Saturday, May 16, 2009

Reading Notes – Paranormal Beliefs

This post is reviewing Erich Goode’s book Paranormal Beliefs. Goode is a sociologist based at the University of Maryland, and proposes one of the few rigorous analyses of the social dimension of paranormal beliefs. This book does not provide any answer about the reality of paranormal phenomena, although it presents some of the key arguments for and against paranormal beliefs. This book raises a number of interesting questions about how paranormal beliefs emerge, why they remain present in spite of being constantly attacked by the scientific community (and the sceptics), and why science ignores paranormal knowledge in spite of being confronted with challenging evidence.

The full notice is:

Goode, Erich. (2000). Paranormal Beliefs: A sociological introduction. Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Moving forward without innovation?

Before analyzing what Goode has to say about beliefs in UFOs, and other paranormal phenomena, it is important to situate his book within the larger context of sociology and parasociology. Goode is very clear about the topic of his book: he is focusing on the sociological dimension of paranormal beliefs. Although he does not consider the actual reality of paranormal phenomena as completely irrelevant, he states that he does not pay much attention to such an issue. For him, the actual reality of paranormal phenomena is only relevant in contexts where solid scientific evidence about the paranormal are produced (according to the rules of science, and thus, should be accepted by science), but such evidence are either ignored or rejected without cause by the scientific community. Researches in parapsychology are a key example of such a situation. From that point view, Goode’s analysis is very much in line with “Newtonian” sociology, and although he may provide interesting analyses about an understudied topic, it cannot be considered as being innovative. He takes also, in my opinion, a very convenient position as he does not have to “get his feet wet” (i.e. without having to state his own position on the matter) by focusing solely of the belief dimension. However, because he does not dismiss off hand people who believe in the paranormal, like some other sociologists have done in the past, his book deserves some credits.

Goode is approaching paranormal beliefs in the way sociologists of scientific knowledge have studied scientific controversies. He is using the approach called symmetry, which implies that he puts on the same level paranormal beliefs and scientific beliefs (i.e. without granting any uncritical support to either side). As well, he recognizes that one side is dominant in Western societies (i.e. scientific belief) and has powerful social, political and economic bases while the other (i.e. paranormal beliefs) is the “deviant” one with limited support. As a sociologist, he is more interested in studying the dynamics at play, and tries to understand why in the context of scientific dominance there is still a very large portion of the population believing in the paranormal. Once again, his questioning is not based on “how can people be so irrational to believe in the paranormal”, but rather he implies that scientific beliefs may be dominant among the elites of Western societies, but not necessarily so among the rest of those societies. In other words, he sees this issue as one of knowledge power base divided along social and political class lines. I agree with this perspective. Various forms of knowledge will be considered as more or less valid in great part based on how much social and political power is behind them. For Goode, paranormal belief is therefore an alternate source of knowledge for those who are not powerful.

If Goode is right in stating that the validity of any knowledge is in great part dependent on its social and political power base, it is also important to understand that its validity is also based on how effective it is for people to relate with the world around them (i.e., any form of knowledge has also a pragmatic component). In other words, “deviant” forms of knowledge are not only maintained to assuage psychological needs not addressed by the dominant forms of knowledge (e.g. seeing aliens in replacement of religious forms of spirituality, see ghost because science ignores the spiritual, etc). The key issue that Goode does not address, because he is focusing solely on the social dimension of paranormal beliefs, is the fact that people believe in the paranormal because they are many who did objectively face situations that are incomprehensible to them and to the scientific community. Although I agree with him that if science would study such phenomena more extensively and find some serious and intellectually honest answers, then the belief in the paranormal would disappear because there would be no need to have an alternate form of knowledge to address what is ignored by science. This holds true for sociology too. If sociology is to provide useful answers, then it cannot ignore that there are some genuine and poorly understood dynamics at play behind paranormal phenomena. This reinforces my conviction that parasociology is a step ahead from “Newtonian” sociology by accepting and integrating, as a matter of principle, that paranormal phenomena have a degree of objectivity.

Beliefs in UFOs as alien spaceships

Goode pays a fair bit of attention to the UFO phenomenon. For him, UFOs are a paranormal belief when they are construed as being spaceships under extraterrestrial control (because it contradicts what science says about UFOs – particularly the improbability of interstellar travel). Then, he proposes an historical genesis of the belief by reviewing how in the early 1950s the ETH became firmly entrenched (p. 141). His analysis is very similar to the ones of Méheust (1978) and Spencer (1994), where he identifies that in the early 1950s, a few years before the beginning of the space race, technology was sufficiently advanced to create a “plausibility structure” where the notion of visiting spaceships was imaginable (p. 148).

Another important element of his analysis is that the ETH cannot be falsified. In theory, all UFO sightings, except one, could be proven wrong and that would be enough to prove the ETH is right. It would require disproving all sightings, without exception, to refute fully the ETH, which is an unrealistic task. So, the ETH can live on the hope that one sighting will be proven to be of ET origin. The fact that in over 60 years no objective evidence about the presumed ET origins of UFO has yet surfaced is for the ETH believer completely irrelevant. From that point of view, it is clearly a belief system (i.e. it is based on the hope that one day they will prove that the ETH is right). This certainly constitutes the fundamental sociological dynamics behind the ETH.

Goode proposes a similar analysis about the Roswell conspiracy. In spite of having no evidence, that there are at least six versions of the story, that there are seven photographs of the debris that matches the Mogul project description, that Cavitt (who accompanied Marcel) did not see anything unusual about the debris, the ETH ufologists are still pursuing that story in the hope that one day real evidence will emerge. For Goode, the fact that the Roswell story emerged and stuck in the late 1970s is not a coincidence. In the post-Watergate years, the plausibility structure was in place for such a story to get lots of supports (which did not succeed to do so in the past, e.g. Scully’s and Keyhoe’s books both discussed governmental conspiracy in the 1950s).

It is unfortunate that Goode’s book does not address in any length the notion that there is an irreducible minimum of reports that cannot be explained away by science, and that those reports are essentially ignored by the scientific community. Even if one excludes the ETH as an explanation, these very strange reports still remain unexplained. It is therefore a scientific belief to consider all UFO sightings as irrelevant without looking at the evidence. Sturrock’s book (1999) is one of the rare exceptions. This situation fuels, in my opinion, the retrenchment of ufologists into the ETH. Because the scientific community does not touch the field, then other non-ETH explanations are not explored. The more the scientific community ignores these reports, the more it creates room for the ETH to flourish.

The parapsychology and sociology

Goode is more sympathetic to the cause of parapsychology. Although it is considered a paranormal belief system because it is in opposition to some key scientific beliefs about the nature of reality, parapsychology was able to produce evidence using the scientific method. He quotes many meta-analyses of parapsychological research to show that psi effects occur and are clearly beyond chance. Goode is very clear in stating that “something is happening but no one knows for sure what it is” (pp. 130 & 132). In this case, it is the scientific beliefs in the nature of material reality that are challenged, and ignoring or even ridiculing parapsychology represents an easy way out to avoid dealing with inconvenient evidence.

It is unfortunate that Goode did not discuss an important issue in parapsychology that is very much relevant to the topic. One of the most interesting findings in parapsychology is that psi effects are more likely to occur when people believe in the possibility of the paranormal. In other words, plausibility structures are not only conditions to allow beliefs to emerge, but also conditions for paranormal effects to occur. Hence, plausibility structures are also enabling conditions. These parapsychological findings are at the root of any thinking about the possibility of social psi. Goode, here, missed a great opportunity to link some key elements together. He wrote that “sociologists are very interested in the social ‘glue’ that binds members of a society” (p. 84). If it is true that belief systems can be a form of social glue, then the objective elements at the core of the belief should also be considered as being part of the glue. In other words, if parapsychology has clearly shown that there is “something” going on, then that “something” should be part of the glue as well because sociologically shared plausibility structures are key enablers to psi effects. Goode’s book, by focusing solely on beliefs, failed to see that there is a need to establish a bridge between parapsychology and sociology, and I think that parasociology offers such a bridge. But it is clear that if sociology studies only paranormal belief systems, then sociologists will have only an incomplete approach to understand the paranormal.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

No comments: