Parapsychology and the Media

Some parapsychologist colleagues and I were discussing the many shortcomings of the way the media covers scientific parapsychology recently.  I contributed a little memory that was sort of amusing, but really sad, that I think would be of general interest.

Twenty years or more ago I was asked to come to Hollywood, at their expense and a (to me munificent) five hundred dollar honorarium, if I remember correctly, to be interviewed for the trailer for a film soon to be released.  I believe the film was The Eyes of Laura Mars or some movie like that.  They told me it was about the paranormal, so they wanted experts on the paranormal, like me, to talk about psychic stuff.

I was cautious and asked to see the script, which they did send me.  The script showed me this was basically a horror movie that I didn’t want to be associated with.  On the other hand, the trailer was expected to be seen by several million people, part of my job as a professor was educating people, when would I ever get a chance to say anything to millions?  (That happened with several appearances on Coast-to-Coast AM with Art Bell years later, but who knew that at the time?)

So I decided to take a chance.  I figured they might edit me down to single sentences, but I might convey something useful and educational in a single sentence.  So I went and, I believe, did the fastest thinking on my feet of my whole life, answering questions in a way that each isolated, single sentence would be interesting, but convey something useful about poltergeist cases and the like.

It had never occurred to me that they would edit me down to single words….

So I might say something like “Because people aren’t educated about unusual phenomena, they might find an event like that horrifying, but that’s just showing something about their learned reactions, not showing that the phenomenon themselves are horrible or evil.”

Then months later I got to see the trailer.  Rapid transitions between me and several other parapsychologists, and the only part of the above sentence included was “Horrible.”  Flash back again later to a momentary shot of me saying something like “Evil.”

Ah well, “educational.”

In general media coverage of the paranormal is very distorted.  They will interview some researcher who has spent decades doing dozen of experiments run according to the highest scientific standards.  Then, under the rationale of “balance,” – but I think really because controversy sells media – they interview one of the pseudo-skeptics who has never done a single experiment on the subject, but is presented as if he’s also an expert, who will strongly declare it’s all nonsense.


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