I attended the 2014 Paracon at Maitland Gaol and the 2015 Paracon at The Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, NSW, as a speaker both times. This time I just wanted to go along and enjoy the thing as a punter (or as a Delegate, as it said on my tag - very flash) and also to take my wife and fellow paranormal investigator Denise along and actually stay in the Carrington this time. That was a good decision. Even the cheapest room was wonderful, with the shared tiled bathroom just down the hall. It felt like being an an Agatha Christie murder mystery and we half expected Hercule Poirot to appear at any moment.
'Paralosophy' - Brian Cano
Brian Cano's talk was at 9am Saturday (and repeated the same time on Sunday morning, an even worse slot), so if I didn't grasp 100% of it, that's the reason. He's an engaging speaker, and working without props or projected slides he managed to hold the audience's attention for an hour. The theme was his journey from Skeptic to Scientist, and he outlined the difference as he sees it. I guess in the world of paranormal investigation, as seen on TV, the distinction is valid; skeptics are often portayed as the people who pour cold water on any hope of witnessing or capturing paranormal phenomena. "It's just not possible. What you have here is a [blah blah] and Occam's Razor says that the mundane explanation rules." The Scientist, on the other hand, observes, measures, gathers evidence, and does not judge or reach premature or unscientific conclusions. (I'm paraphrasing, not exactly quoting Brian - I didn't make any notes or even take a photo, sorry.)
My take is that all scientists worth their salt are also skeptics, as skepticism - that is, critical thinking, questioning assumptions and accepting nothing until the evidence shows that it is indeed the case - is one of the cornerstones of Scientific Method. The difference between Scientist and Skeptic is not quite so in the wider world. Wikipedia puts it like this:
- A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some form of the scientific method. As a result, a number of claims are considered "pseudoscience" if they are found to improperly apply or ignore the fundamental aspects of the scientific method. Scientific skepticism may discard beliefs pertaining to things outside perceivable observation and thus outside the realm of systematic, empirical falsifiability/testability.
Basically, I was onside with Brian's talk, and so maybe I'm being pedantic here. It was early in the morning, after all. His journey in the paranormal field interests me, particularly as I think it's similar to my own but he's maybe farther along the road. I wanted to discuss this with him during the conference but he was rather the centre of a lot of attention so the opportunity didn't quite present itself. I want to learn more.
You can read Brian's profile on the Paracon Australia 2016 speaker profiles page.
An aside: many paranormal investigators claim to employ a scientific approach but some of those have no idea what that involves, or they have misunderstood it due to a total lack of education in science. But that's another blog entirely. I had a bit of a go it it here, a while ago.
Richard Saunders - the first genuine, dyed-in-the-wool skeptic to speak at Paracon Australia
Richard's talk ran from 7pm-8pm on Saturday and unfortunately clashed with Michelle Taylor's talk, which was better-attended. I was delighted that a true skeptic was included in the speaker lineup for this conference, and Richard Saunders was a fine choice. Given that he could've potentially been about as welcome as a pork chop at a Jewish wedding (sorry, I can't think of a more PC simile at this hour), he presented well, stuck to the script and was engaging, interesting, and a credit to his calling.
A woman asked a question at the end, using the phrase 'low-hanging fruit' a couple of times. I could sort-of understand what she was getting at, but her question needed to be phrased differently for Richard to answer it adequately.
I think what she meant was the people who were tested for the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge were attempting to demonstrate paranormal abilities that were relatively simple to disprove by scientific testing (dowsing, remote viewing - the low-hanging fruit), but what about some of the stuff that happens unpredictably, sporadically, almost at random, but defies rational explanation? Because it cannot be summoned for repeatable testing, it cannot be claimed as a paranormal ability and tested scientifically.
I have had several experiences in my life that defy explanation, and I've read all the skeptics' books and fully understand all of the expanations for everything that they present, but still no dice. I know I'm not alone in having had unexplainable experiences, and I think this is what the woman's question was about. It's the 5%, or the 1%, or most likely the tiny fraction of 1% of all possible instances of paranormal activity that just might be the real deal that keep us all in this game. And unfortunately these events will probably never be amenable to testing by Scientific Method, and that's where we're stuck for the forseeable future, or maybe until the next big breakthough.
Richard Saunders is a life member of Australian Skeptics.
Paul Bradford & Shawn Porter of Ghoststop
Speaking of skeptics, both these guys (Shawn from the US, Paul a Brit) included a healthy dose of skepticism in their talk, as well as plenty of humour. But then, they make and sell a bunch of equipment specially for paranormal investigation, ghost hunting, or whatever you want to call it, all of which needs skepticsm applied in shovel loads.
So, while it's good to be skeptical about ghost boxes, (they were, explaining why the results from various types of ghost box should not be used as evidence to present to a client, but it was fine to experiment with them), there really is no firm evidence that EMF meters (Ghoststop's or anyone else's) can detect ghostly activity, or that ghosts can be captured on film or video, even using their full spectrum (infra-red + visible light + ultraviolet) -adapted video and stills cameras.
'Beyond the flashlight' was an engaging talk that got me thinking about my own and our Strange Occurrences team's approach and use of the gear we have - all of it adapted from other spheres and rather old school by the Ghoststop guys' definition. So thanks, guys. You rocked.
And anything that gets you thinking is good. Right? Along with the stuff mentioned in paragraph 1, that's what you go to these things for. Isn't it? I'm pleased I made the effort.
I hope the next Australian Paracon, wherever and whenever it's held, will be as much of a success or even more. I also hope a few more of my fellow countrymen see the worth of hopping across the Tasman for it. (There will never be anything like it in New Zealand, so don't hold your breath.) It's not a big deal money-wise. I'm struggling financially like everyone else, and taking a few days away from my business is tough (as I'm finding out this week, trying to catch up), but with plenty of notice to save and prepare, we were able to get there. It's just a matter of priorities.
is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.