When “sounding sciencey” isn’t quite enough.
We here at AiPT! can get a masochistic kick out of watching all the terrible “true” paranormal shows on TV these days. But what about the folks who take it seriously, and try to emulate what they see?
Geologist and paranormal researcher Sharon Hill takes a closer look at amateur investigators in her new book, Scientifical Americans, from McFarland Books, and finds out for a lot of them, it goes beyond a basic cable fad. AiPT! spoke to Hill about Scientifical Americans, available as an eBook now and in print soon, and what these paranormal investigators really bring to the table.
AiPT!: When dealing with the paranormal, you coined the phrase “sounds sciencey.” Your new book is called Scientifical Americans. What are you trying to communicate with these ideas?
Hill: I would see a lot of this thread in pop culture, of people pretending to play scientists, and I’ve had some people tell me it’s kind of like LARPing. Like they’re live action role-playing scientists. I think that there’s some truth to that, because they see it on TV, the same as people would portray characters in fiction, and in live action role-playing, and it’s an escape for them.
I saw, with paranormal people, none of them were “official” scientists. None of them had a background in science, but that was a role they took on to gain that authority, and people bought it. So not only are they sort of playing pretend scientists, but the public is also just eating it right up, because they don’t know the difference.
AiPT!: Do you think these paranormal investigators really want to to be rigorous scientists, or do they just want that air of credibility?
Hill: They want the air of authority, definitely. They don’t want to do the work to become scientists, and they probably know that they can’t. It may be out of their reach financially, or it’s a time commitment they can’t make; they’ve got a real job, they’ve got a family to support, they can’t go back to school and get a PhD … It’s complex.
What happens is that people call these ghost hunters “stupid” or ridiculous, and it’s nuanced. I think that they actually serve an interesting role in society, but maybe it’s because the average person doesn’t know a real scientist, can’t access a real scientist, and has no place to go with these strange claims, so they go to these people who pretend to be scientists.
AiPT!: Of course paranormal investigators come in all kinds of flavors and disciplines, if you will. What kind of topics does the book cover?
Hill: I looked at the broad range of paranormal investigators, which is the cryptozooligists, who cover Bigfoot and all kinds of strange creatures; they go hunting for chupacabras — or blue dogs, as they call them — or dogmen, all sorts of strange animals. But Bigfoot/Sasquatch is sort of the big guy. UFOlogists, which is a very interesting array of people, from “nuts and bolts” people to something completely different. And the ghost hunters, the people who investigate haunted houses, haunted places, demonic activity, things like that.
Within those three groups, there’s a very broad spectrum, from nuts and bolts people — or bioligical people, or psychological people — all the way up to this extreme paranormal — other dimensions, government cover-ups — there’s a lot packed into those categories. And I kind of feel bad lumping them together; even within their subgroups, it’s a generalization I have to make and I’m afraid it isn’t perfect.
AiPT!: Please tell me you talk about alien Bigfoot. That’s my favorite thing.
Hill: I do, do go into that, because there’s definitely that crossover. The book that I reference is Stan Gordon’s Silent Invasion. That is the book, I think, that covers from, just talking about the events that took place in 72 and ’73 in Pennsylvania, where Bigfoot and UFO sightings were completely tied in together. People would say they saw a strange craft and then the strange beings would be on the ground. There definitely was a sense in that time that there was this big crossover. Bigfoot is an alien pet, or an alien creature come to Earth to, I don’t know, walk around farmers’ fields. He didn’t take animals or stuff at that time.
There’s definitely a crossover and, actually, if you go to a paranormal conference today, you will see what appears to be a grand unifying theory — the Unifying Field Theory, they call it, where it covers all paranormal. From hauntings, ghosts, UFOs, strange lights, strange anomalies, to strange creatures. Somebody’s trying to tie it all together, and it’s bizarre.
AiPT!: You obviously have an interest in this sort of thing, you probably wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t. How do you feel about all these paranormal shows now? Do you find any entertainment in them at all, or are they just kind of feeding this cycle?
Hill: I try, I try to watch them. Whenever a new one comes out, I try to watch it. I can, and the reason why, what I think is the way the TV production is done — it’s made to be eye-catching and there’s lots of jump cuts, and a lot of repetition in the same show. For an hour show, you’ve probably only got, like, 20 minutes of good material in it, which is a shame, because I think they miss a whole lot. I think there really could be a good show done, there just hasn’t been.
Even when I remember watching, like, Monsterquest — and I can watch Ghost Hunters, I don’t love it, I don’t like it, but I can watch it — and it’s probably not the worst, but the thing is, it was bad at the time, and then everything got progressively worse. So if they put out a show today, it’s going to be really, really bad, because they’ve really gotten into that stupid formula, and I can’t watch it. It’s not against the content, though. It’s because of the way it’s produced.
AiPT!: What do you see your goal with Scientifical Americans being? Are you trying to kind of help these peoples’ methodologies? Is this just a fad that’s going to pass its way through? What do you think?
Hill: It’s not a fad. One of the things I do in the book — and there hasn’t been a book like this before, that focuses on the groups, in terms of the way they use science … This is actually looking at the behaviors of the groups, and what I did was, I set it in terms of what was done before, for these subjects, all the scientific and previous research that had been done up to this time in those sub-categories, and most people don’t realize that science has actually looked at ghosts and Bigfoot and UFOs before. We really did, and we rejected it. It’s not that we didn’t look! Carl Sagan is mentioned in the book, and the SPR [Society for Psychical Research] is mentioned in the book, because they were a legitimate source. There were plenty of scientists that looked at Bigfoot and took it seriously for a while.
So I take the past research up to the present time and locate the current researchers in that place. Why are they here now and what they are doing, and why they might be doing what they’re doing; there’s a couple reasons why, personal reasons and cultural reasons. But then I describe what science is versus what they’re doing and then finally what they can do to actually be better at giving something useful to science. They can do it, I think they can do it, and we use the framework of citizen scientists, who count birds or count insects, or do backyard astronomy and backyard fossil-hunting, and they can actually contribute to the body of knowledge. So I do locate them in that thread, from the past to the future.
The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. While it’s often utilized to investigate claims of the paranormal, skepticism can be used when considering just about anything.