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.

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A local outbreak of unscientific scepticism

‘Paranormal phenomena do not exist,’ declares Professor Richard Wiseman on the web-page advertising his appearance at this year’s Brighton Science Festival.

He didn’t rise to my tweeted rejoinder, ‘Wouldn’t “there is no evidence” be better?’ So I emailed the festival organisers:

Dear Brighton Science Festival —

I’m concerned by the remark on your website, ‘paranormal phenomena do not exist’.
I don’t see anything wrong, of course, with arguing there is no evidence for the paranormal, or producing evidence for alternative explanations, but to suggest that a negative has somehow been proved seems to me an inappropriate assertion for an event purporting to demonstrate scientific reasoning.

Do you agree that it might be better if the wording on that page were changed?

With best wishes –

I received a response two hours later:

Dear Brighton Paranormal —

Scientists are intellectually prepared for anything, but to live one’s life in a tentative, provisional way isn’t possible, so we use the best theory that fits the facts as we find them. There is no evidence for the paranormal. There are plenty of reasons why people might believe in it, in spite of the evidence, but they haven’t looked at the evidence. That’s my view, but pop along to see Richard [Wiseman] and raise your doubts. He might be more uncertain than he makes out.

So they weren’t keen to change the wording, even though their reply included the very sentence I had suggested!

Dear Brighton Science Festival

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

I would pop along to Prof. Wiseman’s talk, but the present wording — sadly — doesn’t fill me with confidence that it isn’t based on assumptions.

Sure, it’s not possible to be tentative and provisional towards everything in life, but I think we can afford this where the allegedly paranormal is concerned. (Remaining uncertain about the existence of ‘ghosts’ doesn’t get in the way of daily living, I’ve found.) The paranormal is a wide and notoriously amorphous field, but to dismiss the lot in one sentence seems to reflect a lack of understanding. It is also a disservice to the scientists who have presented evidence contrary to Prof. Wiseman’s views. (Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, for instance.)

The paranormal is a great field for demonstrating how scientific reasoning works, but I cannot see how the simplistic assertion that ‘paranormal phenomena do not exist’ will encourage anyone to question assumptions.

Yours ever doubtfully, but with best wishes –

Disappointingly there was no further correspondence. For now, the Brighton Science Festival seems content to allow this confusion between scientific proof and sceptical doubt.

No one has proved that paranormal phenomena exist, but in the absence of proof that they do it may prove incorrect to pronounce for certain that they don’t. Assuming certainty where there is none is a breeding-ground for ignorance.

There is nothing wrong with remaining open to evidence, or even taking the view that paranormal phenomena probably don’t exist, but this should be recognised for what it is – a hypothesis, rather than a fact.

Exorcism and the entanglement of the rational and religious world-view

People affected by paranormal activity sometimes contact the clergy to perform a blessing or an exorcism. These practices attract criticism on the grounds that they are not based on evidence but are led by assumptions: that the source of the activity is supernatural rather than natural; or that prayers and blessings can have any effect.

Looking into the topic a little more deeply, I’ve been surprised to discover just how much science owes to exorcism; and also how the exorcist’s world-view can appear similar to that of the rationalist.

In 1784, Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier undertook what are now recognised as the first placebo-controlled experiments. Franz Anton Mesmer had claimed the discovery of ‘animal magnetism’, which he described as a ‘fluid’ that could be directed at his patients to produce physical, healing effects. Franklin and Lavoisier debunked these claims by presenting patients with water the patient had been told was ‘magnetised’ – when it wasn’t – whilst also surreptitiously applying water to them that had been magnetised. Guess what? The untreated water was observed to cause an effect, whereas the treated water produced no reaction whatsoever. And thus, the placebo-controlled experiment was born: the validity of a treatment was being determined by leaving the patient in the dark as to whether he or she were actually receiving the treatment, or merely being told that they were.

Franklin Routs The Mesmerists

Franklin Routs The Mesmerists (Le magnétisme devoilé. Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

However, Franklin and Lavoisier did not claim to have invented this procedure. They were imitating the well-known techniques of exorcists from almost 200 years before. In 1598 Henri IV had formalised a peace with the Huguenots, but the following year, when a woman became so badly possessed by demons she was subject to almost daily exorcisms, and she began declaring that all Huguenots belonged to Beelzebub, Henri dispatched a commission to remedy the situation. Its members gave the woman ordinary water from a vessel presented as holy water, and she contorted in pain; when they read her Latin verses from the Aeneid, after telling her they were from the Bible, she squirmed in agony, etc., etc. And so the problem was neutralised.

Although they wouldn’t have understood it in these terms, Henri’s ‘exorcists’ had demonstrated that any efficacy exorcism has is due to the placebo effect. Today, when people are concerned enough to call in an exorcist, their willingness to assume that it will work is often enough in itself to ensure that it does. But although placebo is now an acceptable rational explanation, rationality owes its ability to discern the placebo effect to the methods and procedures of the exorcists.

A recent study of the methods of Christian exorcists in present-day North America gives an equally interesting insight into the mind-set on the other side of the fence.

The study surveyed 170 and interviewed in detail 15 Christian exorcists of various denominations, uncovering that although exorcism might be carried out more commonly than we would expect (the exorcist with the least experience had dealt with 11 cases; the most experienced dealt with 1,000), it rarely involves the props of holy water, oil and crucifixes, and there is now a special emphasis on follow-up work, which aims to keep the subject in touch with the church in order to prevent future recurrence.

Nowhere in the study is there any mention of ‘ghosts’ or ‘paranormal phenomena’. Because although non-religious people might consider the church a natural ally against paranormal activity, Christianity awards very little credence to ‘ghosts’. Dead people are viewed as awaiting Judgement and as being unable to return to earth. Passages concerning exorcism in the Bible instead deal exclusively with demons. These are beings created by but which no longer serve God, whose aim is to destroy human beings by leading them into sin and delusion.

The approach of the Christian exorcist and the rational investigator are oddly similar – at least in respect of the reluctance of either to rule out natural explanations, and their shared sensitivity to the possible role of misperception (or delusion). For instance, if someone were to report sightings of a dead relative, the Christian assumption (barring any natural explanation) might be a demonic influence seeking to torment the bereaved person.

The crucial difference, of course, is that whereas the exorcist might blame the tendency toward delusion onto a supernatural agency, the rational investigator considers human misperception in itself a sufficient cause.

Sources

Ted J. Kaptchuk, Catherine E. Kerr & Abby Zanger (2009). The art of medicine: placebo controls, exorcisms, and the devil. The Lancet. Vol. 374 (October 10).

Kenneth D. Royal (2012). Investigating the practice of Christian exorcism and the methods used to cast out demons. The Journal of Christian Ministry. No. 4.