Group Politics & Dishonesty In The Paranormal World *Extended post*

Posted by Atticus on Friday, May 28, 2010

I have been in this game for a very long time now. Long enough to see and experience my fair share of the back-stabbing and bitching that goes on between organisations as well as in-group disputes too. 
So I thought now would be a good time for an extended update to the RiPA homepage in order to cover the subject of dishonesty in science and the paranormal. 

I have been going on for years now about the lack of trust in science and the paranormal world, and the extent to which it is a self-inflicted problem. I will refer to the 2 words in question (Science & Paranormal) as parascience in this paper.
This is not meant to reflect any group that may share the same name as the wording.

Many of us came into parascience because, apart from the sheer beauty of nature and the unknown, it seemed like one of the few interesting hobbies out there that combine so many sub-hobbies. Unfortunately, due to the rise of tv programes such as Most Haunted and TAPS, recent events invite some reexamination of honesty in parascience.

How dishonest is parascience?

The first thing to say is that I quite often across 'evidence' that would qualify as fraud, or even dishonest. These events are swiftly dealt with. Unlike some, RiPA are not out to please and tell people what they want to hear. RiPA would rather risk upsetting someone by saying the truth than try to please them.
An example stands that RiPA recieves many pictures of 'Orbs' and 'spectral mist'. These are usually accompanied by some sob story of how the grandad of the toddler in the picture had died of cancer/heart attack/ fairy dancing etc a year before. Some organisations will say stuff similar to '...oh yes, that is definately him coming to say hi and watch over the child...'. RiPA will say '...Dust a bit more and give up smoking...'.
Ok, that was just an example but the point im trying to make is RiPA keeps it real.

I did once have a visit from a rather distressed member of another team who felt pressurised by her team-founder into putting an interpretation on her report following an investigation that she did not agree with. In the end, the bit of work in question was left out of the paper. That could be held to be dishonest, in that the omission wasn’t mentioned, but it could also be held that the omitted result was too ambiguous to contribute much to the paper. Im sure this happens alot.

There is, of course, an enormous difference between being wrong and being dishonest.  Any research that is worth doing has an outcome that can’t be predicted before the work is done.  At best, one can hope for an approximation to the truth.  Mistakes in observations, analysis or interpretation will sometimes mean the announced result is completely wrong, with no trace of dishonesty being involved.  But when that happens, others soon find the mistake. It is that self-correcting characteristic of parascience that keeps it honest in the long run.

Of course there have been occasional cases of outright fraud, simple falsification or fabrication of data. How often it occurs is not really known and probably never will be. It seems that many groups, both for-profit and not-for-profit, feel the need to exaggerate their findings. Its as though they feel they need to prove a point.
Is this because they dont like paying a small fortune and admitting they didnt get anything? Who knows?
Mediums also play a huge part in this area of parascience. Im not going to go into detail on the fraudalent mediums out there as I covered that not so long ago. Lets just say that
RiPA's 'Medium' project is still awaiting a brave enough volunteer who is willing to step forward and prove to the world that they is some truth in what they do.

What gives rise to dishonesty?

It seems obvious that one motive is money. Look at the amount of paranormal tour/event companies that seem to be popping up everywhere. Due to the knock on effect of such companies, buisness's put their rates up, this causing hobby groups to charge their members and invite the public which in return brings an opportunity to make profit.

The other reason is presumably the human desire to win fame, promotion and to get grants.

It is no excuse, but it is perhaps a reason for misconduct that the pressure to publish and produce results is now enormous in academia and among paranormal societies. Even in good universities people are judged by the numbers (rather than the quality) of papers they produce and by what journal they happen to be published in. Contrary to public perception, even quite senior people have no guarantee that they can’t be fired, and life for postdoctoral parapsychologists, who do a large fraction of experimental research, is harsh to the point of cruelty. They exist on a series of short term contracts, they work exceedigly hard and have poor prospects of getting a secure job. In conditions like that, the only surprising thing is that there is so little dishonesty.

The pressure to publish in particular journals is particularly strong because it is known that the number of citations that a paper gets (itself a fallible measure of quality) is independent of the journal in which it appears.   Bibliometrists are the curse of our age. (See, for example Challenging the tyranny of impact factors, 2003; and  How to get good science, 2007 or its web version; and Peter Lawrence’s article, The mismeasurement of science)

Although there isnt really a governing body within parapsychology, there are many respected groups and institutions. As some of you frequent visitors know, RiPA is very much academia based. This is a rarity in the parascience world. This sets RiPA apart from most hobbyist teams out there.
As for the teams that are around, there seems to be an enormous competitive pressure under which these groups work in order to gain repect from organisations such as RiPA , Steve Parson's Parascience and ASSAP. It is a self-inflicted wound.

In other words, striving to impress does little else but provide a strong incentive to do poor, over-hurried and occasionally dishonest parascience.  Perhaps the surprising thing in the circumstances is that there is so little outright fabrication.  The very measures that have the aim of improving parascience actually have just the opposite effect. That is what happens when parascience is run by people who don’t really do it.

People in Parascience

People play a huge part in the successes of gaining research in parascience. In order for this to remain as true and undiluted as possible, there needs to be a huge trust dynamic factor within the team.
This is what lets many of organisations down. Be it in the paranormal world or outside in the buisness world. Mcdonalds or Tesco's still need the trust factor among their employees in order to help things run smoothly.
Why would a hobby group or a research team be any different?
If you have someone attending a field study who is inclined to fabricate on events in order to make the group name more prominent, just thing of the trouble that would cause the reputation of the organisation when he/she gets found out. It really just isnt worth it.

Another thing to cover here would be loyalty. You need a loyal crew. Especially within the paranormal field.
Imagine working hard to provide resources for your team, be it prestige locations for field studies, coursework that you have set out for the team to complete or the fact that you invite the person to every study you do only to find that they turn you down in order to go out with another team that they are not technically a member of.
All this doesnt help make up a great foundation for a successful team.

This is not to say that you shouldnt interlope, by all means, do so, but just remember where your home is.


So to wrap up this rather long, but hopefully informative post, bare in mind that if you are a member of a team, be it paranormal, business or even cross-stitching, remember you are an important cog in the machine that works the group. Be honest and keep it real.

To finish, Jacob Bronowski presents this beautiful clip from the Ascent of Man, in which he speaks, from Auschwitz, of the consequences of irrational dogma. You may not know of Bronowski  but you may have heard of his daughter, Lisa Jardine, who talks about science and history.

Tags: politics  dishonesty  paranormal