Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans: One message from ‘Behind the Curve’

Most people react to flat-earthers by labeling them as stupid or scientifically illiterate. A moderate effort to examine what they say will reveal that is not so. On the contrary, those who embrace conspiratorial beliefs seem to be bored with the conventional. Their active, creative brains spin more intriguing, complicated, and colorful trappings around mundane events and explanations. This was clearly in evidence in the documentary on flat-earthers, Behind the Curve.

The film has received good reviews and I recommend you watch it for yourself in an objective frame of mind. 

Decider does a brief overview of the important points but the reviewer thinks the execution of the project is inconsistent. I disagree. I think it’s marvelous. But I saw it by way of my own work on Scientifical Americans. So, unlike other commenters, I was not yelling at the screen. Instead, the film connected some dots for me, and a more coherent, but still complicated, insight into fringe beliefs evolved.

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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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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 »

Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications.Read More »

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here.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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Footprints that go nowhere

Tom Biscardi’s Searching for Bigfoot gang appears to have taken up the reins where MonsterQuest left off, by leading expeditions to stake out sights where evidence of Bigfoot surfaces. In response to a highly dubious piece of evidence, that looked more like a clump of leaves than an ape, they rushed to PA a few months ago to camp out for a day or so. Recently, they went to North Carolina to follow up on the collection of a footprint.
http://www.wsoctv.com/news/23937399/detail.html

Maybe they can get their own TV show too? Join the crowd of seekers seeking to prove the unknown on television. I’d watch.

The breaking story about the new footprint didn’t even make me pause. We have 50 over years of Bigfoot prints and stories. No shortage there. I even have a colleague who mentioned he thought he found a Bigfoot print in his garden in central PA. Ideally, trace evidence (and anecdotes) should be a clue to lead you to a bigger story. But they are questionable if interpreted on their own. So little data is available from them that we head quickly off the cliff and tumble into wild speculation.

How many have prints and anecdotes have lead us to hoaxes? Many hoaxes have been foisted on the public, media and scientists alike.
How many are unresolved (because so little information is available to decide on a cause)? Most would fall into this category. We just don’t know what happened. Don’t jump to an unwarranted conclusion.
How many have lead us to better evidence to support the existance of an unknown animal out there? Still waiting. The trail goes cold real fast.

Bigfoot prints are news because they are iconic pop culture references. Bigfoot = footprint. We all know what the footprint is supposed to look like before we see it. We are conditioned to respond to it. I’m now conditioned to respond to it with a “meh”. Do they really give us any new information at all? Nothing comes from them.

Footprints take us nowhere. Bigfoot researchers have to raise the standards. We’ve been around and around this block too many times. There’s nothing new to see here, just one’s own tracks covering the same old ground.

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 »

Elbowing in

Continuing with “Sham Inquiry

Elbowing in on good science

The Journal of Scientific Exploration is the published by the Society for Scientific Exploration which describes itself as “a professional organization of scientists and other scholars committed to studying phenomena that cross or are outside of the traditional boundaries of science and…are ignored or studied inadequately…” Many of the members’ topics of research and methods are considered pseudoscience by conventional scientists. The journal is closed to outside contributors and criticism.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 »

Cryptozoology – Sham Inquiry

Cryptozoology is “the study of hidden animals” (called ‘cryptids’). More precisely, it is the pursuit of animals that science does not recognize as existing and, in some situations, be considered ‘monster hunting’ in comparison to the ghost hunters in a forthcoming discussion.

Like the closely related field of UFOlogy, cryptozoology can accurately be described as “a simulacrum of systematic rationality…quite impressive to many…nonbelievers.”Read More »

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Cryptozoology
Ghost hunting
Creationism
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[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

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Weak evidence

Quality of evidence

A frequent complaint from the fringe is that the scientific community is dismissive of the actual evidence for their extraordinary claim. Proponents of psi or UFOs will cite reams of evidence. The scientific community’s standard response is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. That is, the evidence must be high quality, obtained through rigorous testing, with all other explanations accounted for. Overly precautionary experiments are required to support theories that seek to overturn established knowledge. Rampant fraud and gullibility exposed in some fields, especially psi research, require that extra safeguards be used in this research. This is not a double standard because, as Gardner notes for conventional studies, “gerbils don’t cheat” [1]. But humans do, sometimes inadvertently.

Many poorly tested pseudosciences have a characteristic over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Similar to anecdotes, myths and legends will be used to support a claim. This type of evidence can not be confirmed and is subject to mistakes and misinterpretation. Science considers anecdotal evidence very weak because of the degree of subjectiveness.

In the public view, anecdotal evidence is very persuasive. It is a primary means by which we communicate ideas to each other. To deny an eyewitness account suggests that the researcher considers the eyewitness a lier, under the influence of some altering substance or mentally unstable.

Collected modern and historical anecdotes, bits of circumstantial and questionable evidence, and non-replicated results form an impressive body of evidence to the nonscientist. Even the scientist may feel that there “must be something to it”. The important attention to quality is lost. Lots of weak evidence does not collectively make strong evidence. In an analogy, skeptical investigator Ben Radford equates this to trying to make a cup of strong coffee out of a lot of weak brew [2]. The scientific community is unimpressed and, quite justifiably, turns away.

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[1] Gardner, M. (1981). Science Good Bad & Bogus, Prometheus Books.
[2] Radford, B. (2009). Personal communication, April 27, 2009.

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Using Subterfuge

Using subterfuge to build a case

Pseudoscience proponents may resort to desperate measures to support and preserve a beloved theory – another sure sign that the theory does not qualify on the same level as a scientific one. The public generally falls for various forms of slippery techniques and logical fallacies that are used to promote pseudoscientific claims, such as:

  • Falsifying scientific citations or quotes; using well-known scientist’s words out of context, changing them or entirely fabricating a reference;
  • Deliberately misleading to a conclusion;
  • Laying claim to authority based on special knowledge from inside sources (like the military, religious authorities or the dead themselves);
  • Making decisive statements that are unconfirmed, previously discredited, or even outright lies;
  • Speculation unsupported by evidence; outright leaps of faith and jumping to conclusions;
  • Claims that other knowledge systems are as valued as science.

In the eyes of the public who will trust a knowledgeable-sounding and sincere source, crafty methods can convey the feeling that a reasonable case is being built. The public is not expected to look deep enough to see that hard facts are actually assumptions, rendering the whole field a hollow show [1]. It takes a lot of work, previous knowledge and some special access to discern the truth from falsity and determine which conclusions are valid. It is not reasonable to have to verify everything one hears all day.
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[1] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 92

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