ouija-demon

Visiting the Fringe

“Hello, Ms. Hill,” said the man at the registration desk before I had a chance to give my name. “We’re glad to have you here.”

So much for flying under the radar. I’m the skeptical one at the Fringe New Jersey one-day conference. I’m used to this, though, having gone to several paranormal-themed events. Why do I attend? As I said in this review of an academic parapsychological conference, I came to learn and explore evidence and ideas from new points of view. It’s always interesting. Listening to those who don’t think the same way you do is the key to understanding the bigger broad view regarding why we believe and why it matters. I don’t have to talk, just be part of the audience eager to hear what the invited speakers have to say.

audienceThere were five presenters this day. Each got to speak for an hour which is rather nice. They all had long, complex stories to tell, so the extended time accommodated this. Each story had a tone and purpose, contained information put forward as supporting evidence, and had a conclusion. Stories with arcs like these are not typical of scientific conferences or even skeptical conferences. For those, the audience is walked through information about a specific concept or hears a proposal with an argument, supporting evidence, and findings in an objective, usually detached, tone. The emotive story is clearly more appealing to a general audience. But, it can be trying to those listening who find your story to be a bunch of BS. I disagreed with many of the fringe ideas presented but I still learned a great deal and was entertained.

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Paranormal investigators and Velikovsky sound similarly sciencey

worlds in collisionIn January 2013, I wrote about Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, and pseudoscience, referencing Michael Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012). Well, I’m writing about it again, to be included in a book about amateur investigation groups “sounding sciencey” and fooling the public. I went back to some of my old sources and found a good one. It’s nice to know that even though you forgot you ever thought about this thing before, you actually wrote it down, and now realize you were on the right track.

 

A fascinating discussion by R.G.A. Dolby (1975) provides a case study about a popular idea that was nearly universally rejected by orthodox scientists, sold directly to the public by a non-expert, and even involved religious connections. It is a classic case of what we call pseudoscience.

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ghost-hunter

A Guide to Ghost Hunting Guidebooks: NO MORE! Please!

This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.

In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?

First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.

Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.

I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences.  In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:

1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)

2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)

3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)

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real science not this

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.

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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.]

sea-serpent-attacks-ship

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?

Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?

lmtI’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.

There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.

I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.

The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.

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Sciency, scientifical and wackadoodle are now official

New words have been added to the Oxford English dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language”, including a few near and dear to me…

New words list March 2014 | Oxford English Dictionary.

  • bookaholic: Yes, I am a minor sufferer.
  • Coney dog*: I very much enjoy these and have since I was a kid.
  • demonizing: This word is getting around, overused, just like “evil”.
  • do-over: I like this word, employ it often.
  • ethnozoology*: A technical term for the actual scientific part of cryptozoology. [Definition given as “The traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning animals; the scientific study or description of this.”]
  • sciency*: This is one of my words, obviously. But they spelled it wrong. Sounds Sciencey [Definition given as “Of a somewhat scientific or technical nature; (also) having an interest in or aptitude for science.”] The “somewhat” is important.
  • scientifical method*: I wish I knew what they meant by this versus the scientific method! [Definition given is as an older use meaning “scientific method”] *pffth*
  • scientificality*: Ditto. [Definition given is:  1. A scientific or technical issue, term, or detail. 2. The property or quality of being scientific.] For the 2nd def – I used the word “scientificity” but that’s not been recognized.
  • scientificness*: Ditto. [The quality of being scientific.] Ok, boring.
  • Scientological*: This was capitalized so I am REALLY curious. [Yep, having to do with Scientology.]
  • sword and sorcery: Cool!
  • wackadoo*: Citation needed. [Definition given as: A. Crazy, mad; eccentric. B. An eccentric or mentally unbalanced person; a crank, a lunatic.]
  • wackadoodle*: Love this word. On my list of favorites. [Definition given as the same as wackadoo although this does sound like a crazy poodle.]

As you can figure, the access to OED is paid and I don’t have a subscription which sucks. Can you help me out if you do and post the meanings to the 9 starrred words? I’d appreciate it. I want to be all definitive, you know. Thanks to those that sent the explanations to me!

Scientific people use words and their meaning properly. Scientifical people do not. I don’t want to just look sciencey, I want to get it correct.

You can also email paskeptic(at)gmail.com. Thanks.