Investigative journalist and author Steve Volk seeks a middle-ground between mainstream science skepticism and researchers on the paranormal fringe.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Steve Volk, author of Fringe-ology. During the interview Mr. Volk discusses his personal experience with poltergeist phenomena:
Alex Tsakiris: In your book you do a very nice job of exploring the mystery of the paranormal. But at the same time, I look at the mystery associated with your experience with a ghost in your house. That is, what happened to you when you were a kid growing up and you experienced this poltergeist phenomena. At the end of the day, in the book you come away and say, “Well, it’s a mystery.”
Steve Volk: It is.
Alex Tsakiris: But that’s a tricky word because it could mean two things. It could appeal to that certain group of people who say, “Okay, we don’t know if it really happened. It’s a mystery.” Or another group of people could process it and say, “Oh, it’s a mystery. We don’t know the precise confluence of paranormal things that happened to cause it.” Are we using a word that doesn’t get us to the underlying question about this mystery?
Steve Volk: I think in the totality of that chapter with the fact that I explore the idea of it having been a traditional sort of ghost, along with a range of skeptical explanations from the fantasy-prone personality which is really purely a psychological one to what I consider the more exotic materialist theories like Vic Tandy’s theory of infrasound that there are these sound waves below the level of human hearing that can cause us to even have visual hallucinations, on through Persinger and the electromagnetic energy temporal lobe interaction that he’s been pursuing for a while now, there’s this range of potential explanations right?
I wanted to just put them all out on the table because I think that they all have some sort of validity. I think we need to be willing to consider all these possibilities. I suppose, in that respect Alex, I might appear a little bit of a gadfly at times because I’m challenging everyone to look at all the possibilities all the way on through.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | RSS
Alex Tsakiris: We’re joined today by someone you’ve gotten to know over the last few episodes of Skeptiko as Steve Volk has been a guest host here and brought us three very informative, insightful interviews about the history of parapsychology, neuro-theology, and ghosts. Today Steve is here to talk about his new book, Fringe-ology, a book that covers all these topics and a lot more. Steve, welcome to Skeptiko.
Steve Volk: Alex, thank you so much for having me.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s really great to have you on. The book is really fantastic. I really enjoyed it and of course, we’ve really primed the pump on this little discussion we’re going to have. I’m looking forward to getting into some of these things with you.
Steve Volk: I was going to say maybe we should stop right at “It’s great.” [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs]
Steve Volk: Let’s just call it there. Thank you very much, Alex. Good times.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Well…of course we’re not going to do that.
Steve Volk: I know, I know.
Alex Tsakiris: But first I want to let people know I really did—I genuinely like the book. One of the things I thought was really, really great about it is you’re an investigative journalist and you really brought that kind of sensibility to this book. I love the way you dug into these topics, topics that aren’t covered nearly enough, of course. But you dug into them and you brought us a whole bunch of new information.
You take Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the opening chapters in the book—I mean, wow. Whoever knew that she was the real originator, the first NDE researcher? And you chronicle all of that and do a great job of doing it. And then you add to it the story of how she falls into a spiritualist cult out here in San Diego, and I mean it just adds this depth and a twist and turn that makes it read like a novel. So congratulations.
Tell us a little bit about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, for example, and what you found most interesting about that story and what it was like as it unfolded for you.
Steve Volk: Well, I found this story to be kind of tragic because on a personal level, and I get into this some in the book. I have a lot of dead relatives and a couple of them died after extended illnesses, including my mother. I really got to see first-hand through reading On Death and Dying actually a couple of times over the years—that was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ big book—that just sparked the whole hospice-care movement.
In contrasting the way patients were treated there with the way my mother and my family were treated, as my mother died I got to really see what a valuable contribution she made. Knowing that in the background of all this she had been having these experiences with near-death experience, which didn’t even have a name at that point–I mean Raymond Moody coined that phrase and published the book, Life after Life, six years later after On Death and Dying.
So there she is in the mid-sixties encountering these kinds of events and she has no frame of reference for them. She doesn’t know where to put them. She doesn’t know what to do with them. So I thought that story was poignant for a couple of reasons. It shows you that near-death experience—and guys like Frankel and Shermer still want to put this down to like wishful thinking at times, or the power of suggestion. That explanation simply doesn’t wash because she was having these experiences independently.
Another person I chronicle in that chapter, Diane Corcoran, at the time a military nurse in the mid-sixties, way before Raymond Moody, is having these experiences. So this stuff is “real.” I put that in quotes. Something real is happening and she didn’t know what it was. I think she walked away from that to some extent with a kind of damaged filter. That’s why she was able to be taken in by a psychic and a conman later. So she had this real mysterious experience and that left her wanting more.
Alex Tsakiris: Maybe. I just do think that the part at the end with the con artist spiritualist, maybe you want to go into that a little bit, but the guy was really purely a con artist in the worst sense and faked her into thinking that he was connecting with these spirits from beyond. To me, that just adds such a depth to the overall story that we’re all struggling with when we reach towards the paranormal, when we reach towards something that might lie beyond what we are.
It’s something we’ve tried to explore on this show. Whenever you think you have your arms around this and whenever you think you have a simple answer, look out, because it’s going to turn around and get you. What I thought was so interesting, what we’ve tried to explore lately on this show, is what we really have to do is have one foot in each world. One foot in this world that is the consensus reality which I keep saying, which is what everyone tells us, “Hey, that’s real; that isn’t.”
We have to hold onto that and at the same time we have to reach for something more. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross does seem like someone who was trying to do both.
Steve Volk: Yeah, and that’s why I started with her because what’s interesting is she wasn’t trying to find something more originally. Like that something more found her. She was dealing with the world as it came to her, right? And the funny part is what came to her was this reality of how the terminally ill were being neglected in hospitals. That was her focus but this other stuff, this paranormal stuff, came along with it.
And I wanted to start with her then as a kind of cautionary tale because on one level it shows you that you can be minding your own business with your feet squarely in this world and this stuff may show up. And then what you do from there is tricky.
She ended up with too open a mind, as it were, and got taken in by this guy. So I do feel like it’s important for people to keep that stuff in mind. In the time I was researching the book, as I was spending a lot of time with a ghost-hunter in particular and I saw the people in his orbit, I saw people who were way too eager to ascribe any unexplained sound to a disembodied spirit.
That’s ridiculous, but their filter got damaged somewhere along the way. That’s what I think about Kubler-Ross. I think she encountered so much—as I put it—true weirdness that she became vulnerable to anyone who’d come along and say, “Well, I tapped into it in this way and I can show you how to have repeatable paranormal experiences,” which is what this guy, Jay Barham, did. He came along and said, “Yeah, you had these experiences spontaneously but we do these all the time at our spiritualist church.”
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. So enough playing nice…
Steve Volk: [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: …because you’ve just led me into…
Steve Volk: I just want to say real quick that was 8 minutes and 45 seconds of playing nice. If that’s too much, well, okay.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] No, you’ve actually led me into one of the issues I wanted to talk about because it kept coming up for me when I was reading Fringe-ology. That’s that you seem to be advocating for this middle ground. You do it right from the introduction and it seems to be a theme that keeps coming up. “Can’t we find a middle here?” is what you seem to be saying over and over again.
I guess the way that that plays into the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross story and many other stories that we’re going to talk about here is, is that really the middle ground? Is the middle ground really between the huckster con artist in San Diego from the spiritualist church and the genuine near-death experiences that she studied? It seems to me that rather than a middle there, we have to juggle two realities.
Steve Volk: Yeah, the middle would be somewhere between those sorts of things, right? The middle would be between the…
Alex Tsakiris: No, no. That’s I guess what I’m saying. Let me shift, if I can, that to parapsychology because it’s another topic—psi and telepathy—it’s a topic you cover really, really nicely in the book.
The net of it that I read is that hey, you looked into the parapsychology research, Dean Radin’s research, Jessica Utt’s analysis statistically of the meta-analysis and you say, “Hey, this stuff is real. There’s a real phenomenon there that these guys are reporting. Their methods are really quite good, better than science as a whole.”
And then you look at the skeptical side and you say, “These guys are not very good. The skeptics and the people who oppose them are not playing fair, are not doing good research, have not put up a credible explanation or counter-explanation for it.”
And then at the end you seem to again say, “Okay, there’s some middle ground here.” Well, what’s the middle ground? The big story is telepathy is real. Taking it back to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the big story is consciousness does survive death. Now how we sort out the other part of that, the other game that the other side is playing, to me seems like a separate issue.
Steve Volk: Yeah, I think for me a lot of times where I was seeing question marks you’re seeing exclamation points. You know what I mean? Like, so where you’re seeing a conclusive case having been made I see myself having pushed this from the more materialist, skeptical stance where, We’ve already explained this stuff away, right? This is all a product of superstition. To me pushing it back to, Hey, wait a second. There’s something really worth discussing here.
And so I think I do spend a lot of time pushing back against the skeptics because they’re not often critically evaluated, right? They just sort of put forward something that sounds about right and people don’t consider their claim as critically as they consider the original paranormal claim. Or even very critically at all. So I wanted to break down what their explanations for this stuff are and what some of their motivations might be.
I’ve found that there are severe reasons to doubt them but that to me didn’t make it so I walk around feeling like, Hey, I know near-death experiences are real. Or I know telepathy is real. I just feel like these things have a lot more to recommend them than we’re commonly told and that we need to keep working at it.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. And that may be true from a common-sense, man-on-the-street standpoint, but I think if we look at this through the lens of science I think what you’re really advocating is much more revolutionary because in science we don’t know anything. We’re just moving from theory to theory and one suggests another. From that we form a paradigm that becomes our scientific worldview.
I would suggest that what you put forward is quite revolutionary. If one was just to accept your finding, one would have to say, “Mind does not equal brain. Consciousness survives bodily death in some way we don’t understand.” We don’t understand the implications of it; we don’t understand what that means; we don’t even understand what consciousness is. But clearly the data is strongly suggesting that some kind of consciousness is extending beyond our bodily death. That is paradigm-shifting.
I would suggest to you that you’re really saying the same thing when you look at psi and you say, “Hey, I’ve gone through the data and yes, Dean Radin is right.” Well, that changes everything and I just guess I didn’t feel like you were quite willing to really accept the full implications of that finding. The finding that you do document in the book.
Steve Volk: You know, I guess for me—and it’s funny, I went ahead and just jotted this down as you were saying it. I feel like I’m saying not that mind doesn’t equal brain but that mind very well may not equal brain, right? Consciousness may survive, may very well survive death. I really felt like I was emerging from these things with question marks, personally.
Alex Tsakiris: But I’ve got to hammer on that same point a little further.
Steve Volk: Please do, please do.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s that personally you may not have reached a level of confidence where you would be willing to go there but I would suggest to you that the way science is played, the way the game is, when you are piling up all the evidence on one side and undermining all the evidence on the other side, that would cause the paradigm shift. The only thing keeping it up is more sociological cultural issues that you explore in the book.
But from a scientific standpoint if we’re just looking at the data, you provide all the data on one side. You undermine the data on the other side. It’s really case closed. And in terms of there being question marks, again there’s always going to be question marks. We don’t know. We don’t know in what way all this stuff happens. But it seems to me like you make a much stronger case than you conclude at the end of it.
Steve Volk: I’m content with that. [Laughs] What I mean by that, Alex, is that look, for me the book’s both personal and it’s public. So you’re going to see some of both in there. You’re going to see where my own personal head is to some extent. That’s unavoidable; as much as I wanted to avoid that you can’t. I don’t think there’s any such thing as complete objectivity.
I felt a great responsibility to be measured in what I say and I also felt that that’s what I kept finding. I kept finding more reason to feel like I was in touch with some sense of mystery rather than more reason to feel I was within something that would give me certainty.
This may be too high a bar that I’ve placed on all this, Alex, but for both paranormal and skeptical claims I just thought, “Well, can I claim to know this the same way I can claim to know gravity? That when I drop the pen I’m holding in my hand that it’s going to fall to the ground?” And we’re not there.
Alex Tsakiris: Isn’t that a great example? Because as you know, when you drop the pen to the ground it doesn’t fall to the ground, right? I mean gravity works–as Einstein showed us there’s all these relative forces in play. It isn’t just the Earth pulling on the pen but it so happens that the moon is pulling on the pen and all the other planets are pulling on the pen. The universe is pulling. So it’s exactly that. It’s the illusion that we have of a reality like gravity, when science then reveals that that isn’t really reality. That’s just a close-enough approximation.
I would say that kind of gets to this point that we’re talking about here, and it gets to the point of the mystery. The mystery thing can cut two ways and I think in the book you do a very nice job of being very open and presenting both the personal angle and the public angle in a very upfront way that I connected with and felt that you were totally trying to tell me where you were coming from.
But at the same time, I look at the mystery and I look at your experience with the ghost in your house, which is one of the driving forces through the book. It comes up over and over again. That is, what happened to you when you were a kid growing up and you guys experienced this poltergeist phenomena. At the end of the day, in the book you come away and say, “Well, it’s a mystery.”
Steve Volk: It is.
Alex Tsakiris: But that word is tricky, again, because it could mean two things. It could appeal to that certain group of people and they can say, “Okay, we don’t know if it really happened. It’s a mystery.” Or another group of people could process it and say, “Oh, it’s a mystery. We don’t know the precise confluence of paranormal things that happened to cause it.” Are we really using a word that doesn’t get us to the underlying real question mark of the mystery?
Steve Volk: You know what? I think in the totality of that chapter with the fact that I explore the idea of it having been a traditional sort of ghost, along with a range of skeptical explanations from the fantasy-prone personality which is really purely a psychological one to what I consider the more exotic materialist theories like Vic Tandy’s theory of infrasound that there are these sound waves below the level of human hearing that can cause us to even have visual hallucinations, on through Persinger and the electromagnetic energy, temporal lobe interaction that he’s been pursuing for a while now, there’s this range of potential explanations right?
From the traditional spook or specter on through who knows what. I was on “Coast to Coast AM” last week and they were talking about inter-dimensional beings and shadow people. There are all of these sort of far out possibilities. And then there’s this—on the other end of the spectrum—there’s this usual skeptical explanation which is creaking floorboards and superstition do all the work. Then in the middle what’s interesting is the potential other range of explanations. These may be naturalistic explanations that detail these sort of complicated interactions between people and their environment.
I wanted to just put them all out on the table because I think that they all have some sort of validity. I think we need to be willing to consider all these possibilities. I suppose, in that respect Alex, I might appear a little bit of a gadfly at times because I’m challenging everyone to look at all the possibilities all the way on through.
I suppose that from a reader’s perspective that may seem at times like, Well, pin yourself down, man. Plant your flag in the ground somewhere and stand there. But the truth is, Alex, I think that doing that is false. I don’t think that we have enough information to plant our flag in the ground and stand particularly anywhere in relation to that.
Alex Tsakiris: At the risk of hammering at the same point…
Steve Volk: Sure, sure, sure.
Alex Tsakiris: …I think that reframes the problem in a way that is different than the way the science frames it. That’s that if we go back to near-death experience or let’s stick with the poltergeist phenomena. If we find one case that defies the materialistic explanation, then we’re into this other realm that I’m talking about—this paradigm shift that mind does not equal brain. Clearly, I just don’t know how any reasonable person could look at your case and fit that into a materialistic box. Whatever kind of Persinger or other kind of…
Steve Volk: Infrasound, right.
Alex Tsakiris: Infrasound, whatever. It just doesn’t fit. It’s just not reasonable. So we can have a lot of question marks in terms of the precise confluence of paranormal things that we don’t understand but we’ve jumped the chasm. We’re into this other realm of our mind is more than just our brain. And there are some others. And it’s highly suggestive that our consciousness, as we think of it, isn’t confined to a “here-now” consciousness. That’s revolutionary.
Steve Volk: I think for me, and you and I have discussed this a little bit in the background, this idea of cognitive dissonance being almost a good option. I mean, if you look at my family ghost story, I was six when it happened. As I write in the book, I have vivid memories of it. They’re sort of fragmented because they’re old memories, but they feel as real as anything else feels in my memory.
And yet it’s very hard for me to figure out how to contextualize or frame those things. I also have to be aware that memory is highly suggestible, even among adults. Childhood memories in particular are suggestible. There’s been good research on this. So my own memories of this event may, in fact, be false.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but Steve, it’s much more compelling that the rest of your family had the same experiences, and moreover, you interview the people who lived in your home after you did without tipping them off. And they say, “Yeah, we thought it was haunted, too.” So I mean, that’s…
Steve Volk: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And look, if you’re pushed to a place in the book where you’re thinking, Wow, there’s definitely more here than meets the eye. Something is going on here beyond what we’re told in Science 101 classes. I’m all right with that. But to define it strictly beyond that I think is very, very difficult to do.
I think in the case of my family ghost in particular, I don’t really know what to do with it. I love and trust my family. I believe their accounts. But it doesn’t fit into my experience of the world, so I remain open to various explanations for it. But have I yet heard an explanation that fits squarely into the materialist box, as you put it, where I go, “Yep. That’s the one.” No, I haven’t heard an explanation like that. I don’t know that one exists.
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Steve Volk: But neither do I see fit to go around now saying ghosts are real because it raises a whole other question. What are ghosts? And is it possible that ghosts do represent some kind of odd interaction between the environment and the living person and not something having to do with some disembodied entity? That’s entirely possible.
Like I said, I know that can be frustrating but I’m open to all these explanations.
Alex Tsakiris: Hey, that’s cool. And I’m open to be frustrated, you know?
Steve Volk: Yeah, you know what? That’s kind of your job on Skeptiko.
May I say, by the way Alex, one of the things that really influenced me in the writing of this is that I did go out for a little more than a year with a ghost-hunter in the Philadelphia area. The majority of people we met had absolutely nothing going on in their house but misinterpreted natural sounds as ghostly.
And so I did see where skeptics walk away with this idea that this explains what’s going on. I don’t think it’s enough to explain what’s going on by any stretch but it probably does explain the vast majority of cases.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree with you. And I think that also points out something that we’ve talked a little bit about here. Without giving the skeptics too much credit, there is a service to be done in 1) exposing fraudulent people but 2) just the natural tendency we all have to misperceive things. So if skeptics were nothing more than this Better Business Bureau for ghost-hunters and for psychics that would be fine.
Steve Volk: I’m sorry. I just want to get a quick point here. I think that when you talk about skeptics performing this service by talking about cold reading and the methods that the street-corner psychic will use, when they’re really just trying to get into someone’s wallet and that being a service, 1) I agree with that and 2) there might be some people out there still doing this on the “pro” telepathy side, but I wish they did it more.
I feel like that’s a ground that they just sort of cede to the skeptics and I think that when I look at historically what the old Society for Psychical Research did, in which they really did play both sides of the fence, I think that was really admirable.
There are so few people on the telepathy side now that I guess they don’t have time to really play both sides that heavily, but sometimes I wish they did. You know what I mean? Sometimes I wish they did because the kinds of effects that they’ve documented with hundreds and hundreds of studies are very different than what—you know, in Philadelphia last night I was out to dinner at some high-end shopping center where people gather.
There was this big, deluxe psychic shop the with crystal ball in the window and the $10 entry fee, meaning that they’re going to speak to you for 30 seconds and try to hook you in for $10 and then tell you they can tell you more for $20 more than that. And I wish that the pro-telepathy people maybe did a little more work to try and expose that and talk about that.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, maybe. I hear where you’re coming from but it does lead me back again, in terms of what are the larger implications for your book? For Fringe-ology and for the finding that you have? I guess I’d look at near the end of the book when you sum it up and make where you want this thing to go.
I was challenged by that because on one hand you say, “Can’t we find a middle ground between Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson,” I think were the examples you gave. And is it really Pat Roberson versus Richard Dawkins? Because I get the sense, and it took me a while to really figure this out, is it’s Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins against the rest of us.
Steve Volk: I would agree with that. But I don’t think that precludes that I’m saying. Look, I think most of us are in the middle, Alex. I think most of us sit between Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson. I think that…
Alex Tsakiris: But see, now you’re coming over to my point. If they’re on the same side then it isn’t a middle. I think that’s what we’ve been sold and I think that’s what throws us and why we keep engaging in this debate and this dialogue and it’s the wrong debate.
Steve Volk: It would be slightly inaccurate to say they’re on the same side, though. Pat Robertson is talking about a God and an afterlife and all these things and Dawkins is just denying all those things. So they’re…
Alex Tsakiris: No. Pat Robertson is talking specifically about a God that fits very conveniently, squarely into the materialistic culture that we’ve developed. That God only existed 2,000 years ago. Only did these supernatural things 2,000 years ago in Israel. That’s the only place it was.
And so Dawkins, even though he likes to do this little fight with the Pat Robertson Christians, it’s a sideshow is what I’m suggesting to you.
The full implication of what you’re talking about is that we have to go beyond that. It’s again this chasm thing that I talk about. Hey, we’re led by the evidence, jumping over the other side of the chasm, realizing all these things that are different about these big, big questions about who we are and how we really fit in. And now we have to figure it out. I’d suggest that your book tells us that we can’t really look to Pat Robertson but neither can we look to Richard Dawkins. So we’re really out on our own.
Steve Volk: Yeah, and I think we’re involved in a semantic argument almost, there. Whether we think of them as being on the same side or as opposing sides. The fact is I don’t think—I’ll still refer to them as opposite poles. Absolute certainty of a specific kind of God versus absolute—look, Dawkins can say whatever he wants about not being absolutely certain. He behaves like somebody who is absolutely certain, so I find his claims totally disingenuous, right?
So absolute certainty that there is no any kind of God versus absolute certainty of a specific kind. The rest of us can’t line up with either of those people so we are either in-between them or against them, however you want to phrase it. I’m comfortable with either, Alex. At the end of the day, fine.
I think that people who read the introduction and follow all the way through the book will see that is what I’m saying—that there’s got to be an alternative to this debate that we always see in the media. This is the way it’s always put toward us in media accounts, that it’s this religious fundamentalism versus science. I think that there are areas in our public life where that pops up in debates over evolution and creationism and what we’re going to teach kids in school.
But I think for the vast mass majority of us trying to figure out how to get through each night, trying to figure out how to live our lives, it does us a real dis-service when this is the only debate we get to see. That when we turn on YouTube this is the sort of thing we’re watching.
When we check in on any of these new Atheist debates with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris versus whatever religious figure they’ve chosen to pillory this week. That doesn’t serve us. There’s got to be something between those things and that’s why I even start pointing toward a figure like Sam Harris, who in some ways is really controversial and strident, a new Atheist figure.
But even he, I think, by acknowledging the amount of mystery still in the world, by acknowledging that contemplative prayer and meditation work, by acknowledging that dogmatic religion doesn’t serve us but that doesn’t preclude spirituality, even a broadly-defined spirituality.
There’s some middle ground—what I would refer to as common ground—that starts to get illuminated. A place where we could all stand and try and figure out what it really means to be us. What it really means to be human. Why we’re here and where we’re headed. That’s what I was trying and straining to get at in the book.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think you’ll definitely push a lot of people in that direction in the book. It definitely challenged me and pushed me in that way. So I don’t want to sound too negative because I felt challenged. I felt like a guy who’s going to buy this suit so he’s saying, “Hey, this doesn’t fit over here, not quite here,” because he’s really going to buy it.
But one other aspect that you touch on in the book but I wanted to pull out a little bit because I think even in that very nice summation that you just gave there, or that nice way of understanding this position that we find ourselves in when we accept this new information, the one factor I’d like to deal with head-on is deception.
You really do uncover and you touch on that there is a deception going on and it’s not just in the place that we normally think, like you were talking about the gypsy fortune teller who’s clearly deceiving you. But when we look to science, we don’t expect to see a deception; we don’t expect to see a spin. And yet, as you reveal and as we’ve talked about so much on this show, there really is an organized effort to deceive us.
Steve Volk: You’re specifically referring to the sort of “PsiCop” stuff and the material on Randy and the degree to which the professional skeptical movement—if I just read them I would think that people studying parapsychology are New Age nuts who are praying to some sort of divinity and using healing crystals and all this stuff that we associate with New Age thinking.
When I went to Seattle and saw the parapsychology conference, I was stunned by how down-to-earth the people were. When I surveyed The Parapsychological Association and got the responses back and saw that the majority of them reflected a more Atheistic viewpoint, I was surprised by this. Even as a guy who was skeptical of skepticism, I figured they were right about that, right? [Laughs] They must be right about that. But they weren’t; they weren’t right about that.
So I think there’s a great degree to which the public is generally lied to, that somehow this is all of a piece—that telepathy research is akin to Bigfoot research is akin to believing in Ramtha, and it’s not. Period, end of story. And the fact that guys like Wiseman and French have been pushed to admit that by the standards of any other area of science, telepathy—just that whole field, Gansfeld, remote viewing, all of it—is proven. And they’re usually careful about using a world like “proven,” because as you said earlier, in science nothing is ever proven.
But the fact that they’d even sign off on that and only rely on the extraordinary claims defense, that psi is an extraordinary claim, therefore we need greater evidence, just shows you the degree to which an organization like PsiCop is engaged in simply propaganda and trying to paper over a problem they find uncomfortable.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. But we do have to push that a little bit further, and Richard Wiseman is a perfect example, as is Chris French. Take Richard Wiseman for a minute. Is that really a genuine confession or a genuine admission on his part?
Steve Volk: Oh yeah, I think he had a moment of weakness, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s another gamut. What’s that?
Steve Volk: I think he had a moment of weakness, yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: No. No. I think he…
Steve Volk: I think somebody slipped him some sodium pentothal. But what were you going to say?
Alex Tsakiris: No, I think it’s another gamut. I think it’s another ploy because then he comes out with his book, which we just interviewed him and Rupert Sheldrake on, and he completely—well, he just lies. He just lies. He just rewrites the story, rewrites history, and goes back to his old account.
You know, when we had Susan Blackmore on to talk about near-death experience research, and she’s probably the most often cited real near-death experience researcher who happens to be a skeptic. She just admits all this stuff—no, I’m not a researcher, I’m not up to date, I shouldn’t be regarded as an expert. And then the next month she goes to a conference and she just repeats all her old stuff.
Or you take the near-death experience science as it’s reported in the mainstream science and we’ve just continued to expose this. There is something at play here that keeps things going in a direction and we can step back from the conspiracy and say, “Well, there’s no-one really behind that.” But every time you look, it looks more and more like there maybe is something behind it.
Steve Volk: Well, I think there are market forces in politics behind it at the very least, right? I mean, what I find particularly hard to trust is when Blackmore says, “Oh, I’d love it if somebody would prove something paranormal.” Really? You’d like to be shown up that for the last 20 years you’ve been fighting on the wrong side? That’s what you want? I don’t buy it.
I think what you’re doing is you’re layering on other layers of deception that exist out there, and I agree with you.
Alex Tsakiris: And I think you’re right; you don’t have to go much past market forces and the status quo and maintaining it to understand a lot about what’s going on. It is interesting to speculate if there is more but I guess we’ll have to leave that for another time.
The last topic I wanted to talk about was my personal experience with the book. In my life I’ve had just a little bit here and there of a lucid dream. I read your last chapter on lucid dreaming and lo and behold, it sparked something in me. It’s a great chapter. I go to bed and I have a lucid dream.
Steve Volk: Great.
Alex Tsakiris: And there’s a little technique in the book that you reveal, and I’m not going to tell people what it is because I want them to buy Fringe-ology and find out for themselves. But I can tell you personally, I had the most vivid, amazing lucid experience I’ve ever had and it was because I used that little technique in the book. So I really have to thank you for that.
Steve Volk: That’s terrific. I’m really gratified to hear that because for me, I wanted the book to go from these claims of controversial, traditional paranormal topics to things that like meditation, prayer, lucid dreaming, that sit inside another context of spirituality and religious practice.
What I’ve found in looking at those is that whereas with the paranormal it tends to be something that happens to people and always sits in this little territory of How do I frame that? What do I do with it? Things like lucid dreaming, meditation, and prayer, these are things you can practice. These are things you can do. I don’t want to say it’s like a candy machine because it’s not that easy. But you put your quarters in and you do get a result back.
That’s really beautiful and I wanted people to have something in the book that they could walk away with and keep for themselves in a really practical way. So that’s one of the things that so appealed to me ultimately when I started practicing lucid dreaming was that it gave me something I continue to use.
Alex Tsakiris: So Steve, what’s coming up for you in the near future with Fringe-ology? Do you plan on writing more on these topics?
Steve Volk: [Laughs] I’ve got an appear…
Alex Tsakiris: Kind of hard given that you’ve just published it last week, I know.
Steve Volk: Yeah. The reason I’m hesitating is because here’s the thing. I’m going to promote this in every way I can because I really do feel like I’ve come up with something that is fairly unique in the field amongst the titles that isn’t purely based in argument. A lot of it is storytelling and I feel like too often we ignore what great stories these are.
So I feel like it’s unique in that respect and I feel like it’s unique in the respect that it really does try to find that middle ground or common ground between the people arguing on either side. I don’t feel that many of the books really do that. So those were my two goals. I hope that I hit them. I’ll leave it to other people to decide.
Moving forward then, that means I want to do everything I can to promote this—interview with everyone who’s willing to interview me and all that. But then in the future, Alex, it’s like well, my next book is going to include meditation and lucid dreaming still because it’s going to revolve around fitness. Some of it’s going to be physical fitness and some of it’s going to be mental fitness. But beyond that there’s not going to be like telepathy and ghosts and UFOs like there is in this one.
Now, past that second book, who knows? Let’s see how this one goes. Let’s see what kind of reception it gets. Let’s see what kind of reception I get, because there’s some risk involved in being a mainstream features writer who takes on this kind of topic. Let’s just go from there. I’m not opposed by any stretch to doing Fringe-ology II.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. That would be a good title.
Steve Volk: [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: Well, Steve, it’s been great having you on. You’ve really brought so much to us with this book and we do appreciate the interviews you’ve brought to us in the past. Thanks for joining us today on Skeptiko.
Steve Volk: Thanks very much for having me, Alex.