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The Problematic Politics Pertaining to Popularizing Paranormal Positions
With apologies to Laura Krantz
As mysteries become mainstream, has the Fortean community lost control of the historical narrative of anomalous research?
Having more than a passing interest in Bigfoot, I found it fascinating to learn Laura Krantz—noted NPR journalist and contributor to Smithsonian Magazine, Popular Science, and Newsweek—is launching Wild Thing, a podcast about Bigfoot.
Bigfoot! Of all ridiculous things. From a respected journalist!
Her name should sound familiar, as Laura is distant cousin to the great Grover Krantz, one of a handful of Bigfoot researchers who managed to retain visibility, credibility, and respectability all the way until his untimely death in 2002. Krantz’s relationship to him is part of the reason for her new podcast, and while I haven’t dug too deeply into her series yet—I’ve been absurdly busy—her Mysterious Universe appearance certainly makes it sound as though she’s at least more open to the possibility of Bigfoot’s existence than she once was.
(Granted, Ms. Krantz still seems firmly in the flesh-and-blood camp. That’s okay; you’ve got to start somewhere. I know plenty craft beer fanatics whose first tipple was a sixer of Molson Ice.)
It’s exciting that a respected journalist is taking the topic seriously. I hope she begins to appreciate, as many of us have, the strength of the body of evidence surrounding Bigfoot. Maybe that will continue to open her mind. Thank you, Ms. Krantz, for taking on this topic and giving it the attention it deserves. I mean that with absolutely zero sarcasm. I think what you’re doing is fantastic.
Having said that: why are anomalists so damn thirsty for recognition by mainstream media?
It probably has something to do with decades of (swamp)gaslighting by journalists, who typically draw up hasty battle lines alongside hardcore skeptics. While skepticism is a laudable position, and there have been plenty of open-minded journalists over the years, I fear that we anomalists are making some crucial missteps. In our eagerness for acceptance, we are in danger of undermining the solid, foundational work of those in our respective fields.
It is the Grover Krantzes—ridiculed, undermined, and underfunded—who allow the Laura Krantzes to put a nice, shiny veneer on the Bigfoot mystery. While it’s clear Laura wishes to honor her cousin’s legacy, there is a vibe I can’t shake: “Well, an NPR journalist is interested, so… I guess it’s okay for me to be interested too.” Never mind the men and women who have dedicated their entire lives to the study of the subject—"All we wanted was some legitimate, some non-kooky individual to give us the green light to express interest."
Allow me to elaborate. Tell me if this scenario happened to you in the last six months:
You’re at a cocktail party or a cookout. For some reason (maybe you had a little too much to drink), you let your guard down and it slips out that you’re into fringe subjects. Listeners, skeptically amused, invite you to elaborate, and before you know it you’re talking about everything: Bigfoot, UFOs, aliens, faeries, ghosts.
The conversation gets deeper. Now it’s the nature of time. God. Synchronicities.
Altered states and psychedelics.
At this juncture, one of the listeners finally says something substantial. “Now that, I totally agree with,” they declare, taking a drink before adding confidently: “I just read this new book by Michael Pollan, and he makes a good case for these substances having real value….”
It’s happened to me at least twice, from people whose eyes would have either glazed over or rolled out of their sockets had I talked to them about ayahuasca two short years ago.
Michael Pollan didn’t “make a good case.” You just decided he was worth listening to. I can name dozens of other people who actually made “good cases.”
Look, perhaps I’m complaining too much. After all, the listener is (probably) just trying to be engaging and polite. A rising tide lifts all ships; at least we can talk about this stuff now in public, for the first time ever, and not be considered crackpots.
At the same time, Pollan missed the objective reality, the weirdness of psychedelics. The fact he didn’t speak to Dennis McKenna—Dennis FREAKING McKenna, for Chrissakes, how do you write a book in favor of psychedelics without talking to a MCKENNA brother?!?—says volumes about his approach. Yet Michael Pollan has lodged like a splinter in the mind of the culture.
But Dennis and Terence McKenna don’t pop up in conversation at cocktail parties. Timothy Leary doesn’t either. Nor Rick Strassman, nor Wade Davis, nor anyone else who has been saying for decades in a more accurate and profound way the things Pollan has been saying for months.
Maybe Pollan speaks with more authority than I, having actually partaken of such substances. I can’t disagree with that, and Heaven knows this post will draw criticism for that fact. But there are two things I have been doing for much longer than Pollan has: I’ve been believing what psychedelic users told told me and—more importantly—I’ve been believing the lore and testimony of indigenous peoples.
You know who doesn’t pop up at cocktail parties? The Shipibo. The Tucano.
The freaking Witoto.
“There are indigenous traditions, thousands of years old—he hasn’t really talked about those things,“ McKenna told Joe Rogan of Pollan’s book.
Perhaps that’s the ickiest aspect of the bandwagonism we’re seeing in studies of the fringe sciences. Most anomalists, in fact all good ones, have always placed value in the testimony of indigenous people, even when filtering them through their own skeptical framework. Literally every cryptozoologist and Ufologist I have ever met has extensively studied native traditions, using them as evidence for the existence of strange phenomena. The number of cryptozoologists who treat First Nations people as informants is particularly astounding. You’d be hard pressed to find any practicing magicians—those crazy, “woo woo” folks!—who think testimony of spirits from “brown people” is fictitious.
Say what you want to about the Ancient Aliens crowd and their interpretations, but at least they listen to indigenous belief. They recognize that ancient texts are probably a conflation of mythology and actual events, a nuance science has turned a blind eye to for several centuries.
The Dogon knew Sirius was a binary star before astronomers did. Full stop. Save your rebuttals (they can be dispelled easily with enough time and energy). But you won’t find the Dogon in textbooks, save perhaps as a curious footnote. No, we're told it was Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel who discovered Sirius’ binary nature in 1844 with the aid of a telescope; pay no attention to the 5,000 year old indigenous tradition behind the curtain.
Perhaps that’s the most disturbing thing. Now, in the early light of the 21st century, we finally see the tacit racism of even the most “woke” modern science contrasted with the equanimity the average Fortean grants indigenous testimony.
Spoiler alert: as psi phenomena and magic and other fringe topics gain more traction, these shortcomings are only going to get uglier and more apparent.
(This isn’t to say there aren’t racists in anomalous studies—to the contrary—but I’d wager that, as a community, Forteans and their ilk are much less likely to write off indigenous testimony as “superstitious,” a label which, when applied to the collective beliefs of a people, has racism baked right in.)
Having said all this, my original concern—the undermining of the historical narrative of anomalous research—seems somewhat petty. But it breaks my heart to think of the historical perspective lost just because someone with more visibility and/or journalistic clout stepped in to endorse it. To think of all the groundbreaking Forteans suddenly swept under the proverbial rug. To think we might have to endure another 70 years of Ufology just because people have forgotten the tireless efforts of those who have come before.
Imagine a world where everyone talks about how Tom DeLonge “proved” the existence of UFOs (what the hell would that phrase even mean?), while completely ignoring the work of Jenny Randles, Stanton Friedman, Jacques Vallee, etc. Not because of DeLonge's work, but because he popularized it. It would be an unabashed tragedy.
Call it the Tesla-Edison Effect—though that doesn’t quite seem to fit for a number of reasons, it still gets the point across.
Allow me a moment to reiterate that I strongly suspect Laura Krantz is one of “the good guys/ladies,” who has a genuine interest in the topic. She’s well-informed, professional, and is doing the leg work of figuring all this stuff out in her own time. She’s not telling anyone how to think. She's finding her way.
At the same time, her visibility is a symptom of how the mouthpieces of anomalistic study are being chosen for us, coming from outside the field with little experience or familiarity with the topics, rather than emerging well-informed from within the community itself. Anomalists are so eager for outside validation, they seem to care less and less that it might simplify the conversation. The frequency with which non-Forteans, including public figures with little prior interest, are taking up the banner of Fortean/weird/counter culture is a bit disconcerting, and I fear they might dominate the conversation—a conversation the most insightful among us have spent over a century parsing over and refining. It’s a uniquely late 2010’s problem for the field, from what I can tell (although the Spiritualist movement may provide a vague analogue).
This coopting of Fortean/weird/counter culture by outsiders is only going to get worse. Don’t get me wrong—we’re all new to these topics when we arrive, and I think the concept of “paying one’s dues” in any field like this is utter horseshit. Such lines of thought can be dangerous if applied incorrectly, leading to elitism and intellectual inbreeding. That's not what I mean. We want and need new blood in these topics.
At the same time, it'd be nice for popular culture to pay attention to people who have truly immersed themselves in these topics, who don't insist upon keeping the true weirdness at arm's length. It’s frustrating to have the Michael Pollans of the world defining a conversation we should have been having a long time ago, only because his reputation and credentials were leveraged to make the topic respectable.
(The one field that seems to avoid this problem is psi studies, whose most visible current mouthpiece, Dean Radin, continuously cites his predecessors and values the testimony of ancient folk traditions. I suspect the reason we haven’t seen a DeLonge/Pollan step in to endorse psi phenomena is because it is still taboo. To me, it’s the most believable of all these topics—it literally has some of the most ironclad scientific research behind it—but it is still the hardest to swallow for many folks. Possibly because it has the most profound implications for Materialism.)
As these bandwagons—cryptozoology, magic, Ufology, psi, etc.—gain more momentum, there are going to be countless folks hopping on the boxcar, not just hoping to “ride the rails” but sit in the conductor’s seat (yeah, I mixed metaphors, so sue me). What do we do about all this?
First, don’t allow these subjects we love to lose their identity, their history, as more and more people get interested (actually, on second thought, there are plenty parts we can lose, for sure—there’s no shortage of misogyny, religious devotion, logical fallacies, etc.—but hopefully you take my meaning). Remind others of the foundations upon which these disciplines are built, while encouraging them to take these concepts into the future.
Keep your heads down. Do the work. Hold any self-appointed mouthpieces accountable. Praise the old guard for their contribution, and welcome the new, provided they put in the work and find a place within the continuum of study.
Push the conversation weirder—provided you back it up and show your work, (cite your sources, kids). I’ll see your Bigfoot, and raise you interdimensional UFO Sasquatch. I’ll see your medicinal psychedelics and raise you dancing machine elves. I’ll see your UFO and raise you telepathic lights in the sky.
And the whole time, remind the Michael Pollans and Tom DeLonges of the Rosemary Ellen Guileys, the Loren Colemans, the Graham Hancocks, the Nick Redferns. All of them. And the entire time—like a Roman slave riding behind his conquering master, holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear, “All glory is fleeting”—whisper to them:
“They said it first: the Samoyeds, the Ho-Chunk, the Celts, the Igbo, the Hopi, the Arrernte, the Ainu… all of them. They said it first.”
- Chris Strach
- How to Change Your Mind cover
- Shamans by Pablo Amaringo