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The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why It Matters

The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why It Matters

by Erich Goode

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Ghosts, psychics, communicating with the dead, UFOs, angels, ESP, astrology: These and other astounding phenomena are accepted as valid by a substantial proportion of the public. Why do so many members of our scientifically sophisticated society believe in assertions that scientists have roundly and almost unanimously rejected? And what does expressing such


Ghosts, psychics, communicating with the dead, UFOs, angels, ESP, astrology: These and other astounding phenomena are accepted as valid by a substantial proportion of the public. Why do so many members of our scientifically sophisticated society believe in assertions that scientists have roundly and almost unanimously rejected? And what does expressing such beliefs mean for the lives of those who do? Unlike many books on the paranormal, which are focused on debunking or verifying such beliefs, this author is interested in explaining paranormal belief as a sociological phenomenon: Who believes, why, and with what consequences?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Goode’s unique and outstanding work directs an illuminating sociological beam of light on one of humanity’s most fascinating riddles: the paranormal. His integrated analysis provides a straightforward and clear examination of who believes in the paranormal, and why. Such an integrated and significant approach has never been presented before. Goode offers truly fresh insights and a persuasive new perspective. . . . It is the one book you simply must read if you really want to know and understand what the paranormal is all about."
—Nachman Ben-Yehuda, professor of sociology and former dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Hebrew University

"It’s easy enough to make fun of bizarre claims about the paranormal and supposed alternative realities, from UFOs and astrology to ghost hunting and pseudoprophecy. What Erich Goode has done, though, is to examine such claims seriously from the point of view of an experienced sociologist, showing how [such] deviant ideas arise and spread. This highly readable and rewarding book tells us a great deal about the mass media and our educational system, and how contradictory ways of understanding the world coexist so uneasily in a postmodern society."
—Philip Jenkins, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University

Library Journal
Goode (sociology, emeritus, Stony Brook Univ.) has written a several books on the topic of deviant sociology (e.g., Deviant Behavior; Drugs in American Society). His newest book is an updated and reorganized version of his 1999 Paranormal Beliefs: A Sociological Introduction. The changes are based in part on feedback Goode received from using the first edition in a senior seminar on the same topic, and this new title includes as case studies a number of the personal paranormal belief statements of his students. Goode is careful to avoid judgment about the existence or nonexistence of the paranormal phenomena discussed, focusing instead on the impact of these beliefs on the cultural and social aspects of society through time. VERDICT This book may read more slowly than books in the popular paranormal genre because of the scholarly nature of the work; however, the topic and case studies will retain most readers' interest. Particularly appropriate for universities and junior colleges.—Crystal Renfro, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib., Atlanta

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Prometheus Books
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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the paranormal

who believes why they believe and why it matters
By Erich Goode

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Erich Goode
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-491-3

Chapter One

Paranormal Beliefs

An Introduction

The prefix para is taken from ancient Greek and means "next to" (as in paraprofessional, paralegal, or paramedical); "similar to" (as in a reference to the police as a paramilitary force); or "outside of" or "beyond," which is where paranormal comes in. Dictionaries define paranormal as that which is "outside of," lies "beyond," or cannot be explained by routine, ordinary, known, or recognized scientific laws or natural forces. Paranormal claims or stories invoke or make use of forces, factors, dynamics, or causes that scientists regard as inconsistent with a satisfying, naturalistic or materialistic cause-and-effect explanation. Gray (1991, 78) defines the paranormal as that which "apparently transcend[s] the explanatory power of mainstream science and stem[s] from unknown or hidden causes." Says Hines, what characterizes the paranormal "is a reliance on explanations for alleged phenomena that are well outside the bounds of established science" (2003, 20). Terms that overlap but are conceptually distinct include the occult, the supernatural, esoterica, pseudoscience, and fringe, extraordinary, eccentric, anomalous, deviant, one-eyed, pathological, and unconventional science.

I argue that paranormalism is not the same thing as pseudoscience. The two overlap, but that overlap is imperfect. Many beliefs are contrary to the conclusions that scientists have reached, but they are not paranormal. For instance, thinking that strange, scientifically unrecognized monsters (such as Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster) exist is not a paranormal belief. In principle, such monsters could exist; it's just that scientists feel the evidence to support their existence is too slim, patchy, questionable, or contradictory to reserve a place for them in biology textbooks. Indeed, if they were found to exist, such texts would not have to be drastically rewritten; the basis of biology would not be overturned. In fact, in 1938, the coelacanth, a fish scientists thought to have been extinct for three hundred million years, was dragged up from the depths of the Indian Ocean. An exciting discovery, yes—but not one that overturned the basis of the discipline of biology.

In contrast, evolution is the very foundation of modern biology; if creationist theory is correct, nearly every page of nearly every current biology textbook would have to be scrapped and rewritten. Says Donald Kennedy: "Evolution is as basic to the rest of biology as atomic structure is to physics" (1998). Belief in creationism is a statement about how biology's mechanisms operate; indeed, it is contrary to its laws, its very first principles. Even more broadly, "an assault on evolutionary theory ... constitutes an attack on the whole of science" (Kitcher 1982, 4). The same radical revision of contemporary science would be necessary if parapsychology, astrology, and the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs were valid.

In sum, belief in Bigfoot is a statement about evidence, not about biological theories or explanations. Belief in Bigfoot is pseudoscience but not paranormalism. In contrast, "scientific" creationism and astrology are both pseudoscience and paranormalism.

Do beliefs exist that are paranormal but not pseudoscientific? Practitioners of at least one field of paranormal investigation believe their methodology to be scientifically valid, yet they invoke a causal mechanism that transcends the mainstream scientific framework. (They would deny that it is paranormal, however.) I refer, of course, to parapsychology, the systematic, empirical study of "psi," or psychic powers. Many parapsychologists hold a PhD in an academic discipline (typically either psychology or physics), conduct legitimate research with rigorous research methods, publish in refereed journals, hold scientific meetings, and comprise a scientific community whose members discuss the validity of work as it is made public. At least one observer has argued that parapsychologists "require for themselves much tighter methodological controls than do sociologists or psychologists" (McClenon 1984, 10). In these senses, parapsychology is scientific, not pseudoscientific, yet (by the lights of mainstream scientists) it is also paranormal.

The term pseudoscience is biased, inherently pejorative. Once you've referred to a given statement as pseudoscientific, its validity is automatically dismissed. One need not take it seriously; the only relevant question becomes: How does one persuade these benighted souls of the truth of real science?

In contrast, as I use the term paranormal, I intend no such pejorative quality. I use it in a purely descriptive way. It states what is factually the case: that the mechanisms of causality on which the belief is based transcend what scientists regard as the natural order. Hence, I agree with Truzzi (1977): pseudoscience is not an appropriate term for much of what we'll be looking at in this book, but paranormal is.

The word paranormal refers, first, to a subject matter, as in paranormal phenomena—the events or powers that are alluded to. Second, it refers to how paranormal claims are approached—whether the validity of these events is accepted, validated, or believed. Thus, when we read a headline that a woman who ate cat food turned into a cat, this narrative or story or claim refers, first, to a paranormal event (a woman turning into a cat) and, second, to a paranormal belief (the conviction that this event can and did actually take place). Paranormalism is a nonscientific or extrascientific approach to a phenomenon—an event that contradicts what scientists take to be the laws of science and that some observers believe to have literally taken place. It rests on the assumption that the scientifically unlawful principles that caused the event to take place are valid and true. Thus, the hallucinations that a person under the influence of a psychedelic drug experiences would not be a paranormal phenomenon, since these effects are pharmacological in origin. But believing these visions to be literally real would represent a form of paranormalism.

The definition of paranormalism I offer uses a term that refers to events whose occurrence falls outside the ordinary and the everyday. Classic science is based on naturalistic causality—a view of the universe where observation reveals what action causes what reaction. Our definition of the paranormal is based on what scientists believe or judge to be beyond the workings of nature. As explained, my definition of a scientist is a person with a doctorate (or a student who is working toward a doctorate) in one of the natural sciences who conducts research that is or could be published in the professional journals in these fields. This definition rests in the constructionist realm. That is, it is based on what a sector of the society—scientists—believe to be true. Society often assumes that science is objective, based on observable fact—that scientists can point to concrete, empirical reasons as to why a given assertion is paranormal and another one is not. This may or may not be the case, but what scientists believe is an assertion, not a fact. (In contrast, that they believe it is a fact.) It is possible that their belief is wrong. One day, their label of paranormal (as something outside the boundary of how nature works) may be rejected. (I doubt it, but it's possible.) But currently, that label is a reality, and it has important sociological consequences.

Hence, to refer to a belief or assertion as paranormal does not automatically mean that it is wrong; to refer to a theory or observation as scientific does not automatically mean that it is right. Numerous claims that have been labeled by scientists as all but impossible have turned out to be true. And many explanations that have been accepted by mainstream scientists at one time have been disproven later. What if, at one time, scientists believe a given assertion is all but impossible, that it makes use of an explanation that is contrary to the laws of nature, and, a few years later, they change their minds and accept that assertion as true? Such a thing has happened numerous times in the history of the world. This does not contradict the definition I laid out, however. I'm primarily interested in how claims are reacted to and by whom, not the truth or accuracy of the claims themselves. I define paranormalism as a realm that is defined, constructed, regarded, perceived, or labeled in a certain fashion by the members of the scientific community—not by what that realm "really" or "truly" is in some objective, essential, or metaphysical sense.

Belief in the efficacy of powers or phenomena that Western scientists now say are improbable or extremely unlikely have been around since the dawn of humanity, of course. Anthropology textbooks are full of descriptions of religious and magical beliefs that are or were prevalent in nonliterate societies around the world. Does practicing witchcraft cause your enemy to get sick and die? Does the volcano that looms above the village erupt when the volcano god becomes angry? Does animal sacrifice keep evil spirits away? Were all the stars in the heavens created by the tears of a lovesick wizard? Can examining chicken entrails predict whether an expectant mother will bear a girl or a boy? Most of us today would answer no to these questions; we would argue that science demonstrates them to be empirically or factually without foundation. Most of us believe science has far more valid explanations for these matters than those offered by tribal, ancient, or folk peoples. Does that make these earlier beliefs about how the universe operates examples of paranormalism?

The answer is no, not quite, at least not as I've defined the term. These beliefs are paranormal from the perspective of today's science, but in the societies in which they were held, the equivalent of today's scientists either didn't exist—at that time—or their scientists didn't know or understand today's scientists' principles. Persons who grow up in a society that socializes them to believe that witches, wizards, gods, and spirits have special powers are not able to weigh the validity of such beliefs against a scientific alternative, since science does not exist in that society. By being functioning members of Druid society two thousand years ago, we would have believed that priestly prayers ensured an abundant crop. As a case of paranormalism, at a time when science did not exist, the acceptance of nonscientific beliefs is not especially interesting, problematic, or even meaningful. Holding beliefs now considered paranormal wouldn't have been a form of deviance two thousand years ago.

Paranormalism becomes an intellectual issue only in a society where the scientific method is hegemonic; that is, the dominant belief. In Druid society, Western science did not exist, hence, there was no perspective then that could have labeled its beliefs as paranormal. The same is not true of the modern world. Why do so many people in the world today embrace beliefs that modern science says are false? It is an interesting question, but it was not even a meaningful question two thousand years ago. Therefore, when I refer to paranormal beliefs, I do so within the context of the modern world. I will refer to paranormalism only as a belief system that contrasts with what scientists believe is likely within a scientifically oriented society.

At what point in the history of the West did science become established as the hegemonic belief system? When did it obtain the approval and support of the dominant political institution; that is, the government? When did a scientific view of things become the major perspective in the public school system, as well as in higher education? Or in the mainstream or most authoritative media?

To put a date on it, science became more or less fully institutionalized in the Western world slightly more than a century ago. There is no way of measuring this precisely, but in 1873, authorities at Johns Hopkins University announced that evolution would thenceforth be taught as the valid interpretation of the origin of species. Within a few decades, this perspective became the dominant perspective in biology courses. A second date, 1910, is important: In this year, the Flexner Report, which was a major step in the professionalization of medical education in the United States, was published. It announced the dominance of Western science in the field of medicine and established medicine as a scientific discipline. For good or ill, and whether or not their version of reality was valid, by some time at the beginning of the twentieth century, mainstream, positivistic Western science and medicine became legitimate, institutionalized, dominant, and hegemonic.

Again, I am not focusing on the issue of whether Western science or paranormalism is right or wrong. Instead, I am interested in a hegemonic versus a counter-hegemonic view of reality. How does an alternative interpretation of reality become established, legitimated? Given that it runs contrary to the dominant perspective, how does it get its message across? To which segments of the society does it appeal? This approach raises a host of important implications, which I'll explore in this book.


Four decades ago, Marcello Truzzi (1972) pointed to an "occult revival" in popular culture. It turns out that he was prophetic in predicting a tendency that is currently in full flower. According to a 2009 Harris poll, a majority—or at least a substantial minority—who were surveyed believe in specific extrascientific forces: three-quarters of the respondents in the poll said that they believe in the reality of miracles (76 percent) and heaven (75 percent), seven out of ten in angels (72 percent), six out of ten in hell as a physically real place (62 percent), the virgin birth (62 percent), and the reality of the devil (61 percent); four out of ten (42 percent) believe in ghosts, a third that UFOs are "something real" (32 percent), a quarter in the validity of astrology (26 percent) and that witches are real (23 percent), and a fifth in reincarnation (20 percent). Earlier Harris polls, conducted in 2005 and 2007, find stability in these beliefs over recent time (Wireless News 2009). Other surveys, including those conducted by the Gallup poll, the Associated Press, Scripps Howard News Service, Roper, Zogby, Daniel Yankelovich, NORC (National Opinion Research Center), and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, say much the same thing, their results varying by only a few percentage points (for instance, Moore 2005; Bowling 2007; Newport 2007; Hargrove and Stempel 2008; Pew Research Center 2009; see Bader, Mencken, and Baker for a summary of recent polls). While one might quibble about its precise size, faith in the paranormal remains substantial into the twenty-first century. Why hasn't it faded away, as many positivistic and rationalist philosophers predicted?

Cognate with public opinion polls, the paranormal theme is a major fixture of fictional fare. Popular television programs built on paranormal assumptions depict humans consorting with vampires, communicating with angels, being visited by (or visiting) extraterrestrials; The X-Files, Star Trek, Touched by an Angel, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters, Angels in America, Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, and The Gates represent a tiny sampling of such programs. Angel, inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spawned a comic book series, Angel: After the Fall, which in turn inspired a Buffy comic book series, launched in 2007.


Excerpted from the paranormal by Erich Goode Copyright © 2012 by Erich Goode. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Erich Goode is the author of ten books, including Deviance in Everyday Life. He is Sociology Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University.

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