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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True Monsters show basically true to useless formula with one small exception

Krampus_historychannelTrue Monsters debuted on History Channel on Friday night. The show was promoted to be a somewhat different take on “monsters” (cryptids, legends and myths).

“True Monsters sorts the fiction from the often-muddled facts about the most terrifying monsters, awe-inspiring myths, and timeless legends in history. From monstrous creatures to wrathful gods, this series tells the incredible stories that reveal the surprising truths.”

I hadn’t read much about it beforehand, but I did know that historian Dr. Brian Regal was to be interviewed for at least one episode. So, I was hopeful that expert commentary would be the strength of the program to provide us new info about the deeper meanings and alternative explanations for the often overly-simplified and highly-fictionalized pop culture monsters and myths.

The press release for the show called it “provocative”. This was their setup:

“Through a blend of cinematic re-creations and engaging storytelling, ‘True Monsters’ reveals more about our monsters — and about us — than ever before. Touching on traditional myths from countries like Greece and Norway, the series broadens out to include monsters and characters from all kinds of sources, including the Bible and modern day urban legends. ‘True Monsters’ will entertain while also explaining what led humans to create and fear such creatures and stories in the first place.”

A very promising premise but very difficult to do in a hour program on one topic. Unfortunately, they packed several somewhat questionably related topics into the episode thus short-changing them all. I didn’t learn anything new but this show wasn’t made FOR an audience made up of people like me.

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If you think Bigfoot is an interdimensional being, you’ve lost your footing

A person making an extraordinary claim may feel very special. A couple that I met recently who do paranormal research described some acquaintances’ behavior during an investigation of a supposedly haunted place : a woman “swooned” as the spirit overcame her. It was all very dramatic, they said. I’ve seen similar when one ghost hunter of a group claims sighting of a full-body apparition. The rest of the group pays rapt attention to the experiencer, openly wishing they had the encounter as described.

I recently gave a talk at a local paranormal-themed event about science and the paranormal, part of which was a description of “supernatural creep”. This week, I was reminded how powerful the pull of the supernatural is to some and that they will slide towards ever more sensational and dramatic interpretations.

Pursuit of paranormal investigation can be a path to personal empowerment. It becomes serious leisure – part of the definition of self. Some curious people that I thought were grounded have left the ground, metaphorically speaking. Paranormal people I thought were worthy collaborators turned out to be jokers and self-promoters, first and foremost. They’ve either lost contact with reality via small steps, or they have deliberately pursued sensationalist fantasy for some reason or another. (I can’t really say why, don’t know.)

Supernatural creep happens when an investigator takes eyewitness stories at face value, including supernatural qualities of the encounter, and incorporates these features into the description of the phenomenon. Such features include invoking spirits, demons, angels, miracles, or physical implausibilities such as time- or inter-dimensional travel, psychic communication, or other behaviors that do not align with the laws of nature. Read More »

You say closed, I say open with reason

I get emails. People tell me I should be more “open-minded”.

There is that clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”. This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s a fine saying.

I’m reminded about my narrow lack of vision (as they see it) when I report about recently deceased mystery mongerers or self-proclaimed miracle workers. Their followers chastise me not only for speaking ill of the dead (I’m sure they were all nice people, but that does not excuse their bad ideas), but that I did not experience their miracles or I fail to understand their work because I’m not thinking “out of the box”.

Here’s one example. Lloyd Pye was committed to the idea that a curiously-shaped skull he had is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promoted the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings. You can read my post about his death. There is nothing offensive about it. Yet, I got a SLEW of messages telling me how horribly misguided I was. I disagreed with his crackpot ideas. I’m allowed to. The plausibility of it is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty sci-fi story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be completely irrational.

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Book reviews: Fall 2014

300x300Since my last book review, I’ve downed a couple more. I can’t manage to review everything but here is a rundown:

Ghosts, E. Russell (1970)
This book was recommended to me by a long-time ghost researcher. I enjoyed it, mostly. It was confusing in parts, uneven. But some excellent points. Harder to get but worth it to have if you are serious about paranormal history.

The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole (1764)
The first “Gothic” novel. Available outside copyright for free. Strange. Very strange.

Raising the Devil, B. Ellis (2000)
A very worthwhile reference. Learned a lot from this one. You may be able to get it through your local university library. A folklore perspective worth exploring.

Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, S. Poole (2014)
Vampira is entrancing. She was way before her time. This could have been cut down a bit but I enjoyed it all anyway. Now I’m a lifelong fan of Vampira.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956)
After I finished this book I realized I’d already read it 9 years ago. That explains why it didn’t seem impressively shocking. If you have read Price’s Most Haunted House in England, you MUST read this. Can be found in large university libraries.

Unnatural Creatures, N. Gaiman
Could not finish. I just don’t like short stories. Not bad, just not my thing.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters – M. Kaplan
Could not finish after first two chapters. Felt “off” as if Kaplan does not know what he is talking about. Focused on mythical monsters and uses guessing and speculation. Missed the mark entirely for me.

Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We need Critical Thinking, R. Bartholomew & B. Radford (2003)
Very good reference. Readable and noteworthy (I marked lots of passages for reference). A must for your skeptical library.

If you would like to purchase any of these books, go through the Doubtful News Amazon link. Thanks.

Doubt and About: I’m a proud Bigfoot skeptic and damn good at it

This is a post about a specific, maybe touchy, issue in a very general field – we could use some internal support and shared respect as advocates of science, critical thinking and evidence-focused skepticism, as well as a reminder that the world is a diverse place of knowledge, opinions and expertise. And, I’m going to tell you a bit more about getting into the thick of things at a conference outside my comfort zone.

I’m very much a generalist, I know a bit about a whole lot of stuff, a lot about a good bit of stuff, and considered an expert in a very narrow range of subjects. This is an advantage in getting people across a wide social and educational scale thinking about weird things. If I can hit on at least of few of their interests, whether that be the paranormal, natural disasters, animals, the environment or health concerns a decent discussion will happen. This past weekend, I was at RavenCon in Richmond, VA, a sci-fi con of the BaltiCon and Dragon*Con type, which I had attended before. I can always find something of interest there. I may skip the Star Trek stuff and not know about this novel franchise but I’m all in for spooky stuff, Star Wars or LOTR discussion. I appreciate that the RavenCon folks decided to invite me and Bob Blaskiewicz to add a rational spin on some fringe topics. They understand the audience is diverse.

It seems indisputable to me that critical thinking habits must be taught as early as possible in order to have the greatest impact. That is, in the course of regular discussion, activities, and daily doings, incorporating good habits of inquiry and encouraging curiosity ought to be a goal of parents and educators for even the youngest kids. Generally, (I’m going to play the odds) when it comes to kids under 12, they love animals, monsters, dinosaurs, etc. This is an excellent gateway topic into thinking about how we know what we know and what to think about these possibly true, probably false, but popular and interesting topics.  RavenCon had a kids programming track. I had developed a new presentation for kids about monsters and was eager to try it out. It was an interactive discussion about historic monsters (dragons and sea serpents), movie monsters (Frankenstein’s creature to vampires to Godzilla), legendary monsters (Jersey Devil and Chupacabra), and monsters some people think are real like Bigfoot and Nessie. What do we know? How do we know? What should we think about them in terms of fact or fiction?

KIDS KNOW ABOUT BIGFOOT AND NESSIE. Most of them think they are AWESOME. What better way to start a discussion about evidence than with a topic they have curiosity about! Other than realizing I don’t know my video game monsters so well, I think it worked. Even the parents were grateful, they had learned something. I know a good bit about a lot of monsters.

There are more crucial topics to discuss, many would say, but this was not the place. I’m not going to be able to talk to kids about alternative medical claims or cancer treatment. I can’t connect to them about psychic scams or consumer protection. The monster angle is ideal. You start somewhere and work on the methodology of applying effective skepticism using a fun example.

Also at RavenCon, I was on the panels for Bad Science, Ask a Scientist, and Paranormal: Fact or Faked. I sat in on two other presentations from a local paranormal group, who call themselves scientific, where I asked questions and engaged with them. By the end of the conference, I had made a positive impression on several people who DO NOT necessarily believe what I believe or approach inquiry the same way yet they listened to my comments. I had planted the seed. They did not think of me as the curmudgeonly dismissive, debunking skeptic. I even plan to work with the paranormal group in the future. That’s a WIN! Inserting techiniques of applying skepticism at a science-fiction con is a FANTASTIC way to get people thinking more deeply about this stuff.

I understand that some people engaged in skeptical advocacy and activism think that talking about Bigfoot and paranormal topics is boring and silly. That’s because you’ve already thought through it and decided it’s not your thing. A significant proportion of the American population (typically around 20%) believes in some aspect of the paranormal, whether that be Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, psychic abilities, and the like. A huge number (varies depending on your religious affilation from 20-90%) would rather accept a supernatural explanation of the earth and species of life via Creationism. This is not trivial stuff. It’s normal. And there must be a voice of the counter-advocate. No, it’s not life or death (well, maybe it is about life, in general), it’s everyday life-enriching skills. We all need that. Learning to apply evidence-focused skepticism is a skill useful throughout life. Most people have not thought much about it.  Most people also don’t have PhDs, read philosophy, know logical fallacies, or value reason over other criteria. They learn most everything from their communities of interest, family, and television often never getting a thoughtful science-based view. Engaging them in skeptical thinking about their interests and communicating at their level of science understanding means they are less likely to tune out and get them thinking about things in a new way.

A twitter discussion began between Orac, DJ Grothe and others regarding Harriet Hall’s review of Abominable Science and her mention of Bigfoot Skeptics. It was a fine piece about the value of talking about monsters. Since commenting was not available on the feature, a back-and-forth in 140 characters ensued. Twitter is probably the worst place to discuss a detailed, thoughtful article. It’s an exceptionally poor medium for hashing out goals and preferences regarding social causes. Confusion arose about the “importance” of various specialties of skepticism (i.e., Bigfoot vs medical quackery). There is NO DOUBT that medical topics are the more critical areas in which to apply sound skepticism. This is also one of the subject area that requires the most expertise in order to be qualified to give an opinion. I know enough about medical claims to be able to judge whether they appear off or not (because of the generalist thing), but I would not feel comfortable expounding about it in depth. So I won’t. But someone MUST. We count on the experts in this field like Orac and the team at Science-Based Medicine to do it. So, I point to their sites and cite their work. I can’t do it better so why attempt it.

Meanwhile, I run the ultimate generalist site over at I talk to kids about monsters. I look into sham science. I write for Forteans and cryptozoologists. That’s my thing and I’m pretty good at it. I find when non-Bigfoot skeptics talk about this stuff, they miss the mark, mistakenly characterizing a sizable portion of the population as silly or stupid, conflating interest with gullibility and belief. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s wrong. Do people point to my work on these topics? Sometimes. It’s really great when they do and I notice and appreciate that.

I have received a ton of feedback from people who say they love Doubtful News site, they like my writing in other places, and say I am one of the “reasonable” skeptics. Therefore, preliminary results suggest my approach is working out pretty well. However, it is rare to be acknowledged publicly from high-profile skeptics. As I mentioned, I like to call out good work by others, so it does irk me when projects I invest a big effort in aren’t mentioned as worthwhile across the skeptical community. In a way this is not a big deal, since that is not the niche I am aiming to reach, yet, it is nice to be recognized by peers and get positive feedback once in a while instead of being publicly and harshly critiqued, looked down upon, or told my work or opinion means less than your own. This has occasionally happened to me and to many others and it’s obnoxious.

The point was also made during the Twitter discussion that individuals can’t do it all and it’s a good plan to play to our strengths – “I can’t address this certain speciality (not my interest or expertise) but I’m glad others can.” We need generalists and specialists of all types to make a strong network – doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, geologists, historians, folklorists, artists, filmmakers, linguists, physicists, chemists, biologists, zoologists, philosophers, secularists, human rights advocates, mathematicians, computer and networking experts, and so on. I harken back to the concept of big tent of skepticism… because it makes the most sense. Anyone who has been paying any attention at all knows that forming ourselves into cliques with labels has been a terrible idea – causing huge rifts, increasing divisiveness and, consequently, limiting progress. I have been continually disappointed at the GENERAL lack of cooperation between skeptics but astounded by, and am grateful for, some SPECIFIC acts. There is a big tent and a place inside for enclaves of specialists, not cliques who believe this is better or more worthwhile than that. Tribalism, while it happens, should not be condoned. Respect should be maintained as well as understanding that there is a place for almost everyone, not ONE best way or one most important topic. (I don’t do to the Star Trek panels at sci-fi cons but I do like the Star Wars and LOTR ones.)

So, my trip abroad to the realm of sci-fi was a great experience. I’ll be writing it up for a future for Sounds Sciencey. I took seriously my role as a speaker and as a listener, to get the pulse of the opinions and attitudes around us and find out where we need to speak up and do more. What’s more important — teaching kids to think for themselves or saving some people from financial or health consequences? Well, that’s not a reasonable question, is it? The primary consideration for advocacy and activism must be the needs of the audience to which we are trying to communicate at that moment. Things change. Adjust accordingly.

I’m going to keep talking about monsters for a long time. If you can’t see the greater value in that, you are forgetting something fundamental about people – we are really diverse.

Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?

There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.

Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.

“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.

The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.

Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).

What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)

Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena miraculous, a result of religious, occult (or magical) forces that are outside of human doings. These forces don’t adhere to boundaries of nature, which are waived. Perhaps the entity decides not to be detectable, for example. When that happens, we can’t test it, capture it or measure it. We just broke science. Our understanding stops if the explanation allows for supernatural entities to suspend natural laws on a whim. We end up with a form of “[Insert entity name here] did it.” Game over.

Paranormal events can appear to be supernatural but that in no way is proof that they are. Some unaccounted for natural explanation can be the cause. There is really no way to have excluded all natural possibilities in an investigation. We just may not have all the information. So to say something is the result of “paranormal” or “supernatural” activity is faulty logic. It can appear to be but you can’t say that it is for sure.

If you look at older anomalistic literature, you’ll find the word “preternatural” — a perfectly cromulent word — in place of paranormal. It’s not used as much anymore but it denotes a situation where the phenomenon appears outside the bounds of what we consider normal. It’s not supernatural, just extraordinary.

An even better word to use for weird natural phenomena — like strange falls from the sky (frogs, fish, colored rain), mystery sounds and lights, odd weather phenomena, etc. (things that might also be called Fortean) — would be paranatural. Events seem beyond natural because they are rare, unusual and we can’t quite pinpoint how they happened, but we need not revoke natural laws to have them occur. It’s similar to preternatural but sounds more modern.

Sorry about the word salad in this post but terminology is rather important for effective communication in order to avoid being misunderstood. These various words reflect the degree to which you want to go beyond observable, experimentally derived evidence. They get progressively LESS likely to be the correct designation: Paranatural -> paranormal/preternatural -> supernatural (which we can’t actually “prove”).

Pedantry over. We now resume normal communication.

This was originally posted at Huffington Post May 19, 2013.