5 April 2018


Sharon A. Hill. Scientifical Americans; The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers. McFarland, 2017.

Sharon Hill opens the introduction to this book with a question that sceptical researchers of anomalies are often asked: if we are sceptical about such phenomena, why are we researching and writing about them? Hill’s answer is that she loves the ‘idea’ of such things, even if she does not accept their reality. And this ‘idea’ is promoted vigorously through the mass media in all its forms.

Hill is writing from an American perspective, which perhaps differs from the development of anomaly studies in Britain and Europe. I have commented previously that many of the influential critical voices in Britain have come from within the UFO and paranormal research movement itself, as researchers have found that the problems raised by the phenomena cannot be explained adequately by the literalist narrative of the believers. In the US, by contrast, the high-profile sceptics seem to have approached the subjects from the outside, almost as missionaries bearing the light of Sagan’s ‘candle in the dark’.

There is a little bit of this attitude in Hill’s approach, and at times in describing the workings of ghost-hunting groups in particular, she does give slightly the impression of someone finding themselves looking at the curious habits of a remote tribe, and at times gives the impression that her main criticism of amateur anomaly research is that it does not lead to a PhD. Generally though, she is prepared to give an objective view, although I doubt may of the members of the groups she describes would credit her with that.

By ‘scientifical’ Hill means researchers who operate in what they claim is a ‘scientific’ way, but without really understanding the implications of that claim. Old-time ufologists like your reviewer, will remember from the distant past such things as ‘UFO detectors’ which were advertised in the saucer magazines of the sixties and seventies. These were predicated on the principle that UFOs operated using some vaguely defined sort of electromagnetic, antigravity motor that would cause a compass needle to swing when approached by a UFO. This would create an electrical contact which would set of a buzzer and/or a flashing light.

This is the very epitome of ‘scientifical’. It looked the business, - ‘sciency’ as Hill terms it - there were lights and buzzers, and something happened which could be noted down with great accuracy in a UFO report. But it wasn’t science. It didn’t really demonstrate anything other than your group was a bit more scientifical than the next one, especially if your UFO detector had a flashy aluminium case.

Using ‘sciency’ words and giving themselves ‘sciency’ titles is another way in which groups validate their existence, with roles such as ‘director of research’ or impressive organisation titles like ‘nation research committee’, and so on. Hill suggests that these are a form of ‘cargo-cult’ whereby aping the style and outward appearance of a scientific organisation, the ‘cargo’ - solutions to the mystery under investigation – will somehow arrive, but without the complex scientific structure that produces real solutions.

A great deal of this book looks at the many ‘ghost hunting’ TV shows that seem to dominate American cable channels, and have a presence on this side of the Atlantic as well. Most of these involve people with massive amounts of ‘sciency’ gear spending the night in suitably spooky locations. There are many “did you hear/feel/see that” exclamations in these shows, but despite all the gadgetry on display, little or no real scientific findings are ever produced. She is particularly scathing about ‘sciency’-sounding language, and in particular the bandying of the word ‘quantum’ by people who have no idea at all what it means, which effectively is most of us.

Hull describes these groups as ARIGs – Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. Although she considers that they all share the same ‘scientifical’ approach to their topics of study, she accepts that there are differences of emphasis between and within the various interest groups. Cryptozoology in her view has a better grasp of scientific principles than some other ARIGs, pointing out in particular figures such as Karl Shuker and Loren Coleman. Of course, the basic principle of cryptozoology – that there are large humanoid primates unknown to science living in remote parts of the world – may be difficult or impossible to prove and is likely false, but even if true it does not break any fundamental laws of science in the way that telepathy or the presence of humanoid aliens on earth does.

One important point she makes is the danger that ARIGs may present to the people they encounter in their investigations. In some of his reviews of books describing investigations into poltergeist phenomena, Peter Rogerson has expressed concern at the actions of certain unqualified investigators, with agendas of their own, getting involved with what are often very troubled people, and imposing their own interpretation onto the individual’s experience.

Hill points out, “most of the ghost investigators I’ve spoken with have stories of clients that are clearly in need of mental health assistance and do not have a solid grasp of reality”. This is particularly crucial with poltergeist cases, which often involve young and vulnerable people in a complex and sometimes troubling family dynamic. No ‘ghost-hunting’ group should be allowed within a mile of such cases.

Hill notes that many ARIGs “reject any intellectual approach” claiming that genuine solutions can only be found through active field-work, and dismissing any critical approach as “armchair research”, a criticism often heard in the fields of ufology and cryptozoology. She might also have added that any intellectual attempt to examine historical or sociological contexts to anomalous phenomena if often dismissed as “literary criticism”.

I have no doubt that this book will enrage many members of ARIGs, and as I said, at times the author does perhaps adopt the tone of someone setting foot in a rather alien environment and looking with surprise and puzzlement at the fauna she finds there.

Perhaps a deeper involvement in some of the research areas would have helped her get a rounder view, and be able to appreciate both the constructive work that has been done by some ARIGs – her focus on American groups has rather limited her view here - as well as understand the motivations of the people involved in such groups. Overall though, she raises many valid criticisms, which members of such research groups would do well to consider. – John Rimmer.

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