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The Excluded Middle: A Skeptic Explores the Extraordinary

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

May 20, 2014

I recently finished reading Ray Hyman's collection of papers and essays, The Elusive Quarry (1989). In it, Dr. Hyman talks about attending the Parapsychological Association convention in 1979 as a paranormal skeptic. The work he sees there is impressive and he is challenged by the findings of the high quality work. One concept I subscribe to - that is reinforced by Hyman's experiences - is that going to meetings run by advocates of a subject area in which you are generally skeptical is essential to fully understanding the topic. If you do not know all sides of the conversation, you should not be conversing authoritatively about it.

Program cover artCover art from the ETE conference program (Credit: Andy Sharp)

A few months ago, I was informed of the “Exploring the Extraordinary” (ETE) conference by George Hansen via email. George had read my Master's Thesis about use of science by amateur paranormal investigators and knew of my research into broader, Fortean topics. He thought this would be useful to me and it was close by, in Gettysburg. I had a look at the schedule; it was not the celebrity para-con like I had attended and reviewed last year. There were many academics speaking. This appeared far more professional. This would be my own opportunity to take a look at the work currently being done. I was excited to attend.

The conference took place in Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College. The centerpiece of the campus, the building had been used as a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. Anyone who knows the spooky tales that have exploded in popularity in this battlefield community has heard of the administrators who took the elevator in Pennsylvania Hall back in time. When the doors opened upon the basement scene, as the story goes, they encountered a shocking scene of wartime horror – soldiers bloodied and traumatized packed into the space. They quickly pressed the buttons to close the door as a surgeon beckoned them to help. This location is a culturally haunted place fitting for the content and the tone of the presentations to come. (Though the gathering room was only two floors up, I contemplated taking the elevator to the basement but, ultimately, I didn't.)

This was the 6th conference for ETE, previously held at University of York in England. The main organizers and many presenters were from the U.K. and pleased to be visiting the states. The purpose of the ETE conference is to discuss experiences that transcend the mundane.

Attendee T. Peter Park, a long-time follower of paranormal research, wrote this about the conference on an online forum: (used with permission)

The Exploring the Extraordinary network’s members include many individuals from various academic disciplines, such as anthropology, art, English studies, folklore, film studies, geography, history, natural sciences, parapsychology, philosophy, physical sciences, psychology, religious studies, sociology, theatre studies, and theology--as well as those not affiliated with such institutions. It thus serves as an "amphibious" interface or contact point between the world of "mainstream" academia and the "liminal" subcultures (in the terminology of parapsychologist George Hansen) of people engaged in cultivating or exploring anomalous, extraordinary, "paranormal," "mystical," "magical," or "occult" experiences or interests often ignored or dismissed by academia for not fitting in with our society’s prevailing concepts of the "rational," "realistic," and "scientific."

The conference’s 23 intriguing presentations on unusual, anomalous, and "liminal" experiences provided ample, flavorful food for thought for myself as a self-described "mental amphibian" equally at home in the seemingly disparate cultural worlds both of "straight" mainstream academic research and scholarship on the one hand and of probes into the off-beat, marginal, and anomalous outside the conventionally academically respectable on the other! Most of the speakers discussed ghosts, mediumship, and other evidence (or seeming evidence) for life after death, a few spoke on topics like UFO’s, healing, and remarkable coincidences, and some others on historical and sociological aspects of paranormal investigation.

Nearly all questioned our society’s reigning cultural and philosophical paradigm of scientific materialism, where even religion is fastidiously confined to a purely spiritual realm with no messy, embarrassing causal interaction with observable events or objects in the physical world.

He aptly summed up my own feelings about being an “amphibian” between systems. By the end, I was facing questions about where I belongs, if anywhere.

As I sat down in the lecture room on the first day, I saw a diverse crowd nearly evenly split men/women and of a wide age range. I also found out on the first day, thanks to a hands-up poll request from one speaker, that I was in the extreme minority of the audience that did not subscribe to the idea of life after death. Since my like-minded friend Howard Lewis (of Skepreview.com) was only in attendance on the first day, I would be the lone “Skeptic” in the room for the remaining two days.

From prior experience at what I'll call an “advocate's” convention, by the third day my brain has reached its limit whereby I can no longer tolerate the hubris of people who just know all these fantastical things exist no matter what I or the scientific consensus states. That was not to be the case for the ETE event where I attended all but one or two of the talks in their entirety and stayed until the very end, even taking advantage of the final day's post event lunch to continue to talk with attendees. I enjoyed the entire event very much. It was well done, well organized and went off smoothly.

Since there were 24 full length talks over three days, I can't possibly recount them all so I will relate the highlights that were important to me as an active skeptical researcher of paranormal ideas.

Right off the mark was a fascinating talk about the importance of historical and socio-cultural settings of alleged haunting events. Christopher Laursen discussed some famous classic hauntings and poltergeist reports in the context of those who lived next door. What does the neighborhood have to do with the stigmatized location? Plenty. Several classic cases involved those who just moved in. The superstitious explanation was that the “rightful” owner, long deceased, did not particularly care for the new tenants. Laursen provided sound advice to those investigating a haunting (or any mystery) about scouting out the neighborhood. Question the people next door and those around the block who may “know things”. Find out about the non-human neighbors like troublemaking wildlife or feral animals, and explore the general environment including previous land uses and geology. This presentation took a nice middle ground for both pro-paranormal and skeptical investigators.

I was quickly impressed that this many speakers and most of the audience was scholarly and typically well versed in the history and sociology of ghosts along with religious frameworks and the mythology of hauntings. This was quite the change from any other conference (paranormal or skeptical) that I've been to and I was enjoying the elevated discussion.

The next speaker was Stephanie Boothby, a graduate student in anthropology from Florida. Stephanie had immersed herself into the culture of the paranormal investigator. She became part of the group. She related the organization of various level of paranormal involvement from “weekend warriors” through “scientific” researchers to the “deliverance teams” performing exorcisms. Throughout her talk I saw so much overlap with my own interests, I was eager to speak to her and show her my work on amateur investigators.

Though, as I remarked, nearly all the participants at the conference appeared to have a well-rounded education in paranormal research history, Stephanie noted that this is the opposite of the typical participants in ghost hunting. Surprisingly, her local group was not interested in parapsychology or what had been documented before. She noted (as I had), the tension, a love-hate relationship, of these participants with academics and science in general. Science has such a great social cachet that paranormalists use a pretend version of it in their procedures – equipment, jargon, made up “theories” – even though they have no scientific background. The science is strictly for show. In reality, they distrust academics and stay away from research by “ivory tower scientists”, jealous of their standing and funding.

Stephanie 's observations, as well as the array of other speaker’s viewpoints throughout the event, is a clear reminder of the unique goals and methods used in examining extraordinary phenomena. Those who view paranormal investigation solely via pop culture media will certainly miss the depth and variety of approaches used and the usefulness in studying humans’ relationship with the paranormal.

There were several non-academic speakers who talked about their personal experiences and belief in non-scientific ideas like “energy fields”. One woman described her unintentional involvement in Electronic Voice Phenomena after perceiving oddities on devices during the time surrounding her brother-in-law’s death. There was a self-described medium who noted he was happy to have skeptical people in the audience. However, this was after he told a skeptic-themed joke, and expressed an anti-science sentiment and a need to “beat the skeptics”. His description of the scientific method was the stereotypical oversimplification; he appeared generally poorly informed and made factual errors.

Attending events outside your own frame of reference involves getting into a suitable frame of mind. It’s often helpful to suspend judgement and just listen. Imants Baruss spoke of invisible intelligences and how they can help us. His view was that the 130 years of research from the Society of Psychical Research favored the “survival” hypothesis – that something of us survives past our death. It’s curious how people can view the same data in remarkably different ways. I would totally disagree with the persuasiveness of the evidence for life after death. I also strongly opposed Baruss’ view that subscribing to methodological naturalism is “scientism”, not science. This is one of many examples I’ve seen of the paranormal advocate's desire to bend or change the rules of science to accommodate their favored ideas instead of abiding by the strict framework of scientific research. Oddly, Baruss noted that he wished the stigma of studying life after death would be removed. Stigma from what population? Paranormal research is more popular than ever with the public! The deserved stigma by science is due to parapsychology not yet ensconced upon a sound foundation. If they can build that (been trying for over a century now), the stigma would evaporate.

The Keynote the first day was given by Dr. Julie Beischel, an independent researcher who runs the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential. Beischel is a scientist trained in pharmacology, toxicology, microbiology, immunology but chose to leave those areas to focus on this unique research project of conducting experiments on mediums under controlled conditions. I learned a lot from her talk regarding the state of mediumship research. I’m not sure what I thought the state of it was prior to this, I guess I didn't think it was even going on, but now I know that there remains about 10 serious researchers around the world. She was clear that previous research was not enough to conclusively show life after death.

I learned about the stalemate currently existing in psi research – survival psi versus somatic psi. The survival hypothesis means that the medium is getting information from the dead. Somatic psi is the hypothesis that the medium is using clairvoyance or telepathy through the living to gain information. It's a difficult test to distinguish one from the other (how can you confirm the information?), though psychics say that it feels different.

Let’s say mediums can really communicate with the dead. What good is this revelation? Beischel proposed it be used for criminal investigations, to locate missing persons/animals, and in grief counseling. With this statement, it seems to me like wishful thinking that could lead a researcher to see more than what is really there in the data. Psychics have been claiming forever that they can speak with the dead but they fail under controlled conditions. The ability has not been demonstrated, It's not reasonable to jump to grander ideas regarding its use prior to its establishment as genuine.

With Beischel, I felt this underlying attitude of bitterness, resentment or perhaps frustration toward science. She explains that her research is “proof-focused”, not science-based. “Proof” is a word I never hear scientists say in that context. The Windbridge experiments include controls for fraud, cold reading, generalization, cueing and rater bias. Target and decoy readings are uses and the sitter scores the results. Twenty mediums have been certified for the Windbridge institute to meet the criteria to qualify for the research. About 25% of the applicants fail. What is missing with Beshel’s description of the Windbridge Institute work is the concept that scientific theories provide a model for how the way world works and we continually strive to improve the model to use in prediction and understanding. The model of survival psi is a tremendously weak structure supported by tiny bits of solid here and there, taped and held together with lots of hope. I don’t imagine Beischel’s work will produce important or useful results but I would very much like to see what does come out.

If mediumship is real (that's a really big IF), it is clearly not widespread among the population. The error rate for mediums remains high and efficacy is currently no better than using conventional detective means or inquiry skills to reach the same outcome. Grief treatment is a controversial use of mediums. Beischel referred to a study showing those who participated in a medium session in which they claimed they talked to the dead felt better in their emotional state. I got the ethical heebie-jeebies at this point. It was even suggested that mental health professionals learn about mediumship for their clients and integrate medium readings into treatment options. Yikes. Take several steps back from this ledge...

Again, the overlooked fact is that mediumship sessions may have an effect but the basis of that treatment HAS NOT been established. Is that ethical and ultimately beneficial to the client?

Thought-provoking bits and pieces were dropped here and there in Beischel’s talk. She described research that was beginning with animals. They are currently recruiting for a project with those who took care of animals that had recently died. I had great difficulty with this. How do live animals understand the questions, let alone dead ones? Their perception and brains were different than ours in life. The answers to the mediums are said to come as visuals, feelings and smells. How this is translated to human perception by the medium is unexplained.

Another interesting piece of info is that a Portuguese drug company, Bial, is the leading provider of grants towards parapsychology research. Are they hedging their bets or is someone from the company just really interested in this field?

By the end of the talk, I admired Beischel for her risk-taking in starting the research but felt she was heading towards a dead end. She invested heavily in her personal experiences and actually mentioned her belief in astrology. The argument for mediumship research is terribly weak. We are looking at the tiniest glimmer of significance, an effect that could be wiped away by finding human error. To base a career on this, after the decades of research with no sound progress, seems ill-advised.

The juxtaposition of scientific procedure versus reliance on emotion generated from personal experiences from the presenters was discordant. It felt all over the place, undisciplined, unstructured, and, at times, arrogantly independent. Even so, there were examples of freeing and unique methodology. Rebecca Davies asked us to contemplate the color red through sound. Imagine that! It's hard but it was fascinating. We all sat through long, loud, sometimes torturous audio responses to a red hue. This was an example of differences in perception. I thought it was a good lesson. This project sounds odd but it certainly meant something to Davies and it was a unique approach that elicited visceral, non-rational responses. We need to go there sometimes.

It was time for another personal revelation.

Hansen's presentation on the Liminal StructureHansen's presentation on the Liminal Structure. (Photo by author)

Between life and death, male and female, human and god, man and beast, there is mystery, confusion and instability. Society has issues with mediums, shamans, homosexuals, angels, Bigfoot, aliens. The middle ground is unnatural. George Hansen explained liminality, this area of betwixt and between, in a way that actually made some sense. We are uncomfortable with the in-between, the anti-structure, the excluded middle. This got me thinking how unnatural it was for me to be in this setting, exploring the middle ground between skeptic and believer; I’m the counter-advocate finding common ground with the advocates. Not many people consider venturing here because it is profoundly uncomfortable. I don't really fit in either place. Perhaps the excluded middle is my safe space to be alone and really think in all directions. This talk on liminality was perhaps the perfect core for the entire conference as almost all talks touched upon it indirectly. It resonated with me in an unexpected second aspect.

The one talk specific to Gettysburg was a nice surprise. John Sabol is a performance archaeologist and studies ghosts. This takes some explanation: John has training in archaeology, social anthropology, and as an actor. He does not buy into the ridiculous TV ghost hunter ways of prodding the spirits to perform on command. His approach is culturally-based and, admittedly, a bit strange to observe – addressing the ghosts in their own framework of understanding. Loudly. To do this, he uses period clothes, music, language and other sounds as trigger objects, including barking orders at soldiers. It seems ridiculous to those of us that don't think spirits of the dead are really hanging around. But, John makes a good point that it's even sillier to ask a ghost from another era to turn on a modern flashlight or make the lights on your gadget dance. John attempts to humanizes the ghost, not demonize it. That's more respectful than the paranormal investigators on TV. It may be just as unfounded, since I don't see conclusive evidence for ghosts, but it seems more thoughtful.

It's a trip to listen to John talk. Just because I think his methods and ideas are wacky does not mean I don't enjoy listening to other's opinions. John has an plan for a TV show in the works. I imagine if that comes to fruition it will be something else and roundly entertaining.

Contemporary material about ghosts in the public is influenced in large part by economics – tourism, advertising, and what sells for the big and small screen. Gettysburg has become a ghostie mecca because the culture has allowed it to be so and some locals encouraged it. There were no seances here during the advent of spiritualism. There were no ghost tours in the 1970s. Why did the plethora of Gettysburg ghosts wait 100 years to manifest? It's a curious question – with a likely cultural answer (as we can frame almost all aspects of the ghost phenomena). An interesting aside was made by T.P. Park [whom I quoted above] who observed that it's currently not culturally acceptable to ghost hunt in Auschwitz or at Hiroshima. Maybe that will happen soon. It just takes a trailblazer.

Educator Jennifer Lyke had an intriguing view on teaching critical thinking. Again, we circle back to the idea of the excluded middle. She finds a problem with categories like “believers” vs “skeptics” since those are overly general. In the real world, it is more like a continuum and people's points of view vary depending on the subject.

Skeptics, she says, have a tendency to overreach with blanket explanations that sound plausible. For example, when we say alien abduction accounts are sleep paralysis, that is the end point of the story. That could be the end of critical thinking, she contends, but it shouldn't be since much remains unanswered about sleep paralysis. The media headlines tout out-of-body experiences as SOLVED. Not so. A good explanation is proposed but it's not time yet to wipe our hands and move on. All UFOs are not “swamp gas”. Not all Bigfoots are guys in suits. It's more complicated than that and a true interested person would not be so quick to dismiss.

Yet, we buy in to believe or dismiss. Why? Because of our intolerance of ambiguity. Lyke attempts to push the two sides of the believer/skeptic spectrum together for more productive discussion – those that feel comfortable with one side must confront the opinions of the other. That can only improve understanding and tolerance. I agree and told her so. This is important work. I only wish it occurred earlier than university level.

Chase O’Gwin, while revealing a noticeable anti-skeptic chip on his shoulder, gave an informed presentation about the problems with the history of paranormal research. Today's celebrity investigators or self-styled researchers know hardly anything of the rich history. I have encountered this as a rule across the population interested in various paranormal topics. People calling themselves paranormal experts don't recognize the names Harry Price, William James, William Roll, or can tell me about spiritualism or the cultural history of ghosts. Dunning-Kruger effect, anyone?

Ghost researchers consider EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) key data about a haunting but have they actually thought about why it is or isn't good evidence? Chase spoke about the problems with EVP in that it comes across in the language of the listener, and confirms the afterlife belief of whatever faith the listener subscribes. If EVPs are everywhere, how do we know they are voices from the dead? Maybe it is macro-psychokinesis? Maybe it's subconscious messages from other living humans, maybe it's technopathy (users communicate with machines). Why are anomalous electromagnetic waves proof of survival? Why do ghost hunters not use Geiger counters anymore? Remember when poltergeist researchers thought the entity was manifest from human RSPK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis), not demons or ghosts? Why is energy now assumed to be from the discarnate instead of the living? With orbs thoroughly explained, why do they keep showing up as evidence of spirits? Also, why are ghosts seen as vaporous now when they used to be described as quite solid? All these questions spotlight the inconsistency and disorganization of modern paranormal research and make the participants looks rather silly. The lack of attention to basic questions such as these confirms how half-baked and ineffective most paranormal scholarship is right now. Those who fail to study the past are doomed...

Finally, Eric Ouellet proposed an alternative idea about the Belgian Air Force UFO flap in 1989-1990 as a collective manifestation of psi. I admit, I never thought of that option.

Ouellet found the reports were not like the popular press claimed. He tested a cultural model (surprise – displacement – decline – suppression) in which critical observers become involved, reduce the liminality, thereby eventually crushing the phenomena. Was this event a collective social psi manifestation prompted by social tensions at the time? I tend to see it more as a collective cultural interpretation of UFOs (alien threat) due to the prevailing social tensions. I don't know which way the arrow points and we may never know for sure.

With the blend of academics and non-academics at the ETE, it was obvious that there is a general misunderstanding about the scientific process and the value of that by those not trained in research methodology. This is exactly what is occurring among the amateur paranormal investigators all over the world. But, as I discovered with one non-academic presenter, her ultimate question was the same as mine – what happened here? We both want the best explanation. Since her options were less restrained by reliance on fact-based, established foundations, she is able to propose speculative hypotheses as explanations. Those possibilities make the field endlessly interesting to those unencumbered by scientific rigor. The tendency to venture outside the boundaries of established knowledge is so enticing due to the promise it holds that an underlying theme at ETE is clearly to “change the rules” in parapsychology. Less thinking, more feeling and a great increase in wiggle room always leads to better experimental results. The platform of science as the ultimate arbiter of truth claims is strongly challenged here.

The ETE meeting was not for the typical amateur ghost enthusiast. They would be lost. This is material they do not have a prerequisite foundation in and towards which they are hostile. During a coffee break, Stephanie and I talked about the need for a journal for amateurs to publish. They say they have all these cases and data but never do a damn thing with it, often with the excuse that “science” ignores it. How can we ignore if if we never see it written in an accessible way? You can't influence the field without being open to sharing, peer review, critique and testing. Would they take advantage of a publishing outlet? I suspect only a few would. There are too many who are self-satisfied being small time celebrities, just playing weekend warrior or pretend scientist. Real science and inquiry is too much work.

Why was I there?

In the lunch line on the first day, just after I had been outed as one of the “skeptics” in the crowd, one lady rather brusquely asked, “So you’re one of the skeptics? Why are you here?”

For the same reason you are, lady, to learn and explore evidence and ideas. I felt privileged to be there and see many new points of view. There is a kernel of something interesting in whatever is said. It's impossible to get that deeper concept if you are prejudiced against the field entirely. Likewise, if you pigeonhole skeptics and close off the skeptical commentary, you risk continuing to waste effort, make mistakes, and fail to progress.

There is much to be seen on the “other” side. It may have nothing to do with ghosts, yet it is rather extraordinary.

Sharon Hill with authors and researchers of the paranormal George Hansen and Patrick HuygheSharon Hill with authors and researchers of the paranormal George Hansen and Patrick Huyghe. (Photo by author)

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.