“Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudoscience” – Carl Sagan
Pseudoscience! I don’t like to wade too deeply into the popular arguments about whether the celebrities of paranormal investigation are capitalizing on current public fascination with the supernatural and distrust of institutionalized science (mostly because I’ve found wisdom in the Las Vegas cocktail waitress maxim that says, “Don’t get down on anybody else’s hustle”), but nonetheless feel compelled to couch their subject in some scientific argot that lend it an air of superficial credibility. It’s a little like arguing the existence of God with the religiously devout. There is no commensurable paradigm upon which to find common ground. Plus, I’m too old for bar fights. Or rather, as I find my divinity in the bottom of a glass of aged and peaty scotch (“Our Father who art in Laphroig”, for those of you who are fellow travelers), the probability of spilling my drink are too high, and I like to play the odds.
In my younger, scrappier days, without the benefit of two decades of work amongst both stolid academics and profit-motivated corporate slugs, caricatures for sure, I might exhibit more tolerance, but you know what they say about stereotypes – they’re founded in “base rate” information, yet in the past I might have taken up the gauntlet. Why is it that dueling went out of fashion? Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but it can save you a lot of agony and angst if you know what you are getting into during the cocktail party. If they surprise you, you might have found a friend. That is to say, if you encounter the same insufferable attitude on multiple occasions, you’re simply wise to proceed from the assumption that the next one you meet will likely exemplify the archetype until proven otherwise. After all, the universe is all about me and it’s up to you to prove me wrong, at least from my perspective. Don’t screw with me. I’m an ontologist. I can philosophically declare that you don’t exist and abstractly end you. I’ll do it.
That said, I merrily peruse both the skeptical and belief-driven literature on a regular basis. A darn shame I can’t deduct that time as a business expense on my taxes. Oh wait, I don’t get paid for this. I should go write some natural language processing software or something, since that’s what they pay me for. Talk about injustice. And sadly, I’ve started to notice a pattern, ‘cause that’s what I do. Look for patterns. Professionally, I look for linguistic patterns. Personally and existentially, I’m more concerned with patterns of stuff that might kill you or steal your soul. If you ask me, the pay scales are reversed. When I design my own planet, things will be different.
A common complaint that has reared its ugly head in the skeptic v. supernatural chat rooms is the notion that the reason mainstream scientists don’t take the supernatural seriously is that those who are curious about investigating it are invariably engaged in “pseudoscientific” pursuits, and that a real “science” adheres to the accepted criteria required to be taken seriously. I don’t want to be taken seriously. Serious people floss.
Consider this recent commentary, that I dare say is rather representative. In this instance they were penning a rather scathing criticism (quoting RGA Dolby’s essay What Can We Usefully Learn from the Velikovsky Affair? – as the author pointed out to me in the comments below) of catastrophist Velikovsky (which by the way, was mad as a hatter, but that’s not the point): “In a speciality field, a contributor is expected to present their arguments and supporting evidence in a formal paper to a reputable journal and be subject to peer review. If the paper gets published, the idea is deemed worthy of consideration by this unique community. The idea is expected to fit into the existing understanding of the field or improve upon what is known, citing literature of what has come before. Velikovsky’s catastrophism did not go this route” (full article at https://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/paranormal-investigators-and-velikovsky-sound-similarly-sciencey). Now I have no particular bone to pick with this author, and in fact think some of their points are worthy of note. It was the characterization of scientific adjudication that I found amusing, knowing something about how the actual process of academic review and publication truly works. If the real process of academic review operated without the influence of ontological bias and individual ego, the author would have had a salient point, and I give her points for optimism. Some of us weren’t designed that way.
The Fortean and anomalistic are generally relegated to folklore. There are only a handful of doctoral level folklore programs. Folklore as a discipline certainly has its luminaries, but they tend to gravitate more towards more semi-respectable academic disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, religious studies, and comparative literature, with an occasional niche in some nouveau department like “Culture and Performance”, which seem to be evenly divided in their interests between dance and mythology. The journals available for publication are sparse, and lean towards the micro-identification of trends in human history, as there is no room in an academic career to give credence to such elements as the bizarre and inexplicable except as metaphorical concepts that at best have sociological import.
Anomalies are by definition irreproducible, and historical data is invariably suspect. The problem I have with this is that human consciousness is increasingly thought to be based on the capacity for metaphor, or as linguistic wunderkinds Lackoff and Johnson said, “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. To decry interest in the supernatural as “pseudoscientific” without the recognition that all forms of human cognition are essentially metaphorical, is an object lesson in orthodox naturalism, couched unsubtly in terms of guarding interdisciplinary boundaries by mandating a procedure for validation that is in essence tautological i.e. you ideas are worthy of consideration, if by the criteria of the current paradigm, your ideas are worthy of consideration.
I can already hear the cries of “sour grapes” from those steadfast adherents of a regimented scientific view originating in academia. That’s cool. Well okay, that’s not cool. So “screw you”. I never pretended to not be thin skinned. The simple fact is that in order to be an academic in the fields that interest me, I would (1) have to indulge in a micro-focus that I find excruciatingly un-entertaining, (2) apprentice to someone who had played the game, and (3) take a pay cut by nearly half. I have a powerful need to eat and pay my bills in the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to, and a pathological desire to cause trouble. These are not conducive to success in the academy.
Now, I have the same problems many folks do with the representation of paranormal investigation in modern media. I value skepticism as a tool in parsing the illogical from the remotely plausible. I draw the line at the criticisms of modern paranormal investigation that are founded on lack which predefines participation in a system that is governed by hubris, ego, jockeying for professional prestige, and simultaneously abstracts metaphorical concepts that govern the universe, while denying the importance of human experience. Perhaps it is the anthropologist in me that regards the multi-faceted nature of human experience as the relevant criteria in talking about the strange things folks have reported throughout history – that is, there is the experience as understood by an “objective observer” and the experience as understood by those who are participant-observers in the phenomena. Somewhere in between lays a meaning of some value to us as humans, independent of whether the journal reviewer, who has his own theoretical cohort, agrees that your assessment is of some value to the body of scientific literature.
Folklore is about probability. What are your odds of being eaten if you wander around in the dark forest? Is all folklore based on truth? Well, of course not, but it represents the experience of conscious beings in an unpredictable world. The scientific method is enormously successful in discerning reproducible natural phenomena. The essence of folklore is determining what to do when by all reasonable judgement the unnatural has reared its ugly head. And when the inexplicable occurs, what can a human consciousness do but fall back on our most effective tool for dealing with variable reality, that is metaphor. And is the essence of science not parsing out the relationships between those things we can see, and those things we cannot? As the poet Jane Hirshfield said, “You can’t write an image, a metaphor, a story, a phrase, without leaning a little further into the shared world, without recognizing that your supposed solitude is at every point of its perimeter touching some other”.