A RELIABLE WITNESS?
by Christine Phillips
In many cases the only access investigators have to anomalous phenomena are the reports of witnesses. In an attempt to circumvent the known limitations of untrained observers faced with unexpected situations, we might try to ‘see it for ourselves’ where possible. But even in the controlled situation of the ‘vigil’, where everyone is well prepared and well equipped, we are still ‘only witnesses’ acting within the limits of human perception and understanding.
It strikes me that contemporary parapsychology is in much the same situation as nineteenth century sociology. As the discipline of sociology emerged, its proponents quite rightly felt, that if it was to survive in a world who's grand narrative of truth was science, it must justify itself as a science. Indeed, it was the main aim of one of the founding fathers of sociology, Emile Durkheim, to prove that his subject was a science in just the same way as the natural sciences. And this is what I feel I must do in order to bring groups like ASSAP into the mainstream.
As the cornerstone of his argument, Durkheim introduced the concept of the social fact. His argument was that the natural sciences could never explain the whole world. While biology and physics can explain how people are made and how they breathe, it could not explain how people operate when they are living together. Durkheim pointed out that all humans organise themselves in similar ways: humans always have formed and will form societies which operate in basically the same ways. For example they all exist in family structures, they all create and enforce laws, etc. All of these things are social facts. And this, he stated, should be the subject matter for the sociologist; not only should we explore the existence of these facts, but we should explore the nature of the relationship between the individual and society. Durkheim analysed society; he asserted that a society exists independently of the sum of its parts - even to the extent that it can coerce its members and exert control over them (this is how we know it is real). While the biologist examines the parts, the sociologist studies the society. So by asserting society as a real thing, he could justify sociology as a natural science.
I feel that we are faced with the same challenge as Durkheim in ASSAP today. We must develop stringent scientific methods in order to validate findings and earn some degree of credibility, as Maurice Townsend pointed out in The Gold Standard (Anomaly, Volume 17). However I would suggest that Durkheim's efforts have been wasted on ASSAP, as we seem to neglect the realms of social explanation.
As a member who has recently joined ASSAP, I have been very impressed by its commitment to rigorous, scientific research. In this essay I would like to contribute something to that. I feel it has been a tendency common throughout the canon of literature on the paranormal to look for explanations in two areas. When phenomena emerge, it strikes me that explanations are offered from two broad disciplines; we quite rightly look for explanations in the realms of what can be explained through the natural sciences. However, when scientific explanations have been exhausted, there has been the tendency to jump to paranormal explanations.
Whatever happened to research of the social phenomena which may be involved - the area of Durkheim's social facts? I feel that this may be a fruitful area of exploration which has long been neglected.
I am not proposing that ghosts may be explained by looking at social facts, or by the things that people who experience them have in common: this would be far too simplistic; neither am I challenging the existence of the paranormal. However, I am suggesting that we may have more influence on encounters with the paranormal than has ever been credited to us. I would even go so far as to say that social facts underpin all phenomena to a greater or lesser extent, simply by virtue of the fact that it is people who encounter and report purportedly paranormal phenomena. People are not neutral, unbiased witnesses. They are influenced by a multitude of factors purely because they live in the world.
Investigators have a tendency to concentrate on the phenomena described, establishing theories and scientific facts about those phenomena, and while we are all too aware that the witness may not be objective, little emphasis has been placed on the role that we play in actively experiencing and reporting the paranormal. In fact, as I will go on to discuss, we do not simply observe and report phenomena, but we actively re-define, label and categorise everything we perceive. It is vital, then, that we pay some attention to the way these processes take place.
The vigil experience
Let me offer the following to highlight the importance of considering sociological factors in research. I would like to describe a situation which, I am sure, we will all be familiar with, indeed so familiar that it is mostly unchallenged. It is also a phenomenon that would, by definition, fall into the category of Durkheim's social fact.
You are on a vigil, in a room with three or four other people. One person experiences something, whether it be a sighting, a noise, a smell, or even a temperature change. However, not everybody in the room experiences this. The rest of the group may experience nothing at all.
If I may pause here for a moment, this fact is, by its own right, a phenomenon that cannot be explained scientifically. According to natural law, everybody in the room should have experienced exactly the same thing. Of course, it is sometimes the case that everybody may experience precisely the same thing; I would suggest, however, that this does not happen in the majority of cases. Indeed, it is as much a phenomenon as the apparition itself, but there is no need to jump to paranormal explanations. I would suggest that this variation in what is perceived is not a 'paranormal' phenomenon eg. 'Did the ghost have a message for the specific witness?', it is rather a social phenomenon, eg. 'Why has one person perceived what they have seen to be paranormal?'
When we consider the frequency with which the above situation occurs it becomes obvious that witnesses have some kind of influence on sightings, the precise nature of which is, as yet, unclear. What I am suggesting is that, given further research, it is possible to be in a position where we can predict, based on social and psychological factors, who, if anybody, will be more predisposed to experience a paranormal phenomenon and who will be the first person on a vigil to witness something.
In this essay I am not challenging the existence of the paranormal, far from it. What I am trying to do is to redress the balance of previous work by suggesting some of the ways that witnesses play an active part in perceiving and defining paranormal experiences.
I would like to outline some areas which I feel play a part in the likelihood of an individual’s encountering the paranormal. Further research may tell us more about the nature of these factors; for now, however, it is enough to outline them and be aware of them.
The process of observation is in no way as objective as it may seem. Yet its objectivity is completely unchallenged. How often do we hear cynics say 'they will believe it when they see it', taking their perception to be completely objective and trustworthy. However, what exists in the outside world and what we 'see' may be quite separate things.
An object in the external world that is observed projects an image on the retina of the eye, and effectively this is where any objectivity in perception may cease. Once the image is received on the retina, the brain takes this visual information and attempts to make sense of it by categorising it according to what it already understands through experience.
Thus it can be seen that what a psychic person perceives to be a ghost, a sceptic may perceive to be simply a grey light. While both 'see' exactly the same effect they perceive entirely different things.
It may be seen then, that what one 'sees' depends on a whole range of factors, such as one's personality type, background, family, education, religious belief, least of all the actual object in the external world. An individual recognises things according to what he or she has been exposed to in the past, what he or she is used to or what he or she expects to see in the circumstances.
To one person, a drop in temperature may signify a paranormal event. This person may be well versed in the literature of the paranormal and may be familiar with this phenomenon, indeed he or she may even be knowledgeable on the history of phenomena relating to this particular place. To another person of a different, perhaps more scientific background, it may simply be a drop in temperature.
It may be seen that the way we perceive underlies any experience of the paranormal. Indeed a group may all experience the same thing. However, only one person may perceive it to be paranormal, while the others may draw other conclusions depending on their backgrounds and even their different personality types.
Similarly, if they believe that they have psychic ability, they may be more likely to experience something purely because they expect to. They may perceive what they see or hear to be paranormal more readily than someone who does not think he or she hold any such ability. And this effect would be independent of any real psychic ability.
Following on from this point, this could also be defined as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as mentioned previously. People who believe themselves to be psychic are more likely to experience something they define as paranormal before any other in the group. Because they expect to experience something, this will actively shape the perception process. This phenomenon may be enhanced if the individual is in a group where others are aware of this purported psychic ability, because the others would have certain expectations of the individual.
Effectively, ghosts are only ghosts because we label them as such. As such, we actively perceive and create phenomena. I would like to use sociological labelling theory to suggest some of the social implications of this.
To explain the theory using a simple example, a labelling approach to deviance would suggest that there is no actual difference between a criminal and a 'law-abiding' citizen, because to some extent every person has broken a law (whether it be speeding or 'borrowing' tea bags), which makes them by definition a 'law-breaker' or 'criminal'. The difference between a normal person and a 'criminal' lies not in the act itself but in the social processes which take place once a person is 'caught'. This involves a process of labelling where the individual is identified as a criminal publicly, is put in prison and effectively begins a criminal career; the individual's whole identity is transformed, or rather subsumed under this new primary label.
As we have seen, a 'ghost' is only defined to be so if a witness perceives and translates the information received to the brain as such. What happens then is a process of labelling, whereby the phenomenon, whatever it may be, is labelled as 'paranormal' and this becomes the primary label which determines and shapes all further treatment of it.
Once the label is applied, the original evidence for the definition is reshaped in the memory; it often becomes exaggerated or distorted and sensationalised to such an extent that its origins become obscured. All of the evidence is re-worked to confirm the label. And once this primary label is applied, it is almost impossible to see the phenomena as anything else. The evidence is documented and analysed, and this may serve to define and shape all further encounters.
So it can be seen that we have a far more active part in encountering the paranormal than merely observing. We play an integral part in the process of actively perceiving and defining the paranormal, in some cases, even to the extent that we unconsciously create the paranormal.
I would suggest that an individual's immediate environment plays a significant part in affecting his or her chances of having a paranormal experience. And by this I do not mean that if you are in a reputedly haunted house you are more likely to encounter something! What I am suggesting is that certain factors in one's immediate environment play an important part.
If a person feels comfortable in the area, it will make them relaxed and calm and so less likely to react hastily to any change in the environment. An individual who is comfortable is more likely to respond only to fairly substantial evidence. Conversely, if an individual is on his or her first vigil in a purportedly haunted house, it is easy to become agitated and tense or caught up in the imagination and mood of the place, understandably increasing the likelihood of encountering 'something'.
An individual's state of mind plays a crucial part in the likelihood of experiencing the paranormal. Beyond feeling nervous or tense, it should also be noted that feelings such as tiredness, coldness, boredom or fear will also affect one's chances of perceiving the unexplained.
Similarly, factors outside the immediate environment may work to induce certain states of mind that will affect perception in the ways outlined above. If one is stressed at work or unhappy at home, these may play lesser or greater parts in the way the individual will perceive things. This may also act in the way of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby individuals on a vigil are expecting to experience something. This will in turn affect and shape what and how they perceive, as I mentioned earlier.
It is also possible that members of the group work to influence one another in perceiving what they encounter. In 1956 an American psychologist named Asch carried out some experiments that illustrate the influence other members of the group can have on an individual. It is particularly relevant for this discussion. Asch placed a subject in a group of nine confederates (unknown to the subject). They were asked to complete a simple perception exercise, reporting back their answers in front of the group. The subject was placed last and watched in dismay as all the others in the group reported back the obviously wrong answer. When his turn came, he conformed with the group response, even though he had initially thought it to be incorrect.
It was more important for the subject to conform with the group than to give what he had thought was the correct answer, moreover, a consensual group decision was enough to make him actually disbelieve what he had seen. What Asch illustrates is the power of group pressure.
While it is doubtful that a group would mislead each other in this overt way under normal circumstances, it is undoubtedly possible that what an individual perceives may be in some way shaped by the experiences of the rest of the group.
In this essay, I have tried to outline some of the ways in which our nature as humans and social beings may affect what and how we perceive. A great deal more work about the precise nature of these factors can only benefit future research.
For too long the role of the witness has been unquestioned, concentrating on the actual phenomenon itself. However, by doing this we assume the witness to be entirely unbiased and value-free. This is not the case. An investigator cannot separate himself from his own beliefs, values, personality and knowledge when he comes to a vigil, nor should we want him to. However, in a scientific world it is easy to consider ourselves to be as objective and unbiased as the tools we use.
Even if it were possible, I do not propose that we should attempt to become more objective or scientific. Rather, I would prefer that, when conducting research, we were aware of some of the factors that can affect what we experience. We should then actively consolidate and allow for these factors in our research.
Indeed, if we accept and embrace the way we perceive and respond both psychologically and socially, it can only add depth to investigation, leaving scientific measurement to our equipment.
This article first appeared in Anomaly 20, May 1997.