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Open Your Mind: Skepticism and Preconception in Paranormal Studies

Nine times out of ten, when I’m approached by somebody about my interest in subjects like ufology and the supernatural, I can expect a fairly typical response: “Oh, so you’re a believer, huh?” While I obviously believe there is something going on out there when it pertains to UFOs, or any other variety of so-called “paranormal” or unexplained occurrence, I certainly don’t conform to the general sorts of time-tested preconceptions that exist with regard to most strange phenomena.

I had a nice exchange about this during a recent appearance on the popular online program “Spacing Out!” with Maureen Elsberry and Jason McClellen of Open Minds. Jason had asked me what evidence I’ve found, in my own UFO research, that may seem to support the presence of extraterrestrial visitation. I had to admit that, while I’ve found some intriguing instances of something clandestine and truly incredible in the various accounts I’ve come across, I can’t say with honesty that any of these show us, without question, that we’re dealing with alien visitors. My hosts graciously accepted my skepticism, even praising the cautious approach I had maintained (which, arguably, the folks at Open Minds have built a fine reputation for doing in this field in recent years).

However, not everyone seems to willing to accept a careful, skeptical approach when it comes to such things; in truth, there seems to be a general trend in most spheres of phenomenology that precludes any honest (and therefore sound) judgement at all, unless the information in a given instance fits someone’s rather narrow ideological viewpoint.

Indeed, while a majority of UFO reports seem to indicate that there could be some otherworldly presence in our midst, in recent years I have begun to shy away from the supposition that UFOs must be equated with some presumed extraterrestrial intelligence. While I am continually amazed at the sorts of reactions that this gets, I have nonetheless managed to find what I like to call “reasoned skeptics” out there who, like myself, try not to commit themselves to belief in anything without the proper factual data to support it first.

I had a very nice email exchange recently with blogger Haley Stevens of the Hayley is a Ghost blog, whose work, in my opinion, exemplifies this sort of reasoned skepticism. “I try my hardest to remain objective in my research,” Hayley told me. “I balance somewhere between the skeptical non-believers and the believers. But I get thought of as an evil skeptic by believers, and a bad skeptic by the skeptics for giving paranormal subjects even an moment of my time, so it’s wonderful when people appreciate my approach to paranormal phenomena.” Indeed, when one doesn’t commit to some sort of belief, it often seems that those around us project their own preconceptions onto us, and make us what they want to see or hear… could it be that these sorts of folks do the very same thing with strange phenomena in general?

My colleague Scotty Roberts of Intrepid Magazine also tried to tackle the issue recently, writing for the Intrepid Magazine Blog. In a piece titled, “The Politics of the Paranormal,” Scotty recounted a recent situation where rather harsh preconceptions of the sort I’m outlining here led to outright dismissal of one of our current projects:

“Just today, I learned that a high ranking official of a national ufological organization – of which I am a member in good standing – offhandedly dismissed with a backhanded brandish, the Paradigm Symposium and the cumulative decades of study represented by it’s cadre of iconic researchers and authors. “We don’t need to be associated with their ‘goblins, ghouls and 2012-ers.’”

He goes on to explain the obvious problems with this kind of intellectual skullduggery:

“That single phrase embodies the ignorantly dismissive view indicative of the stunted expansion of philosophy and thought innate to those who eschew any brand of rationalism beyond the boundaries of what is accepted within the sphere of their doctrine. Thusly belying a certain religious train of thinking that permeates their mission, despite representing a field that is already anathema to the sciences and academia with which they seemingly wish to position themselves.  Holding to immovable reasoning and concrete modes of traditional methodology has left them bereft of the wonder and exuberance of exploration and discovery. The politic of personality and private posture has eroded, for them, the soul of the brilliant universe and its veritable cornucopia of possibilities.”

Indeed, it is a shame how often very unfounded and rather unfair attitudes, espoused by those who may feel they’ve reached the apex of intellectual growth, actually only work to stifle our progression forward with research of the known universe. Arguably, we would do better to come to no conclusions at all, rather than to commit ourselves to the truly unknown in an absence of anything to justify it; and thus, commit ourselves also to a kind of proverbial blindness that disallows creative thought of any kind.

When it comes to study of the strange and unusual, in the absence of certainty, we may indeed do better to come to no conclusions at all!

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  • >”When it comes to study of the strange and unusual, in the absence of
    certainty, we may indeed do better to come to no conclusions at all!”

    In Castañeda’s books, Don Juan Matus kept on insisting that it was best if brujos stuck to just experiencing the amazing worlds they entered by ways of changing their perception, instead of trying to interpret them; which was ultimately pointless, since these dimensions were completely outside the normal sphere of human endeavors.

    And yet, as Trevor rightly indicates, it’s part of human nature to try to make some sense of the world we live in.

  • alanborky

    Alan the funny thing about the paranormal’s it’s all in the context.

    Thousands of years ago if a lightning bolt came down in the middle of Athens and someone stepped out people then’d’ve quite easily accepted it as Zeus. If however a Hawker Harrier jump jet from the Seventies’d touched down they’d’ve been astonished deciding since it was clearly beyond anything they were familiar wth it had to be beyond the normal ie paranormal.

  • alanborky

    Micah as a kid of about four or five my mother always insisted on taking us for two daily walks through Liverpool. The morning’s one always took in the Liverpool Institute Grammar which Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended as my mother always insisted on pointing out every time we went by adding “Who knows? Maybe some day you’ll go there…”

    This one morning though we went past and for some reason I becoming absolutely incensed at hearing her say those words for the umpteenth time I turned to her to say “Whyd’you always have to say that? Why do we all have to keep pretending we don’t know what’s really going to happen? We all know I go there! We all know Adrian goes there [who was a baby in a pram at the time]! We all know Julie goes there [which since it was a boy’s school didn’t make any sense at the time]!”

    But to my astonishment as I turned to look at her the shape of me Mum’s head’d turned to a sort of huge C moon shape with huge strange alien eyes and an enormously wide grin the size of a canoe [even now as I write this a shiver’s running up and down my spine much the way it did whenever I watched Sound Garden’s Black Hole Sun video] and my mouth fell open in an admixture of shock and awe.

    Stabbing an accusing finger in her direction I now turned towards me Dad hoping he’d look and see in time before she changed back but appearing almost even more weird and distorted than her he now somehow ‘transmitted’ to me the ‘message’ ‘This’s how it is in this world son. We have to try to forget or pretend we don’t know everything that’s going to happen in this world otherwise this world couldn’t exist or work’.

    The peculiar thing’s as a result of innumerable experiences like that as soon as I could read I consumed countless science based books and encyclopedias which much to my relief not only claimed such things were impossible but stated as a fact science was based on the principle identical causes produce identical results,

    So when I finally got to the Institute it came as a shock to me no matter how many physics lessons I attended everyone of us first year boys produced widely differing results despite using exactly the same equipment in exactly the same way [in fact every lab technician I’ve ever asked at every school college or university I’ve ever attended’s always confirmed this’s the norm not the exception].

    Frustrated by the difference between what the books said and the actuality I pointed this out to the physics master a chap with red hair and a black and white beard who exaggeratedly recoiled from me in the manner of a pantomime or camp Sixties Batman TV show villain and in mocking tones ‘answered’ “You’re not a Hoom are you? You’re not a budding Hoom? We haven’t got a budding Hoom in our midst have we?”

    For decades I never understood what he meant by a ‘Hoom’ until only very recently it dawned on me he meant Hume the philospher who pointed out the meaninglessness of the term coincidence.

    As Hume pointed out so much of science’s based on the idea certain ’causes’ are indissolubly linked to certain ‘results’ yet the truth is all we really know is they tend to coincide [and this in spite of the fact when it suits certain apparent ’causes’ are disconnected from certain apparent ‘results’ by dismissing them as mere coincidences].

    In fact so desparately is this cause and effect principle clung to that even on those occasions when it’s clearly failed [as many scientists who’s ever worked in industry will attest happens all to often] the excuse for such failures is always equipment failure or operator error.

    My point being if [like those industrial scientists who’ve told me such self deceit’s not only exceedingly costly but often gets you fired for even more expensively attempting to prove otherwise] the skeptical types were honest enough to apply the exceptional proof to exceptional claims criterion to even normal science never mind the stuff supposedly ‘observed’ taking place 13 billion years ago on the edge of the ‘Big Bang’ then a whole lot of people’d be handing their scientific reputations and prizes back.

    And for any skeptics railing against these statements try The Wall Street Journal “Scientists’ Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results” a report on the shocking fact most research results including that being published in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals cannot be reproduced.