Thoughts on the regulation of paranormal investigators

A few weeks ago I attended the advanced training course for paranormal investigators, run by ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena).

What inspired me to join ASSAP was the news (in 2011) that it had been recognised by the UK government as a professional body, which has cleared the way for ASSAP to establish and operate a national register of paranormal investigators. This seems to me a means to remedy the damage done by paranormal tourism, and the unwitting occultism of amateur groups influenced by Most Haunted and other television shows.

ASSAP is still at work on setting up its national register, but it seems likely to launch this year. Hopefully it will have a major impact on the UK paranormal scene. Investigators who join the register will gain various benefits, such as insurance and access to an ethics panel. Anyone who joins the register must undergo a criminal records check, and sign up to a professional code of ethics. (The material in the ethics section on this website is based upon the ASSAP code.)

What this means in practice is that a client can call on an investigator whom they know in advance is most likely not a thrill-seeker, but interested in scientific assessment of phenomena, with a commitment to safeguarding the client’s interests and well-being. And this has got to be a good thing!

It also seems likely that members of the register will need to complete formal training. The course I participated in was very professionally run and totally engrossing. I won’t go into much detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who decides to go down the same route, but it involved designing (as a group) an investigation to test hypotheses relating to an actual case, and then performing the investigation, and then drawing appropriate conclusions from the evidence collected.

Afterwards, it struck me what a brilliant opportunity paranormal investigation can be for getting to grips with scientific method in perhaps one of its most naked forms. The joy – and also the tragedy – of this field is that nothing is known about the so-called ‘paranormal’; nothing is proven; there’s no specialist equipment that has been demonstrated to be useful; there’s not much by way of specialist knowledge, either. There’s just you, your rational thinking, your hypotheses, and the evidence you collect to support or disprove them.

Personally, I believe there is something as yet inexplicable at the bottom of it all. I say so because of experiences – with others, but mostly by myself – gained when I was a teenager, larking about with a Ouija board. I won’t go into detail, but those experiences bothered me for years, and still bother me now. However, proving that those experiences really were what they appeared is a question that cannot be ducked, and I know that I must produce evidence to support my views before I can expect others to share them.

One of the ways I attempted to wrestle with those experiences was through an exploration of the occult. I was and am still active on that scene. Although I have gained many more strange experiences from pursuing this path, these have been of a subjective kind. They have lacked any objective evidence or significance. They have also lacked the apparently physical component of those earlier experiences. Occultism, in my view, is properly understood as a form of religious practice. At best, it can create for us greater meaning from life, and experiential insights into how the mind works. But whether ‘paranormal’ phenomena are only illusions arising from misunderstanding how the mind works, or (taking the occult view) an actual effect of perceiving accurately how everyday reality itself is only an illusion – these still seem to me only two sides of the same and perhaps unknowable coin.

Science is a method for arriving at facts, rather than – in itself – a philosophy or view. Science is never about truth; always about knowledge. No matter my beliefs, if science is a method then I can employ it, and be seen to be employing it. Or not.

Since the course, my investigation write-up has been accepted by ASSAP and I am now on their list of approved investigators. The next steps for me are to join the national register, once it comes into operation, and to continue to find and investigate cases scientifically and ethically, according to the ASSAP model.

But I am a contrarian by nature, so sometimes I can’t help wondering whether the ASSAP model isn’t a sceptical plot to keep investigators away from the sort of cases that most challenge the sceptical point of view.

For instance, a case like the Enfield poltergeist wouldn’t stand a chance of getting past the ASSAP code of ethics. There are two ways of looking at this: paranormal phenomena might be caused by disturbed minds and situations, in which case the regulation of investigators may prevent important cases coming to light; alternatively, disturbed minds and situations might exploit natural conditions to give the impression of paranormal phenomena, in which case the regulation of investigators will filter out distracting and potentially harmful ‘noise’.

I don’t know which – if any – of these is true. The bigger priority at the moment is surely the damage caused in recent years, which has blurred the distinction between the experiential approach of occultism, and the scientific search for knowledge. Inability to distinguish the difference can lead only to nonsense and confusion. The regulation of investigators, on both scientific and ethical grounds, looks to me a worthwhile and overdue correction.

Unwitting occultism may often offend

12-year-old Keith Bennett was murdered by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in 1964. His mother Winnie died recently, before her son’s body has been found. Onto this tragedy now has blundered Worsley Paranormal Group, whose search for signs of Keith’s body uncovered a rusty spade, which they have put forward as possible evidence.

This incident has already attracted some pertinent comments from investigator Hayley Stevens on the poor ethical choices of those involved.

Worsley Paranormal Group – and others – seem confused over the difference between paranormal investigation and occultism. There have been no reports of paranormal activity connected with the murder of Keith Bennett, so what, exactly, did these so-called paranormal investigators think they were investigating?

'The Necromancer', Jean-Baptiste Le Prince 1775.

Confusion on the boundary of entertainment and science. A detail from ‘The Necromancer’, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (1775).

The source of the confusion seems to stem (yet again) from assumptions offered by paranormal TV shows, which (people seem to forget) must always create the phenomena they pretend to investigate, in order to sustain viewers’ interest. That’s why they use methods such as mediums and seances.

A tragic incident at a particular location does not in itself warrant investigation. The aim of paranormal investigation is to understand cases, not to create them; to arrive at knowledge concerning the allegedly paranormal, rather than simply an experience of it. If someone is more interested in causing ghosts to appear than in what causes ghosts to appear, then he or she is practising occultism, not science.

Imagine if it were your deceased relative with whom complete strangers, uninvited, were claiming to speak? If there’s any doubt that these assumptions cause deep and genuine offence, consider the comments of Keith Bennett’s brother, Alan:

Worsley Paranormal Group’s theories and activities [are complete nonsense]. They are to be found all over the internet chasing anybody who they think will listen to them. They also post videos claiming to have picked up Keith on a ‘ghost box’ machine, all of which I find totally disgusting… They have seen their moment to jump on the bandwagon… I am and will continue to be offended and angered by these people. (Mail Online, 3rd September, 2012)

Why would you want to heap offence on top of what someone in Alan Bennett’s position has already endured? Paranormal groups must think carefully about what they’re practising: science or occultism. If it’s the latter, they must consider how their actions might cause disturbance or offence and then do what all occultists should. Keep it to themselves.