Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Controversial subjects are all around us. Bigfoot, psychic ability, UFO’s, 9/11 truthers, chem trails, crop circles, cold fusion, free energy, homeopathy and many others. Over time, I’ve had a chance to see why these subjects are controversial and how they are treated. There are some patterns that seem to run through these topics and add fuel to the fire of disagreement. I find myself making certain assumptions right off the bat based on what I’ve experienced previously with regards to who to believe and why. My way of handling this runs contrary to how these subjects are normally handled, so I thought it might be worthwhile to share what I’ve learned.
What makes a subject controversial? In general, controversy is the result of passionate disagreement. And there are varying reasons for this. Some subjects are thrown into disarray by government and/or corporate disinformation and/or cover up campaigns as has been the case with UFO’s, homeopathy, crop circles, cold fusion and possibly 9/11. Other subjects, such as psychic ability are philosophically unpalatable.
Most controversial subjects got that way because accepting them as true would require a change in our world view. Homeopathy and parapsychology for example disrupt scientific assumptions surrounding consciousness.
In all cases, the people who take these controversial subjects seriously are attacked as either incompetent or slightly crazy or both. This happens immediately regardless of a person’s societal status. A Nobel Prize winner in physics will be attacked just as quickly and forcefully as someone with no credentials at all. Taking controversial subjects seriously often comes with a social penalty, depending on a person’s social status. The higher a person’s status, the greater the penalty. What one finds of course is that the vast majority of people who are willing to approach controversial subjects either have little to no status to lose or are untouchable.
This leaves people with high status who are curious in an uncomfortable position. Social status can be very hard to achieve and very easy to lose. Many opt out of confrontations that threaten that status. The cost is very high and the rewards are minimal. In contrast, those who attack to maintain the status quo face no such penalties. Critics who dismiss controversial subjects as “complete rubbish” never lose any status, even when those subjects are later validated.
Because there is virtually no social penalty for attacking controversial subjects, it does not have to be done with any sort of knowledge, preparation or care. For that reason, there are almost always huge imbalances of knowledge between those who embrace controversial subjects and those who attack them. It’s rare to find a critic who knows much about the controversial aspect of the subject they’re criticizing.
So we have a situation with controversial subjects where people with status who would advocate for them mostly remain silent; those that do speak up in favor are ostracized and those who criticize are assumed to be providing the logical, rational viewpoint. Most of the well informed people who investigate controversial subjects typically have little to no social status to trade on in order to get their voices heard by a wider audience. It’s easy to see why controversies linger for what seems like forever.
What gives controversies staying power is that the evidence for the controversial viewpoint ranges from pretty convincing, (bigfoot) to utterly convincing (psychic ability). There is always someone new examining the evidence and being convinced by it, so that a community develops around a particular controversial subject.
I’ve never seen a subject without sufficient evidence gain much of a following. Perpetual motion machines for example, have never gotten beyond the deep fringe because evidence is lacking. Likewise fads such as “The Secret” don’t tend to stick around because people can’t make it work for them and give up.
The controversies are rarely about real examinations of evidence. In the case of 9/11 anyone could see for example, that the twin towers came down as though they had been made of peanut brittle. They could then compare this to anything else they’d ever seen and realize that it was strange. We live in the era of instant access to video. Anyone with an Internet connection can compare this disaster to any other documented disaster on the frigging planet and see that it was different. And yet official explanations are routinely accepted without question by critics of 9/11 “truthers.”
Which brings me to another point about controversial subjects: they are typically complicated, which allows critics the ability to make up simplistic explanations without looking foolish. Parapsychology and homeopathy require complicated lab work and statistics; 9/11 requires a knowledge of building materials and how they react under stress; crop circles require that you know the difference between corn stalks mashed down by people or by other means and bigfoot requires analyzing data from video as well as DNA research. It takes time and effort to examine these subjects and weigh the conflicting sources of information.
Because there is always conflicting information. That’s part of what makes controversial subjects controversial. They are much harder to research and they require a certain frame of mind that not everyone possesses. With controversial subjects, you have to make up your own mind. You cannot rely on a definitive account from anyone and you have to judge each source on its own merits. For people who tend to follow authority, this can be quite challenging. In particular, you might have to rely on the investigative ability of someone (like me) who does not possess the proper academic credentials or employment seemly needed for evaluating these subjects. Are they convincing? Are they more convincing than a PhD with the opposite view? Good question. Sometimes, even when they have the proper credentials, there are other conflicting viewpoints with similar credentials. Who to believe?
There are some ways to sort through the morass, but they all involve research. However, I’ve found some shortcuts that can help me determine if I’m moving in a fruitful direction.
In examining controversial topics, the problem of the eyewitness account almost inevitably comes up. Any criticism that relies on dismissing all eyewitness testimony out of hand can be safety disregarded as absurd. Eyewitnesses are an important part of evidence in every area of society. Typically, people are aware of when they see something significantly out of the ordinary. People can generally be taken at their word that they saw what they saw unless proven otherwise. Eyewitnesses can be their own proof if there are enough of them.
I have run into a few situations where after a brief look at a controversial subject, I read the skeptical position and it made a lot more sense than the proponent position did. This is rare, but it DOES happen. It’s an indication that the subject in question doesn’t have any legs and the mystery can be solved relatively easily by ordinary means. Time to move on.
The presence of whoppers from either position is a sign of weakness. When a critic tells me “there is no evidence for psi” I can pretty much stop there. Nothing else they have to say will be of much interest because this is an epic lie. Similarly, one explanation for 9/11 was that fuel from the crashed aircraft fell down a vent shaft and burned the building so badly that the steel supports failed. I don’t have to take that seriously either. This doesn’t mean that I have any idea of what really happened, only that this sort of explanation can be dismissed out of hand and with it, the credibility of the person putting that absurd theory forward.
Another sign of weakness is personal attacks, arrogant, dismissive or paranoid behavior. Personal attacks, arrogance and dismissive behavior almost always comes from critics. It’s usually a sign of bias, prejudice and impaired judgment. Acting like all proponents are stupid and gullible believers is neither helpful nor informative and is usually an indication that the critic has not examined the subject in any significant detail. This in turn almost guarantees that the critic is cherry picking their evidence.
Paranoid behavior generally comes from the proponent side. It’s common and quite normal to see a little bit of that because in some cases there really is active disinformation going on. Almost all hoaxes by the way, are created by critics, not proponents. But when I’m met with paranoid excuses such as “they’re suppressing all the important information” I tune out. It doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong. Once they have enough evidence I’ll revisit the subject.
Part of examining controversial stuff is slowly peeling away the ordinary explanations until only the extraordinary is left. There is very rarely a smoking gun. Critics can raise a lot of objections. But with those objections come rebuttals. I find that this is where credibility is either won or lost for controversial subjects. If objections are met head on and exposed as insufficient, then I’m willing to consider that the proponents might be right.
In general, proponents of controversial subjects know that they’re controversial and behave appropriately. They don’t expect to convince anyone and often they are merely sharing information. That’s the most common approach. It’s quite at odds with how they’re normally portrayed by their critics.
After a few years of seeing this same pattern played out over and over again, I found that my handling of controversial subjects had totally flipped from where I began. Whenever I see a controversial subject criticized these days, in the standard arrogant nothing-to-see-here manner, I immediately blow off the criticism for the time being to see what the proponents are really saying. Because there is a 99% chance that their viewpoint is being misrepresented by their critics. Often the controversial topics are the most worth considering precisely because they challenge our worldview. They open up the imagination.
I don’t foresee society ever changing how it deals with controversial topics; I think that I’m looking at basic human nature at play, but I don’t go along with it anymore. And my little corner of the world is a better place for it.
Update: The comment below by Stephen Baumgart on the implausibility of large scale very evil conspiracies is an excellent contribution to this discussion.