Hill, Sharon A. (2017). Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
I wrote this book based on my Master’s thesis in science education but I expanded it to include the explosion of TV and internet depictions of paranormal research that occurred from 2010 to 2016. There remains no other book that examines the successful attempt of amateur paranormal investigators to establish themselves as “experts” in fields that required no prior qualifications. When the majority of the public does not understand how and why the process of science works to establish reliable knowledge, they are easily fooled by self-styled experts who sound sciencey but misrepresent their work and conclusions.
“Amateurs are free to explore any subject they wish, to be innovative, unencumbered by the seemingly endless task of finding funding, producing journal papers, teaching, and advancing their own careers. They are typically working on topics and concerns abandoned or ignored by institutionally affiliated scientists. Paranormal researchers have taken advantage of these seeming voids. Yet, these topics only appear to be abandoned. As discussed later, scientists did seriously examine these fringe topics, decided there was nothing there to pursue, and then moved on. Alternatively, these subject areas became valued in cultural or psychological studies.”Excerpt From: Sharon A. Hill. “Scientifical Americans.”
I coined the term “ARIG” (amateur research and investigation groups) to characterize the thousands of groups that formed in the wake of the Ghost Hunters T.A.P.S. group. Many people interested in the paranormal felt that they could do this type of work as well as or better than what they saw on the TV show. So they formed their own groups and made up their own rules. They mimicked what they saw on TV and what they thought it meant to be “scientific”.
“Appeals of participating in an ARIG are the excitement of discovery and the desire for enlightenment. There is a thrill in seeking out these experiences, sharing an adventure with others, and the feedback between group members that reinforces a belief (Bader et al. 2010; Childs & Murray 2010). Many ARIGs openly announce that they will be the ones to provide proof to the world of what they know is out there (Sykes 2016). With minimal training, no advanced degrees, and subjective techniques learned quickly, anyone can become experienced at this activity (Bader et al. 2010). ARIG participants are involved in a real investigation that feels edgy, dangerous, and groundbreaking. It’s hands-on, down and dirty, paranormal immersion.
In addition, there are other more personal aspects appealing to ARIG participation such as being social with others of like-mind, being part of a group, and gaining a sense of identity and importance. Many ARIG participants will cite their own experiences with a haunting, Bigfoot, or a UFO as their impetus for involvement. They want to explore it deeper with others who shared a similar experience.”Excerpt From: Sharon A. Hill. “Scientifical Americans.”
The book addresses key concepts about “serious leisure” (from Stebbins) and citizen science. I was the first to accurately count the number of ARIGs in the US at any time and assess how they used the word “science” in their promotional materials.
“Those ARIGs that strongly portray scientificity in their presentation to the public consider their subject to be an uncharted, ignored form of science and, therefore, conclude the scientific community is unjustly ignoring this field. Anyone who has examined the idea and believes there is “something to this” sees a preponderance of evidence for life after death, Bigfoot, possession, psychic powers, or unexplained things in the sky. In their view, the evidence is obvious and highly convincing. They tout their evidence as if adding photos, stories by eyewitnesses, and their own personal experiences will persuade the scientific community. In general, ARIGs do not exhibit knowledge of the scientific and scholarly history of exploration into fringe areas.”Excerpt From: Sharon A. Hill. “Scientifical Americans.”
I made an attempt to explain what science is, what “the public” is and what the “scientific method” is. My aim was to reach the ARIGs who casually use these terms. There are key elements that make up the scientific ethos. When I compared these elements to what ARIGs do, I found they were entirely lacking.
I also addressed the definition of “paranormal”, paranormal media and themes in popular culture, and how media contributes to belief. I traced the history of popular ghost hunting, cryptozoological research, and UFO seeking from their beginnings to modern times.
What’s paranormal investigation without gadgets? I examined the rise and the utility of paranormal technology. You might be surprised at how crucial the fictional depictions of ghost hunters and their gadgets were to the modern characterization of paranormal investigators.
How does this translate to the public and their understanding of paranormal investigation? Depictions of ARIGs on TV and on the internet as “scientific” and serious were incredibly successful in gaining them public attention and status as “experts”. The aims of ARIGs to be scientific were certainly admirable, reflecting the prestige of science that is still apparent today (though it is waning). Across the board, however, ARIGs had no scientific training and, in essence, only ACTED as non-scientists expected scientists to act. There was no substance to their efforts. It was almost entirely for show. The data was not useful, there were no controls, much of the results were subjective. In a few instances, the sham expertise of ARIGs could be dangerous – claimants were further convinced that there were dangerous entities affecting their lives thanks to the encouragement from “well-meaning” fake expert paranormal investigators.
“There are some ARIGs who attempt to screen claimants to determine if they are hoaxing or in need of other kinds of help (Krulos 2015). Any attempt by ARIG members to provide counseling or therapy is unethical and potentially illegal under certain laws against unauthorized medical practice. Especially in a situation where children are involved, ARIGs tread dangerously in advising clients and can be liable to legal recourse should something go awry. Considerable harm is created and situations worsened by ARIGs who tell distraught clients that they are plagued by demons, spirits, Bigfoot, or alien visitors. What if ARIGs miss an abusive scenario by misinterpreting it as a haunting or a possession? Anyone who diagnoses demonic possession and attempts exorcism risks mental and physical harm to the person. For ARIGs to involve themselves in these kinds of dangerous and emotionally-charged situations thinking they can fix what’s wrong is the height of hubris.”Excerpt From: Sharon A. Hill. “Scientifical Americans.”
Over half of all ARIGs that I cataloged used the term “scientific” in their promotional online material. That means that they considered being scientific as a key criterion to look legitimate or important in the eyes of the public. I examine how they attempt to do this through their words, imagery, and actions. At the core of their investigations, the evidence they gather is almost entirely subjective and highly questionable, not scientific. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be. I conclude with ways that investigators could do more useful work by changing their approach away from the TV paranormalist depiction to a more useful framework of documentation. This includes letting go of popular pseudoscientific “theories” of the paranormal that are frequently promoted. Instead, they would do well to cooperating with each other and with actual scientists, and doing more rigorous research that could stand up to scrutiny.
“Good intentions and valiant efforts are not enough to produce solid conclusions. That depends on adherence to a rigorous (and sometimes unpleasant) process and rigid framework, justifying what has been concluded and correlating it to existing knowledge. ARIGs often are unaware of or reject the tenets of science, but they keep the shallow appearances of science work to maintain credibility.”Excerpt From: Sharon A. Hill. “Scientifical Americans.”
This book shows the typical pitfalls of paranormal investigation and provides a way around those pitfalls. I give upfront advice on what not to do and a clear framework for how to do solid research and investigation.
“Since scientific concepts are difficult to comprehend and evaluate by those not educated in such fields, laypeople rely on trustworthy sources for acceptable information. And they deem a source trustworthy based on clues and cues. Even small portrayals of scientificity are influential in accruing authority and trust from the lay public. When a preferred paranormal belief is supported by an apparently authoritative person who sounds sciencey, people feel justified in greater acceptance of it and they use the sciencey aspect as a basis to convince others of its legitimacy (Blancke et al. 2016). This results in pseudoscience being given equal weight to scientific concepts in the public sphere.
Blancke et al. explain the problem at the center of belief in these topics and why being scientifical is so effective as a strategy:
People are not interested in impartial truth, but in finding and supporting beliefs that make intuitive sense.
Pseudoscientific concepts are pervasive (1) because posing as science works as a tool of persuasion, and (2) because people lack the motivation to correct their intuitive beliefs, but instead seek to confirm them and, simultaneously, distrust genuine scientific expertise. ”Excerpt From: Sharon A. Hill. “Scientifical Americans.”
Science is the best method we have to establish reliable knowledge. If we wish to have reliable knowledge about unusual experiences, there is a better, more robust method than following amateurs who are making things up as they go along. Paranormal investigation is not cutting-edge science, it’s a well-worn path. Don’t make the same mistakes as everyone else. Check out my book and see paranormal research laid out from its beginnings to modern-day and take a good look at the people who participate in this effort every day in America.
Direct from the author: email lithospherica(at)gmail.com
Matt Bille: Matt’s Sci/Tech Blog
Page 50 “…Ghost Research Society (1977) that is still around today led by Loyd Auerbach.” The GRS is led by Dale Kaczmarek, not Loyd.