The Greatest Evil in Paranormal Studies(?)

Last October, at our annual anniversary event at Todmorden Mills, we were lucky enough to have Mr. David Gower, chair of the Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry, speak to the gathering about the role of scepticism and a bit of his own belief/disbelief in the paranormal.

We, in turn, were invited to speak at a meeting of his organization which actually ended up being Sue Darroch and Lisa Reid of our sister group, ParaResearchers of Ontario, speaking about their stellar work on Port Perry's Ghost Road.

I guess I should preface this with something... I have often referred to myself as a "true sceptic" or, in more recent times, a "moderate Truzzian" and actually still do recommend reading (via a library or other 'free' outlet as giving money(s) to the parent group of this author and book irks me) Joe Nickell's tome, "Missing Pieces" which is Mr. Nickell's, a scion of CSICOP, book on how to investigate the paranormal from a "sceptdebunkers" point of view. Unfortunately for me, my first 'run-in' with Mr. Nickell was not a happy one. It was on a CBC radio interview and when I said his book, in my eyes, was required reading for any investigator, he replied, rather angrily, "For what? Burning???" Later in the same interview, I mentioned how, if nothing else for this rather angry person (Nickell), they had to see the semi-importance of ghost stories from a historical point of view and it's value in getting people interested in the history of their homes based on the "legends and myths" of the spots. He told me I was selling "hoaxes and frauds". Not an austere way of being 'welcomed' by what I thought would be a true "sceptic" as opposed to a "sceptdebunker" or, in this case, someone more interested in shouting down what he didn't want to believe as opposed to discussing it's merits or problems with what I had hoped would be a worthy debater in myself.

I digress but I thought I'd precurse the next bits...

So, on that note, as much as I had wanted to meet and discuss things with other sceptics but leaning more towards the "non-belief" side of things, (for the record, I believe in ghostly phenomena but the origins thereof, I'm working on personally,) as I still consider it vital to have viewpoints both pro and con "the paranormal" in order to understand some of it, I was beginning to lose hope as the more I read about CSICOP, the more I realised that not only were they "sceptdebunkers" and not more than a group shouting down those that felt were wrong, they did exceedingly little work towards finding out the "real" cause of various phenomena. (See our article on "Research by Proclamation".)

Luckily, some members (and apparently, the executive of the OSSCI) have now said that they will adopt standards and measures to hold themselves to as large a candle as they would hold those that report to have "proof" and "theories" (more appropriately, untested hypothesis) and not simply debunk or "decry". Turning from the traditional "sceptdebunkers" to "sceptics".


While at the meeting, although we had the pleasure of meeting more than a few people that were genuinely intrigued and seemed to be pleased with Sue and Lisa's true 'debunking' of the Ghost Road "Spook Lights" (the PRO team proved that it was car headlights without doubt) not one but TWO of their membership seemed to be adamant about arguing the points.

One simply asked of Sue how she came to know about the story. When she replied with something like "It's listed in many books.", this gent responded with "Oh, you mean books read by crackpots." Sue, wisely, declined to grace his comment with a response.

That was the easy one...

The other fellow who wanted to take Sue and Lisa to task was arguing about how the light would travel along slick hydro lines. (I'd explain this but if you click on the link at the top, you'd see that PRO has done an above average job on the explanation.) The "problem" for him was Sue, in her explanation, had used the word "refracted" instead of "reflected" which, on study, would have been accurate so this fellow started going at her.

As someone in the audience, I wanted very much to stand up and say "My god! She said the wrong word even though her findings are correct, the experiment was repeated successfully, she *does* use the correct wording in her write up and it was only a mistake made here while speaking! We must toss out all her work and yes, you have convinced us... Obviously, thanks to your astute correction, it must therefore be real ghost lights! Thank you for saving us from the dogmas of stupidity!"

This was said even though not one but two members did agree with the theory on how the light travelled, this fellow wanted to complain and truly, toss the baby out with the bath water.


This was two out of about twenty-plus. The rest of the audience listened and were pleased to see that some groups are not out to proclaim the paranormal is "real" without hard and quantifiable evidence. After all, isn't the need for evidence an important thing in any claim?

So, in honesty, the mass of the folks there seemed to appreciate that with only two vocal exceptions.

But, in watching the rest of the meeting, I noted that there does seem to be a weird dynamic to the group as a whole...

You see, think about this, why does someone read about ghosts? Why does someone join a 'ghost group'? Why does someone attend ghost lectures? Because they are interested in the phenomena or have experienced something and wish to share or hear about other's experiences.

Now, why do you figure someone would join a 'sceptics' organization? Sure, some want a debate or discussion or the heady rush (which *we* get too) when a discovery is made but, one also has to account for those who've joined for one thing... a good fight.

Think about it... That one fellow, a sceptic or, more realistically, a "sceptdebunker", wanted to shout down the PRO team about their findings... even though it successfully debunked a "ghost"!

Now, thinking about Mr. Nickell and these two chaps at the OSSCI, I started to ponder... Why are they here? What are they hoping to accomplish? What makes them NEED to shout down to the point of debating a debunking? What makes them need to blast away at people and groups?

There is one horrible thought that many will not argue and that is the fact that being a "auto-debunker" in the serious mainstream scientific world makes you a whole lot more 'popular' with many of your colleagues but, as shown time and time again, most mainstream scientist really aren't 'anit-paranormal' per ce. Still, in that grand realm of "peer review", to say that *I* believe that this is *all* hocus-pocus and delusional minds makes for better "real" science... I disagree and so do many others... including many of their own ilk.

A perfect example is this fellow who was complaining about the phraseology used by Sue is a professor at a local university. As opposed to vocally condemning and shooting, why not correct and assist and bring a better understanding to *all*? You know, those of us 'mouth breathers' who are so easily taken in by flim-flams?


More fun to fight than correct and teach I guess.

Now, while some are reading this going "Yeah! Stick it to them sceptics and scientists!" I'd like to point out again that I feel I am a sceptic myself. I need evidence before taking a leap of faith one way or another and as for science, it is not only important but imperative that scientific controls and methods be carried out by researchers and in my experience, when I've contacted doctors or physics and other credible scientists, sure, there has been the odd "giggle factor" moment into my study followed by sound advice and what seems to be a genuine interest and willingness to help me and our group(s) compile better and usable data.

The three examples or "sceptics" (Mr. Nickell and the two fellows from the OSSCI) above seem to be the exception and not the rule and I still suggest to anyone truly looking into the phenomenon of ghosts and hauntings (or anything paranormal) to consult with credible people and yes, even *true* sceptics.

Let the "sceptdebunkers" lie. They seem far more interested in a fight than real work anyway.

Before I leave this editorial, I do wish to jump to Mr. Gower's defence.

In a recent television program on "ghost hunters", a lot of people unfairly attacked Mr. Gower for his views and I would argue that Mr. Gower's 'bits' on the show were excellent and well phrased.

He seemed to be taking a beating about saying things he really didn't say.

For example, he said things like "To date there has been no hard evidence" which is correct and he has left the statement open. In a way, saying that he is not convinced nor is mainstream science... *to date*! This is a correct statement.

He also said words to the type of paranormal researchers being based in science or not science. Again, very true. (Although I'd like to think that the GHRS is 1/3 science, 1/3 historians and 1/3 story tellers but never letting the ball drop on any of the three.)

To those people that saw this program on Space Channel and attacked Mr. Gower, I'd ask you to re-watch it.

Here's what I asked... and got the answer to from Mr. Gower...

  • The "scientists" they had as an 'expert' had only a BSC (bachelor's degree) and seemed oblivious to electro-magnetic principals as well as apparent basic particle theory and very-basic physics in general. What was his major? Why was he seen as an 'expert'?

Answer: He was a "physiologist", according to Mr. Gower. This is not a pursuit of science likely to have answers to the paranormal in any sense. Also, by the end of this program, this physiologist was really the 'auto-debunker' moreso than Mr. Gower. Also, a bachelor's degree, as any post-university student will tell you does not a "doctor" or scientist make.

Now, Mr. Gower, myself and Sue as well as many others agree that one does not need to have a doctorate to use science nor, in many ways, to be considered doing scientific work. One simply needs to be practicing good and practiced methodology which, in watching that show, this physiologist didn't really do. He hadn't even come prepared to answer questions on the subject at hand.

How did he (the physiologist) get this gig? Simple... he's related to someone on the production staff.

If it makes anyone else feel better, the folks we spoke to at the sceptics meeting and Mr. Gower himself were not at all pleased with this program.

Even though it wasn't too bad and most folks involved (like our friends at "Haunted Hamilton") didn't look too bad, it did make me kind of glad that when the producers approached us, we said "no thanks".

Anyway, again, to those who were "hurt" or upset by this program, please re-watch it and see if you still feel the blame is to be set on Mr. Gower.

In conclusion, I guess (or I think) one of the questions that might be being asked by some of the readers of this article might be would "we" (the GHRS) work with a sceptical group? Well, to be honest, much as I respect and admire the work of a small percentage of them, I guess you could call me "once bitten, twice shy". Despite the fact that I'm too much of a "sceptic" for most folks in paranormal circles, I'm too much of a "loon" for those in the sceptical circles so it seems I have a nasty little middle ground which I (and the majority of the group) cling to.

Mr. Gower is often fond of quoting John Robert Colombo in saying (forgive me if I'm misquoting a bit) that he believes in "Ghost Stories, not necessarily ghosts" whereas I am (to steal something Sue has been saying for a while now) simply "iffy" on the ghosts and believe less in the ghost story than the history and the phenomena itself.

In other words, thanks to those two fellows and the knowledge that *some* people are members of sceptical groups simply for the confrontation and thanks to my run-in with CSICOP, I'll stay here, happy on my lily pad staying firmly, snuggly, although far from safely in the middle.


(From Left to Right) Lisa, David Gower, Mason and Sue

Photo by Matthew Didier