“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 Sideshow, scientists 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.