Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review: The Trickster and the Paranormal (plus some loosely connected recollections)

Having recently had occasion here to mention George Hansen's book The Trickster and the Paranormal, I've written a comment on it for Powell's Books:

This book was sometimes fascinating, frequently maddening. On the up side, the author proposes a number of correlations to exist between paranormal beliefs and experiences on one hand, and seemingly unrelated cultural factors on the other. Some of these have also been posited by more skeptical writers. On the down side, he never proves rigorously that these purported correlations actually exist.

Hansen assumes that they can only be understood in terms of an acausal "Trickster constellation," but ignores the fact that more down-to-earth social and cognitive psychology can often be invoked to explain them. He takes for granted that the paranormal is real, rather than actually trying to prove it.

In fact, Hansen actually asserts that the paranormal by its nature can't be scientifically proven, and the book sometimes comes off as one long apologia for this fact. Particularly frustrating is the way he periodically cites some confusing or elusive quality of paranormal claims as "hinting" at something about "the nature of the paranormal," yet never comes out and says what he thinks that is.

Some of the most interesting material in the book for me was unrelated to alleged paranormal phenomena, such as the section concerning the socially provocative origins of the school of research called ethnomethodology.

Now for a few remarks of a more personal nature. A few weeks before I read this book, I got to attend a talk by someone cited in it, Linda Moulton Howe. She was the final speaker in an event held at the Free Library of Philadelphia's central branch, billed as "Real Life X-Files," in early June 2002. I probably wouldn't have shown for this if not for the fact that Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, was scheduled to speak there a couple weeks later. Figuring I might be able to interest some of those attending one event in the other, I made a flier for Shermer's talk using an image of his latest book's cover from the Web. I passed it out to people on their way in; then, not wanting to support the stereotype of skeptics as closed-minded, I went in to listen myself.

None of the speakers provided evidence for as much as they claimed, but Howe definitely represented the epitome of credulousness that afternoon. She spent much of her presentation talking about "crop circles" and "mystery lights," which she believed were intended as messages from more advanced beings about how we're destroying our environment. (Why such highly advanced beings couldn't find a less cryptic way of communicating this idea, she didn't explain.) Here are a couple "lowlights" of her logic-leaping abilities:

1) She complained that "we all heard much more than we wanted to know" about "Chuck and Dave," or whatever their names were — the men who owned up to having created many of the English crop circles. But she insisted that their confession was irrelevant, because those two men couldn't be responsible for circles seen on several different continents.

Talk about missing the point! The relevance of their confession was simply that they showed that the circles could be made by human beings without any advanced technology. If these two could do it in England, then others could have done it elsewhere. But Howe refused to understand this.

2) She showed some video of purported "mystery lights," which are held to be associated often with crop circles. Some of her remarks in this connection were truly comical to a critical-minded viewer. The video was shot in a grassy area, although since there were some people visible I imagine it was probably a park or common area rather than a crop field. Some blobs of light were also seen, which she said were the "mystery lights." She commented, "Notice how the people present seem not to notice the lights." (!) And a moment later, "Observe how the lights appear to shrink in size as they approach the camera." Indeed, very interesting — especially considering the remarkable coincidence that the lights appeared to be "shrinking" in direct proportion to their proximity to the camera! What was really happening, in fact, was that the spots of light seen in the video weren't changing at all in the amount of space they took up on the screen; as they shifted to a background of objects that were closer to the camera, that simply made them seem — to a human brain interpreting them as objects moving among other objects — to be growing smaller.

These two "observations, " taken together, plainly indicated that these "lights" were not objects at all, but an artifact of some kind of camera defect. That is why they didn't change in the size they took up on the screen regardless of how near or far the background objects were, and it's also the reason no one in the field saw them: they weren't there! But the blindingly obvious was, again, not apparent to Linda Moulton Howe.

(In the darkened auditorium, by the way, I was struggling mightily to remain awake. If I had actually believed what Howe was saying, I suppose I'd have been so excited as not to be sleepy at all; but since I couldn't take her seriously in the least, I was glad to have an excuse for leaving early: a lunch date with a friend.)

So it was with some amusement that, while reading Hansen's book the following month, I saw that he cited Howe as a source. Hansen's chief credential for writing the book was that he'd spent eight years working in a parapsychology lab. But if he could take Howe seriously — writing just a year before I heard her speak (the book was published in 2001) — then, rather than his lengthy affiliation with the lab proving his qualifications as a scientist, I'd say it indicates the low standards of that laboratory — and by extension, perhaps, of the parapsychology profession of which it might be assumed to be representative.

I had bought the book several months earlier. I read it when I did because I'd decided to volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, and figured that if I brought any books or periodicals of a political nature with me, I might not be let into the country by Israeli authorities. I figured Trickster plus another, more skeptical book on the same subject, The Psychology of the Psychic, 2nd edition by David Marks, would last me for the two and a half weeks I'd be in the country. When I told my landlord at the time, Dan McShane, about this, he suggested I could go as a "total space cadet." I liked this idea — it was so much more interesting than merely claiming to be a tourist, as the materials I'd received from ISM recommended.

So I decided my "cover story" would be that I was a paranormal investigator. I figured this would actually make dissimulating about my purpose easier, since I could "play the part" better; such investigating (albeit more skeptically than I let on), unlike tourism, was something I actually might want to do.

I was interviewed by two police at the Tel Aviv airport for what seemed like five or ten minutes. I guess it was probably toward the low end of that range, but seemed longer because of the tension I felt. I had made sure to be carrying the book in my hand as I was led into the police office, and to set it binding out on a filing cabinet, so that the title was visible while I was interviewed. I enjoyed the irony that it was actually I who was playing the Trickster in this scenario! Toward the end, as it became apparent they believed me, one of them jokingly asked me if I could bend spoons. I answered, "No, I thought that was one of your people!" and we all laughed. (Uri Geller was, by the way, one of the purported psychics whose dishonesty was demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt in Marks's book, which I read during the last few days of the trip.)

One of the highlights of my experience in the country came the night of 16 July, when my affinity group stayed with a family in Rafah. The head of the household told how, several months earlier, he'd had to get his family out of their home in only five minutes when he saw that a tank was heading straight toward them to demolish it. Since then hadn't had a full night's sleep, since he was staying up 'til the period tanks came through the neighborhood, about 4:15-30 am IIRC, had passed without incident.

So our group decided we should do something to help him out: we offered to stay over and keep watch in shifts, so we could warn him if we heard any tanks coming. At first he was resistant because two of our group were women, but they wouldn't hear of being excluded. Eventually we persuaded him that we willingly were taking all the risk on ourselves, and he accepted our offer. (I should perhaps mention that we were really close to the Egyptian border — just a couple doors from the "no man's land." Our host had urged us to use extreme caution even in looking around the corner of a building toward the Israeli guard tower, for fear we'd be shot at. So he doubtless felt it was riskier for us to stay here than just about any other place in town.)

The first four hours' watch was taken by the three Brits in the group, who were students at the University of Sussex. The second shift — including the usual period for tank activity — went to me and the other American, Joe Bailey from Arkansas. I didn't have much to converse about with him, and after a while I noticed he'd dozed off. (Sorry if you're reading this, Joe!) Although I had been reading, I now felt obliged to focus more fully on my surroundings; I worried that I might not notice the sound of a tank soon enough if I were too immersed in the book. This fear was likely exaggerated, as I already knew the sound of a tank — high-pitched, whining, decidedly unsettling — would not easily be missed. Nonetheless, I didn't want to take any chances when AFAIK I was the only person up.

So I started looking up at the sky and sort of meditating on it — the sort of non-purposive thing I'm not in the habit of doing; normally I'd feel anxious about "wasting time." But in this situation, it was the most apt behavior to my purpose, which was itself quite serious. So I gazed at one star, which was not close to any others in the sky, nor was it close to any borders (i.e., roof edges of the courtyard I was in) within my field of view.

Something started to happen, of which I had heard, known as autokinesis. Small, involuntary movements of my eyes, in the absence of anything visually close to the star I was watching, made it look as if the star was moving. I had read about this in skeptical literature, where it was held responsible for some UFO reports. And I had experimented with it once, but stopped at the first sign of it; it seems the disturbingly "paradoxical" quality of intentionally giving myself an illusory experience had combined with anxiety about "wasting time" to scare me off.

But now the experience resulted from something with a very serious purpose, which seemed to make the "paradoxical" aspect no longer threatening. In fact, before long I felt almost giddy; I imagined to myself, "Gee, this is like a trip without the drugs!" That star seemed to be moving all over the place!

An irony of this experience that just recently occurred (or perhaps re-occurred) to me is that the chapter of Hansen's book I had been reading just before this, titled "Government Disinformation," is largely concerned with UFOs — and here I was experiencing one of the kinds of illusion that generate UFO reports. Another interesting aspect is that some of the kinds of disinformation Hansen alleges resemble the conspiracy theories of my old friend John Judge, who likes to call them "unidentified fascist observatories" (he thinks they're military surveillance craft).

Well, this post has turned out to be a lot more than a book review; that simply provided the occasion to write about some things I'd thought about for a long time. But I think that will it be it for now.

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