Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans: One message from ‘Behind the Curve’

Most people react to flat-earthers by labeling them as stupid or scientifically illiterate. A moderate effort to examine what they say will reveal that is not so. On the contrary, those who embrace conspiratorial beliefs seem to be bored with the conventional. Their active, creative brains spin more intriguing, complicated, and colorful trappings around mundane events and explanations. This was clearly in evidence in the documentary on flat-earthers, Behind the Curve.

The film has received good reviews and I recommend you watch it for yourself in an objective frame of mind. 

Decider does a brief overview of the important points but the reviewer thinks the execution of the project is inconsistent. I disagree. I think it’s marvelous. But I saw it by way of my own work on Scientifical Americans. So, unlike other commenters, I was not yelling at the screen. Instead, the film connected some dots for me, and a more coherent, but still complicated, insight into fringe beliefs evolved.

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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.

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Errors in investigating: What you see is all there is

I received a personal message from a paranormal investigator who thought it was a shame I didn’t believe in the validity of spirit communication. He pointed me to a video he made that he said was the clearest responses he’s ever received in an EVP recording. I’m always looking to either be impressed or spot an obvious hoax so I checked it out. Upon noticing that he had included subtitles in the video, I quickly put my hand up to cover the lower portion of the screen while watching so I wouldn’t be primed to “hear” what (he interpreted) the spirit voice had said. I did hear the first sound he interpreted, a very rapid “What?” in response to his opening inquiry because I saw the subtitle signalling it. It was so soon after his question, it felt out of place and I think I would not have noticed it had he not pointed it out. For the rest of the video, without the priming, I could not hear any anomalous voice, just background noise of insects or wind outside the structure. When I told him I was not impressed, he seemed stunned. To him, these voices were crystal clear.

I would not have thought much about this exchange again except it served as a great real life example of the concepts put forward in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. As I was reading it today, the well-tested observations of human perception and thinking habits he explained applied directly to paranormalists and their methods of reinforcing their paranormal worldview. Here are some examples.

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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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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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“True Jersey” NJ.com published a stinker of a story on the Jersey Devil

They might want to reconsider this tagline.
They might want to reconsider this tagline.

A paranormal investigator who writes a column called Paranormal Corner for NJ.com broke a story this weekend that was both a coup for web hits and an utter disaster for her credibility.

Kelly Roncace received an email with a photo of what the sender said was the Jersey Devil. The JD is one of the most iconic American legends dating back to colonial times. The story in a nutshell is that a woman gave birth to a cursed baby who turned into a monster unlike any biological creature. It supposedly haunts the Pine Barren woodlands of New Jersey to this day. Great myth! For many and various reason, it’s clearly a MYTH and not factual.

Roncace set up the story by relating the legend and noting that many people still claim to see it.

“For more than 200 years, people living in or passing through New Jersey’s Pinelands have reported seeing a strange, winged creature that has come to be known as the Jersey Devil.

There are tons of stories about the monster, and thousands of witnesses who claim they have encountered it.

Late Tuesday night, I received an email from a reader who recently became one of those witnesses.”

What did she do next? She had to verify his sincerity:

Before I could write about his experience and print the photo, I had to be sure he was sincere.

“Yes, I swear it’s not Photoshopped or a staged thing,” Black responded when I asked if he was willing to let me use his name and state that the photo he sent was not manipulated in any way. “People have said it’s fake, but it’s not. I’m honestly just looking for an explanation for what I saw.”

Why not be sure he was not pulling your leg?

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No, you are not the new Jane Goodall: My Twitter exchange with Melba Ketchum

I had a discussion with Melba Ketchum today on Twitter regarding her continued claims that Bigfoot will be proven true.  Some of it spilled over to Facebook – her favorite communication outlet. I was surprised she responded and it went on for quite a while. For those of you who missed it, good for you. But here it is mostly in its entirety (a few other tweets weren’t worth adding); see what you can glean from this.

For background, note that my site, Doubtful News, has been critical of Melba’s work with good cause (melba ketchum | Doubtful News). I also wrote a chronicle of the history of her project for Skeptical Briefs (which you can see here The Ketchum Project: What to Believe about Bigfoot DNA ‘Science’ – CSI) and in Skeptical Inquirer. I’m not some lone skeptic picking at her claims. She has the entire scientific community against her. She revels in being the maverick, persecuted, pulls the Galileo gambit. I find it distasteful.

This is the first time she responded to me in public. She should totally stop doing that.

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Defending the faith of cryptozoology

My latest post, regarding the rational vs non-rational response to the new cryptozoology book by Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science, went live on Huffington Post yesterday.

Cryptozoology Gets Respect While Bigfooters Behave Badly.

When critical thinkers approach the subject of Bigfoot (or cryptozoology in general) with a focus on the evidence, they are met with reproach. We are challenging much more than the claim; we challenge their belief. They will resort to what Biblical literalists will do to evolutionists – they demonize, call us names, misquote, pick at small mistakes, and take words and ideas out of context. They create an extreme position and shoot it down (called a “straw man” argument) because it’s a power play to make them feel superior. (Note that some aggressive “skeptics” will do that and it’s not fair play in that case either.) All the while, they skirt the MAJOR flaws in their own conclusions.

Bigfoot-themed and other cryptozoology blogs and forums are typically hostile to skeptics, even moderate ones like myself. They can’t understand why we even want to participate since we are going to “deny” everything. Gee, sorry for being interested in the topic and in getting a good answer for peoples’ experiences. Questioning is not denying, it’s thinking.

A while back I challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and make a fair assessment. Some seem to have read it. Three known men gave it ridiculous reviews. They only read the parts that interested them and presumed judgement on the whole book. That is intellectually dishonest and really shallow, not to mention extremely arrogant, behavior. This is why we can’t take self-proclaimed cryptozoological experts seriously. They treat their subject more like a religion, based on faith.

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Ketchum’s Galileo Gambit

One of my essential reading blogs, Respectful Insolence, has resurrected an older post on The Galileo Gambit. It was timely. It was in reference mainly to the day to day parade of quackery that passes by in the media. Orac coined the term “Galileo gambit” to describe a very common ploy used by quacks – they compare their persecution and non-acceptance to that of Galileo.

At least, I think I was the first to coin this term. I haven’t been able to find a reference to the “Galileo Gambit” dating before I wrote the original version of this post way back in 2005.”

Immediately, I thought of Dr. Melba Ketchum who recently pulled the Galileo Gambit when she announced the publication of her Sasquatch DNA paper.

We encountered the worst scientific bias in the peer review process in recent history.  I am calling it the “Galileo Effect”.  Several journals wouldn’t even read our manuscript when we sent them a pre-submission inquiry.  Another one leaked our peer reviews.  We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review.

Sorry, a lame excuse. It’s special pleading for why she had such trouble with her paper.

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Scientist states he has explanation(s) for sky noise but it only sounds sciencey

I’ve been closely following the story of strange noises from the sky that flared up in January. I wrote about them on Doubtful News.

The noises are widespread, varied in type, sometimes able to be explained and sometimes known to be hoaxed. But, because this spate of anomalies (a Fortean Flap, if you will) is in the so-called apocalyptic year 2012, the phenomena has attracted the acute attention of conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and people just concerned that something weird is happening with the planet.

“I don’t care if anybody gets it. I’m going as the Doppler Effect.”

Though the sky noises phenomena is fading away – the receiving frequency of these claims are lowering like the Doppler effect – reports are still trickling in.

Followers of sky sounds were excited by the news that an actual scientist who sounded like he knew what he was talking about described the causes of strange sounds.

Reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor, unfortunately, this article immediately raised a slew of red flags with me and others who are sensitive to what real science looks like and how not so established ideas try to dress themselves up in sciencey getups. A cursory look revealed that this piece has hallmarks of pseudoscience and creates far more confusion than clarity.

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Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications.Read More »

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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Want to shed the pseudoscience label? Try harder.

When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.

Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?

Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.

Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.

I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology.Read More »

Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here.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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Ghost hunters as “really good researchers, I guess”

Story from The Onion: ‘Ghost Hunters’ Enjoys Surprising 100% Success Rate

“What can I say? We’re just really good researchers, I guess.” At press time, despite having repeatedly resolved the most central question of human existence, the program is somehow not on the cover of every major newspaper, magazine, and scientific journal in the world.

Sure, we can all laugh at how sharp and witty The Onion is. It’s a little strange to get such accurate news (through a satirical filter). Why are the Ghost Hunters convinced of their work? Why do they think that they are doing “research”? Well, wait…aren’t they doing research? If we define research as a systematic way to collect data and information in a sustained way, then, sure, I guess they are doing research.

But their research isn’t taken seriously. It’s not scientific. There are many reasons why paranormal investigators work falls way short of being “scientific”. I’ll just focus on the primary reason – paranormal bias.Read More »

Paranormal investigators doing good, but going wrong

There are so many ghost hunting groups wandering around in the dark that they trip over each other. I attempted to count paranormal investigation groups and gave up at around 1500 without even searching Facebook. We all have our opinions about what they try to do – find evidence of life after death. Those of us aware of how scientific methodology and answering a question works in practice are critical of their equipment, and, dare I say, pseudoscientific, activities.  However, I might surprise some of you by saying that they also do a lot of good.

Many paranormal investigation groups will state explicitly and foremost that their goal is to aid people who have had a frightening, confusing experience. I’ve concluded that most do think they are doing a positive thing by either validating an experience for someone or by explaining it through objective (and more often subjective) evidence.

They also support causes such as historic preservation and cemetery preservation/restoration. They enjoy teaching people about cultural landmarks and memorable characters of the past. They encourage curiosity and imagination. Can’t say those aren’t worthy efforts; let’s give them that.Read More »

Studying modern day amateur scientists and researchers or “What the hell was that?”

I’m off inside my own head these days…

My main project is my Masters’ thesis in Science and the Public. I started gathering data this summer; fall will be consumed with crunching data, making sense of it and writing it up. I’ll graduate in February, barring any unforeseen disasters.

The hardest part about a thesis is formulating a research question and designing a low-cost, reasonable study that will appropriately answer that question. It took me months to work that out. This was an important struggle because it teaches you that science has rules. These rules are pretty wicked to follow if you want to do it right – you must be perfectly clear about what you are asking and the results you expect to get. No ambiguities allowed. Everything must be defined. You must do the work. No shortcuts.

I’ve decided to focus on something that means something personal to me and can answer a question that hasn’t been addressed before in this context.
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