A while ago when writing about the change that is needed for paranormal research communities to become rational I said ‘this change will come from within the Phenomena Research communities and not from outside – it is ghost hunters who will improve research standards, not dismissive skeptics’. I’ve realised that I was being hopeful and naively so.
Although I still stand by the belief that it is ghost researchers that will make research more rational overall and that dismissive non-believers will not inspire that change, I believe that it is also possible that some parts of Paranormal Research communities will also not inspire that change – even when their aims are to do just that.
The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) describe themselves as ‘a scientifically-orientated educational and research charity and learned society dedicated to a better understanding of anomalous phenomena.’ I’ve been a paying member for a number of years after first discovering them while searching for rational explanations for the various weird things I had experienced or believed in the past. The things that ASSAP claim to stand for are things I support.
On top of the annual membership fee you can pay to attend optional training sessions or to enroll on their new foundation course that covers the science, ethics and practical side of paranormal investigation. I am enrolled on this course. Anyone can join ASSAP no matter their beliefs as long as they ‘subscribe to the use of scientific methods to investigate anomalous phenomena’.
Everything about ASSAP is admirable and commendable… until you look beneath the polished surface.
In recent months the behaviour of the organisation has been really disappointing. Lembit Opik – a media personality – has been presented in the media as though he is representative of the members of ASSAP when he is no such thing. PR for the organisation has also recently seen stories include incomplete data that has been misrepresented.
The sudden increase in the number of conferences being held – including a vampire symposium, an event looking at exorcism, and a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ rip off that launches soon with a talk by Rupert Sheldrake gives the impression that ASSAP are trying to raise their public profile, but at a cost.
The organisation is treated as something to be laughed at by journalists, and inviting Rupert Sheldrake to launch the new monthly talk series is a controversial move that I can’t help think of as a publicity stunt more than anything, given the recent media attention that Sheldrake has inspired. This shift in the priorities of ASSAP is disappointing for many.
There are bigger problems with the organisation too, ones I was warned about all those years ago when I first signed up. Problems that I have been aware of all through my membership – issues that I put a positive spin on to try and convince myself that everything was okay. I was wrong.
It’s really appealing to pay the additional fees and take the training courses and become an Approved ASSAP Investigator (AAI), to be included on the National Register for Approved Investigators and to be an Affiliate Organisation and work on cases on behalf of ASSAP. For many people the training helps them become good investigators, but for others these are just credentials that can be used to avoid the ‘pseudo-science’ accusations often levelled at biased paranormal researchers. However, biased research is pseudo-scientific and potentially unethical whether you are an AAI or not, and for some the comfort that a belief in ghosts brings is more appealing than the want to be rational. Being a ghost hunter who seeks (and finds) evidence of ghosts is a hard habit to kick because the hits are easy to find and communicating with ghosts through whatever means necessary is a more fruitful way to spend your time than sitting around and testing various hypotheses. Knowing how to be rational doesn’t mean you will be, and that is in direct conflict with the aims of the organisation.
While ASSAP not taking a corporate stance is admirable in some ways, it does lend to the idea that the role of a scientific methodological approach in paranormal research is up for debate when it isn’t. A belief-led approach to researching strange phenomena is riddled with biases and flawed thinking, as is the use of pseud-scientific devices and such approaches are not on equal footing with a rational approach. Yet, a look at the affiliate organisations of ASSAP shows exactly those approches being used.
In the not-so-distant past I witnessed members of ASSAP questioning the role of skeptics such as myself within the organisation. After the incident in that link I was removed from the contact lists of many of the people who work for ASSAP. Would ASSAP achieve its aims better if it didn’t care so much about what believers thought? I think so, but rocking the boat is not appreciated it seems, but that’s just too bad.
When I recently voiced my concerns to a friend who is also a member, and told them that I was thinking of cancelling my membership they replied with ‘What happened in BUFORA when all the critical people left? It fell to bits’ suggesting that I should continue as a member for some greater good – a good that I do not believe is likely to be a reality any time soon.
Tolerating nonsense does not further rationalism. It does not promote a rational approach to paranormal research, and with that in mind, I quit.