In Search of… sham inquiry & a public beguiled

I’m heading into my last semester in the Science and the Public Ed.M. program through the University at Buffalo.

It’s been an experience. I’ve kept track of all the concepts about science, people and the world that I never would have understood without this program. I’ll share that someday after it’s all over. In summary, I am constantly surprised at how much understanding I missed, even after obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree, having extensive scientific training on the job and being a long-time member of the science & skepticism community.

This last semester will be devoted to thesis writing. I’m actively collecting data right now for the project.

My research is on what I call “sham inquiry“. The only previous reference to this term was C.S. Peirce and Susan Haack who referenced Peirce. I think it has value over the term “pseudoscience” which can be confusing to explain and can get you into grey areas, or gradations, between orthodox science and cutting edge science. My interest focuses on how the public sees “science” as a process and source of reliable information about the world.

Having a fascination with paranormal topics since I could read, I associated the idea of sham inquiry with activities that are characterized as “paranormal research”. Around 2000, paranormal media blitz mushroomed. Dozens of TV shows, millions of web sites, themed movies, books, radio shows, societies, organizations, tourist attractions, etc., grew from the information passed all over the world by the internet – where anyone could have a stage or soapbox to stand on.

Just eyeballing the TV shows, we have Ghost Hunters, Monster Quest and UFO Hunters. These shows are different than those I grew up watching in the 70s but have their similarities. Similarly, science is used as a veneer, a descriptive word meant to lend credibility and seriousness to the subject. I believe this works on the public. They don’t know what science really is so they assume it’s “expertise” or “being serious” or “using fancy words and equipment”. But the new shows are different in that the “experts” are proudly touted as everyday folk. They are your plumbers, your kids’ teachers, the store clerk, your next door neighbors who don the equipment and venture out to face the unknown and mysterious.

I’ve seen so many of these shows that the prominent motif of the everyday Joe seeking answers about the supernatural and facing down his fears (or not), makes me roll my eyes. It’s so fake and contrived, fueled by ego and these people’s sense of life purpose and self importance. It’s not adding any knowledge to the body scientific.

I was interested in how many of these amateur investigation groups there were in the U.S. How many of them say they use “science” or are “scientific”? Could I find any evidence that this usage was more than just audacity? What does the use (or misuse) of “science” in this context mean for the person watching a TV show, participating in these groups or experiencing what they think are paranormal activities in their homes? I wanted to know if this is a serious problem. That means counting groups and taking a closer look at what they offer to their members and how they present themselves to the public.

I spent months researching references and learned a lot. But, now I’ve begun the website to website examination to see just what’s there. I’ll let you know what I find.

About idoubtit

Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.

0 thoughts on “In Search of… sham inquiry & a public beguiled

  1. You’re undertaken a monumental, but important, project. I think many people in the skeptical community are unaware of the vastness of this issue and of the problems that can result because of all of these groups. Moreover, if someone googles “ghosts,” they are going to be met with pages and pages of information that is provided by people engaging in sham inquiry. We clearly need to step things up a notch, to say the least, to get more quality information out to the public.

  2. Have you looked at the book Ghost Hunters of the South or Ghost Hunters of New England, by English Professor Alan Brown? The first book is profiles about 40 different groups in the US Southeast. Their origins, members, etc.. It’s not to the level of intensive ethnographic study, but would probably be a solid source for your work. The New England book looks similar but I haven’t read it.

    Scientific amateur clubs were a huge deal in the early days of flying saucers and then UFOs. That was the model in the 1950s and 1960s. After 1968, and the Condon Report (amongst other reasons), you have a decline of the small clubs, and you get more focus on “name” authors, which of course becomes even more important with the rise of abduction. But remember, these amateur clubs made more sense in the context of the time, when amateur interest in science was more common.

    I have some ideas about populism and the paranormal, but they’re a bit too long to write here.

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