Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why I call it the Spooky Paradigm: Bones, Stones, and Cryptozoology

I believe a productive way of looking anthropologically at what others call "the paranormal," or "esoterica," or "forteana," or who subdivide it into specific fields is by considering it a Paradigm, a way of looking at the world. Rather than a trait list of things that fall into say "forteana," we should be boiling down how people think about these things, and how they use it to map the world. A worldview, a paradigm, a mental framework, whatever you want to call it.

This is not an attack or a skeptical critique. All humans do this. We have mental templates and worldviews we use to map reality, our dealings with other people and the rest of the universe. These worldviews are at least some degree unique to each of us, influenced by the sum of our experiences, our personalities, and who knows what else. They are also influenced by the people we interact with, that we live with and learn from. That means we share these worldviews, at least to some degree, with other people. What anthropologists call culture. Even at the basic level of language, of using agreed upon sounds and symbols to categorize the world.

We may detect some of our mental mapping, consciously knowing that perhaps we see things differently than others do. Other parts of our worldview may be largely invisible to us unless some contradiction or anomaly changes it. That of course goes back to Kuhn's scientific paradigms and revolutions. But our mental maps cover so much more in our everyday lives, as well as in more esoteric or theoretical realms.

We may have any number of different, and sometimes conflicting, mental maps we lay down on the universe. Morality, religion, economics, science, class, race. You name the worldview or classification system, and it can both contradict and co-exist with other templates held by one person. Travel writer, and pop sociologist of people with non-mainstream beliefs, Louis Theroux talks about this, and basically describes culture without calling it that. I am alternately skeptical in many things, yet I find myself seeing say politics or social theory in ways that do not pass Occam's Razor for other people. People who might see me as "eccentric."

What I call the Spooky Paradigm views the world through, I believe more than any other elements, hidden mystery. This is what unites what many people would consider disparate topics like cryptozoology, UFOs, numerological and mystical relationships and ideas, parapsychology, conspiracy politics, and other topics. Those interested or working in these different subjects might be offended to be linked to others in that list or similar topics. But they would be hard pressed to deny that many, many people who become interested in the one are not more likely to be interested in at least some of the others. And I think the thing that links these all is that their subjects are hidden and mysterious. Anomalies. Often contradicting mainstream science, religion, politics, or even "common sense."

From this perspective, mysteries and anomalies attract the attention of those who see the world through the Spooky Paradigm. And to be clear, I would include myself as someone who does. Whether I believe in specific ideas about anomalies, or whether specific anomalies really are anomalous, I still find myself on the lookout all the time for the mysterious, it piques my attention, and the Spooky Paradigm will be one of the templates I may turn to for cataloging a particular mysterious datapoint.

That sounds all kinds of abstract, so here are some related examples.

Archaeologists working in Ivory Coast have found ancient tools they believe to have been used not by humans, but by chimps. The 4300-year old tools appear to be what archaeologists call nutting stones, rocks used for smashing nuts open as part of food processing. No chimp bones were found in association with the tools, but chimps are known in modern times to use tools like these, and residue on the stones is from species of nut supposedly more likely to be eaten by chimps than humans. The archaeologists suggest humans didn't use the tools because they would not be a good fit for human hands, but would be for larger chimp hands.

On the other hand, cryptozoologist Loren Coleman suggests at least the possibility that a massive hominoid cryptid described in this region might have used the tools. Why does this lend itself to a cryptid explanation? Because of the sightings of a huge (really huge) primate a century ago. But I believe in large part because of that element of mystery. That since no chimps were found in association with the tools, even though chimps are known to have undertaken such behavior in more recent centuries, there is that bit of mystery. And that mystery opens the door to interpreting this through the Spooky Paradigm.

In a related vein, a severed foot found in a landfill in Virginia has elicited a similar reaction. The foot has been examined by a medical examiner, and found not to be human. This raises other possibilities including another known primate (though unlikely due to the size) or a bear (EDIT: Yes, it's a bear). Or a bigfoot. Despite the small 8" size,

William Dranginis of Manassas has a more unusual opinion--he believes the foot could be that of Bigfoot. He heads the Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization and has been passionately studying the elusive creature for more than 10 years.

Others, including at least one primatologist, have also stepped into the breach to try and identify the foot based on photos. But the point is, there is only the vaguest connection to cryptids (it looks kind of human, Bigfoot tracks look kind of human), but nonetheless attracts attention and speculation along those lines.

I first noticed this temptation to re-view the news through the Spooky Paradigm during the Kursk disaster. Early reports from Russian authorities said the Kursk collided with an unidentified object. Many interepreted this as an attempt by Russian authorities to put the blame on the US or other navies, rather than the eventual conclusion that an accident sank the submarine. Yet this initial mystery, and the mention of an unidentified something immediately brought up speculation about USO's, Unidentified Submerged Objects.

Like I said, we all do this in our own ways. For example, in the realm of politics, a series of strange federal judicial retirements brings speculation about cronyism and solidification of power by the White House. Many would not consider this a conspiracy theory, though some might for political reasons or others might because there are some similarities to classical conspiracy theory. Others, like myself, would say that based on past experience, suspecting ulterior and hidden motives in this case is only logical. The point is, we all become attuned to certain things that make more sense in the way we view the world, that mesh well with the gears of our minds. And in the case of the Spooky Paradigm, the key elements are mystery and anomaly.

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