Sharon Hill, P.G., EdM, is a geologist with a specialty in science and society and public outreach for science. She is the creator and editor of the unique critical thinking blog DoubtfulNews.com that casts an informed and skeptical eye on questionable topics that appear in the media such as the paranormal, alternative medicine claims, pseudoscience, and anomalies. She researches and writes about the paranormal, monsters, and natural phenomena for various blogs and publications including Skeptical Inquirer and Fortean Times. As a Scientific and Technical Consultant for Centre for Inquiry, she authors a monthly column on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry site called “Sounds Sciencey” that calls out fake and pretend science and sham inquiry. As owner of Lithospherica, LLC, she advocates for evidence-focused skepticism, providing consults, training, and presentations for paranormal investigation groups, writers, journalists, and businesses.
As a geologist, when and why did you become interested in cryptozoology and the paranormal? In other words, what attracts you to the topic? Can skeptics enjoy the paranormal as much as die hard believers?
“I was interested in monsters, ghosts, and all things paranormal since I can remember. My first books were about animals and fantastic monsters via Dr. Seuss. I was constantly consuming nonfiction media about the paranormal, cryptozoology, UFOs, psychic powers, poltergeists and the like from probably grade school age. By the time I was in college, working on a geoscience degree, I suddenly had access to a bigger library. I started reading Stephen Jay Gould essay collections. I was interested especially in his insights about hoaxes and the Creation/evolution controversy. That led to me finding the skeptical literature which I found so much more interesting and intelligent than the typical litany of eyewitness accounts and continually repeated stories. Finally, there were researchers that thought about the claim from a scientific, logical viewpoint. When they dug into the details, often the claim fell apart. The idea of the world being full of mysterious spookiness melted away.
Suddenly, there was a means to understand humans’ odd experiences without having to resort to supernatural means or nonsense ideas that had not been fleshed out. Many people who identify as evidence-based skeptics aren’t emotionally invested in the belief of the paranormal or supernatural. We are open to ALL potential normal explanations which may be very complex to solve. In this way, Skeptics may get MORE out of the paranormal in terms of understanding the human condition related to psychology, perception and cultural themes. Simple acceptance that “it’s paranormal” is a means of giving up on understanding what may be a very complicated issue.”
Why do you think there has been such an explosion in interest in ghosts, paranormal investigation, and the supernatural in popular culture over the past decade?
“There has ALWAYS been an interest. The degree of interest waxes and wanes. The internet has definitely been an asset to those who are interested in fringe topics. Now they can easily find others who share those interests and communicate. There has also been an idea that when the world is wrought with uncertainty, societies reach for any way that feels like control. Thus, explanations of strange or unsettling events by using supernatural or paranormal causes FEELS like a sense of control, as if we can label and categorise it. Many people will seek out psychic advice during troubled times in their lives for the same reason. It feels like control but it’s a false hope. As for television and the movies hitting on paranormal themes, it’s about money. The choices seem so shallow and limited and look like copycats of the last thing. The paranormal culture goes back a very long way. Today’s typical paranormal investigators almost never have a decent knowledge of all that has been written and done before. That’s a shame. Good stuff is in the archives.”
You wrote your Ed.M. thesis on amateur paranormal research and investigation groups and how they use (or misuse) science and scientific language. Did any of your conclusions surprise you? Is paranormal investigation a harmless pastime, in your opinion?
“I think I was a bit surprised at the hubris of many researchers who think pretending to do science is just as good as actually being trained in scientific methods. Scientists get at least four-year university degrees and most go on to higher education to gain expertise in their fields. The body of scientific knowledge is always moving and expanding. It’s a challenging career and not one to wear like a costume on weekend trips. I was really surprised at how quickly many backed down when I called them on their sham science. They KNEW they weren’t doing good science. They couldn’t explain what “scientific” meant. They were putting on a persona for their clients because the public respects science. What I realised what that these sham scientists were fooled just as much as the clients! We aren’t taught why science is so respected in our society. We learn via stereotypes we see in popular culture – the lab coats, the fancy jargon, the gadgets and gizmos that blink and spit out data points. We don’t know what that means.
I think in almost all cases, paranormal investigation is essentially harmless but it can easily become a waste of time, money and mental effort. It can make you believe you are doing something meaningful when you may be preventing others from accepting reality or allowing others to indulge too much in fantasy. I think the worst thing I’ve seen paranormal investigators do is to tell a family (especially with children) that their house has demons or dark “energies”. How is that helping anyone? It’s wrong, unethical and, yes, that is harmful to scare people like that when there is no evidence that there are demons operating in the human world.”
Recently, on, you noted that the Travel Channel’s show Ghost Adventures predominantly appeals to young women. Do you think this is a stereotype, or is there something more going on there?
“I can’t really say. I don’t like the show for various reasons so I can’t find any redeeming qualities but I’m sure many others do. We all have different things we like or dislike. Maybe many find Zak appealing to watch. Many do believe what is depicted is real. Maybe it’s a way to escape from the drama or toils of their own life to see adventures of others. I see several paranormal groups that have women in leadership positions so this is a good thing. Women should be empowered to explore things that interest them without gender barriers. I don’t necessarily see the women who do this more afraid than the men. Perhaps it’s just not as socially acceptable still for women to take an active role in pursuing fringe topics. An interesting historical note is that Spiritualism as a craze in America in the 19th century was developed by women and it continued to be popular with women mediums as a way for them to be popular, powerful and sexually open. Thern again, the paranormal culture is a lot more about society and people than any other entities.”
Earlier this summer, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin were arrested on charges of attempted murder for brutally stabbing a mutual friend. Their motive, in their own words, was to “become proxies for Slender Man,” by offering their friend as a sacrifice. You wrote an article on the Slenderman phenomenon for Fortean Times in 2013 – did you believe this internet meme to be potentially dangerous at the time? Or is this just an isolated incident?
“I didn’t think Slenderman would be dangerous, no. But I suspected he would be popular. Indeed when the media caught wind of Slendy, the popularity exploded. There is a hazard that any new, bizarre, sexual, violent or scary pop culture meme will scare the parental generation and authorities. It happens ALL the time – from Elvis and the Beatles to Dungeons and Dragons. It’s so tempting for society to look for an easy answer, a scapegoat, to complex problems of teens and young adults making their way in the world. It’s wrong to blame Slenderman for the crimes just as it’s wrong to blame The Beatles for the Manson murders or Marilyn Manson for the Columbine massacre. What I really hoped would come out of the exposure of such violent crimes is that kids should be screened for mental health issues, not just vision, hearing and intelligence tests. Some kids need help and deserve to have it early rather than too late.”
What do you predict for the paranormal in pop culture over the next decade? Do you think interest in that subject will continue to grow, or will reason win out in the end?
“I wish I knew. It’s hard to predict because I think interest in the paranormal is dictated by other cultural waves and the economy and technology. What if we come up with a technology breakthrough that allows us to measure psychic powers? Or what if we discover alien life? Or, what if there is a sudden push for science education (like in the Sputnik era) when people got serious about science and engineering for kids? It’s really hard to say what can quick start a cultural change. Overall, belief in the paranormal generally is rather constant. About 20% or so of the population has an emotional belief in it. Many people have had experiences they attribute to paranormal activity. As long as there is a modern cultural frame to interpret strange experiences as “Bigfoot”, “alien abduction”, hauntings or demon possession, it will continue to happen. People will always have some unreasonable tendencies; that will NEVER go away. What I can hope for is that people would be more open to finding out other alternatives to a default paranormal explanation because the real explanation is likely more interesting and important.”
How can our readers get in touch with you if they want to know more about your work or have questions about the skeptical viewpoint?
“My personal website is SharonAHill.com that has everything I’m working on or have done in the recent past. I’m also the editor of Doubtfulnews.com that focuses on a more skeptical take on paranormal and anomalous events that are in the news. Often I’m able to find a very reasonable explanation that the media outlets totally missed. I’m also the new content editor at the James Randi Educational Foundation (). I’ve written many articles for a column called “Sounds Sciencey” that addresses many of the specific issues you have asked about. That can be found at this link. I’d like people to follow me on Twitter @idoubtit or my public Facebook page.”