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Faking Science Cred at a Sci-Fi Con: Not Smart

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

August 14, 2014

Paranormal investigators playing the role of "experts" and pretending to be scientific is not going to fly when the lack of deep knowledge is evident and there are actual scientists in the audience.


Dog with scientific equipment with text saying 'I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING'

When it comes to Creationists, I'm actually fine when they say "God did it—that's what I believe." They don't have a scientific worldview, and that's their choice (I don't think it's a good choice, but that is not the point). They ought to be happy with their science-suspending miraculous explanations. Instead, a few try to interject the sciencey stuff in there and shoehorn blatantly unscientific ideas into a scientifical framework. They just don't know what they are talking about. For the listener with a scientific background, it is painfully obvious that they are ignorant of how difficult research is, how rigorously it must be undertaken, how carefully definitions are crafted, and how diligently records are documented. It's nails-on-a-chalkboard difficult for me to listen to. The champions at doing this same thing are paranormal investigators. So what happens when paranormal investigators give talks at a science-fiction convention? It doesn't go over very well.

I was at RavenCon, a sci-fi fantasy convention in Richmond, Virginia, last April. As an invited speaker, I was there to talk about science from a scientist and skeptical advocate's point of view. Bob Blaskiewicz, CSI's “Conspiracy Guy,” was also there to talk about conspiracy theory. We aimed to bring the hammer down on nonsense thinking! Not really—we were going to schmooze and look at people in cool costumes and listen to presentations and panels about topics we just don't get to talk about every day.

As with any such event, I expect that the invited speakers have prepared quality content. Many are professional authors and artists, and there were many scientists, too. One thing that is noticeable at these events is that the audience is pretty up on science and engineering. The majority is really smart, read a lot, and comprehend and appreciate complexity and detail. This is not the best place to show off weak science cred.

The paranormal view has a presence at RavenCon. Not all sci-fi cons have speakers in that subject area. (I've been to the Paranormal track at DragonCon, but there is not an equivalent at Balticon.) In the lead up to RavenCon, the organizers invited Bob and me, perhaps partly to counter the presence of the paranormal group, to give some talks. One original idea was to have a panel about paranormal investigation with the different views represented, pro-paranormal versus application of scientific skepticism, or as I prefer to call it, evidence-based skepticism. However, this idea was scuttled when the leader of the paranormal group said she doesn't do debates. (I actually don't wonder why not.)

So, they presented their talks and we presented ours separately. They didn't come to our talks, but I went to theirs. I'm interested in their views and what they have found. The first presentation was by the group's "scientist." He did some demonstrations and experiments with chemicals (that should NOT have been used in a hotel ballroom) presumably to show that science looks like magic... or something. I thought the whole thing was rambling and pointless, meant to look "gee whiz" but was more like "Oh, Jeez..."

Muppet who started a fire

Up goes my hand: "Can you tell us about your scientific background?" He had a degree in Criminal Justice, no scientific experience but was a science enthusiast. He was wearing a white lab coat. This fellow was in way over his head, and it was painfully obvious. It’s an uncomfortable chore to listen to a presentation by a speaker who is billed as an expert but is woefully ill-equipped to talk about his subject. Don't EVER play pretend scientist in front of an audience that has actual scientists in it. You look incredibly foolish. The presentation had nothing to do with paranormal investigation and just as little to do with science.

The next evening was a presentation by another member of the same group. It was more of a paranormal history talk. I've seen these common talks done before, such as by Paranormal State's Ryan Buell who also got tripped up in the history. Once again, it was obvious that the presenter's knowledge in this area was too shallow. Perhaps it was impressive to someone who does not know that the people on Ghost Hunters weren't actually the world's first ghost hunters, but not to those who know that genuine scientists researched and tested paranormal claims in the early days of modern times. It was a muddled, incomplete, inaccurate romp through paranormal themes.

Up goes my hand: "I noticed in your historical timeline that you didn't mention the Society of Psychical Research and their important work. Why did you skip that?" (Paraphrased—I can't remember exactly what I asked but the key was to cite SPR, an institution still in existence today but not popular with the amateur, TV-trained ghost adventurers.) He was not familiar with SPR at all and skipped around the answer. Not discussing such a monumentally important time in the history of your field is more than a major oversight. It signals to me a lack of fundamental knowledge about it.

For someone who knows a bit about the rich, deep history of psychical research, it's painful to see the canyon-sized division between today's amateur paranormal investigators and the few academic parapsychologists or anomalistic psychology researchers. Knowledge of a topic hinges on extensive review of the literature so you understand what has been done before and what worked or did not work in the past. It's critical that you don't waste time and effort trampling over well-trampled (or well-mapped) ground again. It hardly matters how many investigations you have conducted. When you fail to recognize the key people of the past, know why they were important, and understand what they found, you are far from knowledgeable. There is no foundation, no platform from which to express your opinions and no justification to have them considered by scientists or by the informed public.

As with most paranormal investigation groups, this group had all good intentions (though the founder was into astrology and other sorts of woo). While they initially didn't seem to want anything to do with "skeptics" (yet they call themselves "skeptical"), it turns out they WERE interested in our perspective and actually were cool to chat with, open to learning and exploring new ideas. The second presenter was clear that it was "chic to be geek." He also stated that what they did was fairly labeled as "pseudoscience." That is the first time I've heard a group embrace that term, although I'm pretty sure we would not agree upon the definition. It does not mean unorganized, unaccepted science. It means false science.

We talked a bit after the presentation. The white lab coat guy wasn't there, but the other presenter was excited to find out that I was a geologist. We agreed there was much to discuss about the interaction between geology and paranormal ideas. Two weeks later he emailed me with a question about ley lines used in paranormal investigation, which propelled me into researching that topic from its origin. I'm learning quite a bit. I hope to produce a written piece on ley lines in the near future and I appreciate his introduction to the topic. Don't ever think we can't learn from the other side too.

Typical paranormal investigators don't read the skeptical literature much. I'd say they are missing a whole other half of the story by not doing that. If you are going to bill yourself as an expert, you need to know the arguments against your position. (Even the arguments against the skeptical position!) Enthusiasm is not an equivalent substitute for knowledge.

Do not fake your stated experience. It will confuse the audience. You may fool your clients but ultimately, you are fooling yourself. It’s borderline unethical for these groups to refer to themselves as scientists or anything that can be construed as scientifically based. ONLY TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU TRULY KNOW WELL and are formally trained to do. Paranormalists get pretty peeved at me for calling them out when playing pretend scientist. Scientists work long and hard for credentials. When you take a short cut and act the role in order to impress the public, I’m going to call BS.

Sharon Hill

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Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.