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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Alternative Explanations, Part II: Clairvoyants

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In “Alternative Explanations, Part I: Demons and Ghosts,” we considered ways by which skeptics seek to debunk these paranormal or supernatural phenomena. In Part II, we will take a look at how the skeptical character in your horror story may seek to dismiss or explain alleged clairvoyants.

A clairvoyant is a person who can see things beyond the limits of ordinary vision, including things that haven’t taken place yet (precognition) or things that have occurred already (retrocognition). One might say that he clairvoyant is blessed with phenomenal foresight and hindsight. These powers are said to derive from psychic abilities, except when they are given to one by the devil, and are (except in the devil-made-me-do-it instances), as such, paranormal, rather than supernatural, in nature.

In its’ Voice of Reason series, Live Science’s “Choosing Psychic Detectives Over Real Ones,” by Joe Nickell, discusses the remote viewing capabilities that psychic detectives allegedly have. According to the article, psychic detectives use a variety of once “discredited techniques” to acquire their visions of tomorrow, yesterday, and far away, including “astrology. . . spirit guides. . . dowsing rods and pendulums . . . psychometry,” or the use of “psychic impressions from objects connected with a particular person,” and “auras,” noting that neither “such disparity of approach” nor “specific tests” offer “a credible basis for psychic sleuthing.”

Clairvoyants are regarded as having been successful by naïve law enforcement officers on occasion because they fall for a technique known as retrofitting:
. . . this after-the-fact matching -- known as "retrofitting" -- is the secret behind most alleged psychic successes. For example, the statement, "I see water and the number seven," would be a safe offering in almost any case. After all the facts are in, it will be unusual if there is not some stream, body of water, or other source that cannot somehow be associated with the case. As to the number seven, that can later be associated with a distance, a highway, the number of people in a search party, part of a license plate number, or any of countless other possible interpretations. . . . Many experienced police officers have fallen for the retrofitting trick.
In addition, psychic detectives, Nickell, maintains, rely on a number of other simple, but sometimes-successful ploys:

Psychics may also enhance their reputations by exaggerating their successes, minimizing their failures, passing off secretly gleaned information as psychically acquired, and other means, including relying on others to misremember what was actually said.
Your horror story’s skeptical character may also critique claims of the paranormal and supernatural nature of clairvoyance by debunking the sources that clairvoyants claim for their powers: “astrology. . . spirit guides. . . dowsing rods and pendulums . . . psychometry,” or the use of “psychic impressions from objects connected with a particular person,” and “auras.” If the underlying source for clairvoyance can be shown to be false, any powers that are said to derive from these sources must also be seen as false or non-existent.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary gives a succinct definition of “astrology”:

Astrology, in its traditional form, is a type of divination based on the theory that the positions and movements of celestial bodies (stars, planets, sun, and moon) at the time of birth profoundly influence a person's life. In its psychological form, astrology is a type of New Age therapy used for self-understanding and personality analysis (astrotherapy). In both forms, it is a manifestation of magical thinking.
Even in William Shakespeare’s time, it was difficult for educated people to believe that the movements of heavenly bodies had any cause-and-effect on people. “The fault. . . lies in ourselves, not in the stars,” he has Julius Caesar tell Brutus.

Astrology is an ancient and complex system, and, as such, it cannot be completely debunked here, but some critical notes that your horror story’s skeptical character could address to the clairvoyant who maintains that his or her power to see past, future, or distant events include these, which appear in The Skeptic’s Dictionary’s essay concerning “astrology”:
Astrologers emphasize the importance of the positions of the sun, moon, planets, etc., at the time of birth. However, the birthing process isn’t instantaneous. There is no single moment that a person is born. The fact that some official somewhere writes down a time of birth is irrelevant. . . . Why are the initial conditions more important than all subsequent conditions for one’s personality and traits? Why is the moment of birth chosen as the significant moment rather than the moment of conception? Why aren’t other initial conditions such as one’s mother’s health, the delivery place conditions, forceps, bright lights, dim room, back seat of a car, etc., more important than whether Mars is ascending, descending, culminating, or fulminating?. . . . Why isn’t the planet Earth—the closest large object to us in our solar system--considered a major influence on who we are and what we become? Other than the sun and the moon and an occasional passing comet or asteroid, most planetary objects are so distant from us that any influences they might have on anything on our planet are likely to be wiped out by the influences of other things here on earth. . . . Initial conditions are less important than present conditions to understanding current effects on rivers and vegetables. If this is true for the tides and plants, why wouldn’t it be true for people?

Clairvoyance of a type, known as remote viewing, was once popular with the U. S. federal government, which has way too much taxpayer money on its hands. Supposedly, remote viewing clairvoyants, supplied with nothing more than paper, pencils, and map coordinates of distant points of military or intelligence interest could sketch whatever actually existed on these sites. The Federation of American Scientists published the findings of a study of remote viewing’s effectiveness. The study concluded that the remote viewers’ sketches were sometimes interpreted according to the researchers’ own familiarity with the targets, which made them believe that the drawings were more detailed and accurate than they were; that results that included information supplied by historical sources were always ,ore accurate than results that required predictions on the part of the remote viewers themselves; and that sketches were too vague and general to be of any use to the military or intelligence agencies. The agencies underwriting these experiments in remote viewing--at taxpayer--meaning your and my--expense discontinued them as unworthy of continued research.

The same conclusions might well be reached with regard to the efficacy of clairvoyance in general, since remote viewing is a specific type of the same activity.

Although the use of spirit guides need not include channeling, the criticisms against channeling may be directed against the idea of spirit guides as well. The language and dialect that spirit guides use is often at odds with the time period from which they are alleged to hail. The Skeptic’s Dictionary offers an example:

1987, ABC showed a mini-series based on [Shirley] MacLaine's book Out on a
Limb
, which depicts MacLaine conversing with spirits through channeler
Kevin Ryerson. One of the spirits who speaks through Ryerson is a contemporary
of Jesus called "John." "John" doesn't speak Aramaic--the language of Jesus--but
a kind of Elizabethan English.

The banality of spirit guides is also susceptible to doubt:

One of MacLaine's favorite channelers is J. Z. Knight who claims to channel a
35,000 year-old Cromagnon warrior called Ramtha. . . . Some of her patrons pay
as much as $1,000 to attend her seminars where she dispenses such wisdom as "[we
must] open our minds to new frontiers of potential."

Shouldn’t spirits who have gone on to enlightenment utter proverbs equal in wisdom to those of Buddha and Christ?

Dowsing rods and pendulums--what would such dubious devices have to do with clairvoyants’ supposed abilities to see past, present, and remote events? Nothing, other than the use of dowsing rods is supposed to help their users detect subterranean substances such as oil, water, and metal. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

In 1949, an experiment was conducted in Maine by the American Society for
Psychical Research. Twenty-seven dowsers "failed completely to estimate either
the depth or the amount of water to be found in a field free of surface clues to
water, whereas a geologist and an engineer successfully predicted the depth at
which water would be found in 16 sites in the same field."

The same article also recounts an experiment in which

James Randi tested some dowsers using a protocol they all agreed upon. If they could locate water in underground pipes at an 80% success rate they would get $10,000 (now the prize is over $1,000,000). All the dowsers failed the test, though each claimed to be highly successful in finding water using a variety of non-scientific instruments, including a pendulum. Says Randi, "the sad fact is that dowsers are no better at finding water than anyone else. Drill a well almost anywhere in an area where water is geologically possible, and you will find it.

It seems clear that dowsing is a highly dubious enterprise, but, even if it works, what has it to do with seeing future, past, or future events? None that many can detect.

Not to be deterred, if astrology, spirit guides, and the use of dowsing rods and pendulums can’t explain how clairvoyants can do what they claim they do, maybe clairvoyance is the result of psychometry. According to psychometry, by handling objects associated with a person, the handler can discern facts about the property’s owner, often by seeing the owner’s aura, the “a colored outline or set of contiguous outlines, allegedly emanating from the surface of an object.”

Most critics--including your horror story’s skeptical character, perhaps--associate psychometry with magical thinking, selective thinking, cold reading, subjective evaluation, and shot gunning, all of which themselves have fatal logical and scientific flaws. Like many paranormal and supernatural beliefs, clairvoyance is interlinked with a complex of other such ideas and attitudes, which makes debunking it in a space less than that of a large volume difficult, if not impossible.

Therefore, the reader must take upon him- or herself the task of researching these lesser, but related, topics. To assist the aspiring horror writer in this task, we list these sources:

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Live Science

Federation of American Scientists
NOVA Online
MythBusters

In Part III of “Alternative Explanations,” we’ll consider how your horror story’s skeptical character might debunk claims about other paranormal and supernatural phenomena.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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