Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers. By Sharon Hill. McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1476672472. 277 pp. Kindle edition, $18.99; paperback, $35.
When odd birds sing their strange songs, does it change the forest? Do others, who don’t know any better, mimic those songs until the forest is filled with dissonance? This is an important question when it comes to science, history, and scholarship in general in Trump-era America. We used to be able to notice the odd birds, think them interesting or not, then move on to proper work based upon facts and evidence. Now the highest echelons of our government tilt their ears to hear the weird peeping and smile in agreement. Sharon Hill’s new book Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers addresses this issue at an important time.
Chasing enthusiasts of the paranormal is like chasing ghosts. They flit about and reside in the darkened corners of rationality. When they do appear we almost need to look at them from the corner of our eyes rather than directly, as a direct view doesn’t really provide clarity. Despite this, Hill has done an excellent job of analyzing the myriad realms and compartments of paranormal studies. What ties them—and this book—together is their attempts to pursue their quarry according to the rules of academic science and scholarly research despite most of them having little more than a nodding acquaintance with it. The results, sometimes serious and sometimes ridiculous, are what bring us to the notion of them being “sciencey.” One way historians define pseudoscience is that practitioners give a superficial gloss of science to their work though it is not really proper science. Their results are, as Hill says, scientifical rather than scientific. They separate themselves consciously from the mainstream, but they also self-segregate into different disciplines. There is little interdisciplinarity in the world of sciencey studies; UFOlogists, for example, rarely sit down with ghost hunters or flat-Earthers to compare notes.
Hill traces these scientifical belief systems through pop culture, film, TV, and of course the Internet, which she holds up as the prime enablers of such thought. So many of the scientifical Americans began to ponder the fringe and paranormal after being exposed to various television programs and films. Her focus here is primarily upon
the big three of modern paranormal interest: monsters, UFOs, and ghosts. She does not address wider pseudoscientific ideas such as climate denial or anti-vaccination theory. She also avoids spiritualism, witchcraft, or other operative occult practices (though that would make an interesting follow-up companion volume). Using case studies of paranormal investigation practitioners, Hill attempts to explain the lure of the paranormal and the attempts—largely unsuccessful—to prove the existence of these phenomena through ersatz scientific practice and instrumentality. Indeed, the bulk of sciencey practice rests upon the mistaken notion that technology in various forms—from EVP meters, infrared night-vision goggles, and motion sensors—equates with science.
Hill resists the obvious temptation to ridicule her subjects. This isn’t always easy when one of the underlying, perplexing, and contradictory threads of thought here is that while the paranormalists try to be scientific and behave as scientists, they generally reject the scientific mainstream and real scientists—especially those who disagree with their findings—as part of a wider cabal of sinister characters out to suppress awareness of giants, ghosts, and spirit orbs. There is also little discussion among the paranormal investigators of the more philosophical and theological aspects of their work. Ghost hunters and cryptozoologists rarely engage with the epistemological conundrum of ghosts or Bigfoot, respectively. What is a ghost? If there are ghosts, what does this say about the existence of an afterlife? Does one’s religion in life determine if they can become a ghost in death? If Bigfoot is real, how does it fit into the wider scheme of biological diversity? These types of questions are rarely asked by those snooping around a creepy old building with a tape recorder hoping to capture ghostly voices.
One of the many bonuses of this book is that Hill provides a historiography of the field. The different authors of skeptical and historical works on the subjects she discusses make advantageous further reading. She knows the current secondary literature. I would have liked more primary sources and use of works by believers to examine how they came to their positions. A critique of the wider world of skeptical thinking suffers a bit from not allowing the original texts to speak as part of analyzing them.
While monsters, ghosts, and UFOs are the pivot around which this study turns, Hill pays special attention to what she calls “ARIGs” (Amateur Research and Investigation Groups). In this she has made a useful contribution to the field. Along with the individuals, there are many groups of like-minded enthusiasts who band together to pursue and discuss their work. She explains the hierarchy of groups from the obscure locals to the high-profile groups that often appear on television. If there is one main criticism I would bring up, it’s that I would have liked there to be more biographical material on specific individuals, clubs, and organizations.
In an odd way, one of the worst things all this sciencey thinking can result in, other than maybe a president who believes in and promotes pseudoscience (I guess it’s too late for that), is that some of these paranormal researchers will actually discover some important fact or understanding of how the universe works. Due to their lack of academic training or blinkered view they will not even realize they have done it, and it will be lost. There is also the issue of the often-undiscussed aspect of all this stomping around.
The populist pretentions of most of the paranormalists conform with the notion of knowledge source reversal, the idea that untutored amateurs know more (and are more trustworthy) than professional scholars. It is an inherent attack upon how knowledge is acquired and trusted. On the fringes—which keep edging closer to the center—one can indulge their interests in the type of knowledge mostly abandoned by mainstream scholars and be able to wave the flag of righteous obscurantism in the faces of the boffins holed up in their ivory tower libraries and laboratories. This gives the extra kick to the rush of sciencey thinking: we really know more about this than those eggheads with their fancy degrees and affiliations. We, say the amateurs, are the real scientists, the real historians, the real archaeologists.
Harassment (both real and imagined—though mostly imagined) by mainstream science, professional academics, and the government is a sign of valor, a sign that says, “We must be doing something right if all these eggheads with their fancy degrees say we’re wrong.” They fight, however, a power that has no idea they even exist. They are tragic heroes who look and look and look, yet never find any convincing evidence of alien abductions, ghosts, Bigfoot, or the location of the Ark of the Covenant. In this light, Hill’s book can be read as something of a tragedy.
In the end, it’s easy to dismiss the paranormalist aficionados as all these sad, lonely people running around looking for the little bits of junk evidence they think will prove their obscure and esoteric theories, give meaning to their lives, and change the world. They tend to generate more sympathy bordering on pity than hatred. They engage blithely in confirmation bias, selective evidence compiling, and the backfire effect while all the time complaining that it is the other side doing it. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be any fun, really. They need the mainstream; after all, to be the outsider, the rebel, the rejected or ignored genius, there must be insiders to be ignored by. They, like all of us, are ultimately not searching for ghosts or the Loch Ness Monster; they are looking for themselves.
Sharon Hill’s book should be read by anyone interested in paranormal studies, fringe pop cultural ideas, or intellectual history. It is well written, cogent, and well argued. It will be enjoyed by both believers and nonbelievers alike and is a significant addition to the growing literature on amateur paranormal research. Hopefully it will inspire others to venture down this quirky and baffling, yet somehow oddly entertaining, path.
The final lesson to be taken away from this worthwhile text is that the scientifical Americans will not be deterred by anything the mainstream might say about them. Just as obvious and proven revelations of wrongdoing and chicanery by politicians will never deter their most ardent followers, the odd birds of paranormal research will continue to sing their strange songs regardless of whether anyone hears them or not, and other members of the forest will continue to be impressed enough to mimic them.