Dr. P’s Paranormal Corner: On Doyle’s Fairies and Smart People Believing Weird Stuff

I am an associate professor of psychology with a long history of teaching statistics and research methods. I am also the author of “Under the Paranormal Curve: Comparing Psychology Research Methods to Parapsychological Popular ‘Science.’” Finally, I have/had a secret. Even though I don’t really believe in ghosts, alien visitations, fear eating interdimensional entities, evil Muppet tulpas, or skinwalkers, I actually love a good weird story! Paranormal shows and podcasts are my guilty pleasure. But I have been experiencing a little more guilt and a little less pleasure in the last three years.

I am also a big fan of great popular writers on skepticism like Carl Sagan and James Randi. Learning about the scientific method in college was transformative for me. For years, I had an easy time keeping the two interests separate. Science was science and spooks were for entertainment. But I believe that we have entered a period I would call a “Misinformation Revolution.” Challenges like climate change, pandemics, and extreme political discourse are serious issues society must face. And our collective ability to take on these challenges is being hampered by the free spread of unfettered hogwash across the internet.

It’s cute to have a conspiracy theory about aliens in the moon. It’s not cute when people don’t get vaccinated because they think vaccines are part of a “plandemic” to insert microchips in people for some…reason? I don’t know. It makes no sense! But people are building whole communities and identities around stuff that makes no sense. I am interested in why this is, how it works, and whether educators can make critical thinking fresh again to help combat this stuff.

That’s right, I just implied critical thinking is BORING. I mean, it actually isn’t boring. But the way we talk about it and teach about it is competing with flashy memes and popular social media influences who talk about ivermectin suppositories or whatever. If you are the kind of person reading this blog, you might (or might not) be kind of person who thinks, “people should just learn and trust the science.” They should, but instead they watch Tik Tok and listen to celebrities. And before you get too upset about people these days, let me tell you about the fairies!

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote an entire book called “The Coming of the Fairies” about the amazing story of the Cottingley Fairy photographs. If you have never heard of these, please take a moment to do an image search. I’ll wait…Oh good, you’re back! I think you will notice that the fairies look fake. That is because they are. In his classic book on skepticism, “Flim-Flam: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions,” Randi details the whole affair and points out that not only are the photos explainable by photographic tricks that already existed in the early 1900’s, but the actual drawings which were the basis for the paper cutout fairies have long since been discovered!! That’s right, the fairies in the photos were copied from images in “Princess Mary’s Gift Book.”

I would not blame you if, at this point, you think Doyle must be kind of daft. But he was an intelligent man. He was an excellent writer and story teller and he had a degree in medicine. But he was a true believer in the Spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The very fact such a celebrity endorsed the photos gave them credibility with believers for decades. Frankly, a lot of intelligent and well known people were part of the Spiritualist movement and used their statuses to legitimize it. Some of them had scientific backgrounds. Much of their evidence looks (and frankly is) ridiculous by today’s standards. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing we are smarter than them.

My book is about the scientific method and how it contrasts with parapsychology and its goal is to make basic research methods feel a little less dry for students. But I feel like we professors need to be engaged in the mission of making science and critical thinking a bit less dry for everyone. We may be intrinsically interested in and passionate about the topics we studied in grad school. Most people aren’t. That’s why I have a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and most people do not. However, I do not have a Ph.D. in literature or chemistry. I like both topics well enough now, but that is because I had to work a little at liking them and because I had some high school teachers and college professors who brought those topics alive to me, even if they did not end up being my main thing.

The reason we need to work a little harder to make research methods and scientific thinking fresh is that intelligent and educated people are every bit as susceptible to misinformation as anyone else. And intelligent people who are charismatic celebrities with big platforms will always have more impact that you or me. But if we can catch our students’ (and maybe even the public’s) interest with different approaches to talking about methods, we might be able to make inroads. And if I have to write a research method’s book that mentions Mothman, alien abductions, and a sasquatch named Tim, I will do it!!!!

If anyone is interested in more blogs like these, drop me a line a prichard@uamont.edu. Maybe Tim will be a quest writer on future blogs as well. If you are interested in using my book for a methods class, check out the link here: https://novapublishers.com/shop/under-the-paranormal-curve-comparing-psychology-research-methods-to-parapsychological-popular-science/.