“Hello, Ms. Hill,” said the man at the registration desk before I had a chance to give my name. “We’re glad to have you here.”
So much for flying under the radar. I’m the skeptical one at the Fringe New Jersey one-day conference. I’m used to this, though, having gone to several paranormal-themed events. Why do I attend? As I said in this review of an academic parapsychological conference, I came to learn and explore evidence and ideas from new points of view. It’s always interesting. Listening to those who don’t think the same way you do is the key to understanding the bigger broad view regarding why we believe and why it matters. I don’t have to talk, just be part of the audience eager to hear what the invited speakers have to say.
There were five presenters this day. Each got to speak for an hour which is rather nice. They all had long, complex stories to tell, so the extended time accommodated this. Each story had a tone and purpose, contained information put forward as supporting evidence, and had a conclusion. Stories with arcs like these are not typical of scientific conferences or even skeptical conferences. For those, the audience is walked through information about a specific concept or hears a proposal with an argument, supporting evidence, and findings in an objective, usually detached, tone. The emotive story is clearly more appealing to a general audience. But, it can be trying to those listening who find your story to be a bunch of BS. I disagreed with many of the fringe ideas presented but I still learned a great deal and was entertained.
The first speaker is the only one to which I had strong objections. Karen Herrick is a PhD psychologist (not sure if that’s what her PhD is in), reverend, and therapist who seems like a very nice, well-meaning person who contends that the concept of the “silver cord” that supposedly connects us to our soul or astral body is analogous to the vagus nerve of the body. She started her talk with a prayer, immediately alerting me to the framing of this talk. Glancing around the room, I guessed there were only about 3 or 4 other non-theists in the audience of around 70. I should have read her bio because it was all about Spiritual Psychology, Jung and “working with chronic grief using eye movement techniques”. Pure pseudoscience top to toe.
Herrick’s talk rambled, beginning with accounts of people saying they experienced near death visions from Heaven and then meandering to psychic mediums, and finally to her research on the vagus. In addition to reading verbatim from slides (a habit that irks me tremendously), she favorably mentioned celebrity mediums Theresa Caputo and Sylvia Browne, and included a slide featuring Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. Recommending books by Colton Burpo and Eben Alexander, she called these “wonderful stories” (I call them fiction instead of non-fiction). She stated matter of factly that the Akashic records exist, and that people who experience NDEs become electrically sensitive and obrain what amounts to special powers. Of course, she announced, there were spirits with us around the room. She quotes the Bible and references a TV movie as support for other claims.
She can believe whatever she wants about Heaven and souls and seek spiritual enlightenment however she pleases. But then she crossed a line. Well, several lines. She invoked science in an attempt add credibility to her fringe ideas.
“The science of NDEs,” she said, “tells us that we are all energy”. Ridiculous and false.
Nothing sets me off more than people who sound sciencey in order to promote woo-woo. But Herrick isn’t just being scientifical. Her “belief and theory” about the vagus nerve is informed by her reading, but confirmed by the spirits she asked directly. Clearly Herrick is unqualified to be putting forth speculation about the workings of human nervous system but yet she does it with confidence, invoking nods of agreement from the audience. Then, she reveals that she sends some of her clients suffering from extreme grief issues to psychic mediums because that “helps” them. This is disturbing.
By the end of her talk, which was full of scientific inaccuracies, misinformation, and the woo-woo buzzwords like “vibrations,” “energy,” and “ions” (which she pronounced i-ans), I concluded she was unqualified to be giving advice about anything to anyone.
Thankfully, we moved far away from that infuriating display of bombast to a more reasonable talk – a story involving three friends, Ouija board experiments, strange events and a possible manifestation of a thoughtform or tulpa. (Yes, I’m being facetious but it did seem eminently more reasonable.) Robert Damon Schneck’s talk was about a friend’s set of experiences that appeared to take on a life of its own. He called it a true story, but that’s not really correct. Schneck had written the story into permanence and then sold the film rights. The movie, Bye Bye Man will have a January release and, according to Schneck, takes great liberties as “based on a true story” tales do. We aren’t asked to judge the veracity since he never pushes the “true” aspect – it’s fun whether you believe it or not – that’s why I liked it. I also appreciated that Schneck looked into the accuracy of the details, finding that the story told through the Ouija board didn’t correspond to real life events (leading to the tulpa option – that the sitters created the entity). I appreciated that Schneck compared the story to that of Slenderman and he suspects the movie drew heavily off this. Those in the crowd who are prone to become emotionally invested in FOAF stories probably found the idea of an evil thoughtform gaining massive exposure (and, thus, lifeforce) quite frightening. I didn’t. It must be exciting to be able to believe it and have such a colorful conceptual addition to your worldview. Then again, I won’t experience nightmares and anxiety over these fears and can keep the story in the context of human imagination.
Michael Clelland’s talk about owls and UFOs was strange, loaded with powerful stories that obviously connected with the audience. Clelland believes (with admittedly no scientific basis) that owls are somehow connected to UFO sightings and abduction claims. As proof, he has many stories and his own experiences. I don’t have much to say about this talk except it was an curious idea without basis in established fact. Clelland is an extreme pattern seeker who speaks in an emotional tone much like a preacher giving a sermon. The ideas of synchronicity and mind control, etc., are not ones I give any credence to, but the audience seemed to love it and many bought his book.
Regarding the only academic speaker in the lineup, I thought the conference host committed a rather serious faux pas by introducing Professor Brian Regal as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.”. But, he didn’t show offense at that. Instead, Regal boldly chastised amateur researchers for their poor methods. He demonstrated this by being the only speaker who used primary sources (“the bread and butter of historians”) to support his argument that the Jersey Devil is not some mysterious monster in the Pine Barrens but derives from political slander of prominent colonial New Jersey landowner and businessman, Daniel Leeds. The idea of the “Jersey Devil” creature was concocted by showmen at a Philadelphia dime museum. Regal gave a humorous talk that was primarily about the history of New Jersey because that history is essential to understanding the JD’s lineage. It’s not what people expected to hear, but I think they appreciated the information. I’m pretty sure, however, they did not like the anti-climatic conclusion (derived via critical evaluation of the claim) that there is really no monster. Yet, as we all concede, people will keep reporting and hunting for the creature, which is a whole other story in itself.
Brian and I had a discussion later over dinner where he reiterated the importance of sound research. [The next episode of my podcast 15 Credibility Street will feature snippets of this conversation.] The clues and ultimate answers to a question or mystery are not always found in the obvious places. Finding the facts behind the JD certainly did not entail hiking through the woods, as self-styled cryptozoologists do. It meant digging through archives and historical records even outside the U.S. to derive proper context for documented facts that will illuminate the conclusions. That difficult and careful method of research was in stark contrast to the other speakers’ methods. The same lax research methods can be seen in almost all popular material about cryptozoology, and paranormal subjects.
Rosemary Ellen Guiley was the final speaker. Her presentation was on her latest co-authored book about Zozo, the demon from the Ouija board. Rosemary is something else. She is a fine presenter. I can listen to her all day; she rarely misses a beat. She is highly skilled at making speculation sound factual and plausible. Guiley is also big on emphasizing symbols and correlations – technical glitches were attributed to Zozo – and she assumes paranormal causes. But she didn’t claim to be scientific, so I can’t fault her for her delivery. However, it’s suspicious that several claims (such as the behavior of the Ouija board and the claimed influence of an evil force causing more than usual bad luck or trouble in a person’s life) are testable, but they never are tested. Since the topic was a historical demon, Guiley did eventually produce some historical references for the Zozo claims. I picked up the Zozo book in order to look more at those so I can’t speak to their usefulness yet. I’ll try to review it in an upcoming post.
Obviously, Guiley is a crowd-pleaser. She throws absurd zingers into the narrative with remarkable ability to deflect any application of critical thinking. The confidence with which she relays supernatural claims floats people right down the river without resistance – unless you are trained to spot unsupported or questionable claims. Why does Zozo respond to invoking Jesus? Doesn’t the fact that witnesses can’t agree on a description of Zozo mean it’s not real? There wasn’t much time for questions. And there’s wasn’t much room allowed for practical skepticism. Rosemary controlled the framing and message entirely.
The audience didn’t care about verification. They chose to (mostly) believe. It’s human nature to select those facts that support their belief, and this situation was typical. The audience was vocal, often agreeing out loud, nodding and remarking to each other regarding certain statements (except the one guy who picked his nose incessantly and got flustered when Dr. Regal mentioned vaccination as one of THE greatest human achievements). They liked to call out things they knew related to what the speaker said, an indication of the satisfaction people get in seeing their beliefs reinforced in a social setting. People do not come to these events to be challenged or have their paradigm shifted. They come to drink up more of the same views they already subscribe to. In my case, I still love the topics even though I don’t accept them as genuinely paranormal. I was there to observe and enjoy the presentations. Was I convinced by any of the speakers (not counting Regal since I’ve heard his argument previously)? Nope. My worldview is not accepting of extraordinary claims on such weak evidence since it’s highly probable they are false. In that way, I have a very conservative worldview.
For some, the fun, fringe, nebulous, even contradictory, ideas are readily taken in without much consideration or filtering. I visualize their worldview map as random-shaped concepts of all sizes and colors overlapping in a chaotic abstract manner. The resolution of the result is fuzzy. On the other end of the resolution spectrum are those of us whose worldview consists of intricately-fitting puzzle pieces of facts and conclusions that form a coherent picture. We bristle at and reject those concepts that are unsuitably reliable and do not fit. The picture is clear and our filters are strong. Which way is better? That depends on what you want to get out of life. Though it’s less work to not employ filters all the time, I’m content to be a critical thinker who tries to get the most reliable information, that closest approximation to the truth, and to understand how everything all interacts. Many people at the Fringe con perhaps don’t hold that same goal. They are fine with an approximation or a presumed explanation for how it all interacts. They remain eager to embrace all sorts of information, believe in what sounds good at the time, and seek to have experiences they perceive as outside the ordinary.
That’s not wrong, just different. Most of us are all OK. Most of us (maybe not the nose-picking guy, he asked Brian about inter-dimensional Bigfoots and I think he was serious).
As always, I encourage those on the conservative thinking side to visit paranormal-themed events as observers. It is necessary that we recognize the importance people place on belief in their lives and how those beliefs influence society as a whole. If we value genuine understanding, we should make attempts to understand others who are not of similar beliefs. That’s why I visit the fringe regularly.