THE BLOG
08/22/2013 09:28 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Judging Paranormal Claims: Group-think Is Not a Good Thing

When I do interviews for paranormal-themed podcasts or radio-shows, I find myself stressing the difference between my skeptical approach and the paranormalist approach. It's worlds apart, starting with the core questions we ask. The paranormalist will ask, "Can we find evidence of paranormal activity here?" I start out with, "What, if anything, happened?" I have not begun with the assumption that paranormal activity has played any role in this situation whatsoever. If you do assume that, you are biased from square one. You are far less likely to come to a sound conclusion.

The paranormal researcher, I have found, often is interested in their subject area because of a personal experience. These experiences are emotional and confusing and probably highly disturbing to the individual. Once a person has this type of personal experience and believes it was of a paranormal nature (a haunting, seeing a UFO, or encountering Bigfoot, for example), it is impossible for anyone to reason them out of that interpretation. The memory becomes ingrained as a paranormal experience. It's unlikely they will change that interpretation as their life progresses. Paranormal belief can be reinforced by positive feedback from social aspects, such as acceptability of the belief in pop culture or a social group of others who feel the same. Thus, we have diehard fans of paranormal reality TV and members of amateur paranormal research groups all over the place.

The emotion and time people invest in their paranormal interest is not unlike a church or even a skeptics society -- we feel a deep comfort in being around like minds and having our ideas bolstered.

However, being surrounded only by those who see things the same as you do is a severe roadblock to fair assessment of paranormal claims. We end up mired in group think with no innovative thoughts (which is why I also engage with pro-paranormal people). In order to get the best answer, we must put our ideas up for deliberation, engage in critical thought, and eliminate the subjective bias in the approach.

Many of us have grown up believing in the paranormal. We read all the expert's books. We listened to the gurus and believed the eyewitnesses. Not too many of that crowd picked up the skeptical literature that addressed the flaws in those beloved paranormal ideas. There are good reasons why we tend only to hear what we want to here.

Too many assume they can read a few books or watch a few TV shows just in this narrow niche and then consider themselves experts. Not so. An expert is a person who has made lots of mistakes and learns from them. It's trial by fire.

Many paranormal "experts" are woefully ignorant of the history of their own field let alone the critiques of it. I try to encourage paranormalists to take a look at the skeptical literature on their favorite topic. If you don't know the arguments against your field, how can you say you KNOW your field at all. It's discouraging when I see this closed-mindedness to criticism.

When this deliberate ignorance of an important aspect of the subject is displayed, I lose so much respect for the so-called paranormal experts.

I was reminded of this as I recently read a piece by Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired physician and eminent contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog as well as writing for other skeptical publications and presenting at events. Her SkepDoc rule of thumb is: Find out who disagrees with this, and why.

Simple and brilliant.

I try to push this to paranormally-minded folks. They most often ignore it, brusquely brushing off the idea that they should listen to a "debunker." Are they afraid? Do they not want to face the criticism? Do they only want reinforcement? I understand. It's uncomfortable to listen to the opposite side. But, at least occasionally, you have to do it to make progress and gain a more thorough understanding.

If you, Team Paranormal, state you are seeking the truth, you'd better walk the walk and have a good response to the arguments against your claim. You can't be the judge unless you have listened to both sides discuss the evidence.