Anomalistics & Periphenia*

Knowledge changes over time. Ptolemaic cosmology gave way to the Copernican view of the universe. Lamarck’s worldview overtook the Creationists view of biology, which, in turn, was replaced by Darwin’s. Quantum mechanics has superseded Newton’s classical mechanics. The cognitive revolution in psychology has left the behaviorists behind. Every time, a new model, offering more intension, control, predictability and falsifiability replace the old, less scientific one. At the very heart of these revolutions is the study of anomalistics. Marcello Truzzi, a former professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, has written cogently on the anomalistic perspective:

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).

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.

Truzzi,, Marcello. “Anomalistics: The Perspectives of Anomalistics.” Skeptical Investigations. 1998.

The anomalist endeavors to avoid both Type I and II errors (false positives and false negatives), errors in deductive reasoning, as well as informal fallacies and cognitive biases. It is a rational agnosticism, a balance between dismissing nonsense while being open-minded that the anomalist constantly strives for. Differentiating protoscience from scientism (i.e., pseudoscience) is where anomalists tend to find themselves drawn.

In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new “fact.” Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of “conventional science” as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis –saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact–he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.(Truzzi 1987, 3-4)

Truzzi, Marcello. “On Pseudo-Skepticism.” Zetetic Scholar, 1987: 12-13.

This echoes Wittgenstein’s admonishment that “[w]hereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Sadly, today new ideas (perhaps revolutionary ones) are often subject to ridicule, ad hominem attacks, and scientism, instead of granting them a respectful agnostic silence. Type I errors are commonly debunked (which is great), while Type II errors are mostly ignored or ridiculed, ultimately remaining uninvestigated (which is not so great).

Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, calls this tendency toward Type I errors “patternicity” although there are already terms out there to describe this tendency, like the term “pareidolia” from psychology. Nazi psychiatrist Klaus Conrad’s term for this same phenomenon was “apophenia”. However, with all this focus on Type I errors, there seems to be a noticeable lack of attention paid to terminology for the equally, if not more dangerous, tendency toward Type II errors. For those of us that wish to be wary of both kinds of error, I should like to coin my own inkhorn term, “periphenia”, to describe this tendency of humans to make Type II errors, or in other words, to miss meaningful patterns in data.

The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness. (Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace)

Narratives, theories, or models about the world and human life take various forms: religions, scientific conjectures, statistics, philosophical paradigms, etc. These abstract representations of reality and are essentially a form of analogy, with some models delivering richer, more reliable information than others. Analogies are central to the way humans think. Analogies and models have a deep influence on how we see reality. The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, presents a model of how all that we see came into being; Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species presents another model of how all things living that we see today came into being—very different models that yield very different results, or rather consequences. As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter says, analogy is “the lifeblood” of thought (“Analogy as the Core of Cognition.” In The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science, edited by Dedre Gentner, Keith J Holyoak and Boicho N. Kokinov, 499-538. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book, 2001).

However, analogies will always only be approximations; they’re not reality. The menu is not the meal. With any theory, expectation, or model of reality there exists a gap between what is real and what is representation—between sign and signfied. While the true scientist, philosophical truth-seeker, and noble rhetorician actively seek models and paradigms that better fit reality, there are also those that seek to manipulate models to their advantage—e.g., politicians who persuade you that they will implement effective governance but deliver the opposite, salespersons who convince you that you need their product only to leave you with buyer’s remorse, or a financial or epidemiological model that destroys economies because it hadn’t been properly stressed or back-tested (or worse, had faulty premises to begin with).

As much as one thinks that businessmen have big egos, these people are often humbled by reminders of the differences between decision and results, between precise models and reality… While many study psychology, mathematics, or evolutionary theory and look for ways to take it to the bank by applying their ideas to business, I suggest the exact opposite: study the intense, uncharted, humbling, uncertainty in the markets as a means to get insights about the nature of randomness that is applicable to psychology, probability, mathematics, decision theory, and even statistical physics.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan. New York: Random House, 2007, p. 268

The nascent field of Financial Engineering (disclosure; the author earned a Masters degree in Financial Engineering) which builds valuation and risk models for large investment banks and financial market movers has taken a lot of flak for the Long-Term Capital Management debacle of the late 90s and the 2008 crisis in global credit markets—an illustration of what can go wrong when models are not properly calibrated to reality. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan describes at length the anomalies—the “black swans”—that plagued the models created by financial engineers, such as the impact of unusual disastrous events like 9-11 or COVID19. Anomalies, however, can be a real blessing to those that are inclined to pay sincere attention to them. As economist Deirdre McClosky notes, metaphor is the most important example of economic rhetoric; metaphors are what economists call ‘models’ (The Rhetoric of Economics. University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

Scientific development depends in part on a process of non-incremental or revolutionary change. Some revolutions are large, like those associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin, but most are much smaller, like the discovery of oxygen or the planet Uranus. The usual prelude to changes of this sort is, I believed, the awareness of anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. University of Chicago Press, 1977

In the gap between rhetoric and reality lie anomalies, paths to revolutionary knowledge. Anomalies are at the heart of what the esteemed philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls “scientific revolutions.” For instance, Newton’s awareness of the falling apple (whether myth or fact) exposed a portion of reality that had been unexplained by the scientific model of the world current then. Newton had found an anomaly, and he revolutionized the way we understand the world. We are still fascinated by the unusual or “anomalous” today. Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers is also about anomalies (Gladwell 2008), although of a different kind from Taleb’s “Black Swans” (Taleb 2007); Gladwell spotlights improbable successes, while Taleb’s “black swans” are improbable disasters.

The gulf between our analogies and our reality shapes our thoughts and, consequently, our world. It is important to focus on how we come about our knowledge of reality and how that knowledge might be distorted by variances in our expectations and other assorted problems. The lifelong martial artist in me sees this as a lesson in the basics of mental self-defense.

Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings. And so we watch one man after another walking down the same paths and we know in advance where he will branch off, where walk straight on without noticing the side turning, etc. etc. What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus . Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. Mc Guinness. London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.

*Originally published 2009 in Anomaly: Revolutionary Knowledge in Everyday Life, updated 2020.