Category Archives: Paranormal
Recently Daryl Bem defended his famous research into precognition in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More recently, as in this week, Salon published a major piece about Bem and his research that delves deeply into its implications for the whole of contemporary science — especially psychology and the other social sciences (or “social sciences”), but also the wider of world of science in general — and shows how Bem’s research, and the reactions to it, have highlighted, underscored, and called out some very serious problems:
Bem’s 10-year investigation, his nine experiments, his thousand subjects—all of it would have to be taken seriously. He’d shown, with more rigor than anyone ever had before, that it might be possible to see into the future. Bem knew his research would not convince the die-hard skeptics. But he also knew it couldn’t be ignored.
When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP — theirs is a small but fervent field of study — saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.
But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions — that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field — and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind — could be total bunk.
If one had to choose a single moment that set off the “replication crisis” in psychology — an event that nudged the discipline into its present and anarchic state, where even textbook findings have been cast in doubt — this might be it: the publication, in early 2011, of Daryl Bem’s experiments on second sight.
The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze. . . .
When Bem started investigating ESP, he realized the details of his research methods would be scrutinized with far more care than they had been before. In the years since his work was published, those higher standards have increasingly applied to a broad range of research, not just studies of the paranormal. “I get more credit for having started the revolution in questioning mainstream psychological methods than I deserve,” Bem told me. “I was in the right place at the right time. The groundwork was already pre-prepared, and I just made it all startlingly clear.”
Looking back, however, his research offered something more than a vivid illustration of problems in the field of psychology. It opened up a platform for discussion. Bem hadn’t simply published a set of inconceivable findings; he’d done so in a way that explicitly invited introspection. In his paper proving ESP is real, Bem used the word replication 33 times. Even as he made the claim for precognition, he pleaded for its review.
“Credit to Daryl Bem himself,” [University of California-Berkeley business school professor] Leif Nelson told me. “He’s such a smart, interesting man. . . . In that paper, he actively encouraged replication in a way that no one ever does. He said, ‘This is an extraordinary claim, so we need to be open with our procedures.’ . . . It was a prompt for skepticism and action.”
Bem meant to satisfy the skeptics, but in the end he did the opposite: He energized their doubts and helped incite a dawning revolution. Yet again, one of the world’s leading social psychologists had made a lasting contribution and influenced his peers. “I’m sort of proud of that,” Bem conceded at the end of our conversation. “But I’d rather they started to believe in psi as well. I’d rather they remember my work for the ideas.”
Note that the article also contains, in its middle section, a fascinating personal profile and mini-biography of Bem himself, including a recounting of his life-long interest in mentalism, which began in his teen years and persisted into his career in academia:
As a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Bem liked to close out each semester by performing as a mentalist. After putting on his show, he’d tell his students that he didn’t really have ESP. In class, he also stressed how easily people can be fooled into believing they’ve witnessed paranormal phenomena.
Interesting: Last month The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Tom Bartlett, their senior science editor, titled “Spoiled Science.” It’s about the way Cornell University’s renowned Food and Brand Lab has taken a credibility hit in the wake of revelations about multiple statistical anomalies that have been discovered in papers co-authored by its director, Brian Wansink, who is also a celebrity scholar due to appearance on the likes of 60 Minutes and Rachael Ray. The heart of the article’s import is laid out in this paragraph:
The slow-motion credibility crisis in social science has taken the shine off a slew of once-brilliant reputations and thrown years of research into doubt. It’s also led to an undercurrent of anxiety among scientists who fear that their labs and their publication records might come under attack from a feisty cadre of freelance critics. The specifics of these skirmishes can seem technical at times, with talk of p-values and sample sizes, but they go straight to the heart of how new knowledge is created and disseminated, and whether some of what we call science really deserves that label.
In the middle of the piece, Bartlett sudden mentions Daryl Bem’s famous precognition research from a few years ago, and subjects it to a brief but withering moment of scorn:
This isn’t the first time Cornell has had to cope with a blow to its research reputation. In 2011, Daryl Bem, an emeritus professor of psychology, published a paper in which he showed, or seemed to show, that subjects could anticipate pornographic images before they appeared on a computer screen. If true, Bem’s finding would upend what we understand about the nature of time and causation. It would be a big deal. That paper, “Feeling the Future,” was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate, though Bem himself has stood by his results.
Yesterday Bem responded with a letter to the Chronicle titled “In Defense of Research on Precognition,” in which he sets the record straight. He begins by pointing out that his paper was published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which has a rejection rate of 80 percent, and where the paper was approved by four referees and two editors before publication.
He then points out that Barlett’s claim about the experiment’s failure to replicate is patently false: “In 2015, three colleagues and I published a follow-up meta-analysis of 90 such experiments conducted by 33 laboratories in 14 countries. The results strongly support my original findings. In particular, the independent replications are robust and highly significant statistically.”
Finally, he shares this salient fact:
Bartlett further asserts that this research was widely ridiculed and constituted a blow to Cornell’s research reputation. But it was Cornell’s own public-affairs office that was proactively instrumental in setting up interviews with the press and other media following the publication of the original article. New Scientist, Discover, Wired, New York Magazine, and Cornell’s own in-house publications all described the research findings seriously and without ridicule.
Me, I’m just fascinated to see mentions of such matters cropping up repeatedly in a place like The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose publication of essays by Jeffrey Kripal on the paranormal I discussed at some length a few years ago. (And of course I’d be lying if I denied that I simply enjoyed reading Bem’s refutation of Bartlett’s belittling.)
The following two paragraphs are excerpted from what’s basically your everyday, run-of-the-mill article about the reality of demonic possession as distinct from mental illness. Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. For The Washington Post.
Move along. Nothing to see here.
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.
Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
(For more on the relationship — and distinction — between possession and mental illness, check your local library or any online bookseller for my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, which contains separate entries on possession and exorcism. Also see relevant entries in editor Joe Laycock’s excellent Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures.)
Today I was pleased to spot a new and positive assessment of my paranormal encyclopedia from a reviewer for the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA):
Producing a reference book about the paranormal presents a unique challenge. Various aspects of the phenomenon — under the rubric of “the supernatural” — have been and remain common to virtually all religions. Furthermore, as this work’s “Introduction” notes, “the idea of the paranormal is ubiquitous and inescapable in American culture” and “is entrenched” (xix) throughout most of the rest of the world. Yet the actual existence of the paranormal is in very serious doubt, and authorities in most mainstream disciplines reject it as pseudoscience. As the “Introduction” suggests, however, a new paradigm that sidesteps this “skeptic/believer dichotomy” (xxiii) seems to be emerging.
To tackle this slippery topic, editor and college English instructor Matt Cardin has assembled 121 alphabetically arranged entries by 57 contributors, most of whom work in academia. Subjects range from individuals (Edgar Cayce, Carl Jung, and so on) to important institutions such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Rhine Research Center and from paranormal “powers” such as telepathy to treatments of the paranormal in the arts and the media. Most entries run from two to four pages, are objective in approach, and are clearly written without being simplistic. . . .
Given its currency and its thoughtful, even-handed approach to the field, Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics is highly recommended for undergraduate and larger public library reference collections.
More: Full review
This stands in nice contrast to the decidedly lukewarm review that appeared late last year in Magonia, where the upshot was: “All in all a good try that is greatly hampered by lack of a clear editorial direction and appreciation of what and who are important in the field.” (I was comforted by the fact that the reviewer misspelled my name.)
If you want to read the book and judge for yourself, consult your local public, college, or high school library, or get it straight from the publisher or from Amazon or anywhere else.
Christopher Columbus fills the New World natives with fear and awe by predicting a lunar eclipse in 1504.
Over at Thomas Ligotti Online, someone has created a discussion thread that asks whether people believe in the paranormal. This has spawned an interesting conversation. It has also prodded me to reflect on the very terms of the question, as it my wont.
If we’re talking about belief in the paranormal, then what are the standards for normal relative to which we judge anything in theory or reality to be “para” that? If we’re talking about belief in the supernatural (which is just the older name for what was rebranded as paranormal a century or so ago), then what are the standards for natural relative to which we judge anything to be “super” that?
Once we’ve isolated and identified those standards, then it’s necessary to inquire about their source. Where do our standards for “normal” and “natural” come from? Are these standards defensible? What philosophical assumptions do they embody and proceed from? Are those assumptions themselves defensible? Our entire current framework for talking and thinking about these things flows from the great revolution in consciousness that was the birth and cultural triumph of material science in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Certain types of knowledge and experience were isolated from the totality of experience making up the human sensorium (both inner and outer), and were elevated and lionized as being exclusively accurate and allowable, while other types of knowledge and experience were disallowed and disavowed. What was — and is — the warrant for that? And in what forms might those disallowed and disavowed aspects of the totality of human experience return to confront us from time to time?
My own long-developing view is that reality as a whole is far more varied and strange than anyone, working within any paradigm or worldview whether old or new, has ever been able to conceive or is intrinsically capable of conceiving. We effectively create the paranormal / supernatural when we create a sacred canopy (to borrow Peter Berger’s famous metaphor) of cosmic meaning for ourselves both individually and collectively, to serve as an orienting framework for our experience of existence. Whenever rents in the canopy’s fabric are made by encounters with aspects of reality that we have not incorporated into this collective cosmos, we’re confronted by things for which we have no name and no context. We cannot readily handle them, process them, integrate them within our framework of meaning. These literal anomalies (things for which we have no name or category) inherently appear threatening, horrifying, and often fascinating all at once. Then we start to have conversations and arguments about what they might mean or whether they even really exist.
Obviously, by definition, such an anomalous occurrence might well be something as relatively mundane as a cross-cultural encounter. The arrival of Columbus in the New World was a paranormal event for the people who already lived there. A paranormal event doesn’t have to mean seeing a ghost, suffering a paranormal abduction, experiencing spirit possession, witnessing a feat of levitation, encountering the Mothman, experiencing supernatural healing (or wounding), receiving knowledge telepathically, or anything else of the classically paranormal sort. But it may well mean such things. My own more-than-suspicion is that the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, Charles Fort, and John Keel were right about the basic nature of things and our fundamental relationship to it all qua our combined biological, psychological, spiritual, and ontological status as human beings. There are more things in heaven and earth, as it were.
(It appears that the full introduction to my paranormal encyclopedia is readable through Google Books preview. The last part of it, where I summarize a new paradigm regarding the paranormal that has emerged out of religious studies, anthropology, and related fields in the past few years, pretty much states my own position in more detail and different terms than what I’ve written here.)
- This I Believe: An uber-agnostic on religion, psychology, consciousness, the paranormal, and the meaning of life
- The bias of scientific materialism and the reality of paranormal experience
- Liminality, Synchronicity, and the Walls of Everyday Reality
Image: L’éclipse de lune de Christophe Colomb. by Camille Flammarion (Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There have been moments of insight in Stephen King’s work that legitimately qualify as sublime. This widely quoted passage from his foreword to Night Shift is one of them:
At night, when I go to bed I am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore but . . . I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures: vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
King surely intended this as a witty illustration of the irrational or non-rational fears embedded in human psychology that account for our fascination with and responsiveness to supernatural horror stories. But I think it can also be taken as referring to much more. For those who are inclined toward meditation, inner work, and exploring the boundaries of the real — including, pointedly, those episodes and encounters of a Fortean or daimonic nature during which the nominally unreal becomes real, and also vice versa — I’m inclined to think those last two sentences could serve as a superb Zen koan.
What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture
Last night I digitally stumbled across this:
It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.
For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
Read the rest of this entry
Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.
Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:
MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?
J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.
MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?
JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.
FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice“
Jill Tracy’s Diabolical Streak has been a favorite album of mine for the past decade — see the video above for one of the many reasons why — and in this 2009 interview for Tor.com, the always-mesmerizing Ms. Tracy explains some of the philosophical-aesthetic worldview that informs her lush world of musical darkness:
We all want to believe in magic. It keeps hope alive. Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters. I think that’s why my music resonates with people on such a deep level.
I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. And I’d read about toads and frogs and blood raining from the sky. Or Count Saint Germain, who was recorded to have lived for hundreds of years. He said his secret to immortality was to eat oatmeal and wear velvet encrusted with gemstones. To this day, no one knows exactly who he was, where he came from and if indeed he was immortal.
Unfortunately, these days of internet and technology have murdered “the legend.” That breaks my heart. Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend — these are the things that make us feel most alive. The most wonderful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers. One of my favorite quotes is, “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.” Sadly, the world has gotten to a point where everybody’s demanding an explanation. But after the info, they’re still bored and unfulfilled.
I think it’s my purpose to perpetuate the long-lost magic, allow people to slip into the cracks, to pry up the floorboards and search deeply. Believe. Imagine. It’s so important to hold on to that childlike sense of marvel.
In line with these sentiments, also see Ms. Tracy’s appearance as an interviewee in a recent, and excellent, in-depth article about Ouija boards and other spirit-communication devices, where she offers some perceptive observations about Victorian Spiritualism:
Jill Tracy — a San Francisco singer and composer who, with violinist Paul Mercer, performs a touring improvisational-music show called “The Musical Séance” — says that Victorians were more open about loss of life and honoring the dead than we are now. At The Musical Séance, she and Mercer will spontaneously compose pieces based on sentimental objects the audience brings in — from antlers and dentures to haunted paintings and cremated cats to swords and a lock of hair from a drowned boy — not to call in spirits so much as memorialize the audience’s loved ones.
Tracy says even as a parlor pastime, Victorians had a sweet, romantic side to them. “A séance brought people together,” she says. “It enabled them to face their fears because it was being pitched to them as a form of group amusement, instead of a frightening experience where one sits in their house alone and tries to talk to a spirit. A séance was also sensually charged, the true definition of arousing the senses. Men and women would sit in the dark in close contact, often holding hands or touching, and they would have no idea what was going to happen. For Victorians, it was almost an acceptable moment of abandon.”
The Woodhouse Nature Reserve, South East London. It’s a sprawling hectare of knotted ivy and mossy tree stumps. And while its edges are speckled with rusting tins and damp takeaway boxes, its interior is verdant, untouched. There, beyond the padlocked gates some thing, some creature is living.
This thoroughly riveting short film by writer/director Fred Rowson won Film London’s Best of Boroughs Jury Award and was made with support from Film London, Blink Productions, and the Kevin Spacey Foundation. The writing, acting, directing, cinematography, visual design, musical score, and everything else are quite lush and beautiful. And the concept is quite striking.
Annalee Newitz at io9 describes Woodhouse as “a beautiful, sad short film about a little girl who sees a monster in a London park. But it’s also about why we long to find monsters — and the forces that crush our desires. . . . Rowson offers us a skeptic’s view of cryptozoology, but also mourns the loss of imagination that skepticism brings.”
Greg at The Daily Grail describes it as “A Monster Film That Examines the Interplay between Belief and Skepticism” and says it “shows how marginalised the people studying these topics are by others, from family to media outlets — or at the very least, how modern society tends to suppress non-conforming ideas, imagination and adventure.”
I agree with both descriptions/assessments. But in slight contradistinction to Ms. Newitz’s overall take, I also add that Woodhouse touches the numinous and sublime at multiple points by offering a bit of Fortean, John Keelian, and even Chapel Perilous-type tension between natural and supernatural/preternatural/paranormal takes on life and reality, and by hinting, especially in its final scene and shot (which work in tandem with all that comes before), that the “answer” to this conundrum is both a riddle that defines our deepest selves and, perhaps, an objective reality that can rise up to confront and haunt us.
(If you can’t play the hi-res Vimeo version above, try the slightly lower-res but still nice-looking YouTube version.)