The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

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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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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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Media as ‘medium’: Review of Paranormal Media and the good and bad of ghost hunting

It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.

51m9mZYRf4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.

The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.

In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.

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Paranormal politicking

My interests are in paranormal topics, coalition building, policy, and problem solving. Having visited the paranormal side on several occasions, I’m one of those skeptics that is not hated or despised by those that disagree with the “skeptical” scene. Distilled rom those interests, one of my goals is to find a way to interact effectively with the paranormal community and maybe come up with new ways of doing things. In order to do that, you can’t just jump in and expect change. It’s complicated so I try to explore the issues.

That serves as an introduction to an introduction…

I started reading Jeremy Northcote’s The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth: A Sociological Account. It’s already marked up from when I referred to it for my thesis project but it was time I read it through. Odd that sometimes you pick up a book years later and it resonates with you in a completely different way from the first encounter with it, thanks to life experience and current events.

So, I digested the introduction and I found some zinger ideas that I wanted to write down and contemplate anyway so I might as well share them and see how everyone feels about it (in consideration of my propensity to be collaborative).

The following are notes and ideas taken from the Introduction, pages 1-11.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 »

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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Solving Unexplained Mysteries: A review of “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by B. Radford

This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.

As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com)  as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.

This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic.Read More »

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 »

The red herring

Conclusion to “Sham Inquiry
The coelacanth is a red herring

Mainstream science, which is respected and functions very well with its current methodology, excludes those fields who don’t pass muster. For a theory to be considered as an explanation for observations of the natural world, even the public realizes it ought to be scientific. Using supernatural qualities as necessary components in your theory will get you excluded from consideration outright by the scientific community. The public, on the other hand, finds the paranormal quite fascinating and is willing to give consideration to those that put on a good show.Read More »

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Read More »