A Phantasmagoria of Scientific Jargon, Sleight of Hand and the Ol’ Scientistic Bait & Switch

“The horrors that (Mr. Clarke) witnessed in the dreary laboratory were to a certain extent salutary; he was conscious of being involved in an affair not altogether reputable, and for many years afterwards he clung bravely to the commonplace, and rejected all occasions of occult investigation. Indeed, on some homeopathic principle, he for some time attended the seances of distinguished mediums, hoping that the clumsy tricks of these gentlemen would make him altogether disgusted with mysticism of every kind, but the remedy, though caustic, was not efficacious.”

- from The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

A recent piece on LiveScience.com presents a study by Paul Brewer, a professor of communication at the University of Delaware, where participants were given one of four write ups, three dealt with a paranormal investigation, the fourth was on a different subject. One write up contained “science’y’ sounding terminology to describe the event, one couched it in metaphysical terminology, and the third, was the same as the first, only it contained a rebuttal from a science’y sounding authority. As we would expect when tested later for their belief patterns in regard to the paranormal, the authority of science jargon won the readers over in the first one, folks weren’t as convinced of the second, and in the third one science jargon was trumped by supposed scientific authority with a name attached to it.

“The participants…filled out a questionnaire. Compared with the other groups, those who read the first scientific-sounding version of the article were more likely to answer that they believed in the paranormal and haunted houses. They also were more likely to characterize the investigators’ work as scientific and credible, Brewer found.

“One key finding of this study is that media messages invoking the trappings of science can construct scientific authority even for pursuits regarded by mainstream science as pseudoscientific,” Brewer wrote in his study published online Sept. 7 in the journal Science Communication.

But Brewer found that a rebuttal from a reputable source can undermine such “trappings of science” that make ghost hunters sound convincing. The participants who read the third version of the story —  the one that sounded scientific but also quoted a skeptic — were less likely to see paranormal investigators as credible than those who read the first scientific version, the study found.”

What does this have to do with parapsychological investigations? Besides being a nice center piece for some rhetorical sleight of hand, I’m not really sure.  As often happens when an article like this gets put out, folks jump on it with a bait and switch maneuver to confirm some awkward triumph for radical skepticism.  Taken to their most basic components, however, all we find is that the experimental results show people primed with a stimulus demonstrate greater receptivity to that stimulus later, especially if the stimulus is given credence through authoritative language, and that even when supported by authoritative language, this stimulus response can be mitigated by direct opposition from a named authority. Isn’t this just basic PR?

The writer of the LiveScience.com piece would like us to conclude, or so it appears, that parapsychology (at least that portion of the field dealing with phenomena surrounding hauntings) is pseudo-science, and that it is our (mis)use of language that allows it to continue as a field of investigation. The writer seems to draw this out further by indicating that we are to somehow tie the various paranormal television shows to the aims of serious parapsychologists, which, following this line of reasoning, are the product of delusory support from dubious authorities.

A more penetrating analysis of the data from Brewer’s study would be to see how the results reflect the folks reading a website like LiveScience.com, as well as Brewer’s own study, both of which utilize scientific jargon and appeal to authority to present their case. There is something of the playfully absurd in a popular science blurb using scientific jargon seeking to influence public opinion by citing a professor on a study he conducted looking at popular media using scientific jargon to influence public opinion, and how citing a professor can mitigate that influence.

Rather than simply demonstrating that tv shows are currently doing a poor job of presenting the truth (while doing a great job corrupting the social viability of legend tripping,) and can mislead the public based on simple psychological patterning, we find Brewer quoted as saying “that media messages invoking the trappings of science can construct scientific authority even for pursuits regarded by mainstream science as pseudoscientific.” So, let me get this straight, labeling something scientific makes people who are not familiar with the subject tend to think of it as scientific. Again, we have a reiteration of common tropes in marketing and public relations. In terms of the LiveScience.com article, however, it is still unclear if this is quoted in reference to the television shows being pseudoscientific, parapsychology itself being pseudo-science, or is this a cryptic meta-analysis of LiveScience.com? Perhaps we’ve entered some heavy deconstrutive domain where the article devours its own authority, and continues on to acridly eat away at the website which houses it.

Most parapsychologists would agree that popular paranormal media is at odds with their science. As Dr. Barry Taff outlined in the article Psi’s Circus Sideshowscientists working in the field of parapsychology agree with scientists in other fields, network television is not the best place to find serious research, especially when it comes to anomalous experience:

“Does anyone really believe that these shows are unscripted?  They’re as well choreographed as any Broadway show in many respects.  After one hundred and twenty nine years of formal psychical research and forty three years of my own investigating close to five thousand field cases of poltergeists, hauntings, apparitions, doppelgangers, UFO abductions and the like, one clearly obvious pattern has emerged:  the chance of regularly or consistently running into real paranormal phenomena while investigating a case is the chance of winning the lottery ten times in a row at the hundred million dollar level.  More simply put, the odds are astronomical against you.

However, if you’re producing a paranormal reality show where something paranormal must occur during every episode, perhaps even several times per segment, you have a serious logistics problem on your hands, don’t you?  You cannot simply have talking heads on camera for forty minutes out of every hour, or you’re ratings will be as remote as your chances of encountering real paranormal phenomena are.

Therefore, if one wants their reality show to get ratings worthy of renewal, one must do one of three things;  a) fake paranormal events.  b) populate the show with such colorful or outlandish individuals that they’re weekly rantings serve the same purpose as observing real phenomena would or, c) dramatically exaggerate and embellish whatever really does occur to make it appear more important than it really is.

Long before the air was littered with such ridiculous shows, I was approached by the creator of one of the first (whose name will remain absent as I do not wish to promote this clown in any way).  Years ago, when we first met, I made it very clear to him what the true reality was regarding investigating such paranormal events was like.  His answer was simple and straightforward.

Each episode of his show would fake such occurrences, and on the very rare occasion when they actually encountered demonstrable paranormal events, they would make it appear as if it were a hoax.  Compelling reverse logic indeed, but not for me.”

So why does the LiveScience.com article seem like it’s calling out the whole field of investigation, when it is really only pointing to a well known, and admitted flaw in popular media? What does it mean to say “ghost hunter’s sound credible with a little science”? Without clarifying exactly who we are discussing, television personalities and actors, enthusiastic amateurs with a penchant for web promotion, or scientists in the field, it is impossible to ascertain any meaning from the article outside of the fact that people are swayed by authority.

One would think that in informing people about how these shows represent pseudo-science, it would be important to show why they are pseudo-scientific. Based only on the article the source of pseudo-science seems to lie in the field of anomaly investigation itself. Which should lead us to ask, is this really the case?

Loyd Auerbach, one of the most active parapsychologists involved in investigating hauntings, has long been a critic of popular media representations of the field. This is fairly clear in his article, Parapsychology for Ghost Hunters, when he says:

“…what’s largely been missing is the actual field of science that studies the phenomenon: parapsychology. Looking at the Websites, watching some of the television shows, and lsitening to the podcasts of people with “experience,” it’s clear that there is both a misunderstanding of what parapsychology is (and isn’t) and a lack of interest in what it can contribute to the activities of people withinc the so-called paranormal community…

…There is much one can glean from parapsychology in terms of methods, experiments, and even tools and technology. In fact, the use of electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors comes from parapsychologists who were first trying them out in their field investigations – among them myself and Dr. Andrew Nichols. It saddens me to see people using EMF sensors without knowing why they were first proposed, and often without knowing how to understand the data they yield in relation to the actual situation being investigated. Again, this comes from amateurs watching investigators on telelvision using them (myself being one of the first), but in TV segments that never explain how or why they are being used in the first place.”

By encouraging amateur ghost hunters to apply science to their investigations, and teaching classes aimed at ghost hunters who would like to participate in furthering our understanding of these experiences, Auerbach has sought to mitigate the lack of rigor in these groups, rather than dismissing the entire pursuit outright.  This is no different from the professional skeptics who encourage, and mentor, the growth of amateur skeptic organizations.

In both cases the results are mixed, not due to the relevance of the top scientists, philosophers and researchers in the fields in question, but because amateur organizations draw from an unregulated public mass where the reasons for joining and participating in an organization vary, and do not always align with rational inquiry into difficult areas of human experience. Add the ease of propogation allowed by digital communication, and you face the signal to noise issue faced in every facet of 21st century existence.

While the LiveScience.com article seems to indicate the use of technology in anomalous investigation is a theatrical prop designed to invoke scientific credibility, there is a very scientific reason for using them if they are properly employed. The parapsychologist William Roll theorized that haunting phenomena is often accompanied by geo-magnetic anomalies in the areas in which they occur, and this theory was further tested by Dr. Michael Persinger who has done experiments with direct EMF stimulation of the brain to see if this could correlate to feelings of a presence similar to those experienced in a haunting.

Measuring EMF signatures in a reported haunting allows researchers to continue to collect data about the environmental factors involved in these experiences, which can then be collated, and compared with the data collected at other sites where anomalous experiences have occurred. After all, that’s what would be required of a scientific investigation…right?

The problem with the amateur groups is that they have not been properly trained to collect the data and report it back to those in the parapsychological field who could actually use it to further the scientific investigation of these areas. This is a problem that stems from biased reporting in public media that continues to discount the serious scientific inquiry into these areas. By reporting that the investigation of anomalous experiences is a pseudo-scientific endeavor the environment is made ripe for pseudo-scientific approaches to investigation.

This is exactly what Taff points out when he mentions that the producer he spoke with said that, “each episode of his show would fake such occurrences, and on the very rare occasion when they actually encountered demonstrable paranormal events, they would make it appear as if it were a hoax.” What kind of cognitive mix up is that going to play on the public consciousness? Followed up by the fact that most debunking efforts are done on popular celebrities like U.K. performer Sally Morgan, or some other stage persona who is obviously playing on the gullibility of the audience, the mediated message is that every occurence of exceptional human experience is either delusion or outright fraud.

Yet these experiences continue to occur in private, and people continue to report them to each other, and occasionally something happens that is potent enough to draw the media’s attention. Rather than admitting that bias and belief are often at the core of most radical skepticism, just as bias and belief are at the core of uncritical acceptance of anomalous reports, we find erstwhile authorities playing the part of Mr. Clarke in Machen’s most famous story, attending “the seances of distinguished mediums, hoping that the clumsy tricks of these gentlemen (will make them) altogether disgusted with mysticism of every kind,” however, like Mr. Clarke, I’m afraid they’ll eventually find, “the remedy, though caustic, (is) not efficacious.”

Science is too beautiful to be ruined by closed minds and lazy journalism. We have to face all of the data coming in, even that which appears anomalous, rather than brushing off what doesn’t fit neatly into a preordained intellectual box, and then encouraging irresponsible media outlets to muddy the water enough so that noone notices. Parapsychology is the scientific exploration of exceptional human experiences. As long as these experiences continue to happen, science will be forced to account for them in some way. Because all fields of endeavor at a given time are driven by popularly held beliefs, it takes an intrepid few to battle against convention and step outside the professional politics of mainstream science, and the mediated fog of commercial journalism, so that the true spirit of scientific inquiry can continue.

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  • bobbiethejean

    Just because you don’t understand science doesn’t mean it is “scientific jargon” for one thing, and for another, parapsychology is by definition a pseudoscience, if even that. Unless you can put forth falsifiable, testable hypotheses and predictive models, it cannot be considered real science.

    • David Metcalfe

      I had asked this in a previous post, but I think it got eaten up in the comments. There’s over 130 years of research in parapsychology, with 80 plus of that in laboratory settings with testable hypotheses. What areas of parapsych are you most familiar with? When you say “it cannot be considered real science” what studies/experiments are you referring to?

      • bobbiethejean

        What falsifiable, testable hypothesis have been put forth? And what predictive models do we have about the paranormal? What do we know for certain about the paranormal? I’m not being confrontational. I am genuinely curious to know. It seems to me, the paranormal has remained largely unknown. By its very nature, I wonder if science is even capable of commenting on it.

        • David Metcalfe

          I would caution on the use of “paranormal,” that seems to be something that get’s the whole thing off track. The original use of paranormal was to get away from “supernatural” which implied something above nature. Paranormal implies something on the side of normal, which in today’s Latin’less world is better expressed by using anomalous perception, anomalous perturbation (for things like psychokinesis) and anomalous experience for sightings, etc.

          Folks still use paranormal, but those in the consciousness studies field at a professional level usually understand the implicit meaning. The media often conflates paranormal, supernatural, magic, mysticism, transcendental, etc. All of which have very specific meanings and don’t necessarily cross into each other.

          In terms of falsifiable, testable hypothesis in light of the articles theme of ghost hunting, we can look at poltergeist phenomena and the work of William Roll (Univ. of West Georgia, deceased).

          Roll investigated poltergeist phenomena with the hypothesis that it was caused by some sort of human interaction with electro-magnetic anomalies (natural or artificial) and found that many of the cases had similar characteristics.

          Here is a paper from Bryan Williams (Univ. of New Mexico) and Annalisa Ventola (Lund Univ.) that covers Roll’s hypothesis and further findings:
          http://publicparapsychology.org/Public%20Parapsych/Poltergeist%20Phenomena%20Primer%20Final.pdf

          Michael Clarkson has a good book on the subject: http://www.amazon.com/Poltergeist-Phenomenon–depth-Investigation-Disturbances/dp/1601631472/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1351714212&sr=1-5&keywords=poltergeist

          William Roll’s own book is also a good primer: http://www.amazon.com/Poltergeist-William-G-Roll/dp/1931044694/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1351714316&sr=1-1&keywords=poltergeist+william+roll

          This is just one subject, poltergeists, however at no point is there a claim of supernatural or transcendental operations occuring. The hypothesis is that it is an anomalous interaction between an agent (the person at the center of the activity) and environmental factors. This is one of the reasons that the EMF detectors and Ion sensors were originally used in investigating cases of claimed activity.

          Michael Persinger furthered this with the hypothesis that haunting phenomena (discarnate voices, apparitions, phantoms, etc.) might have a similar source, which may also include low frequency sonic disturbances which trigger hallucinations. Again, this is a testable hypothesis, which lead to his design of the “God Helmet” which stimulates the brain with EMF to see if he coudl simulate the feeling of “presence” reported during hauntings. Further testing on this has remained inconclusive.

          Another difficulty with Persinger’s hypothesis is that often haunting phenomena do not follow the pattern of true hallucinations. True hallucinations rarely have the systematic regularity reported in haunting phenomena, and also don’t account for the veridical information that has been reported being given by apparitions, phantoms, voices, etc. such as names, dates, and other information that can be verified, which a hallucination should not be able to provide, especially if the person having the experience has no access to that information.

          I think science is very capable of tackling all the questions raised by anomalous phenomena, and that a true science would tackle them readily. One of the first things we have to do though, is drop the idea that these things are superstitions or supernatural or something outside of the normal condition.

          James Alcock, and a number of other skeptics, continue to start from the assumption that parapsychology is investigating magical phenomena, or that it is a prerequisite that these areas include some kind of transcendental dimension. However this is simply not the case, I think there are very physical, material explanations, some of which are being hinted at in the study of non-local field effects.

          These potentials should excite us, and drive us to investigate them without prejudice, both in terms of belief and disbelief, because in science there is no room for belief. The thing that keeps perpetuating the subjects that parapsychology investigates is that they keep occurring whether we like it or not, and occuring in a natural way, not some miraculous intervention.

          What radical skepticism has done is to hammer the parapsychologists into tightening their controls to a point that (according to even some of the radical skeptics themselves) the standards of parapsychological research go far beyond what most sciences are held to. Which is a scary thought when you consider that over 50% of the U.S. population is taking prescription drugs that have been vetted by a process less sound than testing for ESP! : )

      • bobbiethejean

        What falsifiable, testable hypothesis have been put forth? And what predictive models do we have about the paranormal? What do we know for certain about the paranormal? I’m not being confrontational. I am genuinely curious to know. It seems to me, the paranormal has remained largely unknown. By its very nature, I wonder if science is even capable of commenting on it.

  • todd southern

    The main culprit in the ruination of science, if that is possible, is not “lazy journalism” nor is it even pseudoscience, rather it is psuedoskeptism. When skeptics do no not follow the same rigor or science they call for in their evidence it creates an invitation for crackpots and their ilk to embrace unscientific positions on just about anything as the psuedoskeptic cannot adequately provide reason. Any mistake made on the part of such a skeptic simply strengthens the foundation of ignorance.

    Even with the case of parapsychology, which is not a pseudoscience, as many legitimate researchers use and adhere to the scientific method, their results might not be convincing, they at least try to use hard science to make that determination.

    • David Metcalfe

      I agree with you, the binary opposition that is set up by radical skeptics is completely unsupported by any legitimate rationale, and provides ample ground for an equally radical contingent of true believers.

      In this specific instance I think a case can be made for the fact that the media isn’t helping any. It would be very beneficial if all the hobbyists out there hunting ‘ghosts’ would bring back data that could be used, rather than just add to urban legends.

      Legend tripping has it’s place, but for those who also think they are doing something scientifically credible it would be nice if the data they collect had some connection to what scientists are looking for in haunted locations. If the media were more active in promoting this it would provide some impetus for the hobbiest groups to do it, especially with the clear correlation between the television shows and internet groups, and how the practice of ‘ghost hunting’ is performed.

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