Saturday, January 12, 2013

Don't Dream It, Be It

"We spend too much time in our heads and not enough time being productive, working, contributing to society, building community. Instead we shake off the thoughts with trivial pursuits and entertainment hoping for relief from our own haunts when all the time our forefathers, though tough, had it right. We need to step away from distraction and embrace one another, grab hold of life and quit living vicariously through entertainment, fantasy. Reality is just outside our door and it is nothing to be afraid of." ~ William James (Psychologist, Society for Psychical Research)

The New Year prompts me to reflect and reassess what is working to enrich my life and what isn't.  I strive to foster pursuits that serve a positive, constructive purpose and eliminate those which don't.  This includes my interest in the paranormal.

Several years ago, I was as a blind believer in the paranormal.  I was a faithful fan of paranormal "reality" shows and I enjoyed going to creepy places and watching my KII meter light up. But the more I learned from people with expertise in various sciences and technology, it slowly dawned on me that what I watched on TV and saw emulated on "ghost hunts" wasn't working.  It wasn't bringing me any closer to finding the truth in paranormal claims.  I began to ditch false and/or counterproductive "theories", equipment, and methodology.  Of course, along with that, came the realization that authentic "evidence" of the paranormal, if it exists, remains frustratingly elusive.

During the past year, I have been lucky to meet or network with a number of interesting people within the paranormal community, from true believers to staunch skeptics.  I've been introduced to informative web radio shows, books and articles.  The more I listened and learned, the more it reaffirmed for me that there is a need to promote critical thinking when considering paranormal claims.  Many paranormal investigators are still clinging to baseless notions and resisting scientific facts that may challenge their beliefs. Some of them go into people's homes and businesses and spread misinformation, which is not only a disservice to the people they want to help, but also continues to hinder any valid research in the paranormal.  But I also know there are some who are genuinely looking for answers, whether they turn out to be paranormal or not.  It is why for now, I will continue with this blog.

Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”  While reading books by actual scientific investigators like Joe Nickell and Ben Radford, I am acutely aware that I have much more to learn.  I have become concerned with my own role as a paranormal investigator.   For example, I am no longer comfortable doing residential cases. First, because of the popularity of paranormal TV shows, many clients have unrealistic expectations and have already formed strong conclusions, and therefore, reject common sense explanations I might offer. Also, something that has been bothering me for a while, is that many well-meaning paranormal investigators (myself included) go into people's homes and offer advice in areas in which they have no academic or professional credentials. I've come to realize that even though I am careful to explain I am not an expert and my conclusions are based only on opinion, clients still had the perception that I had answers that I, and most ghost hunters I know, do not have the qualifications to give. As I've said many times, I don't want to risk misleading people, especially if I am invited into their home to "help".  In my opinion, investigators who boast "expertise" and advise in specific areas when they have no such accredited education and degree, are akin to those who present false positives like orbs as paranormal evidence.

Many of us grew watching shows like In Search Of... and Unsolved Mysteries which profiled parapsychologists with scientific degrees exploring the realm of the supernatural.  I thought it would be a pretty cool occupation.  But unlike some of the parapsychologists I admired, I never got around to getting an advanced degree in a relevant science like psychology, physics or anthropology. Then a TV show called Ghost Hunters profiled a couple of plumbers who did ghost hunting, making paranormal investigating accessible to everyone.  The problem was, it made it accessible to everyone - regardless if they had any clue of what they were doing or not. This reminds me of something the character Dr. Ian Malcom said in Jurassic Park: that the researchers were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.  We all know how that turned out:

This observation is not limited to paranormal investigators, but to some skeptics as well.  There are some who have no more qualifications than the ghost hunters they criticize, who have spread misinformation too. An example, I've seen is some armchair skeptics dismissing paranormal claims as products of Fantasy Prone Personalities.  While FPP may indeed be a factor in some cases, there are other physiological, environmental and psychological factors that can cause people without FPP to experience misperceptions and mistake some experiences as paranormal.  For example, people with FPP may be prone to experience hypnagogic hallucinations, but according to medical doctors who study these sleep disorders, other factors, including certain medications, stress, disrupted sleep patterns, may also cause them in people without FPP.

"I'm here to help" is a common slogan among ghost hunters.  It's even one of the reasons I wanted to become an investigator.  While I think most have best of intentions, I'm not sure if many of them have stopped to consider what this really means or the responsibility this carries.  We still see many investigators present false positives as "evidence" and making claims that they cannot validate.  The result is they are misleading the very people they pledged to help.   To be crystal clear: I am not telling ghost hunters to give up their hobby.  But I am asking them to be more honest and mindful of how they promote themselves to clients.  If teams are unwilling to conduct investigations from a truly skeptical  approach (which does not mean if you can't debunk it, then it must be a ghost), then I request they ditch the term "scientific".  If teams use unproven theories and/or equipment to draw their conclusions, again, ditch the term "scientific".  A more fitting description might be "experimental" or "exploratory".  If teams go in with the foregone (and unproven) conclusion that ghosts are everywhere and they can communicate with them and even help them "move on", then these teams, no matter how much technical gear they tote around, are metaphysical-based, not scientific.

I am asking teams who are committed to being science-based to educate themselves and seek knowledge from people with relevant expertise.  One of the most common mistakes - one I've been guilty of myself - is that many fledgling ghost hunters seek their "education" from other ghost hunters (or paranormal TV shows) instead of: 1. people who have a sound foundation in scientific methodology to reduce confirmation bias and subjective data/techniques 2. people with professional expertise in environmental, physiological and psychological factors that can contribute to misperceptions, and 3. people with professional expertise in equipment used on investigations to reduce false positives.

Going back to William James's quote at the beginning:  "... grab a hold of life and quit living vicariously through entertainment, fantasy." if paranormal investigators want to present themselves as "experts", then I encourage them to go out and earn it.  They either can get a degree in a relevant science from an accredited college or gain professional experience that can be applied toward paranormal research.  (Sorry, bogus on-line degrees or certifications don't count.)  If they truly want to help others, then after looking for ghosts in old battlefields, abandoned hospitals, asylums, orphanages, etc. they might also consider becoming a volunteer for the living.  There are a lot of people in veteran's programs, youth programs, hospitals, homeless shelters, etc. who could use assistance.   I've heard a lot of investigators declare that they want to "help" ghosts find their way in the afterlife.  Right now, there is no evidence that anyone can do that.  So perhaps they could also consider helping people who are still with us in this life, by pursuing a service-orientated profession such as nursing, counseling, teaching, or police work.

I wish you a Happy New Year.  I hope you will step out the door and continue this journey with me. Out there, we just might find the answers we're looking for.