not used to the scientific method. However, the first step is simple - drop any prior assumptions and set aside any personal beliefs about what you are investigating. Instead of investigating a 'haunting' as a whole, look at each reported incident in turn and see what could specifically have caused it. This approach may deliver some surprising conclusions, like the 'magnetic haunting' stuff.

© Maurice Townsend 2009