Perhaps you can never organize paranormal research

I am enjoying my latest read. It’s George Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). George and I met years ago at a parapsychology conference in Gettysburg. Even though he is a critic of organized skepticism, he’s just as much a critic of shoddy paranormal research. And, his criticism of CSICOP is not unjustified, for the most part. I can’t yet outline everything I found intriguing with this book because I’m not through yet. He might chuckle when he hears that I could not skip around but had to read it cover to cover – it’s my thick-boundary personality. But, I believe I am loosening up! And, thus, perceiving and understanding the bigger picture much more clearly via stepping outside of the skeptic and believer tribes. I may be actually in the betwixt and between, as they say. At least it feels like that these days.

The major theme of the book is the trickster elements tied to supernatural claims and to those who are involved in some way (for or against). Of particular note, I had to copy this quote into my notes and am eager to share it here, especially with UFO researchers who are trying to forge a new structure to the field:

The paranormal, by its nature, is enmeshed in frauds and hoaxes, especially in cases with high public visibility. Nowhere is this better seen than in ufology. The field is a gold mine for researchers who understand this, and a cesspool for those who do not.

Its entire history is permeated with fraud and con artists, and makes the physical mediumship of nineteenth-century Spiritualism pale by comparison. Furthermore, I have never encountered an area in which it is so difficult to obtain reliable information. It is nearly impossible to convey the extent of these problems to someone who has not been involved. It takes several years of relatively intense reading and research to appreciate the field’s complexity. (p 249)

Though this was written 18 years ago, fraud and hoaxers still permeate the field (and run roughshod over cryptozoology and ghost research as well). Perhaps the ideas are even more relevant in the “virtual” age.

Hansen concludes that to consider UFOs in a “nuts and bolts” sense, as craft driven by aliens, is not helpful in understanding it. A more indirect approach is needed. He thinks that ufology and all other fields of the paranormal can never be scientific because of the inherent characteristics of the phenomena and the people who experience it. Efforts to look closely at these fields – parapsychology, cryptozoology, ghost hunting, ufology, Fortean phenomena – remain marginalized and anti-structural. They can never NOT be those things because they are qualities of the paranormal itself. It’s an idea that holds true for these fields. Notice how the research community can not stay organized or pursue a common goal, they can’t manage a long-running robust and stable structure with leadership or funds, they are supported or run by mostly amateurs, and don’t accomplish much that is productive and progressive. Here we are decades later with nothing to show for the work of many.

He explains why the marginality and anti-structure characteristics of paranormal research is the way it is. These qualities prevent the institutionalization of research. So those who form the new cryptozoology society or wish to revamp or construct a new UFO research program are likely doomed to failure as those that came before. I think he’s on to something. The trickster/paranormal constellation of qualities – disruption, deception, boundary crossing, liminality, and marginality – may not be all that explains the unsolved controversies of paranormal claims but I see how it plays an influential role.

I’m finding plenty of thought-provoking ideas in this book (and see Trump, Captain of Chaos, Master Disruptor and Contradictorian, everywhere in it as well). I urge anyone interested in the scientific study of the paranormal or even the history of ufology or parapsychology to check out this book. It’s expanding my already wide-ranging attitudes towards the paranormal in culture.

I can’t give a full review due to limited time these days but if you’ve read the book or have some thoughts, please share in the comments. I’ll try to respond.


9 thoughts on “Perhaps you can never organize paranormal research

  1. “Notice how the research community can not stay organized or pursue a common goal, they can’t manage a long-running robust and stable structure with leadership or funds, they are supported or run by mostly amateurs, and don’t accomplish much that is productive and progressive. Here we are decades later with nothing to show for the work of many.”

    That may be true of cryptozoology, ghost hunting, ufology and Fortean phenomena, but I don’t really think it’s true of parapsychology, which was the first example on your list.

    One can say parapsychology hasn’t made much progress in convincing the scientific world in general that there are genuine phenomena there, but that may not be entirely parapsychology’s fault. It seems to me that sceptics don’t feel the same obligation that they used to, to examine in details and to try to explain the experimental evidence, but feel freer simply to dismiss and ignore it.

  2. I do not think parapsychology has made a significant impact. But this book helps to explain why that might be and that it, indeed, is not much different than cryptozoology, which had scientific intent and interest some time ago. Yet, those still involved reject the very paranormal aspects associated with it and they can’t get far. It’s simply not conducive to scientific study unless it’s narrowed down into very specific, testable questions. But that’s not how it’s done.

  3. Hmm. I think logically if you’re going to reach a judgment about parapsychology on the basis of other people’s reactions (or lack of reactions) to it, then you can’t entirely divorce that from the question of whether those reactions are reasonable. After all, you’ve not been uncritical of sceptics recently.

  4. Other people’s reactions? The state of parapsychology speaks for itself. It is failing and proponents are defensive. The good news is that there are some who know the approach must change. I say the same about skeptics. That is also a failed approach and must change. Both beg for respect and funding and have nothing substantial to show for it.

  5. I think it’s fair enough to dismiss the parapsychological evidence in that way if the dismissal is accompanied by convincing arguments that the evidence is flawed. But otherwise it just becomes the assertion of an opinion, and obviously this is a subject about which opinions differ.

  6. I could not even begin to list the valid criticisms of parapsychology, even by proponents. That field is struggling mightily to stay afloat and relevant. Perhaps you should read the book that was the subject of the post. George worked for these labs and has credible opinions about how they have lost their way and that some of the top names just don’t understand statistics. I am not qualified to make judgments about statistics but it seems that if there is a dispute about that, that is one relevant problem that is keeping the field marginalized.

  7. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can evaluate the experimental evidence without being able to make judgments about statistics, at least at some level.

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