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. 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.

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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”.

The “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings: A geological perspective

As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely-known idea originated from a variety of places and in alternative flavors. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths the notion (good or bad) will take that results in propelling it into mainstream popularity. Then, the idea can take on a life of its own whereby many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings often invoked by amateur paranormal investigators or mentioned on ghost hunting TV shows.

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A Guide to Ghost Hunting Guidebooks: NO MORE! Please!

This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.

In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?

First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.

Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.

I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences.  In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:

1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)

2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)

3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)

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Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?

Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?

lmtI’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.

There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.

I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.

The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.

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Paper on Amateur paranormal investigation groups: Being Scientifical

I finished my thesis last year on amateur paranormal investigation groups. Many of you have requested copies. It can be purchased but not many would want to spend the money for that so I’m giving it away via PDF.

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Scientist states he has explanation(s) for sky noise but it only sounds sciencey

I’ve been closely following the story of strange noises from the sky that flared up in January. I wrote about them on Doubtful News.

The noises are widespread, varied in type, sometimes able to be explained and sometimes known to be hoaxed. But, because this spate of anomalies (a Fortean Flap, if you will) is in the so-called apocalyptic year 2012, the phenomena has attracted the acute attention of conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and people just concerned that something weird is happening with the planet.

Though the sky noises phenomena is fading away – the receiving frequency of these claims are lowering like the Doppler effect – reports are still trickling in.

Followers of sky sounds were excited by the news that an actual scientist who sounded like he knew what he was talking about described the causes of strange sounds.

Reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor, unfortunately, this article immediately raised a slew of red flags with me and others who are sensitive to what real science looks like and how not so established ideas try to dress themselves up in sciencey getups. A cursory look revealed that this piece has hallmarks of pseudoscience and creates far more confusion than clarity.

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Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Continue reading

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer

There are some ideas that are so silly that one REALLY wishes they didn’t have to be addressed at all.

An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.

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