Big Picture Science: Being sciencey

The latest episode of Big Picture Science radio show/podcast is called “Flat Earth” and features several interview segments about how amateurs are questioning scientific authority and attempting to sound sciencey all the while. Why do they do this? It’s complicated. The rise in flat earth belief is a good framework for this episode. This new conspiratorial claim is clearly not about science ignorance and lack of education – we all were taught at least this basic earth fact – but it is about the rejection of authority. They are refusing that established narrative and substituting their own personal ones. Evidence is seen through their own two-dimensional lenses.

Check out my Spooky Geology piece on the Flat Earth: Anti-globular convictions: Flat Earth belief explodes in popularity

We also covered this on the podcast regarding Mad Mike Hughes’ attempt at “proving” the earth is flat and the convention of flat-earthers.

The show also spoke to Dr. Neil Gemmell who is collecting samples of Loch Ness to extract environmental DNA. This is also a topic I wrote about (see “The Science of Nessie: Then and Now” on this site) and we discussed on the podcast. Be sure to check out the entire backlog of episodes at 15 Credibility Street.

So this Big Picture Science episode featured various topics in which I’m particularly interested and have some experience. So, it only made sense to include me too! Dr. Seth Shostak and his team contacted me a few weeks ago to arrange an interview about my new book. I sent him the book and we connected at the local NPR affiliate studio to record. Much of the discussion has been cut to fit the format, as these things go, but you can listen to the entire program here. Or just my portion here.

If the strange dichotomy within amateur investigators to both respect but disrespect science intrigues you, you really must get my book, Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Paranormal Researchers. I know it’s a high price tag but please consider it in support of my entire body of work – aimed to examine and understand science + society. Support really means a lot. There is much more work to be done here. But first, I plan on doing an experiment of my own supporting a spherical earth: I’m heading to Australia to show that it really exists. Yes, in the surreal and absurd world of conspiracists, the giant island continent and, presumably everyone and everything on it, is a lie. There have always been such extremists who live in a pseudo-reality but the Internet has made these flights of fantasy mainstream.

I’ll be at Paracon Australia this weekend. And talking at the Victoria Skeptics Cafe in Melbourne, as well. Exciting! Follow my adventures on Twitter @idoubtit and on my public Facebook page.

The Science of Nessie: Then and now

By coincidence, I was reading an old book on Loch Ness that I found in a used bookstore while the news broke of a new scientific project to take place on the lake. The book from 1977 – Search at Loch Ness by Dennis Meredith – was an overly sunny view of the Academy of Applied Sciences work over many years spearheaded by Robert Rines. Using sonar and underwater strobes and cameras, this crew produced most notably the 1972 “flipper” photos and the 1975 body and head (“Gargoyle”) shots among an array of odd sonar traces, all of which they sold to the scientific world, the British House of Commons, and to the public as proof of a large unknown animal that deserved further attention. Oh, how things have changed since this book! Continue reading

Let this one be a Devil’s biography (Book Review)

The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster
Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2018

Only in very recent years, thanks to Bill Sprouse and Brian Regal, has the connection to Daniel Leeds been made to the Leeds Devil which later became the Jersey Devil – the official demon of New Jersey. The story about Leeds’ alliances, his nasty break with his Quaker neighbors, the production of a controversial almanac, and his family’s feud with Benjamin Franklin has been colorfully described primarily by Regal, a science historian. The premise of this volume is that the Jersey Devil is a beast spawned not from a demon seed but from freethinking, politics, a hoax, and the media.

I’m sold on the idea that the legend of this devil was formed from these threads that reached far back to pre-USA times. But it’s not the story most people have heard. There was no Mother Leeds, no devil child, no cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens. But there was a notable and chastised family, probably some monstrous births, some Native folklore, and a climate of susceptibility that nurtured the myth we have today.

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I didn’t take a picture of the “mountain lion”

A common critical observation in cryptid circles is as follows:

With everyone having readily available technology in their pockets or within reach, there should be plenty of high-quality imagery of cryptids (or mysterious entities of any type) if they really are around as claimed.

Yesterday was one of several instances where I saw something that may have been intriguing but failed to get documentation of it. It led me to think less of (but not dismiss entirely) the claim that we should have more visual evidence. Firstly, it is factual that there are more security cameras, game trail cameras, and other automatic visual recording devices operating today that should, logically, obtain interesting footage. There are many outstanding examples of trail cams that have captured rare animals, animals outside of an assumed range, and remarkable situations that have proved enlightening. Those cameras aren’t thinking. My incident, which I believe others frequently experience as well, shows that our very human attempt to make sense of what we see results in missed documentation. Continue reading

A modern encyclopedia of popular ghostlore (Book Review)

Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend
June Michele Pulliam and Anthony J. Fonseca, Editors
Greenwood/ABC-CLIO, LLC 2016 403pp, Index.

This is an encyclopedia with alphabetical entries that explore mostly “tales and motifs” in popular culture from early writings to modern media. The entries are well researched and cross-referenced so the reader is able to see themes emerge throughout. I read it cover to cover as well as using it as a references for a paper reviewing paranormal trends over the past decade. While quite long, I read a few entries per day. – it’s a great bedside table book (if you don’t mind the red ghostly eye staring at you). The book intends to show the breadth and depth of ghostlore and its influences from society and other cultural influences.

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Reading list for paranormal investigation and research

In a recent discussion with a paranormal investigation group, I found myself referencing recommending books to check out for the latest on interesting facets of the field. I decided to share this annotated list. Continue reading

Big black cats of the Southern U.S. get their own book (Book Review)

Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America
Michael Mayes
Anomalist Books, 2018.
Paperback, color illustrations, 221pp

Right now was a GREAT time to release a book about the subject “black panther”. I’m being sarcastic because if you Google the term, you get nothing but returns on the comic character and movie*. The “black panther” that author Michael Mayes (TexasCryptidHunter) writes about is the generic term for a big cat (specifically a leopard or jaguar) with black coloration. The color is caused by melanism, which is a recessive allele in leopards and dominant in jaguars. Overall black color has never been found to occur in lions, tigers or pumas (cougar/mountain lion). Since leopards are not native to North America and jaguars are in Central and South America (with a rare few wandering as far north as the southernmost areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), large black cats would be considered “cryptids” because it is doubtful they exist. Science be damned, people report seeing large black cats all over the US (and also the UK, and in 2012-3 the French Riviera.) There is an array of reasonable explanations for these sightings but, as with any cryptid, people who have such experiences eventually settle on their own interpretation and many are convinced they have seen a dangerous predator in the form of a black panther. Continue reading

Paranormal stories and the TV shows list – the end

Two updates:

Today I received some emails from people who wanted to tell me their paranormal stories. I have to say, no, I don’t want to hear any more stories. There are a MILLION stories; I can’t do anything with stories. They are, in practicality, worthless to me. Decades, even centuries, of stories about hauntings, monsters, and weird observations are available, yet they get us no closer to establishing reliable information. However, if you are in the PA/MD/NJ area and need help with an actual investigation, please contact Anomalies Research Society and we’ll see what we can do to help. Or, if you have very good original information that you know will be useful to me in terms of science and the paranormal and know my previous work, then feel free to pass it on. Also, if you propose a worthwhile project related to investigating these type of observations, then I’m listening. Otherwise, I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer positively to hear your personal story. Paranormal investigation through personal anecdotes is not worthwhile for me but there are PLENTY of other people who are interested. Contact them instead.

Secondly, over the past two years, I’ve noticed a surge in paranormal programming that goes straight to YouTube, Amazon Prime video, or Netflix streaming, bypassing network broadcasting. Often these get renamed or repackaged for other countries or are amateur ventures. Though they are very popular (these outlets can’t seem to get enough of them), I realized I can no longer accurately keep track of them. Originally, I set up the Paranormal TV list to track the escalating trend in these shows that occurred in the 2000s and to see what stations carried that ball. I used other internet sources who kept tabs on the new shows coming out. But the rules have changed and I no longer need the list so I have ceased updating it as of this year. I am pleased to say the list was used not only for my work but by Dr. Christopher Bader in the 2nd edition of Paranormal America as well as thousands of people who clicked on the list to find their favorite show in the mix or muse on just how many there were.

Georgia river monster report is highly suspicious

Since none of the major news outlets are doing justice to this story and I have the day off for snow, I might as well put these pieces together about a so-called “mystery monster” report from Wolf Island, in southern Georgia on March 16. The first report I saw was from local outlet First Coast News via KHOU:

A man from Waycross, Georgia found his own version of the Loch Ness Monster on Friday while at Wolf Island.

Jeff Warren was out with his son on a boat near the Barrier Islands going around Wolf Island when he saw what he thought was a dead seal.

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A rarity: An impressive and useful ghost guide (Book Review)

Steve Parsons appears to be on the same page as me about the poor understanding of ghost investigations by amateur investigators. He wrote a detailed and very readable book with the aim to show that this kind of sensationalized paranormal inquiry should not be confused with parapsychology or science: Ghostology: The Art of the Ghost Hunter (Steven T. Parsons, 2015,
White Crow Books, UK).

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Observing Paranormal Investigators: An ongoing research project at SFU

A recent piece published in University Affairs magazine (Canada) entitled “Making sense of the paranormal” was about the rise of academic interest in paranormal culture and the people who participate in it. Of course, this caught my attention, particularly, the work of Dr. Paul Kingsbury of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. which was described as follows:

Dr. Kingsbury is nearing completion of a four-year study funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant to observe paranormal investigators. He’s gone on a dozen ghost investigations, attended numerous UFO and sasquatch conferences, and driven around rural England to visit crop circles. He’s looking broadly at who gets involved, what motivates them and how they share their data.

I emailed Dr. Kingsbury to make sure he was aware of my newly-published results in this area. He was. He pointed me to a talk he gave in March 2017 on his preliminary results. I recommend having a watch of this worthwhile discussion. Dr. Kingsbury, a geographer, used the framework of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “university discourse” which is one of four discourses or social links he proposed. I need to read more on this. Essentially, it means that there is a social bond founded in language. Kingsbury is researching the ghost-, Bigfoot- and UFO investigation groups (which I called ARIGs) at a more personal level than I did by conducting interviews and directly participating in the events. Where my intent was to examine how these groups use science and then portray that to the public, Dr. Kingsbury is digging into why people get involved in paranormal investigation, who they are, and how the groups and conferences represent their work. So, it’s obvious there is considerable overlap, but each of our projects is complementary to the other in forming a larger social picture of 21st-century paranormal culture in North America (and Western Europe, we can safely extrapolate). Continue reading

Narcissistic America (Book Review)

“An organization suffering under the whip of an abusive or egomaniacal leader,” Jeffrey Kluger writes, “is hardly an organization functioning at its best.” Keeping the near-boiling caldron (of the leader) from bubbling over means minimizing experiences of shame and maximizing displays of pride and hubris and attacking those who upset the balance. Sound familiar? The book The Narcissist Next Door begins on page 1 with Donald Trump. It was published in 2014! We are living out this book today in the form of the Narcissist in the White House.

It was crystal-clear prior to his election that Trump was an exemplary narcissist. He had an overinflated ego regularly on display. As Kluger notes about narcissists, their confidence level exceeds their performances; and they don’t learn from experiences. Ego protection is of the utmost importance. If they didn’t think of the latest good idea, they will steal the credit for it. Continue reading

Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

Lisa Morton presents another version of the history of ghosts in Ghosts: A Haunted History (Reaktion Books, London, 2015). In this case, it is an international popular history of ghosts in philosophy, literature, movies, television and pop culture. It is general and short, but good. The glossy pages are full of illustrations. The theme of this, and other contemporary books on paranormal culture, is “ghosts are everywhere”. They certainly are ubiquitous in western pop culture. You can’t watch TV, go to the movies, or visit a historic city without bumping up against them! Continue reading

Occulture and re-enchantment ties directly to the rise in amateur paranormal investigation

A theme that fits in incredibly well with Scientifical Americans and the modern popularity of paranormal topics are the ideas of occulture and re-enchantment put forward by Christopher Partridge. I came across a YouTube lecture by Dr. Partridge that points out some of the well-established factors in the growth of esotericism that can also be applied to the swell of people who, prompted by TV shows and internet forums, got up and went out to have their own experiences in a search for meaning. Continue reading

Errors in investigating: What you see is all there is

I received a personal message from a paranormal investigator who thought it was a shame I didn’t believe in the validity of spirit communication. He pointed me to a video he made that he said was the clearest responses he’s ever received in an EVP recording. I’m always looking to either be impressed or spot an obvious hoax so I checked it out. Upon noticing that he had included subtitles in the video, I quickly put my hand up to cover the lower portion of the screen while watching so I wouldn’t be primed to “hear” what (he interpreted) the spirit voice had said. I did hear the first sound he interpreted, a very rapid “What?” in response to his opening inquiry because I saw the subtitle signalling it. It was so soon after his question, it felt out of place and I think I would not have noticed it had he not pointed it out. For the rest of the video, without the priming, I could not hear any anomalous voice, just background noise of insects or wind outside the structure. When I told him I was not impressed, he seemed stunned. To him, these voices were crystal clear.

I would not have thought much about this exchange again except it served as a great real life example of the concepts put forward in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. As I was reading it today, the well-tested observations of human perception and thinking habits he explained applied directly to paranormalists and their methods of reinforcing their paranormal worldview. Here are some examples.

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Video of my Scientifical Americans talk and a point some people miss

Just added to my videos page is my talk at the National Capital Area Skeptics.

I love the way it’s edited to end with the best question of the talk: What would it take for me to believe in paranormal activity?

But one thing has been bothering me. Several commenters, even those at the talk, seemed to miss a point I tried hard to make: why this is an important topic even for those who think the paranormal is all nonsense.

About half the U.S. population believes in something of a paranormal nature. HALF! That is nothing to ignore. It’s influential in our culture and is an important part of many people’s worldview. That isn’t going to change. It’s a legitimate effort to find out what and why they believe and how that affects our entire society. The way paranormalists use sciencey things to look professional and authoritative to the public is a reflection of how science is valued in our society. But it also reveals how poorly people understand what science is and how it works.

“Being scientifical” is easy and effective. It’s working. People think Ghost Hunters are “scientific”. They seek out these self-styled paranormal “experts” to solve their perceived paranormal problems. The public is buying into those people playing pretend scientist. That is concerning to me.

In today’s climate of baseless information presented daily as “news”, the disregard for legitimate authorities, a national sense of disenfranchisement, and credentials needed only from Googling, it is not pointless to examine matters of worldview, scientific credibility, and modern spirituality. This is an important topic to examine and consider.

Please purchase the book here.

The Invisible College

On the lookout for additional examples and extra information to support the ideas I write about in Scientifical Americans, here is another example from the real world of “being scientifical”.

Bob Rickard writes in Fortean Times (#357) about how the Royal Society of London (1660) had in its principle members an interest in anomalous phenomena. A network of correspondents, called The Invisible College, studied such extraordinary claims much like individuals on the Internet study them today. The Royal Society marginalized such investigations to focus on hard sciences leaving the “vague, variable and intransigent” subjects to other organizations [and eventually, amateurs].

Ghosts are getting awfully lazy these days

On the lookout for additional examples and extra information to support the ideas I write about in Scientifical Americans, here is another example from the real world of “being scientifical”.

This is what’s considered evidence for paranormal activity these days?

Ghosts are getting really lazy.

This video was publicized by The Mirror (UK), a sensationalist tabloid and notoriously click-baity website.

Ufology today… all fringe and no middle

On the lookout for additional examples and extra information to support the ideas I write about in Scientifical Americans, here is another example from the real world of “being scientifical”.

Peter Brookesmith’s column in Fortean Times (#357) entitled “Ufology today: all fringe and no middle” says that the modern topics on the MUFON conference agenda – like reptilians and shapeshifters and the heavy plod into exopolitics and disclosure – has as much to do with scientific investigation as his cat has to with “breeding racing snails”.

Sometimes, an alien artifact is just a rock

Paranormal investigators often lament the lack of scientific interest in anomalous or paranormal claims. Many have stated they want to contribute to a shift in thinking about these anomalies, to “prove to science” (or scientists) that “the paranormal” exists. Some want to “change the science”. None of this makes any sense, though, since science is not a monolithic thing, it’s a body of knowledge, a process to obtain that knowledge, and a network that collects, analyses and distributes that knowledge. A few arrogant people can’t overturn centuries of accumulated knowledge and an established process by their collected anecdotes and bits of questionable evidence.

It’s also a mistake to say that science hasn’t paid any attention to such claims. As I describe in my book Scientifical Americans, the most reputable scientists diligently examined and argued the reality and explanation for encounters with ghosts, UFOs, sea serpents, and Bigfoot. They found nothing worth pursuing.

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