Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Very recently I attempted to write an article for Cracked.com, an on line humor and weird stuff site that specializes in unusual lists of various topics. It seemed like a perfect fit for a parapsychology topic, so I joined their workshop and got an article together. It went downhill from there. The moderators were all skeptics and as I went back and forth with them, it became clear that I would never get a fair trial. The first time I raised objections regarding biased moderation the thread was shut down. A seemingly progressive and free thinking magazine was suddenly . . . not so much. Yet they made it clear to me that they follow ordinary mainstream standards and I believe them.
This, I think, provides a good example then of mainstream vetting. As this is a mainstream magazine with a sizable readership, it is fair to say that they have probably hired people with a great deal of editorial experience and that these people are carrying over ordinary practices that are common in the field. This then, is not a condemnation of Cracked, which can be presumed to be following an ordinary editorial system of vetting, but rather the vetting system itself. Ordinary vetting methods create a classic chicken and egg problem that cannot be resolved. In order for information to be vetted, it must come from a reliable source. This means that unconventional ideas are not weighed on their merits, or lack thereof, but only on whether someone else who has been deemed reputable has already agreed that the idea has merit. Reliable sources are not judged by their content, but rather the reputation of the source. If no source of sufficient reputation has already weighed in, then the idea in question is deemed to have inadequate sourcing. Without adequate sourcing, the idea never sees the light of day.
This method is tried and true for conventional claims. It easily and quickly separates fact from fiction without requiring extensive investigative research on a wide variety of topics. Mainstream publications can generally be relied upon to present the truth regarding ordinary, conventional ideas. There will generally be enough information from these sources to make a reasonable decision.
This all falls apart however, with unconventional claims, which typically come with a raft of skepticism clouding the debate and usually obfuscating the truth. Skepticism is the mainstream default position because it is a safe, cautious, uncontroversial and easy to achieve. No matter what the eventual outcome, the publication is safe from charges of being gullible and nobody had to work very hard to achieve that goal. I don’t mean to be flippant about this; most topics require far more attention than journalists and editors can give them. It’s just . . . life. But sourcing can be done for unconventional topics; it just requires an understanding of how that information is most likely to be presented. It’s out there generally; it just has to go through less conventional channels to be made available.
The best sources for a clear, accurate, non scientific treatment of unconventional topics are usually blogs of some sort. (These are generally off limits as sources unless it’s by someone famous.) There, the nuances of the issues can be hashed out and explained by people intimately familiar with the topic. While these sources lack the vetting and team effort normally achieved by mainstream journalism, they also have no deadlines, no size requirements and do not have to pander to skeptics. They publish when they’re ready and gain credibility through sheer expertise and an accumulation of evidence. They aren’t just a disinterested person doing their job. This is their passion. They often lack any sort of formal credentials that can provide credibility, but they are experts nonetheless. When done by good writers who know their topic, they are generally more detailed and more believable than mainstream journalism. A lot of people get their information this way and mainstream journalism has not caught up with this fact.
My own blog and The Daily Grail are perfect examples of a niche area that bypasses normal mainstream channels to provide a specific group of people with information that is relevant to them. Both lack any sort of formal credentials, but because almost no one else cares about psychic people, (my topic of expertise) or Randi’s million dollar prize or has prejudicial beliefs about them, these two blogs are part of a very small group of sources covering a tiny niche area who have examined these subjects in any depth. I care, and so I educate myself as much as possible on the whole subject of what it means to be psychic wherever it takes me. The Daily Grail has gone after the hypocrisy of James Randi like no one else. No mainstream publication could possibly cover this subject with anywhere near our levels of expertise. Yet I can 99% guarantee that these would be rejected as a source every time if this subject ever came up even if they found us. Neither I, nor The Daily Grail fit the profile of a credible source.
Getting back to my story of failure, I was well aware of vetting problem and attempted to use peer reviewed scientific studies to demonstrate the reliability of my information. This seemed to me to be surefire way to bypass the problem of poor, inaccurate media attention on this subject. How can you possibly argue with real, well designed studies that conclusively demonstrate the effects that are claimed? Well, it turns out, you can. The vetting process apparently ranks scientific journals according to their mainstream credentials. Specifically, I was told:
Here’s an example which shows why your sources are subpar for a Cracked article. One of your sources is a supposedly academic paper called Journal of Scientific Information. Here is another article published in that same paper: http://scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_17_1_hodgkinson.pdf
Now if I’m reading that paper correctly, it’s essentially denying that HIV leads to AIDS. It’s trying to find fault with the HIV theory of AIDS causation, a thing that I didn’t even know was a theory. So you can see why that journal isn’t going to fly as a Cracked-worthy source. Also don’t think that anyone here is coming at you personally. No one is here to attack your beliefs as it may seem. Keep in mind that if someone came in with a pitch titled “X Reasons Parapsychology is Bullshit,” they would be receiving similar feedback in regards to taking a stance on an issue. And if their only sources were skeptic journals, those sources wouldn’t fly either. Everyone wants you to succeed, so try to take the feedback to heart, because it’s the only way this pitch will get seen by an editor.
Putting aside that my presentation of evidence is seen as “belief” and that I am being assured that this moderation is objective, -something that I didn’t quite believe-, the serious problem here isn’t that my source was rejected, but rather the reasoning for its rejection. The moderator admits to knowing nothing about this study, yet has come to decisive conclusions about it that seriously affect my ability to make my points. Because he lacked any credible information to make his decision, he is essentially creating a thought crime. That is to say, his beliefs are the guiding force behind this part of the vetting process. He is, in effect, acting as a gatekeeper rather than an editor.
Is it true though? Is this source really sub par in the way he says it is? Certainly the journal ventures beyond the mainstream. They describe themselves on their website:
The Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) is a leading professional organization of scientists and scholars who study unusual and unexplained phenomena. Subjects often cross mainstream boundaries, such as consciousness, ufos, and alternative medicine, yet often have profound implications for human knowledge and technology.
We publish a peer-reviewed journal, host annual meetings, and engage in public outreach. While our Full members are professional or experienced scientists and scholars, Associate and Student memberships are available to everyone.
It certainly seems as though this might not be very reputable. Well, to find out I emailed Kathleen Erickson, the managing editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration to ask her a simple question: How do you know that the ideas proposed in this journal have merit? Here is her response in full:
The peer review process at JSE is the same as for many scientific journals.
1) The Editor-in-Chief reads a submission as soon as it comes in.
2) He decides whether it is a) suitable for JSE according to topic (a pure physics paper or chemistry etc. is not suitable as there are journals in those fields for the author to submit to), and according to approach (is it scientific, does it review the literature, does it entertain possible other views, does it contribute to the field? etc.).
3) If not suitable, an unsuitable submission letter is sent to the author from the EIC, sometimes with some detailed critique and sometimes with only a general paragraph about the kinds of things that make a paper unsuitable for JSE (no literature review, no cogent arguments, no knowledge of the larger field, etc.)
4) If it is a suitable topic for JSE and appears to be attempting a proper treatment, it is assigned an Associate Editor (one of 8 who is in the field or possibly close to the field of the paper’s topic).
5) The Associate Editor reviews the paper and either a) recommends to the EIC that it is an unsuitable submission and why or b) puts it into review by assigning two reviewers (or more sometimes).
6) Two reviewers read the paper and make usually extensive comments, and each make their own recommendation to the AE.
7) The Associate Editor reviews the reviewers’ comments, adds his own, and makes an overall recommendation to the EIC.
8) The EIC reviews the AE’s recommendation, all the reviewer comments, and makes his own comments, and then makes an overall decision and sends all this information to the Managing Editor.
9) The Managing Editor sends out the decision letter to the author with both editors’ comments and both reviewers’ comments included (even if it is a Decline decision, so that the author has all the information to improve their submission to send it to other journals).
Decisions are either Accept, Decline, Major Revisions, or Minor Revisions.
Accept decision papers then go through a full copyedit and production.
10) If revisions are required, then when the revised manuscript is received by JSE it is reviewed by all the reviewers again (even if a reviewer’s recommendation was Accept on the original submission). Their comments on the revision go to the Associate Editor who also reviews the revised paper. The AE then makes a new recommendation to the EIC, including his comments and the reviewers’ comments on the revision. Sometimes submissions go through two or three revisions before the paper is finally accepted or declined.
Over the last four years, the acceptance rate has been 35%.
JSE Managing Editor
There it is. No hand waving, no tricks, no funny business; they just apply a common, straightforward scientific approach to unconventional ideas that are reviewed by people who are experts in that field. Furthermore, they have an acceptance rate that suggests that not just anything gets through peer review. If the process of evaluating unconventional ideas is the same as for conventional claims, then there is no reason to believe that unconventional claims that make it past peer review have any less merit than conventional ones. And if that’s true, then disallowing unconventional studies that come from this source amounts to a purely subjective move based upon belief and nothing else. It does not meet any objective standard.
One more moderator comment (from a different moderator) that I received bears inclusion as it gets to the heart of a common prejudice against unconventional claims:
Something to also keep in mind is that “Peer-Reviewed” does not immediately make a source valid for Cracked. Let me explain:
If you link me an study created by people to prove the existence of paraphycology that is featured in a piece of literature designed to promote paraphycology, and peer reviewed by experts of paraphycologhy that is immediately going to raise red flags for me. That is going to seem to have a pretty overwhelming bias, and it’s going to be incredibly hard for me to accept that source at face value. Everyone involved in that study has something to gain from that study being believed, facts be damned. The people who wrote it, who published it and who reviewed it are all looking for greater legitimacy for their field, and that is going to make me think they might not have the interests of truth foremost in their mind.
If however, you can find an article by an organization with no horse in the race, something like any of the organizations Gabriel mentioned earlier, then I am going to trust the source way more. An organization like that would have nothing to gain if the story turned out to be true, and a whole lot of legitimacy to lose if they reported a falsehood.
If you can’t find any sources like that, then you are going to need to cut the point. Cracked doesn’t possess the resources to interdependently validate studies, and isn’t willing to risk its reputation by sourcing studies which could be erroneous.
Bad spelling aside, this is a common view held about parapsychologists by skeptics. I cannot be sure whether these beliefs are part and parcel of the ordinary mainstream vetting processes, but this viewpoint was defended by other moderators and not flagged by a member of the Cracked staff, who was aware of the thread. I can only assume that this is mainstream journalism and not the product of some evil Cracked conspiracy. It is the idea that all people who investigate this topic are automatically untrustworthy and utterly lack objectivity. It was this comment, more than any other, that ran my red flag up the flagpole and signaled that the cause was hopeless and it was time to move on. Here’s why:
You can take a statement like that and apply this very same logic to absolutely every science in every field. This automatically renders the logic nonsensical. If anything, parapsychologists have less to gain than anyone else. There is no glory in parapsychology for those who make it their livelihood. You are automatically relegated to an obscure backwater of science, the pay is dismal and the more successful you are, the more crap you have to endure. Parapsychologists, in fact, routinely encourage newly minted scientists to steer away from parapsychology until they get their careers settled in something else. Parapsychologist Dean Radin offers this sobering comment:
Most parapsychologists (and by this we mean professionally trained scientists, not “paranormal investigators”) usually make a living teaching or doing some other conventional job. Only 30 to 40 people in the entire world are employed full time in this field as researchers, and fewer still are actually paid reasonable salaries to do so. Realistically, the chances of landing a decent job are extremely small, (…)
Furthermore, the logic here is that the people who have the most experience with the subject matter are the least capable of understanding it. People who are less competent are somehow more qualified. This is Alice in Wonderland logic at its worst. I certainly had no chance of effectively sourcing my material under those conditions.
Skeptical scientists, by the way, use this same bizarre vetting process, categorizing scientific journals by the mainstream acceptability of their content rather than the merits of the studies. But that is another story for another time. The main effect of the mainstream vetting process is to simply wall off everything that supports unconventional ideas so that the ideas themselves don’t have to be seriously considered.
I’m sure that in their defense, mainstream journalism would argue that everyone gets the same treatment, but I’m reminded of the quote by Anatole France:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
While the process is superficially justifiable, it is not morally defensible.
If there is one common theme with unconventional ideas, particularly those that survive scientific peer review, it is that they are very important. All of them warrant further study because they are so incredibly significant in their implications. Any process which prevents these ideas, particularly those that have survived scientific peer review, from reaching a wider audience is by definition immoral. Great harm and little good can come from ignoring these ideas. The media is the forum of last resort for ideas that have profound implications, but have been shunned by the mainstream scientific community.
Although my own example had to do with parapsychology, this unconventional idea has the least to worry about. It has science firmly on its side and skeptics are overwhelmingly outnumbered in the general population. Always have been, always will be. There is a small army of people passing around scientific information and generally increasing the scientific literacy of this topic exponentially pretty much everywhere in the world. While parapsychology also encounters the insanity of organized skepticism, people can find ways around that. Mostly it’s ignored. Mainstream media will be late to the party and badly dressed, ready to finally inform those who care the least that telepathy has been scientifically proven to exist. In other words, on this particular topic it’s relatively easy to bypass the mainstream press to get quality information.
But this is not the only unconventional idea with merit. There are other ideas out there which will ONLY have a lasting positive impact on human civilization if only they can break free of the current system to reach a wider audience. That is the ethical dilemma for mainstream media. Be safe and protect your reputation or provide a real service to humanity. Choose one.