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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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Scottish poltergeist story is highly questionable, even if the police say they saw something

A story about a family in Rutherglen, Scotland, who called in police to report paranormal phenomena, rode the media wave yesterday into today. The original source was the local Rutherglen Reformer paper that appears digitally on the Daily Record (UK) website. Here is the main story: Rutherglen family call in police after witnessing paranormal activity

A desperate Rutherglen family were forced to call in the police after witnessing apparent paranormal activity in this home.

[…] officers were left stunned when they witnessed clothes flying across a room, lights going on and off, oven doors opening, mobile phones flying through the air and even a chihuahua dog on top of a seven foot hedge.

The terrified family, who live on Stonelaw Road, called police in a panic on August 8 and 9 after two days of bizarre occurances. It is understood a sergeant and two PCs witnessed the incidents.

Several question IMMEDIATELY arise and are not answered by any of the news reports:

  • Who were the officers who responded?
  • Did the offices actually witness what is described? Where are the detailed reports?
  • Did the family call on both days? Why?
  • “It is understood” that various policeman witnessed it – what does that mean? Why are no names included?
chihuaua
OK, fine, here ya go!

I looked for all reports of the incident. What I found was a repetition of the Daily Record story with the same unsourced quotes. All stories include a stock photo of a chihuahua as well, which I thought was humorous. Adding the bit that the dog was affected by the phenomena adds greatly to the interest in the story, but also allowed for some egregious exaggeration as I note later on.

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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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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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