The Centre for Fortean Zoology was founded in the UK in 1992 - nearly 20 years ago. Over the past two decades it has expanded to become a truly global organisation. We opened our American office in 2001, our Australian office in 2009, and now - in our 19th year - we are proud to welcome CFZ Canada to the CFZ global family.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

You Take the Low Road, I'll Take the High Road...

Since “ghost hunting” and “cryptozoology” have become more mainstream, those who take their research seriously are feeling increasingly frustrated by a plethora of false information and glory seeking not only on TV and online, but also in face to face situations. One of the biggest reasons there is this unease is that there is absolutely no regulation, peer or otherwise, over the credentials or publication of “findings” in this genre of research.

Few groups are funded, especially in North America, and literally all expenses—from travel to equipment and more---is out of the pocket of the investigator or, if he is lucky, from some group fund that others have either donated to or sold “swag” to maintain. Ironically, those groups who sell swag, t-shirts and coffee mugs and the like, are even more criticized for commercializing the study. It is somehow perceived that if you sell a bumper sticker with your group logo you are somehow less serious about the research. Realistically, funding your study does not automatically mean you are in it for the money. Nobody is going to get rich from the 2-10% payback on CafePress or Zazzle. Profit from the pennies on the dollar a website gets for a Google ad or an affiliation will not even pay for a tank of gas and a night in a hotel for an onsite study. Until philanthropists, academics and governments recognize the importance of researching things that are outside of regular science, researchers will continue to keep their day jobs to pay for their research.

Justifiably, however, funding is not going to happen until the charlatans and hoaxers are better dealt with. At some point, groups and individuals are going to have to swallow their egos and contrive a peer review system that can accredit or otherwise recognize honest, responsible researchers. A spirit of information sharing and cooperation that currently does not exist among these sorts of groups will have to develop. Each researcher or group will have to stop racing to be the “one” that “discovers” all the answers or provides the evidence and instead focus on working together and weeding out those folks who are faking evidence and sensationalizing trivia.

Serious researchers who want to be respected and influential should not wait for this to happen. Each of us in this field needs to first and foremost BE responsible researchers. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Responsible research means spending a lot of time learning about a variety of things. Cryptozoology alone encompasses biology, zoology, mythology, archaeology, history, botany, and dozens of other studies that a responsible researcher must at least understand if not master before being able to successfully research an unknown animal. One need not be a PhD in ANY of these disciplines, but should be able to reach out to further education or dialogue with actual academics for a better understanding or analysis. Instead of allowing ego to isolate, honest researchers need to channel this ego into becoming the best in the field. To get the respect, we have to do the work.

Additionally, researchers who publish need to allow their work to be open to criticism. Any researcher who supresses or removes dissenting or critical replies to their public work are to be suspected of dishonesty. If one’s work or opinion will not stand up to alternate opinion or criticism, it is not thoroughly vetted work. If one’s “feelings” get hurt by someone challenging their findings, then perhaps those feelings are more important to the researcher than the truth in the research. Persons who fit into that mold need to be discarded as serious researchers. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be offended by hurtful postings—certainly there are those out there who seek to attack the researcher rather than the results. We are human, and attacks hurt. In that case, only give as much respect to the dissenting opinion as it is worthy of. Those of us who do televisions appearances are especially vulnerable to those kinds of attacks. Because real researchers tend to be normal looking rather than model pretty, we are often criticized over our age, our fashion sense, our weight, our hair (or lack thereof) and many other external elements. Audiences who feel compelled to criticise those things are not interested in the research. Those audiences want to be entertained, not educated. Our visceral reaction may be to recoil in pain, but we need to remind ourselves that our goal in presenting is to educate, not impress.

Truly, the need to educate needs to always be the goal in publishing findings. Entertainment success is exceedingly fleeting. The tremendous success of Paranormal State, for instance, is over. In just a few years those researchers were discarded like the losers from “America’s Got Talent”. If that was their only goal in this field, their professional lives done. If their goal is/was to continue to study and to educate, then the end of the fame is meaningless. One’s success or failure in this field is only determined by their goal. Likewise, if your view of success only involves DNA evidence of BigFoot you may never be successful. If you put all of your self-esteem in how many electronics you own and they never produce quantitative results that meet the expectations of the debunkers, you set yourself up to fail.

Those of us who have trodden this path for several years and have had our moments of true understanding have a responsibility not only to our audiences but also to new investigators. First and foremost we need to be good examples. We need to limit our publicity and publication to those items that really matter. We need to avoid the temptation to only entertain; we can be entertaining while we educate, but posting on blogs and youtube and such only to elicit laughs or horror is counterproductive to the study and eventually taints the researcher’s ability to be trusted and respective. Additionally, we have a responsibility to call out the hoaxers and pseudoresearchers when they go public with dubious evidence and opinion. We need to ignore press releases that say nothing. We need to challenge evidence that has not been tested in a laboratory or at the very least peer reviewed. We need to respectfully, politely, and preferably privately, suggest that this behaviour is unacceptable. In the unfortunate instances where hoaxers are public, we need to publicly debunk them.

Lacking an accrediting organization, we must keep ourselves and each other in check. One need not earn a living doing paranormal research to be professional. One need not be a university graduate to be educated. One need not dance for a network camera to garner positive exposure and respect in this field. Owning thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment or looking good in a bikini doesn’t make anyone a good investigator. What makes someone successful is the realization of goals they have set for themselves. What makes someone respectable is setting those goals a little higher.

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