The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

The ABC’s of Dissecting a Controversial Subject


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.

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24 comments on “The ABC’s of Dissecting a Controversial Subject

  1. Pingback: Quantum Gravity and Skepticism | The Science of Reality

  2. Pingback: Quantum Gravity and Skepticism | The Science of Reality

  3. Pingback: Skepticism and Quantum Gravity | The Science of Reality

  4. Jordan Wm. Burrill
    March 19, 2014

    Good essay Craig,
    I don’t know why (or perhaps I do), elementary (and much less), high schools don’t teach basic, informal logic and the logical fallacies that manipulators use to sway opinions by deceit and emotion. I know that I was never taught this until I had some philosophy courses in college. And by the looks of the country, it is now not easy to find in college, either!
    Cheers Craig!

  5. Pingback: On Skepticism | The Science of Reality

  6. Vortex
    March 15, 2014

    Stephen Baumgart, I think your argument against conspiracy theories is not as strong as you think. Actually, for a person who knows the history more-or-less well, it seems to be quite weak.

    It is horrifyingly easy to persuade the colossal masses of people to perform nightmarishly cruel actions – not only in totalitarian states, but anywhere. Read something about the Crusades, or religious wars between the Catholic Church and various heretical movements – these were the conflicts in which a lot of “normal” people had participated, and the most shocking atrocities, often and enthusiastically done by these “normal” people, were common. Read about the European colonialism – no strict religious motivation there, yet the whole tribes were regularly sadistically massacred by the “normal” colonizers. And the totalitarian states of 20th century did not appeared out of thin air – they created by the people who were born and raised in non-totalitarian environment, yet were eager to torture and kill for the sake of their ideologies – no less eager than the denizens of “democratic” states like USA, who murdered countless victims in the “third world” countries such as Vietnam during the Cold War conflicts.

    And “fear of punishment” does not work. For almost all human history, crimes and transgressions were “punished” much more severely than today. Even the mildest offences, which may lead one nowadays only to being fined, were “punished” with public beating; for the more serious crimes, one would be slowly and sadistically executed (and probably tortured for days before that, in the process of interrogation). Yet no one seemed to be frightened enough to stop committing crimes; to the contrary, the more atrocious “punishments” were used by authorities, the more violent the next rebellion was. Thieves were stealing people’s purses in the crowd which gathered to watch the cutting off hands of the thief who were caught; the gang of robbers waited for the merchant to rob near the road gallows with the mutilated corpses of their less lucky brethren. The cruelty of “punishments” did not work as deterrent, as authorities hoped. To the contrary, it worked as an example of violence as a way of life, which enraged people more and more day by day. They were not afraid; they were taught that the one the strong and victorious has the right to torture the weak and defeated any way they like. And to be strong and victorious, one should gather into gang.

    The situation with institutional, powerful organization which is deliberately created to initiate violence against others, such as CIA, is even worse. If ordinary gangsters might have at least some fear of “punishment”, gangsters working for the government are almost devoid of it. After all, they are working for the very societal force which create the laws, and enforce them with initiatory violence. They are granted power above others, who are weak against the strength of the dominant system. They are no more oppressed Little Men, who live in constant fear of “punishment” for their transgressions; they are the Big Men now, ones who “punish” others, one who frighten and oppress. Whether cruel and ugly deeds they perform in their servitude for the authorities, they are most likely to be forgiven, because the rulers depend on the loyal guards who are eager to make their hands dirty to protect their superiors.

    So, if one knows history, one is not persuaded by arguments like “many people cannot do terrible things”. Unfortunately, they can and do.

  7. Howell Michael
    March 11, 2014

    Craig you are corrrect.. Group mind think memes, control acceptibility Reality is not acceptable, to group think.They wwat to feel free while being totally manipulated and controllef

  8. Michael Larkin
    March 11, 2014

    I think human nature has a lot to do with it, Craig. All societies, large or small, in all epochs, have to have groups of people to consider inferior. I mean, if no one’s inferior, then no one’s superior, including me and my mates, and we can’t have that, can we?

    Religion was for a long time the classic divider: people of a different religion from me are inferior. This still applies outside the industrialised West: Hindus are stupid for pantheism, Christians for believing in virgin birth, Muslims for believing in the rewards of jihad, and so on.

    The kinds of controversies you mention are mostly peculiar to developed nations, where (is it coincidental?) there is a waning of religion. The need to have someone to look down on hasn’t disappeared, so maybe it’s transferred its object elsewhere: typically, towards people who don’t accept the modern alternative to ecclesiastical authority, the “scientocracy”, as C.S. Lewis presciently termed it.

    Some of these dissidents comprise the diminishing remnants of religious believers, and perhaps particularly with those who don’t accept that the neoDarwinian synthesis adequately explains evolution, or that materialism inadequately explains all of reality, they all get tarred with the brush of being believers in biblical literalism.

    For my money, that’s one of the telltale signs: the way that dissenter views are crudely misrepresented. All those doubting neoDarwinism are creationists; all those sympathetic to psi are woo-woo New Agers; all those who doubt the severity of CAGW or HIV as the cause of AIDS are “anti-science”, or “deniers”, and so on.

    At least when religion dominated, there was a degree of freedom to express differing views in scientific areas. Psi, for example, was considered an area open for investigation. But now that religion has waned, and the new religion of scientism has taken over, the new heresies are against scientific orthodoxies. It never ceases to amaze me how the loud and abrasive supporters of these orthodoxies fail to perceive their own religiosity: to many ordinary folk, it’s plain as a pikestaff, and despite what it’s politically correct to aver, I actually doubt whether there’s any less real openness to the “extraordinary” than there’s ever been.

    Just as in religious times many dissenters held their tongues, in these non-religious times, many dissenters hold theirs, too. Those in power can do their damnedest, legislate and seek to influence all they want, but fortunately, men’s minds remain free, and the bad guys are rarely telepathic.

    • craigweiler
      March 11, 2014

      Awesome.

      Thank you for such a well thought and thorough contribution to the discussion.

  9. Tom Butler
    March 11, 2014

    Good essay Craig. Written as a veteran of the psi wars.

    The dynamics of what makes a “proponent” are interesting to me. Some of the least likely editors in Wikipedia have been my greatest allies in paranormal subjects. Talking to them off-line, It is pretty clear they were not proponents, but did have a keen sense of fairness and balance.

    In the study of things paranormal, there is an underlying sense of urgency as well. I think this is true of healing things such as homeopathy and energy healing. The hermetic wisdom schools, for instance, do not exist for the benefit of the teachers, but are there for seekers. They certainly are not about religion, but teach ways of living that will benefit the individual and only indirectly benefit the community. If you look at the Major Arcana of the Tarot, you will see that they represent a path of personal development. I know of no one who makes a living helping people with this. If anything it is a calling for the teachers.

    Parapsychological research is boiling down to essentially the same thing taught in hermetic philosophy. That is, that the person is part of a time and space ubiquitous field of subtle energy which the person influences with intention, and is in turn, influenced. This is a well-studied claim and the implication is that people can learn how to live in this reality and benefit from doing so. The obvious “rest of the story” is that failing to do so is to the determent of the individual, and by extension, society.

    The hermetic philosophy is something of a revealed body of wisdom and has been echoed by other teachers in our history. In many ways, the parapsychologists and citizen scientists of today are revealing the same information for a modern generation with modern terms and technologies, but the message is essentially the same.

    In my considered opinion, those who bring this information may be doing so out of curiosity, but they are called against all logic to persist and the only real benefactor of this are those who are willing to listen.

    One more thing, to Stephen, I was in the Air Force in the early sixties. We had a few Army solders pass thorough our base on their way to deployment in Vietnam, and I had a few beers with some of them. They were young, strong and completely convinced they were going to go kill a lot of enemy. They were normal people, probably like you and me, yet they were deeply convinced they were born killers on a higher mission.

    There is a form of mental confusion best demonstrated in the Jerusalem syndrome. It is thought to be triggered by an overwhelming sense of … something … a person experiences when visiting a usually very religious site; sometimes even thinking they are and behaving as if they are one of the historical religious figures. I have seen evidence of it when working with paranormal subjects, I suspect, because some of it often trigger religious beliefs. The behavior includes obsessive ideas, delusions and insistence on the reality of their delusion; aggressively defending their personal reality. The cure is removal from the influence.

    Especially in our open society, it is easy for such aberrant syndromes to develop amongst almost any special interest group. Today, there is a serious contraction in efforts to understand things paranormal and it may well be because of a group of people convinced they are born to stamp out nonconforming ideas. These “saviors of modern society” call it pseudoscience.

  10. Stephen Baumgart
    March 10, 2014

    What raises a red flag for me for proponent positions on some controversial topics are conspiracy theories – especially conspiracy theories involving a combination of heinous crimes and large numbers of conspirators. You can always find a small number of people willing to do something very evil or a large number of people willing to do something somewhat morally questionable but you will not be able to convince a large number of people to do something extremely wicked and hope to keep it secret in a free society. The exceptions to this rule would be the Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulags, and the Cultural Revolution, which all occurred in totalitarian countries.

    To justify this position some more, the insiders of an alleged conspiracy, for example, those working in the CIA/FBI/NSA are human too and they members of the same society as the rest of us. I want you who believe in a 9/11 conspiracy to imagine that you got a job at the CIA and received orders to help carry out a conspiracy to murder thousands of your fellow citizens. Would you cooperate? For me, there is nothing they could offer or threaten to convince me to take part in such an heinous crime. I’d rather die first.

    In practice it would be the conspirators themselves who risk life imprisonment and execution as their plot is exposed. And for what gain are they taking this risk? Bin Laden’s acolytes believed they were doing God’s work and would receive a harem of 72 virgins in Paradise for their efforts. What if you were an American government insider supposedly bribed by a large amount of money or threatened with some sort of blackmail? You get to live the rest of your life in fear you will be found out, get the death penalty, and have your name spit on in the history books for the rest of time.

    From a social standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world that 9/11 was the work of outside religious fanatics rather than government insiders.

    For other controversial topics, if you’re postulating enormous conspiracies at work suppressing controversial topics, I’d urge you to think again. Often what you’re seeing is instead a social taboo (as in the case of psi or UFOs). You simply won’t be able to find enough people willing to undertake the illegal or immoral activities necessary to have a large-scale conspiracy in a democratic society. That said, I do not discount the existence of small organizations of limited means working against proponent positions through use of the media. I would include JREF and CSI in this class.

    • craigweiler
      March 10, 2014

      You’re exactly right. I do agree completely with your stance here. I just didn’t include it in the article.

    • Mark
      March 10, 2014

      I strongly dislike positions like yours. Positions like yours make it difficult to assert conspiracy, even when it is true.

      • craigweiler
        March 11, 2014

        I agree with Stephen though. Conspiracies have to be relatively small and tight to work. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be a large number of people involved, but the number of people who actually know the truth about what is going on has to be pretty small or it won’t work.

        • Mark
          March 11, 2014

          I tell you what…I’ll meet you part way. I’ll agree that it tends to be the case that the conspiracies that work the best are the ones where few people at the top know everything, and everything else is compartmentalized. However, I don’t think that we can completely rule out that there are a lot of evil people in this world who are just competent enough to keep their mouths shut and do a minor job. Unlikely, maybe. Impossible, no.

          • craigweiler
            March 11, 2014

            I’ll go along with that because there is certainly room for debate on this subject.

            What I’ve noticed more often is conspiracies hiding in plain sight. The Federal Reserve for example, is a wealth transfer machine from us to wealthy bankers and that’s its true purpose. Anyone who wants to can find out this information but it just gets ignored.

          • Mark
            March 11, 2014

            It’s interesting that you say that, Craig, because it reminds me of something else that I wanted to add – keeping the secret might not be the most important thing. Seeing to it that the conspiracy is not believed by most people is, probably, the most important thing. I wish I remembered the name of the one documentary that I saw back in the 90s on UFO conspiracies. The one old dude, I forgot his name, was asked if he truly believed that the government was capable of keeping the secret for this long. His response was, basically, that he thought that the whole question was based on a false premise – the premise that the government has done a good job of keeping the secret. He believed that there were all sorts of leaks, and that the government has NOT done a good job of keeping the secret, but that the government HAS done a good job of disinformation and ridicule so that most won’t believe it even if they do have strong evidence in favor of the conspiracy – and they DO have strong evidence in favor of the conspiracy, if nothing else. How far it all goes, and why the conspiracy exists may be debatable, but saying that there’s no US government conspiracy dealing with UFOs, at this point – well, it’s difficult to believe that such a position is indicative of anything but ignorance of the issue.

            • Howell Michael
              March 11, 2014

              There is black propaganda totally false., gray propaganda partly truth and partly fiction, and white propaganda true but slanted to sway your view point the government admits to using all three

    • Frank
      March 11, 2014

      Stephen: There are some issues around what you have said about 9/11… and where people fall down when trying to use “Occam’s Razor”.

      You are assuming that for 9/11 to be an inside job that lots of people need to involved including the CIA/FBI/NSA. This is not the case at all. How many people would it take? 3 or 4? Maybe 10?

      In fact the FBI have all the way through contradicted a lot of the official story… including admitting that there is absolutely no evidence Osama Bin Laden was involved (Bin Laden even himself denied ever having involvement)>

      The FBI also contradicted the report from Ted Olsen who stated his wife who was on the doomed Pentagon flight had told him that Arabs with box cutters on board had hijacked the plane. The FBI stated that there was not several phone calls and that there was only 1 phone call and it had a duration of only 0 seconds.. meaning he could not possibly have spoken to her.

      Rememering of course Operation Northwoods in 1962 was a 9/11 style false flag attack on it’s own country to drum up support to invade Cuba… this was signed off and only JFK stopped it from going ahead shortly before his assassination… but the fact is it had been planned and was all ready to happen.

      So whilst I appreciate that common sense tells you that real people are involved and they could not possibly go ahead with the plan, history and human behaviour tells you it has happened before and could happen… and not every human is nice.

      Could I do it? No way. Could you do it? Nope. But there are lots of people out there who commit murders for money, drugs, jealousy.. etc … whether it be on the streets or in the corporate world.

      I don’t find that a bunch of arabs in a cave killing people on a plane any more likely of committing 9/11 than a bunch of corporates in suits killing people on a plane to make trillions of dollars in military spending. Money and Greed is responsible for just as much crime if not more than religion.

      • zebzaman
        April 10, 2014

        Frank, and all, Since you are discussing what is or isn’t plausible or possible in the 9/11/story, you might already know this link, I just came across it the other day, find ex CIA Susan Lindauer, whistle-blower, it doesn’t answer everything, but ….hmmm. Quite a different perspective, not that i get all she says. Till I saw that, I thought surly 9/11 was not an inside job. Now I think Good God. They are worse then I imagined. I agree with your last paragraph, so does Lindauer! The greed for more money/power seems utterly insatiable and without the slightest bit of Ruth.
        They are ruthless.
        I also find it very interesting that bad things can operate in full view. Without ever becoming obvious to most, I guess most people are basically decent. Or are they not? I haven’t really made up my mind about it. (Most are pretty pliable, as Germany’s history shows!) But most can’t imagine some of our more horrendous fellow humans – or the more horrible consequences of ordinary mass behavior. They don’t question the status quo too deeply. I saw a wonderful movie last week, simply called “Hannah Arendt “. It is about this woman’s reflections on the trial against Adolf Eichmann who was responsible for organizing the endless trains to take Jewish people to their aweful death. I highly recommend the movie to anyone pondering the nature of evil. It is a wonderfully made movie too. And the atrocities are not in it, just hinted at, presumed known to the viewer, in case you think you could not bear another look at this particular tragedy.
        Jeez, I have so many thoughts it looks like I should start my own blog!
        (but no one would read it then!) Ach)

  11. Mark
    March 10, 2014

    Accolades, Craig, for continuing to bring in other areas besides psi. There is a “bigger picture,” here, and I think that you’re touching on it with articles like this. I don’t mean to suggest that psi is insignificant, because it’s not insignificant, but some of the same issues affecting psi affect other areas, too, and it is important for psi proponents to understand that.

  12. rogerknights
    March 10, 2014

    Typo–drop the “d” from:

    “those who criticized”

    • craigweiler
      March 10, 2014

      Got it. Thanks. It’s nice to have a grammar cop in da house.

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