Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
The Trickster is an archetype that is familiar to most people. It is a character in mythology that exists in an in between state of social status. Some of these are real people like the fool in the King’s court who was allowed to openly mock the King, was sometimes sought out for advice, and yet also played the fool and had no official status and others are characters of mythology, like Hermes from the Greeks, the Coyote from Native Americans or Bugs Bunny from Warner Bros. Hoaxing, sexual ambiguity, blurring of social conventions are all aspects of the trickster archetype.
The Trickster comes up in a discussion of psi because it is an attribute of psi. That is to say, it shows up on a personal level and at a social level when psi is an area of focus. In my last post I discussed the anti-structuralism of psi and this is in relation to that. Anti-structuralism affects status and trickster elements affect status as well. They are two sides of the same coin.
The key to understanding the trickster is understanding the blurring of social boundaries that tricksters manifest. This is important for the paranormal because trickster aspects are fairly common. People blur the lines between actual psychic ability and illusion. It is fairly well known in parapsychological literature that psychic mediums have both demonstrated psychic ability and used various tricks when psychic ability wasn’t enough. These people are neither wholly frauds nor wholly genuine. Many people feel that Uri Geller falls into this category.
Professional psychics may occasionally bluff their way through a reading. Because of the desperation that many clients of psychic readings experience, this is not very hard to accomplish. Skeptics use this as proof that all psychics are frauds, but this doesn’t really address the truth; there can be both fraud and genuine psi in the same person.
Part of the story here is that strong psi tends to blur the lines of social conduct. Sexual and social constraints are not as strong. I have actually run into this with other psychic people; I had one guy, a heterosexual report strong homosexual urgings in specific situations. I kind of know what he’s talking about. Neither one of us is even slightly homosexual and these feelings don’t linger and they aren’t acted upon, but they do come up.
For ordinary psychic people, this means that some ambiguity about relationships, sexuality or even the truth is normal. Usually though, this is expressed as a passing feeling and not acted upon.
One of the more interesting aspects of this trickster phenomenon as it relates to psi is how this plays on skeptics. While they consider themselves to be rational, they are as subject to hoaxing as anyone, especially in areas where their point of view is emotionally important to them. Randi’s million dollar challenge is an example of this, because Randi himself has many trickster aspects to him, including a history of deceit. Having the pretense of science while pushing a belief system is definitely a trickster trait and this has carried over into his challenge. While skeptics view it as some sort of scientific proof, there is nothing about the challenge to indicate that it is anything more than a publicity stunt. The requirements are too stiff, legitimate challengers are ignored or avoided, there are questions about whether the money is really there and the documentation is limited to forum posts. Further, the results are kept within JREF and not published in a scientific format that allows for legitimate criticism.
What’s fascinating about this is that it’s not psychic people who are hoaxed by this; it is skeptics. Psychics are skeptical of the challenge to begin with, and will actively seek information to refute it. The immediate question they pose is: “Why hasn’t anyone won this thing yet?” Skeptics do not ask this question of the challenge; they simply assume that no one has one because no one is psychic and they stop there. They don’t examine the challenge because it neatly fits within their belief system. I have not yet met a skeptic who even knew about the million to one odds against chance that the challenge demands. In various on line forums their basic attitude is “shut up and take the challenge you fraud.” They cannot discuss the merits of the challenge in any reasonable way because they are ignorant of it. This puts them on a par with true believers of UFO phenomena and fundamentalist religious types. They believe in the challenge not because of facts, but because of emotional attachment.
Skeptics are no more free of the trickster aspects of psi than anyone else. In fact, several prominent skeptics have strong trickster aspects to their personalities. Richard Wiseman is a magician and parapsychologist, but is also a skeptic. He is known for using a very strange formula for attempting to debunk Rupert Sheldrake’s work on psi in dogs and for a meta-analysis of the autoganzfeld studies that was widely publicized, but ultimately flawed. Yet he has also been known to have open-to-the-public psi experiments that have gotten him media exposure. He apparently rides both sides of the fence; a very trickster attribute.
In the early days of parapsychology research, hoaxing by mediums and others was so bad that eventually the research retreated to the laboratory, where J.B. Rhine created the formula for psi research that is still used to day. Testing large numbers of ordinary people for their psychic ability removed that problem.
The society norms are a construct that we have imposed on the collective consciousness and it is my sense that psychic ability operates underneath this layer, rendering it less important. conformity, after all, is a kind of fear of not fitting in, and deeper levels of psi are simply beyond this fear. Without it, society’s bonds on us loosen, potentially creating situations where people have behavior that is outside the social norms.
The anti-structuralism and the trickster attributes that people involved in psi tend to be part of demonstrate a deep level of reality where social structures do not exist. It demonstrates I think, that far more of our reality is malleable than we would normally expect. From the status people achieve in society to heterosexuality it’s all not as firmly part of us as we think and it doesn’t take a whole lot for it to start bending. These two concepts are somewhat hard to grasp at first, but the effort is well worth it and to understand them is to better understand ourselves and our relationship to the rest of society.