Researching the things that go bump in the night

Matthew Reisz reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of detachment for those pursuing ghostly research

May 16, 2019
Ghost reaching out from beyond

What is it like for academics to research the outlandish and bizarre?

That is one of the questions I wanted to ask Ken Drinkwater and Neil Dagnall, the Manchester Metropolitan University psychologists I interviewed for the feature “Heartbeats and spreadsheets: researching the psychology of the paranormal”.

The two professors are largely responsible for a course in parapsychology which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Although their journal articles are sober and heavily statistical, they also offer glimpses of people who believe some, frankly, pretty weird stuff. 

I wondered how were they able to keep a straight face when speaking to someone who claims to predict the future or starts spouting a mad conspiracy theory?

Dagnall and Drinkwater refuse to go along with the claims of clairvoyance or intrigue. But while stressing that they are not “believers” (and indeed have written popular articles offering rational explanations for allegedly paranormal phenomena), they also describe themselves as “compassionate sceptics”. 

As Drinkwater put it to me, “We do not attempt to debunk and demystify the beliefs of others. In the case of ghosts, for example, we look for psychological reasons for why people report sightings and experience encounters but do not use these to dismiss the phenomena out of hand. 

It is impossible to reach definitive conclusions on topics such as life after death.”

One can see the advantages of such detachment. I once spoke to Oxford historian Ruth Harris about her 1999 book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. 

Since she explicitly refused to take a view about the miracles of Saint Bernadette, she was able to offer a fascinating analysis of the arguments of both the Catholic authorities who established the Pyrenean shrine and their secular critics, without coming down on one side or the other. 

Similarly, Dagnall and Drinkwater are keen to hear what mediums, psychics and ghost hunters have to say about their powers and methods. Such people are hardly likely to engage with researchers who make it clear, in print or in person, that they think they are credulous, idiotic or ridiculous. 

It’s easy to see how a detached agnosticism about alien abductions and poltergeists is useful for paranormal scholars.

But such an approach also makes it difficult to explore other interesting avenues that can lurk below the surface. 

For the record, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I certainly feel compassion for some believers in the supernatural, most obviously the parents who turned to spiritualism after losing sons in the First World War. 

Yet it is precisely because of that that I also feel outraged by the mediums who exploited their grief and made money from false consolation. I can only tow this moral line, of course, because I am convinced that spiritualism is both bullshit and often a pernicious racket. Refusing to “debunk or demystify” can only take one so far.

Matthew Reisz is a reporter and books editor at Times Higher Education

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