Classmates in the 2015 J-Term course "Spooks, Psychics and Skeptics in the UK" experiment with a Ouija board. (Photo courtesy of Greg Robinson-Riegler)

The Science of Skeptics and Spirits

Whether you’re a believer or not, there always has been something fascinating about the paranormal. From ghosts to near-death experiences, telepathy to UFOs, the uncertain and unprovable nature of many phenomena long have landed people on a scale of belief that runs from completely dismissive to unequivocal believer. For the most part, paranormal stories have been relegated to odd corners of the internet, to publications like the National Enquirer or to the St. Thomas classroom.

Wait, what?

Psychology professors Britain Scott and Greg Robinson-Riegler have long been interested in the cognitive psychology of the paranormal, a shared passion they have translated into research and – for the first time in 2015 – a January Term class in England.

“We’re interested in what people’s experiences, whether real or not, what they mean to people,” Robinson-Riegler said. “Our question has become about the meaning of these experiences and what purposes they serve for the people who remember them.”

So, you won’t find Robinson-Riegler or Scott running experiments any time soon in the John R. Roach Center’s Psychology Department on whether students can guess what symbols are on the opposite side of a card without seeing them. Over the past 15 years or so, when they started discussing their joint interest in the topic, Robinson-Riegler and Scott have done studies that include examining autobiographical descriptions of paranormal experiences, as well as looking at what makes people shift along the scale from dismissive to skeptical to believer. Currently they are starting a project with students that will focus on the persuasiveness of a believer relating a paranormal story.

The culmination of their interest and research is the J-Term class in England, a country much more open to paranormal experiences and research than the U.S., Robinson-Riegler said,

“They have much more history there, wars, belief about ghosts,” he said. “The scientific community is completely dismissive of [paranormal belief] in the U.S., not so much in the U.K.”

Students in the 2015 class got a crash course in the cognitive psychology of the paranormal, as well as deeper dives into the individual histories and beliefs surrounding many paranormal topics, including ghosts, cold readings and mediums.

“It’s just a rich, rich course. We go to two universities, one in Edinburgh and one in London. Both have labs that investigate paranormal belief and the existence of the paranormal, so we talk to leading researchers and professors there,” Robinson-Riegler said. “We go to places that are ostensibly haunted. We teach the students about cognition, have them read accounts of hauntings and ghosts, and have them critically think about it; it’s really a critical thinking course. And we do teach it with kind of a skeptical perspective. Skeptical means you’re open, you just want proof. We’re respectful of people’s beliefs. We say to look at it like a scientist: What’s the proof you want, and how would you find it if you had to do an experiment?”

Robinson-Riegler and Scott plan to lead the class again in 2017 and hope to continue offering it on an every-other-year basis.