An inconsistent history of paranormal in America (Book Review)

Supernatural America: A Cultural History by L.R. Samuel (2011)

sn-americaSupernatural America is one of a few books that aim to take the reader on a tour of the country’s paranormal history to end up where we are today. I’ve not read many good ones. (Paranormal Nation by Fitch was possible the WORST. Steer clear of that stinker!) I compare such a project to Brian Inglis’ two volumes (that are not focused on America but on the history of supernatural and paranormal thought) that some think are too pro-paranormal but certainly far more thorough.

Supernatural America immediately conflates supernatural with paranormal and, to me, this dooms the entire book to being a mish-mash of unclear concepts. Because the author discusses the progress of scientific efforts in investigating “the supernatural”, and the efforts to prove the supernatural through science, we immediately spot the complication that this creates. Though he uses the definition of supernatural as “phenomenon that cannot be explained by natural laws or understood by science,” he does not grasp that by that definition the supernatural is excluded from science. Science relies on natural laws. Supernatural causes are beyond nature and can not be studied. There are no rules. So, right from the introduction, I was put off by this fundamental muddling of ideas. The second major issue was the lack of editing and nearly unreadable portions of chapters 1 and 2 which included excessive use of passive tense, missing words, and inelegant grammar, making these portions very difficult to follow. I trudged through them. Slowly. It got better but it was odd that these portions sounded like unproofed drafts when the rest was more readable.

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Not paying attention: An unskeptical Facebook kerfuffle

I’m frequently discouraged by how often and quickly people who value “critical thinking” send barbs towards others with the same goals using unwarranted accusations and mischaracterizations. It’s too common. A few weeks ago, I was accused on a Facebook friend’s page of only writing about “low hanging fruit” and that my website Doubtful News was limited to applying skepticism to “paranormal, conspiracies and alt med”. A rude and ignorant commenter who favors ad hominem insults says he “begged” me to cover issues that really hurt people like “computer scams, phishing”. That might be a blatant lie or it just might be an exaggeration, I can’t remember anyone contacting me about that at all. Regardless, it was absurd. As with pseudoscience, it’s hard to unpack such trumped-up claims. The writers’ goals were to support their efforts to make a feel-good social judgment upon me. They weren’t interested in facts, just emotions. The facts are this: my platform has LONG BEEN application of science and skepticism to all appropriate subject areas – the circle can certainly grow!

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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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