A Paranormal Expert? Karma may run over your Dogma.


If there’s one thing the paranormal community has no shortage of, it’s self-proclaimed experts. Many have suffered under the long winded, unsupported meandering claims of these “Para-Con artists” (See what I did there?).  Their  hastily co-written self-published books, t-shirts, television shows, convention appearances, quack gadgetry and promotional photos represent them to a naive crowd of adoring fans while their unwillingness or ability to offer peer reviewed support for their fantastic (and often absurd) claims clearly defines them to the true thinkers of the community.

Over Claiming

In June  of 2015 research published in Psychological Science  a journal of the Association for Psychological Science revealed that the more people think they know about a topic in general, the more likely they are to allege knowledge of completely made-up information and false facts. This is a phenomenon known as “over-claiming.”  Part of the experimentation contained in the study involved testing whether individuals who perceived themselves to be experts in personal finance for example would be more likely to claim knowledge of fake financial terms. One hundred participants were asked to rate their general knowledge of personal finance, as well as their knowledge of 15 specific finance terms. Most of the terms on the list were real (i.e. Roth IRA, inflation, home equity), but the researchers also included three made-up terms such as (pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit). The participants who saw themselves as financial experts were most likely to claim knowledge of the bogus finance terms (even when they were warned about them). The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography. (Atir, S 2015)

While the study did not include paranormal research (for obvious reasons) it’s not hard to imagine the effect “over-claiming” has on those professing knowledge in this community. The world of paranormal investigation and research is filled with broad claims and ideas that have exceedingly little to no demonstrable support and those with a tendency to magically adopt expertise on these ideas can fill in the blanks and sell with confidence whatever conclusions make the most sense to them… and they certainly do.

Year after year thousands of people pay outrageous prices to fill the seats of convention halls and theaters, eager to  listen to the latest and greatest players in the paranormal field.   Unfortunately, quite often, the information they receive contains little to no substance in terms of research quality. Statements such as “Spirits can attach themselves to an object” or “Some spirits don’t like their photos to be taken.” are presented as fact with the presenter offering little to no research to support the claim.


I remember several years ago, sitting in an audience listening to a well-respected (and quite famous) demonologist/investigator. During the presentation the presenter told a story about a woman who was plagued by tremendous activity in her home. He went on to say that the woman had fallen into a deep depression and plainly stated “This malevolent spirit had attached itself to her and was slowly draining her energy, trying to take control”.  I was astounded by what I was hearing. When the presentation was over the floor was opened up for questions and that was my opportunity to better understand.

I promptly raised my hand and spoke “I was wondering what research has been done to suggest that not only spirits exist, but that they can  attach themselves to people and drain their energy?”  without missing a beat the presenter replied “There have been a lot of documented cases  over the years showing this, but unfortunately the scientists don’t want to take the time to learn for themselves.”  Sensing a bit of agitation and an opportunity for clarity I countered “Well can you recommend a few published, peer reviewed cases that I could read?” Thinking for a moment, the presenter replied. “Well there are a few in my book. The case I spoke about today is a classic example.” It was clear that this “professional” researcher had no idea what published, peer reviewed research actually was. Realizing the futility of the conversation,  I asked one final question. “How do you know that a spirit was causing that woman’s depression and not some other issue?” Unfortunately the reply I got was shocking, but not surprising. “We had already ruled out every other issue before coming to this conclusion. Psychologists gave her a clean bill of health… What else could it be?”  And there it was… the smoking gun response “I don’t know what it is so it must be a demon”.  How any psychologist worth his salt could give a woman with depression a clean bill of health beyond me, but then I wasn’t there and there is no properly documented record of the case.

The Earned Dogmatic Effect

What astounded me the most about this experience was that the audience was undeterred. After the questions were through, dozens of people lined up to buy his books and have their photos taken with this legendary investigator who’s self-proclaimed expertise has misguided people for decades. I can think of no other domain where such a fast path to notoriety is possible based on such an insubstantial foundation.  However, many supporters of paranormal experts like the one mentioned find it easy to forgive a lack of scientific foundation in their claims. Many people approach paranormal study from a decidedly spiritual perspective and tend to seek experiences more than a foundation of knowledge claiming that hard Science often lacks an open mind.

Anyone would think that those with expertise (self-proclaimed or otherwise) in an area of study that deals with so many unknowns would at the very least offer the  presence of an open mind, but a recent study presented in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tells quite a different perspective.

The research conducted at Loyola University in Chicago suggests that being an “expert” in anything can actually make you more closed-minded. The study found that people who perceive themselves to be experts tend to be less open to new ideas and alternative viewpoints. A character trait that does not sit well with a vocation in paranormal study (or the scientific community).

According to the study, social norms entitle experts to be more dogmatic. This Earned Dogmatism Effect was observed in five experiments. It emerged when using success (high expertise) and failure (low expertise) manipulations of test performance both within and outside the political domain. It also emerged when comparing participants who occupy a “high expertise social role”. (Ottati,V 2015)

In Conclusion

It seems that in our society, we tolerate more forceful and dogmatic expressions of opinion when the speaker is an expert as opposed to a novice. Therefore when the situation makes us feel like we are an ‘expert,’ it activates these role expectations in our mind, and we feel more entitled to think in a dogmatic manner – in other words, we feel more entitled to dismiss, ignore, or disparage opinions and viewpoints that differ from our own opinion.

I have no doubt that we all have experienced (from both sides of the fence at one time or another) the effects of over claiming and earned dogmatic behavior. We are after all human. However, going forward as we continue our search of the unknown, either as teacher or student, it might not be a bad idea for  everyone –especially these self-proclaimed kings of esoteric knowledge — to read up on what it means to show intellectual humility.


Atir, S., Rosenzweig, E., & Dunning, D. (2015). When knowledge knows no bounds : Self-perceived expertise predicts claims of impossible knowledge. Psychological Science. Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/07/14/0956797615588195.abstract

Ottati, V., Price, E., Wilson, C., & Sumaktoyo, N. (2015). When self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition: The earned dogmatism effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 61, 131-138. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103115001006

The Ghostwatch Hysteria

In October 1992  BBC Television aired a program called Ghostwatch, which it claimed to be a live investigation into supernatural activity at a private home in London. What started out as a normal episode turned frightful when a malevolent spirit attacked the investigators and manifested  in the BBC television studio. A terrified reporter went on air and warned that by airing the investigation on live television they have created a “massive seance,” which unleashed the spirit onto the whole of the UK. There was a tremendous reaction by the viewing audience. Many viewers phoned the police in panic. But alas there was no ghost on the loose. In fact the program wasn’t even live. It had been recorded months before it aired.

Here is the show that aired on Halloween night 1992

Read more here: http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/ghostwatch

Auditory Pareidolia: Effects of Contextual Priming on Perceptions of Purportedly Paranormal and Ambiguous Auditory Stimuli

Lafayette College, Department of Psychology, Easton, USA

Summary: Reality television programs that explore purportedly paranormal phenomena with pseudoscientific research approaches have emerged in popular culture. These shows commonly feature electronic voice phenomena (EVP), whereby recording devices capture audio signals that are interpreted as paranormal messages. We compared perceptions for voices in EVP with actual speech, acoustic noise, and degraded speech. Some participants were told that the experiment was about speech intelligibility, whereas others were told that the experiment was about paranormal EVP. The paranormal prime increased the proportion of trials for which participants perceived voices in both EVP stimuli and degraded speech. When a voice was detected, low agreement was found regarding the content of EVP messages. In both priming conditions, participants reported general skepticism in the paranormal. Results are discussed in the context of theoretical perspectives on paranormal events, trait-versus-state accounts of paranormal beliefs, and pseudo-scientific approaches to research.

Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Click here to Read The Full Research Paper

Paranormal Illusions – Reality Check


The image above appears to be moving, but you know it isn’t. It’s a trick of the brain called the peripheral drift illusion. Many people have seen this and have no problem accepting that the image isn’t really moving.

The image below is caused by the same peripheral shifting of the brain and makes it appear as though the white dots are changing into black dots randomly between the corners of each of the squares. Of course you know they aren’t.


It’s not hard to identify images like these as illusions and accept that our brain isn’t perfect and has truly been fooled – even when we are consciously aware that is not real.  The sites that display images such as these openly profess they are illusions.  Yet we can’t stop our brain from seeing the wrong thing.

If we can accept the fallibility of our brain regarding these images, why then is it so hard to accept that our brain can be wrong in so many other instances such as hearing words in random background noise or faces in window reflections?  The effect of “paraedolic” anthropomorphism has been demonstrated and proven time and time again.  But yet, there are so many people who adamantly insist that what they are seeing or hearing is real…not an illusion.  They insist their mind could not be the culprit behind the anomalies that present themselves in such mundane and non-informative ways.

The reason for this adamant denial is sourced from yet another psychological effect called cognitive bias.  Our brains tendency to “assemble” information that aligns with our desires or beliefs and any idea or bit of information that doesn’t align is sharply rejected.  Often to the point of irrational anger.

As humans (living animals) we rely on our senses and brain for all of our knowledge and experiences. It was our perceptions and critical thinking process that allowed us to speak and understand. It taught us to walk and eat and fend for ourselves. We have no choice but to trust the validity of our own mind and senses… especially when it regards something near and dear to our heart or something into which we have staunchly invested our interest.  Let’s face it, our brain is our only interface to the outside world. It’s not a pleasant experience to conceive its fallible nature.

That being said, it only stands to reason that when a concept or opinion is presented that challenges not only our mind but our beliefs and wants as well (regardless of how logical it may seem), the default reaction is a sharp and swift dismissal.  Be careful. While the cause of a stubborn, non-objective opinion in response to seemingly anomalous phenomena may seem a natural condition of our psyche, it is dangerous to our growth as an intelligent race.  Every “patriotic” defense of an unsubstantiated perspective is a truth left undiscovered and a hindrance of progress.

Next time you see a face in a window reflection or hear your name being called in the heavy background noise of a poor recording, just stop and think for a moment. What seems more likely? That your easily fooled brain has done it again or some mysterious inter-dimensional being is trying to communicate with you through a bad photograph or poor recording


Hallucination: A Normal Phenomenon?

A superb article Posted by Dartmouth University Journal of Science / In Fall 2009 / November 21, 2009

Original : http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/fall-2009/hallucination-a-normal-phenomenon#.VV8ttvlVhBc

The word “hallucination” conjures images of schizophrenics and drug abusers. Hallucinations seem to be the domain of psychosis and psychedelic drugs. But in reality, hallucinations can be common and ordinary, defined as a “sensory perception without external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ” (1).  The “creepy crawly” feeling one gets on the skin is an example of such a perception, or rather misperception, caused by a misfiring or other minor error in the nervous system.

Seeing Dead People

In general, hallucinations occur slightly more often in males than females. They are most common in males between ages 25-30, while females peak around age 40-50. Aging increases hallucinations in both sexes (2). The increase in hallucinations with age might have to do with the deaths of loved ones. It is not unusual to see dead friends and relatives; these hallucinations are considered normal, perhaps part of the grieving process. Almost half of widows and widowers have hallucinations of their dead spouse, most commonly in the first 10 years of widowhood (3). The occurrence of these hallucinations is unrelated to social isolation or depression— they actually increase with length of marriage, the happiness of the relationship, and parenthood. They are even considered helpful accompaniments and a coping mechanism of widowhood.

Hallucination can cause an altered sense of reality, which may manifest itself as visual or auditory distortions.


Hallucinations are most commonly associated with schizophrenia. Individuals may hear voices, or in rare cases see objects, that are not really there and believe that they are completely real, as opposed to a widow’s awareness that the vision of her dead husband is just in her head. Hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics also tend to be derogatory and hostile in tone.

Auditory hallucinations in schizophrenic individuals occur when normal cognitive processes are disturbed, such as monitoring of “self-generated verbal material.” These hallucinations are not a result of epileptic episodes in the auditory cortex, just small neural disturbances in regular brain activity. As a result, the auditory input seems just as vivid as a real perception.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans during episodes of hallucinations show that the right hemisphere is highly active. The right hemisphere is associated with emotions and connections among the set of perceptions brought in through the sensory organs. It is thought to “make sense” of the surroundings by interpreting multiple sensory inputs. It is thought that during an episode, the schizophrenic individual may be trying to interpret and process what is being said by the voice in his head. Since these hallucinations are hostile in nature, the individual may be trying to form an emotional response to the input he is receiving (4). As a result, schizophrenic individuals become paranoid about the people or objects in their lives that the voices tell them are harmful.

Another illness associated with hallucination is Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the brain that leads to loss of motor skills, caused by the death of dopamine-secreting nerve cells in the brain. A first sign of Parkinson’s is an involuntary tic-like tremor or reduced mobility of certain body parts. Sensory processing then becomes disturbed, especially in vision. One study showed that almost 40% of people with Parkinson’s experience hallucinations, mostly visual. These individuals have “presence” hallucinations, where they perceive somebody else in the room. Some patients experience passage hallucinations, where they think they see something in their peripheral vision, probably due to a misinterpretation of a very flimsy perception in an early part of the visual cognitive process. Patients usually see strangers or domestic animals such as dogs, neutral objects that draw no emotional response (5).

Select individuals with Parkinson’s have more vivid hallucinations, perhaps due to other causes. One woman saw her dead son saying, “take care of yourself.” Another man, who was also diagnosed with dementia, saw “small incorporeal devils with a blurred face and a changing size.” He once thought that they were hurting him during an episode of lumbar pain, but for the most part the devils were not frightening to the man. In general, hallucinations are more prevalent in Parkinson’s patients with a longer duration of the disease. Also, the dopaminergic drug therapy administered to Parkinson’s patients is strongly associated with hallucinations (6). Hallucinations can also be induced with recreational drugs, such as LSD, by increasing activity in the same dopamine pathway (7).

Another neurological disorder that can cause hallucinations is called Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, or CBS. Frequent in elderly, visually handicapped individuals, CBS leads to “complex visual hallucinations without delusions or loss of insightful cognition.” The individuals are psychologically normal and aware that their hallucinations are not real. In a study, CBS was present in 11% of a group of 300 visually handicapped patients, 72 years old on average. The hallucinations ranged from mundane objects like a bottle or hat to funny situations, such as “two miniature policemen guiding a midget villain to a tiny prison van.” Others saw ghosts, dragons, or angels. Real images might combine with the imaginary, such as a hallucinated person in a real chair. Like the hallucinations experienced by Parkinson’s patients, the hallucinations generally have nothing to do with the person’s life (8).

Most of the individuals with CBS involved in the study did not tell their doctor about their hallucinations for fear of being ignored or considered insane. One individual who did tell the doctor received a response: “You’d better not talk about such silly things.” They also do not tell loved ones, due to the same fears. When the wife of a man with CBS expressed her amazement at her husband’s episodes and asked why he never told her, he simply replied, “I didn’t want to upset you” (9).

Wakeful dreaming

There is a strong stigma against hallucinations, as they are considered severely abnormal and a marker of a major psychiatric disorder. Since our society also has a strong stigma against psychological illnesses, people may hide their hallucinations. However, hallucinations are not really that extraordinary. Mahowald, Woods, and Schenk propose that hallucinations are really just like dreams in a conscious, wakeful state. In a normal awake state, the brain ignores activity generated internally while attending to the external stimulation it perceives. In a hallucination, whether induced by drugs, sleeplessness, or sensory deprivation, the brain processes the internal activity that it normally ignores, creating a hallucinogenic episode. Mahowald, Woods, and Schenk label this “wakeful dreaming” (10).

A strong social stigma against hallucination causes many people to conceal them. But some scientists argue that hallucinations are a wakeful occurence of the brain’s dream imagery.

Our body is covered with sensory organs that transmit information to the thalamus, part of the cerebrum, which is the part of the brain that controls many functions including sensory processing. The thalamus has two modes to control whether information goes to the forebrain (relay) or stops in the thalamus (oscillatory), controlling the input of environmental information into the cortex. The thalamus is in relay mode in wakefulness and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the sleep stage when vivid dreams tend to occur. The rest of the time, in non-REM (NREM) sleep, the thalamus is in oscillatory mode and the cortex is deprived of all environmental sensory information (11).

According to J. Allen Hobson, a revolutionary in dream research, dreams have five common features: hallucinatory imagery, bizarre cognitive features like discontinuity and incongruity, strong emotion, uncritical acceptance, and memory deficits (most dreams are forgotten) (12). These features would be considered very abnormal in a wakeful state. One explanation for hallucinations is based on Louis West’s theory of perceptual release. According to this theory, our life history and experiences create permanent neural changes that reprise themselves as memories, thoughts, and fantasies. Using these changes and the constant sensory input received from both the environment and inside the body, the midbrain gives rise to consciousness (13). With normal environmental sensory input, the midbrain organizes and limits the brain from reintroducing memory traces within itself. When the brain is deprived of sensory input (such as by blindness), brain circuitry encoding the memory of previous perceptions is released, causing the memories to be re-experienced as hallucinations (10).

Don’t try this at home

Hallucinations do not occur naturally in healthy people without psychological disorders. Extreme physiological stress can induce hallucinations, such as heatstroke or fasting. Religious or spiritual people use this form of physical exertion to experience “awakenings” and supernatural visions that can allow them to leave the normal realm of human perception.

In addition to recreational drugs, some prescription medication for disorders like ADHD can cause hallucinations, though only in small numbers. In one study, psychosis-mania events occurred in 11 out of 748 individuals treated with drugs. Children commonly had visual or tactile sensations of insects, snakes, or worms, described as a “creepy crawly” feeling (14).

Another interesting way hallucinations can arise is through intentional sensory deprivation. One study showed that healthy, normal sighted people who were blindfolded for several days started having visual hallucinations. Thirteen subjects wore blindfolds for five consecutive days. Ten people had visual hallucinations ranging from bright spots of light to complex hallucinations like faces, landscapes, and ornate objects. They started occurring on the second day of blindfolding and the subjects were aware that their hallucinations were not real (15).

For the most part, hallucinations are harmless and no real cause for worry, unless the person starts to believe that they are real. In that case, the person may need to seek medical treatment, though ironically, the person would not recognize that he needs help. Even in psychologically normal people like those with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, hallucinations can be unwanted annoyances that cause emotional distress. But they can be healing or reassuring in some way to the person experiencing a hallucination. Martin Luther King reportedly heard God reassuring him during hard times in the form of an inner voice, saying, “Lo, I will be with you” (16). Hallucinations occur in many situations in different ways. They range from adverse symptoms of severe mental illness, to occasional, harmless dream-like events. Perhaps hallucinations are just one indication of our physical or psychological state of being.


1. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., ed. 3, 1987), pp. 398.
2. A. Y. Tien, Soc. Psych. Psych. Epid. 26, 287-292 (1991).
3. W. D. Rees, Br. Med. J. 4, 37-41 (1971).
4. S. S. Shergill, M. J. Brammer, S. C. R. Williams, R. M. Murray, P. K. McGuire, Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 57, 1033-1038 (2000).
5. G. Fenelon, F. Mahieux, R. Huon, M. Ziegler, Brain 123, 733-745 (2000).
6. C. G. Goetz, C. M. Tanner, H. L. Klawans, Am. J. Psychiatry 139, 494-49 (1982).
7. P. Seeman. Synapse 1, 133-152 (2009).
8. R. J. Teunisse, J. R. M. Cruysberg, W. H. L. Hoefnagels, A. L. M. Verbeek, F. G. Zitman, Lancelet 347, 794-797 (1996).
9. M. W. Mahowald, S. R. Woods, C. H. Schenk, Dreaming 8, 89-102 (1998).
10. J. A. Hobson, R. Stickgold, Conscious Cogn. 3, 1-15 (1994). [as quoted in Teunisse 1996]
11. J. Monahan, H. J. Steadman, Violence and Mental Disorder: Developments in Risk Assessment (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996)
12. A. D. Mosholder, K. Gelperin, T. A. Hammad, K. Phelan, R. Johann-Liang, Pediatrics 123, 611-616 (2009).
13. L. B. Merabet, D. Maguire, A. Warde, K. Alterescu, R. Stickgold, A. Pascual-Leone, J. Neuro-Ophthal. 24, 109-113 (2004).
14. B. J. Scott, J. Relig. Health 36, 53-64 (1997).

Chronology of Events in Exposing W.J. Levy – 1974

Research Item – J.E. Kennedy

Below is the text of the summary that was written by J.E. Kennedy, J.W. Davis, and J. Levin in 1974 to summarize what had happened. Some additional information added later by J.E. Kennedy is provided at the end.


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Skepticism and Negative Results in Borderline Areas of Science – 1981

Research Item – J.E. Kennedy 1981

When researchers who are skeptical of the validity of a hypothesis fail to replicate the significant results obtained by those more favorable to the hypothesis, the skeptics often explicitly or implicitly interpret the positive results as being due to some type of experimental error.

The purpose of this paper is to address the other side of the coin, the possibility that, at least sometimes, biased errors by the skeptics play a decisive role in producing their negative results and conclusions. To this end, some cases in which skeptics either carried out research or evaluated the work of others are examined for errors, and then some implications of these cases are discussed. The presentation here is not intended to be a state of the art summary of the research areas of these cases, but rather an examination of the strategy and methodology used in the examples. Before examining the cases, some background matters need to be dealt with.

Most people who consider themselves “scientific” sincerely believe that their judgments are based on objective evaluations of the evidence rather than on personal biases. This controversial (perhaps absurd, in light of recent work in the history and sociology of science—see e.g., Barber, 1961; Brush, 1974; Kuhn, 1963) view of their underlying motivations will not be specifically challenged here.

For the purpose of this discussion, the term skeptic is used to refer to those who have, for whatever reason, a strong expectation that a particular hypothesis will not be verified when objectively investigated. Those who are irrationally hostile to a phenomenon are, of course, also included within the domain of the term.

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