Some of the things I run into, while doing research for this blog, are simply baffling.
Okay, a lot of them are baffling. But at least for the majority of them, you can sort of understand why people would believe them, or at least want to. There's an inherent attractiveness to the concept of an afterlife, a grandeur implicit in the idea of extraterrestrial life, and an inarguable coolness to cryptids like Bigfoot and El Chupacabra. So even if I don't exactly understand why someone would believe in all that stuff, given the absence of any kind of scientifically admissible evidence, at least I get why someone would want to believe it.
I ran into something yesterday, however, that I find puzzling on a very deep level. It started when I clicked on an advertisement called "Parapsychology - Online Training Courses." I guess that on some level, I knew that these sorts of things existed -- there certainly are thousands of books out there that give would-be psychics information (to stretch the definition of the word some) about how it all works, and how to access your inner woo-woo. But training courses?
Let's consider how that could work by comparing it to training in another field -- medicine.
If you have aspirations to become a doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, or other medical professional, you enter an accredited training program, and undergo a rigorous set of classes in which you learn how the human body works, how to recognize when systems aren't working properly, and what can be done to return the body to normal functioning. After several years of courses and labs, you begin to work with real people in a supervised setting -- learning first how to perform simple, and later more complex, treatment modalities. In the process, experienced medical staff watch you, help you, and correct you when your technique isn't up to par. Eventually, you gain certification to work, at whatever level of care you were trained for, and are trusted thereafter to give good care to your patients.
How, then, could a parapsychological training course work?
The website states that "Curriculum concepts cover crystals, auras, spirits, ghosts, dreams, psychic abilities... numerology, astral travel, and tarot." The first part of my analogy to medical training isn't problematic, at least on the surface -- certainly an "experienced psychic" (whatever that means in practice) could teach me all sorts of things about how to use crystal energies or how to project my astral body into another plane of reality. But however would anyone know if you were doing it correctly? Being that the sorts of things these courses purport to teach have no valid scientific basis, there's no touchstone of evidence by which anyone could be evaluated.
Parapsychology Course Teacher: "Take a look at the woman seated in the chair in front of you. What color is her aura?"
Student: "Well, it looks to me sort of tangerine-colored, with little streaks of puce and magenta around the edges."
Teacher: "Wrong! It's chartreuse! You are assigned to do twelve more aura-viewings, until you get it right."
Now, you might think that being an online course, students are freer to just play along, to make stuff up (same as their teachers are apparently doing), and as long as they say the right made-up stuff, they get a passing grade and a nice certificate and can go on to hang out their shingles and begin to collect $20 per Tarot card reading. But another site I found (here) states that some of these programs offer associates, bachelors, masters, and even doctoral degrees... and that the programs listed on the site have all achieved accreditation through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the US Department of Education.
And I'm thinking: how can that possibly work? It would be easy, for example, to tell a bad medical school from a good one; a bad one (for example) might teach that the best method to treat an ulcer is to bleed you using leeches, and a good one would not. But how on earth could you tell a good parapsychology school from a bad one, given that (to put not too fine a point on it), both of them are engaging you in a course of study of something that doesn't, technically, exist? On what basis would accreditation be awarded?
So the whole thing has left me more baffled than usual. I must admit that the schools involved have quite a lucrative racket going; taking students' tuition money and putting them through a training program where the teachers essentially spend four years or longer making stuff up, and give students passing grades when they can make stuff up as well as the teachers can, seems like a pretty clever way to make money. But it does appall me that the CHEA and USDOE are, on some level, putting their stamp of approval on this stuff. It wouldn't be the first time that I've been horrified at something that those who oversee education have done, but this seems pretty extreme, even for them.