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.

Scientism is a curious feature that I’ve noticed is rampant in the heavily science-centric Skeptical community. I didn’t see this as appropriate to ghost investigators because they used a mixture of science and non-science. It’s defined differently across the board, but it’s generally understood as the idea that science can solve every problem and is the only legitimate method of gaining knowledge. In this piece, he uses scientism where I would use terms like scientifical, sham inquiry and pseudoscience [2] to be more specific. Eaton splits the community into those invested in scientism and those who adopt psychic methods of intuition. So there is the “thinking” side and “feeling” side. Though he titles one side “scientist”, Eaton explains that these researchers are almost never trained in science. They adopt the view that science is the legitimate way to do investigations into these subjects, not via a metaphysical route. The science camp of ghost investigators relies on technology to obtain empirical data which is assumed by them to be legitimate evidence – sound and visual recording, environmental measurements, etc. They characterize their efforts as a “pioneering science” or proto-science regardless that psychical research garnered the interest of professional scientists since the dawn of the scientific age.

The other camp is the sensitives. These correspond to the paranormalists of the Bigfoot field because they know the entity exists and have no need to demonstrate it with proof. They are not objective but reaching for a personal encounter with the entity. Eaton’s conclusion regarding the subjugated role of sensitives to the scientistic investigators is intriguing. I’ll circle back to it at the end but I have some comments on his characterization of science in ghost investigation.

First, why people want to become ghost researchers? For his 2017 count, Eaton came up with 600 ghost groups in the U.S. In 2010, I counted 879. This suggests the number is down, which seems reasonable considering the peak is likely passed. These thousands of people had personal experiences they seek to explain, are open to the concept of the spirit world, or they are anxious about the question of life after death.

They have their reasons, they look for a method to use, and finally, they seek an audience to share this evidence (if they are inclined to). Here is where Eaton’s concept of seeking spiritualism comes in (the why of ghost seeking). I mention it in my book [2] within the framework of serious leisure. Eaton remarks that their purpose is to prove ghosts exist.  The prevailing view of the field, he writes, is that empirical evidence is the best way to establish a haunting and convince the scientific community. The technological, sciencey view, he says, is supported by TV shows. We both found that TV shows were highly influential in how ghost seekers behave (the how of ghost seeking). While there were Ghost Hunters before the TV show, the explosion of participants came after these shows. I think viewers who eventually became active in the field were compelled to act on their interest by the ease of participation. (If these ghost plumbers can do it, so can I.) As part of the lay public, they assumed what the TV ghost hunters were doing was “science”. It looked and sounded sciencey to them. This assumption is based on the premise that we learn what science is supposed to look like mostly through media representations of it, not because we actually know what science is and how to do it.

When most people accept these media depictions as science, then by coping that template, you are effectively doing science in the eyes of the public. Members of the public who chose to investigate the paranormal have been influenced by guys playing pretend scientists on TV; they go on to role-play as a scientific investigator themselves and convince other members of the public. It’s science LARPing. I can’t conclude it has much to do with scientism – it’s what they think they are supposed to do.

In his conclusion, however, Eaton says that the field is “haunted by the specter of invalidation by mainstream scientists – the new priests in this era of scientism”. While they may say they are “scrambling for scientific legitimacy,” I see this as only another act. ARIGs are not approaching scientists with their evidence. They seek legitimacy with the public, not scientific institutions. Eaton has only one example of an investigator who likens his work to scientific research. When pressed, groups that claim to be scientific in their methods admit that they have nothing of value to share with the scientific community [2]. They are far more interested in public acceptance and gaining an alternative means of authority outside of the established channels of science. Eaton’s piece misses an important point that ARIGs are playing pretend scientists in order to look legitimate to each other and to the lay public. Scientists (assumed to be far off in an ivory tower somewhere) aren’t paying attention to EVPs and ghost photos. While some ARIGs fuss about being ignored by science (not true), they don’t care too much as long as they remain the paranormal experts in the public eye.

In characterizing these investigators, Eaton states their goal is to collect evidence of ghosts. I found that many groups certainly had a goal to prove the paranormal was real but stated their main mission was to help people understand these experiences and educate. This is also an authority role – they assume that they know enough to explain what is going on to those that do not. They do this through site visits with a client who has reported a problem and in social settings where they act as instructors and experts.

In observing individuals, Eaton, as others also have noticed, the paranormal community is primarily white and middle class with an even gender split. However women are more likely to be sensitives and the men the tech “experts”. When groups use sensitives as part of their investigations, they are considered as guides and the equipment as confirmation, or “proof” that something is going on. Using the empirical evidence gained from the sciencey gadgets and analysis, many groups portray their work as scientific. I call it scientifical because it tries to be science but lacks several critical characteristics [2]. The sensitives are forced to align to a scientifical framework because that is the dominant view of the field acceptable to the public. With the sensitives being primarily women, Eaton notices a gendered power imbalance. However, there are plenty of women-lead teams that claim to be science-based experts in detecting ghosts. The same cannot be said of the Bigfoot community where I can personally attest to some gender discrimination.

Finally, Eaton mentions how paranormal investigators often work to depict themselves as “skeptics” – not gullible, rational in their acceptance of claims, willing to debunk to demonstrate their ability to discern good info from bad. Yet they wish for enchantment in the world hidden in a few claims that can’t be explained. Expressing skepticism is another means to gain legitimacy with the public.

The sciencey narrative may be failing and ceding ground to a non-materialistic approach. It appears to be winning with the general paranormal crowds who indulge in all types of supernatural speculation [3]. With more of the public outright rejecting scientific authority and becoming more accepting of personal opinion and gut instincts as decision-making tools, the spiritual sensitives can gain ground. A change in the narrative may also be hastened as researchers reckon with decades of searching with ever-more sensitive technology and no better answers about either ghosts or Bigfoot.

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1. Eaton, Marc. (2018). “Paranormal Investigation: The Scientist and the Sensitive” in The Supernatural in Society, Culture & History. Waskul and Eaton (eds).

2. Hill, Sharon. (2017). Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Investigators. Go to this page to find out more and order.

3. Anything supernatural is outside natural boundaries by definition and can not be studied using natural laws/science.

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One thought on “Legitimizing ghost research: Scientism, sensitives, and cultural authority

  1. From my experience, Eaton’s descriptions of the ghosters fit Bigfoot adherents quite well.

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