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Thursday, December 17, 2015

What You Read About the Paranormal Is Just the Tip of the Tip of the Iceberg

The average person may occasionally read about the paranormal, and may get the impression that it is some extremely rare thing, based on how infrequently it is reported. But there are reasons for thinking that what you read about the paranormal may be just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Instead of being a “blue moon” type of thing, the paranormal may be extremely common. Various factors may have caused you to think of the paranormal as being something extremely uncommon, when it actually may be very common.

Let's look at what some of these factors may be. One factor is that probably the overwhelming majority of people who have paranormal experiences do not publicly report them. There are several reasons why someone having a paranormal experience may not report it publicly. He may fear being ridiculed, or he may fear that if he reports a paranormal experience he may be thought of as weird or flaky or a liar, and that this may hurt his job prospects. Or someone may not report a paranormal experience simply because there was not any physical evidence he can present to show the incident occurred. 

Of the people who do publicly report their paranormal experiences, probably the great majority simply make some social media entry that you are very unlikely to ever hear about. My guess is that 99% of all paranormal experiences are not reported in a way that would be likely to end up in a news story that you might ever read. Corporations are masters of milking the media for news coverage, but what is the chance that some person having a paranormal experience will then spam the news media (or issue a press release) in the right way to get good news coverage? Almost zero.

Another reason why the paranormal may be vastly more common than you might imagine is that your college or university probably failed to teach you anything about it. Modern colleges and universities are bastions of materialist thinking that like to exclude and denigrate the paranormal. When you took that psychology course in college, you should have learned all about the years of very substantial and methodical research done on the paranormal, particularly ESP. But you probably learned very little or nothing on the topic, leaving you with the impression that there isn't much there.

But what about news media such as newspapers, magazines, and online news sources? In general, they publish little about the paranormal. Someone with a very newsworthy account of a paranormal experience has only a small chance of getting substantial coverage in such media.

Below are some factors that tend to inhibit coverage about the paranormal.
  • News sources may exclude coverage of a paranormal story on the ground that it is not “respectable” or lacks prestige, even if it is well backed up by observations. But the weird speculations of some PhD may get exactly such coverage, even if they have no such observations to back them up. This makes no sense, because speculations should be the humble handmaidens of observations and experiments, rather than being granted a higher status.
  • A large fraction of paranormal experiences may be excluded on the grounds that they have some association with some religion. The thinking of a writer or editor may be that he doesn't want to discuss some paranormal experience associated with a religious person, on the grounds that this has low prestige, or that this may offend people of other religions or people with no religion. The problem with such an approach is that it ends up excluding a large fraction of all paranormal evidence. Once you've decided that you're not going to cover paranormal evidence associated with Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Shintoists, Spiritualists, and Muslims, you've then filtered out a large fraction (or perhaps a majority) of the evidence.
  • Some new and unique paranormal phenomenon may receive no coverage on the grounds of unfamiliarity or “excessive weirdness” (new types of paranormal phenomena typically seem extremely weird). Conversely, anything paranormal that has been long reported (such as ESP or phenomena at seances) may be excluded on the grounds that it is “old hat,” and “not news.”
  • A news media may use some rule that the stranger the experience reported, the more we should tend to doubt the person reporting it. The result may then be that some mildly paranormal things will get reported, but anything stranger may be excluded from news coverage on the grounds of “that's too weird for us to cover.”
  • If some paranormal news story does get covered by a news media, the story is likely to be “back buried” so that you probably won't read it, rather than “front-paged.”. Even if the story is very worthy of followup coverage, it probably won't get it. If things worked similarly for other types of stories, we might have got one back page story on the Lewinsky affair, with no followup stories.
The paranormal is almost never reported like this, even when it deserves such coverage

Reasons such as these may mean that you are unlikely to read about some important paranormal event that occurs. But what if you do happen to read a story about it? The chances are that after you read such a story you won't learn the most pertinent details, because of what we may call underreporting. Underreporting is described in this blog post. It's basically what happens when some news source excludes the most relevant and startling details of a story, the details that might make you say, “there's no way we can explain that.” An example would be if a witness exactly reported seeing a dazzlingly bright 50-meter disk in the sky, and such an experience is merely reported by a news media as a “a sighting of something unusual in the sky” or a “sighting of a disk-like object.” The sin of underreporting is habitually committed by wikipedia.com, which as a general rule has nothing but outrageously biased articles on paranormal topics, articles designed to make you think “there's nothing there.” The same sin of underreporting is committed by many other news sources.

As a result of all of these factors, you may end up reading in your lifetime very little about the paranormal. You may get the impression that the paranormal is some “blue moon” type of thing, and that people who have paranormal experiences are some very rare oddballs such as Uri Geller. But to the contrary, there is good reason to think that paranormal experiences occur to large fractions of the public. Public opinion polls that deal with experiences with the paranormal (not just beliefs about the paranormal) show that significant fractions of the public say they have had paranormal experiences. For example, a Pew Research poll indicated that 29% of the American public claimed to have been in touch with someone who died, and 19% claim to have seen a ghost. My guess is that a more comprehensive poll asking about all types of paranormal experiences (including UFO's, ESP, mystical experiences, precognition, highly improbable answered prayers, and so forth) might suggest that more than half of the public have had some type of paranormal experiences at some time in their life. In fact, this infographic tells us that 71% of Americans report having had a paranormal experience.

So despite the impression you get from our filtered print media, the paranormal may not be very abnormal.