The following essay is the result of a question received from an anonymous reader of this website. The reader asked "What do you think about all the new websites offering to certify investigators for paranormal research?" My response follows:
Many paranormal researchers have taken the position that certification in the paranormal field is ridiculous. There are no standards established so who can say what should be accepted or rejected? We ridicule the idea that anyone would even consider paying for a course in paranormal investigation in order to attain a certificate issued by the training organization. But is this a valid approach? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by taking this stand.? Might a valid argument be made FOR certification?
I received a question via e-mail from a fellow investigator who asked me to address the certification issue here on this website. At first I was going to echo the opinion offered by many others, including myself, that certification is simply a money making scam that some have come up with to take advantage of other investigators. But then I began to take the devil's advocate position, might there actually be a benefit in gaining certification? I believe there can be a case made, and I also believe a precedent has been set in other more accepted fields of study.
To begin, I must emphasize I am referring to those who DO seriously strive to provide training. Certainly, as in all fields, there are those who don't measure up to any kind of standards. These must be identified and exposed for the sham they are. My discussion here is limited to those who do make this attempt, do provide legitimate training, and do keep informed with changes as they develop in paranormal research.
Consider first of all there are methods and techniques used by some investigators which certainly fail any kind of scientific test. Some of the pareidolia boxes and the misuse of standard test equipment are two areas which comes to mind. Using basic understanding of scientific principles these can be identified. Yet the practice continues because many simply don't have this understanding. A properly oriented training program might go a long way toward clearing up this problem.
Another area which training can address is how to investigate. There are accepted methods related to evidence handling and record keeping which are used by anyone who deals with such materials. Police and detectives are well aware of these methods. The same protocols can be applied to paranormal evidence as well. An investigator can also be shown the proper way to interview witnesses. How and when to ask and not ask leading questions is one technique that can help get to the bottom of a case. Certification of one who has successfully completed courses in these areas is certainly warranted.
Those who investigate unusual or strange events also need to know certain things about the environment where these events take place. Everything from weather patterns to building construction can affect the case. The investigator needs to know how to identify ways these may influence his observations.
The proper use of equipment is another area where training is essential. Too many have no idea how their measurements are generated and what they mean. As a result much false data is created, all of which simply serves to make serious researchers look like amateurs.
The point is that every one of these areas is something where definitive training and methods already exist. There is nothing subjective about them. Consequently the debate about who determines the standards do not apply here, standards already exist. It is simply a matter of a training organization setting up a ciriculum that teaches them. And there is not much of an argument that can be made against granting certification to anyone who successfully completes a training program that covers this type of information. Other institutions grant such certification to students daily in their particular fields of endeavor.
Another argument often used against paranormal certification is that much of the field is uncertain; that is we really have no idea what is happening nor do we understand what forces may be at work. That may be true, but we also have a basic understanding of how many things do work as well. It is also a fact that the majority of so-called paranormal events are not that; rather they have very real causes that, with a little investigation, allow us to identify the force at work. Yet we are called in to investigate by those who simply don't understand what they are experiencing. Thus most of our work involves nothing paranormal at all. The same areas discussed previously apply, and these are very real with definitive standards and can be taught as absolutes. Certification here is entirely appropriate.
But what of those which seem to defy explanation, those we don't understand? Allow me to draw a parallel with another field where certification and degrees have been a factor for centuries. The medical field has used such standards very successfully. Do they fully understand everything about medicine? Obviously not or we would have eliminated disease and likely would live 200 years or more. Yet the doctors are still considered experts and attain a wide range of certification in their field. What a doctor does do is keep abreast of the latest developments in his field and apply them to his practice. Is that any different than what a paranormal investigator should do? I think not. And as changes and new information comes along the paranormal investigator must adapt to the changes. Just because we don't have the final truth does not negate certification. Keep in mind a hundred years ago the certified doctor practiced blood-letting as medical procedure. Times simply change and all of us must adapt. In fact a certification program might even help promote the exchange of information that brings about that change.
Of course the scientific side will bring up the more esoteric side of the paranormal; the mediums and psychics. They consider them the fringe, the subjective, with no way to prove their claimed abilities. How in the world can we ever certify them?
In fact the medical field has its own version of them in its midst as well. Consider the opinion of most western doctors just a few years ago regarding accupunture. The same holds true today with procedures such as bio-feedback and some other highly controversial areas of health care. They generally may take an interest but consider it outside the mainstream of medicine. Yet each of these areas have those who support it. They may even have their own certification within that particular field. Yet they remain outside the generally accepted medical field. But in some cases the medical mainstream is taking notice. Some things are being accepted, or at least considered. And one reason is because many of these fringe areas have taken a scientific approach on their own to prove their case. Certification has helped them gain validity within the medical community.
The same applies to the mediums and psychics. They often take the stand against certification because their methods can't be quantified. But is that really the case? Or is it simply because they have chosen not to study what they do from a scientific point of view? They just do what they do, and by taking this approach actually do themselves a disservice. They remain associated with carnival side shows and crystal ball mystics.
As a comparison, consider the accupuncturist. For years they simply poked needles at certain locations. Nobody bothered to ask why, they just knew it worked. But when modern science got involved and started asking why it worked some reasons became apparent. There was found to be science behind it after all. And that is gradually bringing it to the attention of the mainstream. Might the same thing happen if the mediums and psychics applied science to their area as well? Science involves study, and certification is a result of successful completion of a program of study.
So the solution might come by several types of certification. Let the scientific side certify those who take a scientific approach based on the use of scientific principles. And let the mediums develop a program based on their beliefs. Let them study what they do and come up with a means of certification based on their effectiveness as mediums. Because even subjective abilities can be tested using scientific methods. Mediums can prove their abilities by their success or disprove them by their failures. Consistent failures simply mean that such abilities don't exist; it's all just wishful thinking. But consistant success is indicative of a scientifically provable fact; and when science can get hold of something that moves it from the fringe area to mainstream. The mediums, sensitives, and those who practice these abilities might, as the fringe areas of medicine are doing, gain more strength in support of their side by educating and certifying those who prove themselves. Like mainstream medicine has started to do with some of its fringe areas, the scientific side of the paranormal may be forced to take notice.
So it comes down to developing a set of standards for paranormal research. Who sets them? Answer is we all do. We base them on accepted standards in various areas, adapt those as needed, and build from there. They won't always be right, nor will they be permanent. Like in all fields, things do change, adaptations must be made to reflect those changes. People are trained using the current standards in place at the time. Even your doctor has to continue his education after being certified. But that doesn't mean he doesn't get certified when he completes his initial training.