Legitimizing ghost research: Scientism, sensitives, and cultural authority

As I wrote yesterday, sociologists and ethnographers are paying greater attention to paranormal communities. I commented on Bader’s analysis of Bigfoot seeking groups and their mix of naturalistic and paranormalist views among participants. Perhaps separation rather than mix may be more apt. The observation of different camps within a paranormal field is not new but since Bigfoot as an area of study is newer than ghosts, it’s worth a remark to explain why some will ignore or denigrate others in the same community even though they have a fringe topic interest in common. In a new essay collection related to the Supernatural in Society conference I mentioned yesterday, Marc Eaton contributed a piece describing a similar split in the ghost hunting community [1]. Not only does this parallel the Bigfoot community in several ways but it was interesting because Eaton focuses on his interpretation of scientism as prevalent and investigators who work at “being sciencey” (my words, not his) as a way of legitimizing their work. Unfortunately, Eaton doesn’t cite my preceding work that overlaps a lot with his observations but I’ll see if I can reach him to introduce it. Meanwhile, I must reiterate a few of his observations and quibble with a few others.

Eaton begins his article titled “Paranormal Investigation: The Scientist and the Sensitive” in the compilation edited by himself and Waskul by suggesting that orthodox religious participation is dwindling, losing to the popularity of more democratic and personal spiritualism practices. This correlation seems well established and, I agree, a key component in the rise in paranormal topics in the media. He sees paranormal investigators (I use the umbrella term “ARIGs” – amateur research and investigation groups – to encompass cryptozoologists and ufologists) as located at the intersection of this individualized spirituality and the adoption of scientism.

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Please don’t call me a Skeptic

Several people have asked me to explain why I now reject “Skeptic” to describe myself. In short, the label is limiting and is overwrought with mistaken assumptions of being elitist, arrogant, and closed-minded. Unfortunately, being labeled a Skeptic sends a signal to some to tune out what I might say by default because of the association with having a dismissive, know-it-all attitude, defeating any efforts at meaningful exchange over questionable claims.

The philosophy and process of scientific skepticism should be the unifying connection for the network of people who label themselves “Skeptics” and who participate in the associated activities and behaviors. I can’t see a clear mission or positive coherent message that unites Skeptics. This ongoing problem worsened in the past 10 years, reaching its low about 5 years ago with scandal, factions, and boycotts in what appeared to me to be a failure in leadership. Continue reading

Reactions to the Darwin Awards post: Really? These are your responses?

When you express any feelings and opinions online, no matter if girded by references and logic, you will have those commenters who must disagree, sometimes with colorful words and sentiment and often without substance. I think some people just look for ways to mouth off on Facebook when the rest of us just don’t bother to say anything. I sort of expected that my post “Why the Darwin Awards Must Die,” expressing the faulty premise of the Darwin Awards and my great dislike of them, would not be a popular sentiment. I was not in praise of it, but clearly against it and that would annoy its fans. Continue reading

You (didn’t) WIN: Jackpot scams from the car dealer

I’m usually pretty good at spotting the “small print” on gimmick mailers and promotional contests. The latest one from a local car dealership was well-hidden. I looked and looked. Got out my hand-lens and scanned the tiny print in the margins. Hmm. This one was sneaky.

Mail flyers from car dealers that say you’ve won cash or prizes are bogus ploys to get you to come to the business. This one, from Brenner Pre-Owned in Harrisburg, PA and addressed to “Future Customer”, contained a scratch-off ticket. Some contain “keys” that you bring into the dealer to try for a new car.

Alright, I’ll play. [Put on skeptical spectacles]

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The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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Trust No One: All news is doubtful

My main project, Doubtful News is on hiatus right now. (Update 22-Jan-2016: We’re back.) Honestly, it’s because I don’t have the motivation to keep up with the onslaught of questionable claims that are in the media. Twice this week, I was reminded by others of the following: 1. I am not alone in this and, 2. We are foolish to rely on the media for accurate information.

DN was designed to reach the “Googler”, the curious, the smart searcher. I wanted to show that there was more to these stories than just “they’re fake”. Early on, it was clear that DN could be a full-time job for me. In fact, it could be work for half a dozen people. But it wouldn’t make a profit because I was opposed to plastering the site with crappy ads.

After four years, I noticed a few things.

By covering news on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and the general paranormal I saw that these very poorly done, sometimes obviously hoaxed pieces came mainly from tabloids like The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and Huffington Post. Several reputable news sites would pick them up because they were great click-bait. They were like pre-packaged fast food snacks – devoid of nutritional value, pure filler, really not part of a healthy news diet. But for some, this is their main news feed. Continue reading

Media as ‘medium’: Review of Paranormal Media and the good and bad of ghost hunting

It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.

51m9mZYRf4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.

The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.

In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.

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Houdini. Skeptic. (Book Review)

magician spiritsHarry Houdini needs no introduction, but there are several facts that people do not know about this consummate skeptic. That makes this book a must for everyone interested in psychics and paranormal claims. Just the Introduction to this great book floored me. How much we needed Houdini at the time. How much we STILL need a Houdini today.

Houdini was open-minded. He admitted he wanted to believe. He strove to learn if the possibility that one could communicate with the dead was real. In an attempt to convince himself, he had compacts with 14 people for post-death communication. He was sorely disappointed that none ever reached beyond the grave to give him evidence he needed. Meanwhile the “mystifier of mystifiers” (a term disgustingly co-opted by Uri Geller, the unimpressive psychic performer) met all the most famous mediums of his time to test this elusive idea.

“Gladly I would embrace Spiritualism if it could prove its claims, but I am not willing to be deluded by fraudulent impostors of so called psychics…”

In this book, he outlines his adventures with them, how he learned their secrets, and how he applied his knowledge of the tricks the mind can play. He was part of the initial era of psychical research. Continue reading

Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

bhBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

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Imagineering cryptids: The Cryptozoologicon (Book review)

It’s not been the best year for the fans of real live cryptids. Not only did we NOT find Bigfoot again, we had a better explanation for the Yeti, and Sasquatch DNA samples that were a bust (Sykes) or a joke (Ketchum). The book Abominable Science inserted itself as the premier scholarly book on the topic. Unfortunately for the “knowers,” who have an indestructible belief that the mysterious creatures are out there, their evidence and conviction clearly suggest otherwise. Serious scholarly researchers are happy to have that excellent resource and now we have another lovely skeptical and highly entertaining book to add to our collection. The Cryptozoologicon by Naish, Conway and Kosmen. It is unique with brand-new original artwork and imaginative writing. I loved it. But then again, I would…

“Cryptozoologicon” means the Book of Names of Hidden Animals. This is Volume One. More volumes are possibly on the way (at least one more). The authors seemed to have great fun with this one.

The introduction is cryptozoology in a nutshell, with a smart, skeptical, scholarly point of view – the kind I prefer. Each entry is a summary of what is known or conjectured about the cryptid. Then the authors crank up the fictional biology to 11 and even push the limits of popular cryptozoo-ers (1), while remaining generally within the confines of zoology, to indulge in descriptions and illustrations of the proposed animals.

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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

Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed. 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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Want to shed the pseudoscience label? Try harder.

When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.

Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?

Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.

Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.

I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology. Continue reading

Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here. Continue reading

An actual good guide for young paranormal investigators

I like to occasionally check out the juvenile literature section of the local library to see what is in the paranormal-themed books for kids. I picked up this book from the library recently:
Ghosts: And Real-Life Ghost Hunters (24/7: Science Behind the Scenes: Mystery Files) by Michael Teitelbaum, 2008, and was pleasantly surprised. What a nice book for the curious kid aged 8-12. Continue reading

Monster Stories from Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the locale for oodles of strange stories, from the ghosts of Gettysburg to Thunderbirds of the northern forests, from the Jersey Devil sightings along the Delaware to UFOs in Kecksburg (and all across the state).  A 135-page book by Patty A. Wilson chronicles, specifically, Monsters in Pennsylvania: Mysterious Creatures in the Keystone State. As a monster fan myself (I hold a PhD in Cryptozoology from Thunderwood College [wink, wink], I was eager to check out the tales of local monsters. Continue reading

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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Solving Unexplained Mysteries: A review of “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by B. Radford

This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.

As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com)  as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.

This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Continuing miseducation classes

Where can you learn Photoshop, CPR and Civil War history all in one place at a reasonable price? Continuing education offerings at local community colleges include useful courses in computer and technology fields, healthcare and safety occupations, business management and languages. General interest courses are offered in history, gardening, hobbies and include local trips and tours. In terms of offerings to the community, that’s great.

Local community colleges offer affordable, good quality educational opportunities to those students who might not be able to attend larger campuses of higher education. The average citizen would reasonably assume that since these mostly non-credit courses are offered in affiliation with the college, they are taught by qualified professionals. The Continuing Ed course catalog is distributed by the college and, as such, dons the patina of respectability associated with the school. Continue reading