#25 Ethics of Paranormal Investigation

The first event this morning at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 is a panel with James Randi, Karen Stollznow, Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, and Banachek, and is being moderated by Julia Galef.

The panelists are discussing going undercover and using deception during their investigations. They all feel that some deception is necessary occasionally. Randi, with his Darwinesque beard, does not go undercover and uses agents, such as Banachek for Project Alpha, instead.

The crowd is much smaller than yesterday. Many people are likely still in bed after partying all night. Other academic conferences that I've been to had ethics panels in the morning of the second or third day. Is it because the subject has a tendency to be a little dry and no one will be there? Might have to investigate that. Back to ethics.

Banachek feels that you need to set rules ahead of time for the investigation you are doing otherwise you could be seen as just doing a con. That seems logical. A serious investigation or an under cover operation should be treated as a science experiment that utilizes the scientific method. Would a college IRB approve an undercover experiment into the paranormal?

When dealing with issues of confidentiality it depends on the person. Nickell feels that it's a judgement call. If the person you are investigating is public and has a public persona then he feels it is OK to publish about them. Banachek feels that psychics prefer their privacy and he tries to preserve that if he can. Ben Radford once kept pictures of the front of a family's house out of an article to give them privacy. In another case a family thought they had a ghost. He let them down by saying if you had a ghost, it's gone now. He didn't run in, guns blazing, saying that they are full of crap and that ghosts don't exist.

Joe Nickell related an interesting story about a local skeptics group. The group wanted him to go with them to a haunted house. He agreed but when they wanted to bring a reporter he objected. He said that it creates an adversarial environment where the group is now trying to debunk something and could be playing to the needs of the reporter. As in academic research, you still need to preserve the integrity of your research subjects and make sure that you don't intentionally humiliate them.

Radford discussed the "children never lie" phenomenon. Parents are reluctant to believe that their children could be responsible for alleged paranormal activity. Randi agrees and says that children constantly test their environment to see what they can get away with.

The main point of the ethics discussion centered around truth and honesty. The panelists all agreed that you need a set of rules before you set out so you know how to respond to any situation that comes up. They also agree that humiliating your subjects and demeaning them for their beliefs is something they try to avoid,

I wonder whether it is ethical to NOT tell people that ghosts don't exist or that they can't tell the future. Don't tell them in a way that is disrespectful but do tell them. I feel that people need to know and part of the point of the investigation is to challenge paranormal activity. Of course, I'm not a paranormal investigator so these are just my opinions.

Live blogged during TAM9 in Las Vegas, NV.