UFOs, Mental Telepathy and Ghost Stories

A Q&A with fringe explorer and author Steve Volk

If you’ve missed Steve Volk’s stellar reporting in Philadelphia magazine, it’s because he’s been on leave for way too long to write Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable and Couldn’t. That book hits stores today, and tonight, he’ll be on hundreds of AM stations coast-to-coast on the old Art Bell radio show from 2 to 5 a.m. Don’t worry, there’s a podcast. I caught up with him this morning as he checked his Amazon rankings.

In the current issue of Philly Mag, I think I unfairly characterized your book as being about “ghosts and little green men.”
That’s how people tend to react to this stuff. The book is actually about our dysfunctional relationship with the paranormal. We love it in movies and fictional stories. But 20 percent have reported experiencing ghosts. And another 20 percent reports seeing a UFO. And more than 60 percent believe in some sort of paranormal phenomenon. But the knee-jerk reaction is to laugh. Coming from a family that had a ghost story in its background, this seemed odd to me. If that many people believe it’s true, why do we laugh? And then, of course, if any of this stuff is true, well, that would be fun.

I’m sure that in the world you’ve been traveling in for the last year, you’ve met some seriously strange characters. Any that particularly stand out?
You know, I was at a parapsychology seminar in Seattle, and I really expected everyone to be wildly eccentric. And the fact is, they were all boring. They were scientific types concerned with P values. Of course, there was one woman who tried to heal me from a distance. I was a little sick. She was 20 feet away and lifted up her palms, with a lot of people watching us. After about 10 seconds, I’m sitting there red-faced. She told me that I should start feeling warm. And I told her that yes, I was. I was feeling flush with embarrassment. But what really strikes you is that the majority of people reporting this stuff are absolutely normal in every respect except for the fact that they report this stuff. Then again, even that’s not abnormal with one in five people reporting it.

Why is this such a polarizing issue? The people who are convinced they’ve seen something are so convinced. And the people on the other side just think these people are crazy.
I tend to think there are crazy and out-of-their-mind people on both sides, that take this way too seriously. On one hand, you have the people whose filter for what’s real and what’s not gets fractured, and suddenly everything is paranormal and unexplained. There was this one guy who filmed a UFO. And he then spent the rest of his life filming what he thought were UFOs, but if you look at it, it’s bugs flying too close to the camera lens. He thought of them as UFOs that were far away. Then there are the hardcore skeptic types who believe that any thought of an ET visiting is an assault on rationality and reason. An unidentified flying object is exactly that: unidentified. The crazies are rare. It’s ridiculous to stigmatize people because they looked up and saw something they couldn’t explain.

So what percentage of what’s out there is actually unexplainable?
If you look at any UFO study, there are a small percentage that remain in the unidentified column. But with the study of telepathy, this was the chapter I was most frightened to write. There’s greater evidence of telepathy than I ever thought possible. Even the hardcore skeptics have admitted that by the standards of any other ordinary science, telepathy is proven. But this claim is so extraordinary, it would undermine physics as we know it. So then they say there are problems with the studies, statistical problems. But listen. In the general population, if you did enough trials in which someone guesses one card out of four, you’d expect to only see dumb luck. You’d expect about 25 percent. But instead, you see 28 percent, 32 percent. These numbers are small. You can’t count on them. But statistically, they are hugely significant. And I did not want to write that. Someone can read this and say, well, Steve Volk thinks telepathy is real. But the fact is, the evidence is really pretty good. They haven’t sorted it out, though, either way.

In this century, do you think we will have acceptable, incontrovertible scientific proof of ESP or extra-terrestrial, intelligent life?
I doubt it. But I will say this. Because telepathy is at least testable in a laboratory, we should be able to sort that one out. But the people who are vested in the argument—not you and me or other people in the middle—those people are so vested, particularly on the skeptical side. Because that’s the state of the debate, it’s poisoned and toxic. There’s another layer between us and what the truth of it all is.

To purchase a copy of Fringe-ology, visit your nearest bookseller or go to Amazon.

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