Playing “Scientist”: How The Public Is Misled By Paranormal Investigators

21 Oct

This is part I of a guest post by Sharon Hill.

A few years ago, I attended a presentation by a popular paranormal investigation group which was hosted by a university student activities club. The room was crowded with people of all ages – kids, college students and local citizens. The audience was mesmerized by the information (or possibly just by the “celebrity” presenter) as I grew increasingly uncomfortable and dismayed. The stories were dramatic but their evidence was pathetic. Yet, people believed these researchers had recorded proof of actual paranormal occurrences.

This experience later translated to a research project of my own where I examined how these amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs) presented themselves to the public. Specifically, I had noticed many of them claimed to be scientific. What did they mean by that? Did it have any merit?

Over the past 10 years, there has been a marked rise in the number of ARIGs – independent groups made up of volunteers, not affiliated with a research program or institution, and who specialized in hauntings, UFO sightings, unidentified or mysterious animal reports, and general anomalous phenomena. Fueled by popular television programs like Ghost Hunters and Monster Quest, over 2000 of these groups exist across the U.S. in every state [1]. You can find these groups marketing their no-cost services all over the Internet. They regularly appear in the local media as “experts” and at community events giving presentations on their methods and findings.

The paranormal is just as popular as ever. Millions of viewers see these paranormal-themed shows on TV each week, thousands actively participate in these groups and are interested in what they have to say. Perhaps we can just ignore this as the age-old, harmless interest in “the unknown” and “something beyond” this world. But what I observed in person and in print had me concerned: the public saw this new kind of researcher as credible. It was disturbing to think they might also believe what they were doing was acceptable as science.

About half of these groups claim to use scientific methods [1]. The overwhelming majority of participants have no scientific training, graduate degrees, or experience in research. I could find no group that required or even desired their members have scientific training.

From their “mission”, “goals” and “methods” pages on websites and from various published pieces, the emphasis on “scientific” or using “science” is reflected in two areas: language and activities.

It was easy to find key words such as “frequency,” “energy,” “electro-magnetic fields,” and the like, used on information pages to potentially explain the reported paranormal activity. Frequently, ARIG websites refer to various theories, especially quantum theory, as a hopeful framework for their ideas. The errors and logical fallacies made these pages painful to read. They contained no journal references to support their connections.

Data collection looks very conscientious (on the surface). Each group has a systematic method of investigation and proudly describes their use of technical-looking, apparently objective equipment. Oddly, dowsing rods, pendulums and Ouija boards were sometimes used alongside the EMF meters, even by groups that claimed to be scientific. Many groups counted a self-proclaimed psychic or “sensitive” on their team. Their “feelings” were said to help in the placement of the objective equipment.

In an effort to attract only serious participants, several groups require prospective members to complete training programs, even certifications. Groups will make much out of affiliations and connections to schools and larger overarching societies.

It all sounds quite impressive and legitimate to the nonscientific layperson who does not have the background to see what is being presented here – it’s pretend science, mimicking, what Toumey [2] calls “conjuring” science. More coming soon..

1. Hill, S.A. (2010). “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.” [Thesis] Master of Education – Science and the Public, State University of New York at Buffalo.

2. Toumey, C.P. (1996). Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Sharon Hill is a geologist with a Masters Degree in education focusing on science and the public. She is active in the skeptical community where she focuses on “sciencey” sounding claims and exposing sham inquiry. Her website is Twitter: @idoubtit

4 Responses to “Playing “Scientist”: How The Public Is Misled By Paranormal Investigators”

  1. Gus Lott October 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    If they say they are paranormalists, it’s entertainment – nothing more – just like un ‘reality’ TV and DWTS. Everyone should listen to In addition to the paranormal folks, George Noory has excellent credible guests – like Buz Aldrin, Annie Jacobsen, Michael Shermer, and Frank Wilczek. C2CAM has much more entertainment value than 99.99% of the other AM talk radio.

    • Sharon Hill October 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      The point is, people actually think that stuff is real. I know it’s difficult to imagine, but to many the paranormal stuff is very real and it has a strong effect on their life and life decisions.

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