Paranormal education classes showing up at major universities

Paranormal subjects typically lie outside the circle of academic respectability. One can argue that they have been deliberately marginalized to keep them diminished in credibility. But, with the majority of the population of the U.S. subscribing to at least one paranormal belief, I’d argue we should be discussing these phenomena in an intellectual context. Things are changing. But for a while now, non-credit, community education classes have been providing a certain degree of legitimacy to these subject areas. 

In recent news on paranormal-themed websites, I’ve heard that David Halperin, retired professor of religious studies, is teaching a non-credit course about UFOs and alien visitation at Duke University. Entitled UFOs–Encounter, Mystery, Myth, he writes about it here. These kinds of continuing education courses, aimed at those with leisure time for enrichment activities, are very common. In this situation, at least we see a qualified teacher. He’s qualified in both instruction and in UFO lore. I suspect this course will be interesting and worthwhile. Here is the summary:

This course rests on two premises: (1) UFOs are a myth; (2) myths are real.  UFOs became a feature of the cultural landscape 71 years ago.  They’ve been debunked innumerable times, yet remain firmly fixed in our shared consciousness.  In the changed socio-political environment since the 2016 election they’ve achieved a surprising new respectability.  We’ll explore these “visitors from inner space” from a psychological and religious perspective, asking the essential question –not “Where do they come from?” or “How do they fly?” but, “What do they mean?” –for us as individuals, as a culture, as a species.

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Sciencey: People get it

In the course of writing, there are times when you have to either create a new word because there isn’t just the right one coined yet or you adopt a word, use it three times, and make it your own.

My research and writing for the public has often been about how activities, advertisements, and ideas might sound a lot like science, using science-sounding terms, but are not in the mode of science at all. They are false science, dressed up as science, pretending to be or imitating science. I call it “sciencey” stuff because it appears to pertain to science. This word existed but I made it my own, applying it to this construction.

You can read articles on this theme from my column for Center of Inquiry online called “Sounds Sciencey” for many and various examples.

ghostbusters-pushcart-2

Just because you are “sciencey” does not mean you are “scientific”. I use the word “scientifical” to describe the activities of those who deliberately pretend to act like scientists. This does a fine job of fooling the public from product advertisements to non-traditional cures and treatments and even on television where people hunt for ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Keep using that word, I would love to see that get into the mainstream as well.

I hold that the reason the public is so easy to fool with sciencey and scientifical ploys is that, at least the American public, is not well-versed in what science is and how it works. We don’t have good science education in school and science as a career or even an interest is not encouraged. So, we will end up with what Carl Sagan said:

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
~Carl Sagan

That’s a very bad thing not just because we can’t fix our own gadgets these days, but because we risk being snookered by a sciencey put-on without scientific merit.

I contributed a small part to the marvelous book Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. Daniel Loxton was thoughtful to send along a copy of a recent review of the book done by Robert Bishop for Christianity Today magazine’s Books & Culture site. The review was titled “Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.”  Apparently, the “sciencey” aspect of cryptozoology is resonating. He writes:

One possibility for why belief in cryptids is so high in America is that few Americans—even the highly educated—actually understand much about the processes and principles of scientific inquiry. Cryptozoology superficially appears to be scientific, and a number of people mistake it for scientific activity. It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong.

YES! He gets it.

It’s my hope that what I share publicly (outside my everyday job) makes some sort of impact. That’s a goal, but a difficult one to measure. It feels so good to have those few moments where you see something you do gets understood, appreciated and passed along to other audiences. A Christian magazine? Who would have thought? But it’s great. There have been other occasions, too, where people are clearly “getting it” – a topic is not science but sciencey. It really is important to distinguish between the two.

are you scienceyLater this month I’ll be giving a talk at the Albatwitch festival to a crowd that, probably even more so than the general public, is inclined to believe in the paranormal. My goal for this is to not be the grumpy debunker but to explain how science has previously looked at the paranormal and why it was rejected. Then, I intend to show how these lessons can be useful for today’s paranormal investigator. In other words, don’t pretend to be a scientist, don’t be sciencey or act scientifical. Do solid work instead.

If they get it, like Bishop got it in his review, that’s a huge win for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

—————

References

Hill, 2010. “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.”  https://idoubtit.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/hill_arigs_being_scientifical_thesis.pdf

Hill, 2012. “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things”, Skeptical Inquirer 36:2 March/April 2012.  http://www.csicop.org/si/show/amateur_paranormal_research_and_investigation_groups_doing_sciencey_things

“Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.” http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2015/sepoct/scientific-or- sciencey.html [Full text here, please do not distribute.]

Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

Once you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

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Count von Count’s arithromania

Last Dragon*Con, I went to a talk about movie monsters. It was a small group with three artists up front chatting about their favorite creature features. It was so much fun, all that trivia. There was one tidbit from that presentation that I found so adorable and interesting, I was amazed I never thought of it before. I had to write about it. Yes, it’s taken me a year to do it.

I don’t know how they got around to the topic but we were discussing the Count from Sesame Street. You may remember that he counts everything. Nifty, eh? What a great kids character – just a touch scary (like other Muppets) but not threatening.
count

When I was a kid, a bit after the Sesame Street days, I got into monster books and loved to learn “facts” about vampires. One way to stop or at least delay a vampire, I’d heard, was to throw a handful of rice or seeds behind you. He would (apparently) compulsively stop and have to count every grain before proceeding. Interesting…

Is that where the Count von Count got his counting habit from?

The person next to me in the monsters talk said “Yes”.

Really? How did I not make this connection!

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Science appreciation class

Several years ago, while learning about the problem of science illiteracy, I discovered something of critical importance: You can’t get people engaged and enthusiastic or even respectful about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.

Kids aren’t going to do well in high school science classes (or even choose to take those classes) if they feel no love for science. It is too late to instill that into them, perhaps. Besides, only a VERY small percentage of the kids would actually go on to become scientists. They probably don’t need biology, chemistry and physics knowledge to succeed in their eventual careers.

Yet, there is tremendous VALUE in knowing how science works. There is also a critical value in appreciating WHY science is one of humanities’ greatest inventions. It’s the process that produces the most reliable knowledge. It’s the best way we know how to learn what’s true about nature.

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Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con

I have finally experienced Dragon Con, the world’s largest sci-fi/fantasy convention, which was held August 31 to Sept 3 in Atlanta, Georgia. Encompassing 5 hotels and including 40,000 or so attendees, many of whom were in costume, it was a bit overwhelming at times. But, I was determined to squeeze the most out of my participation, hosting a great discussion panel on Monday about skeptics and believers, and attending as many talks as I possibly could.

Besides the uniqueness inherent in a convention fueled by artistic flare, this conference is different from all others I’ve been to in that the various “tracks” (themed schedules) are visited by others who may not attend a conference based solely on that particular theme. Certainly many people wandered into the Skeptic track room as they made their way to events in the nearby Science or Space tracks. This buffet of choices allowed me to see how other fields discuss their content. So, I wanted to share my observations on the Paranormal track, the sessions featuring the TV ghost hunters, and the fantastic talks about monsters.

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Bigfoot “facts” for kids?

Bigfoot Evidence has posted a link to a website called “Is Bigfoot Real” [refrain from clicking unless absolutely necessary] which contains a page called “Bigfoot Facts for Kids”.

The so called “facts” given are as follows:

  • Where Has Bigfoot Been Seen? Bigfoot has been spotted all over the world. People often see Bigfoot in wooded areas or high in the mountains.
  • What Does Bigfoot Eat? Bigfoot is an omnivore. This means he eats both plants and animals. Researchers say Bigfoot eats nuts, berries, fish and deer.
  • How Does Bigfoot Act? Bigfoot is shy. He likes to live with others of his own kind but doesn’t like being around people. He doesn’t like to have his picture taken so it’s hard to get him on film. Bigfoot talks to each other by making loud calls across long distances.
  • Does Bigfoot Hurt People? No, Bigfoot doesn’t try to hurt people on purpose. Sometimes though, when people accidentally wander into his territory, he’s been known to throw rocks at them to frighten them away. Bigfoot isn’t trying to be mean. He’s just trying to protect his home and family.Read More »

Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.

UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing.Read More »

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.Read More »

Paranormal-themed nonfiction TV: A list

I was writing an article when I realized I needed a clear idea about when this whole amateur investigation reality-television thing became popular. So, I started a list. (I’m a good Googler.) Here is a list of TV shows (series) that portray the paranormal as real or examine it as possibly real. Some are reality-type shows, some are documentaries. (Therefore, I have also included some shows on here of a skeptical nature.) Some are not wholly paranormal-themed but they contain an element that suggests a particular subject or event is beyond that which is currently accepted in the scientific community. I realize the line can be blurry.

Since one of my areas of interest is how the media promotes a view of science and the scientific to the public, I think the popularity of these shows is important. There is some research into how paranormal/supernatural themed shows affect the public belief in the paranormal, but there is LITTLE to NO research on how reality-type shows affects this or, regarding my interest, how the public perceives the “scientificity” of these shows.

I cataloged 125 shows ranging in premier dates from 1949 to some upcoming ones on the horizon. Read More »

Buell and PRS to offer classes for the credulous

I once went to a presentation by the Paranormal Research Society, held at a local Pennsylvania State University campus. It was not sponsored (nor endorsed) by the university but by a student activities group. I chuckled softly to myself when Ryan Buell flubbed information about some very famous “ghost” photographs. His background on parapsychological history seemed thin. I was thoroughly unimpressed. (I’ve since watched the show and was even more unimpressed.) I’m sure he’s better now, being under the tutelage of Lorraine Warren, clairvoyant/demon enthusiast. PRS has announced that in response to tremendous public requests, they will be offering educational webinars.

“PRS will begin hosting and offering classes and lectures on paranormal research and various topics through the means of online webinars. PRS will offer both individual lectures and web courses, as well as invite outside experts/researchers to offer classes.”

Color me skeptical about the seriousness of such a venture…
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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. Read More »