Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
This has been a heck of a year in terms of psi and controversy. And the year isn’t quite over. It seems to be the year things have begun to change. We saw this first with the big TED controversy. If there is one lesson that stood out from that whole mess it was this: embracing a materialist approach to science is no longer considered by the public to be a safe, conservative position that demonstrates high standards. It’s being increasingly viewed as a reactionary position.
The TED controversy was also the first sign we’ve had that the world’s intellectuals are abandoning materialism in droves and that there is an increasingly powerful alternate community that is drawing strength in numbers. Rupert Sheldrake took on the incredibly reactionary tone of Wikipedia, (which I participated in.) But the mess at Wikipedia has been noticed by others as well: The paradigm is shifting and it’s producing all sorts of feather ruffling events as things move forward. In addition we’ve seen the slow but steady rise of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a scientific journal that explores normally taboo topics. It now has 800 members in 45 countries. (You can only be a member if you’re a scientist.)
The latest, and perhaps one of the most significant changes is the new Skeptiko forum. It’s being divided now, to deliberately change the nature of the primary discussions. There will no longer be proof oriented discussions on the main forum. In other words, it’s a given now, that psi is proven and skepticism about this proof is no longer necessary or welcome.
Because psi has been scientifically proven to exist beyond any reasonable doubt there is no point in getting into arguments with people who continually insist that it is not proven. To use an analogy, if we are going to explore what it means to live on a round world, it becomes pointless to have discussions about whether it is flat or not.
There is now a secondary forum where such discussions can take place though, which acknowledges that this is not a settled question for many people. This new forum perfectly mirrors the change that is taking place. The skeptics are getting slowly left behind . . . but not just yet. The skeptics on the forum, -and there are many-, sense the importance of this change and have argued passionately against it.
On the old forum, this was reversed. The main forum invited proof oriented skepticism and those that wanted to explore beyond that had to go to a secondary forum. The skeptics were quite happy with that arrangement, but now that it has changed they are having trouble adjusting to it. They understandably want their objections to be front and center.
I think that Alex Tsakiris, (of the Skeptiko Podcasts), a former skeptic himself, is at the leading edge of a fundamental shift in the overall direction of this scientific controversy. Change in the scientific community will probably not come from existing institutions doing an about face, but rather newer institutions gaining members and prestige that first equals and then eventually outstrips older ones. Scientists, in other words, will start voting with their feet.
The change is coming very fast in social terms. And it’s easy to see why: the Internet. It has changed the flow of information permanently in a way no one could foresee. The gatekeepers are all still in place, but they can’t control every source of information. All of the alternative sciences can now speak directly to interested people through websites and blogs which share scientific information. And with that comes a secondary source of information: the alternative bloggers who behave like journalists, documenting and explaining the alternate sciences to the lay crowd. I’m an example of this: I’m something complete new: a parapsychology journalist. This wasn’t possible before the Internet.
There was no outlet for these kinds of articles. Now there is and it’s a very powerful medium. I’m currently getting about 20,000 views a month and while that’s quite a bit, Rupert Sheldrake gets upward of 1,000,000 views per month for his website and there are many, many more. This kind of constant exposure is having its effect on the public debate.
I think that it’s only a matter of time before the mass media will have to deal with this. An attitude of blanket skepticism will start eroding their reputations sooner rather than later. How much sooner is anyone’s guess. This is all brand new and the change that we are witnessing is unique in human history. The Internet is changing the way the sciences are dealt with and it’s having its impact in every controversial area. Parapsychology, the most mature of all the frontier sciences has had enough evidence since the 1950’s. It’s fate of obscurity and misinformation was always a social one.
Consequently its promotion into the mainstream will come about only as a result of social change. And it’s happening now. I predict that the mainstream press will be the next place to start conceding that there is a scientific controversy and that they had better stop taking sides. Once the mainstream no longer toes the materialist line, the last bastion of the scientific reactionary: academia, will come under assault. They have been able to postpone this moment of reckoning for fifty years by simply avoiding the discussion, but that will be no longer possible once the mainstream media deserts them.
Once they have to start defending themselves constantly it will be like the TED controversy. All stonewalling and no good arguments. That state of affairs can’t last forever. Scientists who are interested in these taboo subjects will be encouraged by what they see in the media and begin pushing their own institutions to change so that eventually the dam will burst. At that point they will start ignoring the threats of the skeptics to blackball them. When those threats finally become empty, the skeptics will have finally and completely lost. The skeptics won’t change their minds, but they will lose the power to influence anyone else. They will be left behind.
As of right now, no one really knows what this new world will look like. How do you discuss psi scientifically as being simply proven? What is there to discuss? I was at a conference last month and I saw most of the scientists deal with skepticism at length. Dean Radin devoted most of his speech to proof of psi. Is this even going to be necessary in five years?
The new Skeptiko forum is a sign of fundamental scientific social changes ahead that will be coming from the most unexpected direction: the grassroots. It is starting on a relatively obscure forum, but it is only a matter of time before it spreads.