Glyphs from TV’s Fringe

I teach a course in critical thinking. One of the writing assignments is to research a topic that is considered “fringe.” Skepticism is something a critical thinker embraces. They need to look at the evidence that supports the belief and at the evidence that refutes it, and then make a reasoned decision about their own belief.

The topics that students have chosen to research would give me material for blog posts for years to come: ghosts, poltergeists, past life regressions, astrology, divination, dowsing (for water, disease etc.), spirit contact (Ouija, automatic writing etc.), prophecy (Tarot, I Ching, etc.), precognition, homeopathic healing, acupuncture, acupressure, alien abductions, cryptozoology, alien abduction, missing time experiences, spontaneous combustion, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience, déjà vu & jamais vu experiences, time travel, parallel universes, the search for extra-terrestrial life, hypnotherapy, out of body experiences, near death experiences, psychokinesis, telekinesis and iridology.

One source that was referenced several times piqued my interest, so I got a copy of the book. Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn’t by Steve Volk is a journey into the that territory where modern science and the paranormal converge.

Volk explains on his website that:

Fringe-ology is my attempt to reconcile a mysterious ghost story from my childhood with my lifelong, down to earth occupation as a journalist. My solution was to do journalism—to investigate that family ghost story, and other paranormal topics, in the high style of narrative nonfiction. What I found is a great tale that’s been relegated to the fringe of our discourse for too long—a story about all of us, a story filled with ghosts, UFOs, maverick scientists, psychics, spoon-benders and the people who love and hate them. More importantly, I found common ground we can all share—a place for skeptics and believers, spiritualists and scientists, to stand together—not at the fringes, but at the heart of what it means to be human.

As a child, Steve Volk and his family heard loud sounds that came from the walls and the roof of his house late at night.  They couldn’t find a source. His sisters said their blankets were pulled from them at night and they saw an old woman walk through the closed door of their room. Ghosts or poltergeists – or  faulty pipes and overactive imaginations?

His family could never track down the explanation of the sounds, but, as a reporter, Volk decided to investigate other people who had inexplicable experiences. He has accounts from people who have had paranormal experiences that affected their lives. Many people are hesitant to talk because there are definitely societal stigmas about these topics. People will often judge you as crazy if you believe in any of these topics too deeply.

There is science in the book. He follows the work of  an anesthesiologist, He talks with a famous psychologist whose work leads him to conclude that death is not the end. Are we more likely to believe the testimony of an astronaut whose journey to outer space made him a strong believer in the paranormal?

It’s science when researchers examine what happens in the brains of people undergoing a religious experience. It’s fringe when they try to find God in the brain.

Volk works to learn how to control his dreams. I have gone down that path too. Lucid dreaming. Fringe?  I was successful. Sometimes. Sometimes not successful. Scientists don’t like that irregularity. But how many times would someone have to be able to read your mind accurately for you to believe that they could?  For some people, it would only take one time.

Finally, Volk also investigates some haunted locations as a way into his own family’s ghost story.

Maybe the conclusion is that there are still lots of mysteries unsolved in the world and what we don’t know or understand is humbling. There is room for skeptics and believers. Perhaps, spiritualists need to work with scientists.

Years ago, I taught another course that touched on fringe beliefs and the book I sometimes turned to was Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers. (I think it may be out of print now.) In the preface, Clarke says that half the topics in the book are not true. The problem is that he didn’t know which ones and he suspected that half of them were true. I feel the same way.

Though I can personally dismiss some topics like astrology and I am doubtful about much about prophecy, I can’t dismiss some topics like time travel (a personal favorite).

One thing that students discover is that there is some science behind all the topics. In some cases, believers have taken some huge leaps from that science into the land of  fringeology. It is a pretty interesting world to explore.


Listen to a short RadioLab episode with Steve Volk who talks about how lucid dreaming helped him deal with the recurring nightmare that came out of his childhood haunting experience.

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