The Power of Words


There are four important concepts concerning the question of how a community describes itself and what it believes and/or studies. The first is that words are things, meaning that they conjure specific meaning. Words have power, meaning that word choice can determine the outcome to social processes. The medium is the message, meaning that how words are presented can have as much importance as the words themselves. Finally, to some extent, belief determines experience. This essay addresses how the etheric studies community can benefit from understanding these concepts.


A 2008 Pew survey of 35,000 found that 74% believed there is a Heaven. In the same year, a different survey of 1,648 people found that half of those surveyed believed they had a guardian angel. Although a highly specialized audience, after “The Secret” aired on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the show’s website conducted a survey: “What do you believe?” 95% said that the human spirit can survive after death and 85% believed in “psychic mediums.” It is reasonable to speculate that a large percentage of our population can be considered spiritualists with a small “s”.

The terminology varies amongst interest groups but if the terms are normalized to basic meanings, public opinion surveys consistently show that the majority of people believe in some form of survival after physical death. Most people are not aware of what our paranormal community takes for granted, so how we speak about our interests has a lot to do with how we are seen by the rest of the world. There is also evidence that how we think of these phenomena has a lot to do with how we experience them.

There are a few important considerations that might guide you in how to develop your metaphysical vocabulary. The main ones are below and I will try to expand this list over time.

Villager-Explorer Effect (aka Sheep-Goat Effect)

In 1942, Professor Gertrude Schmeidler identified a correlation between people scoring high on a belief in the paranormal survey with their psi functioning scores. Conversely, a poor “belief” score correlated with a lower than chance psi function score. She referred to this as the Sheep-Goat Effect with “believers” the sheep. This study has been replicated many times since and the terms, “sheep” and “goat” are well-institutionalized in parapsychology.

This and other human traits such as incredulity blindness suggests that how we think of our world has a lot to do with how we experience it. The etheric-physical interaction offers far more opportunities if we are open to them than if we are not. Conversely, how we relate to what we do experience is important in how we are able to incorporate the effects of this interaction into our lives. In short, we are all more empowered by knowing that there is a greater reality.

People generally do not like being described as “sheep” so I am referring to the “believers” as “explorers” in recognition of our willingness to explore new ideas. Conversely, I am referring to disbelievers as “villagers” because of the more conservative attitude of people who live more by the seasons and commerce and depending on maintaining the status quo.

What you can take from this is that your conservative friends who do not believe in things paranormal may be reporting their world as they sense it. Trans-etheric influences, such as psi functioning, clairvoyance and EVP, are subtle energy phenomena that are subject to the influence of intention … people’s intention. If your friends strongly do not believe, then they may be suppressing these effects just as you encourage these effects with your belief. The phenomena are real, but we “make our world” to a great degree based on what we think about our world.

Words are Things

19th century Scottish poet, George Byron told us:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.

What comes to mind when I say “Scientist”? For most people, the first thought is that a scientist is an academically trained person who can be trusted to be an expert in his or her field of study. What come to mind when I say “amateur”? Here, we usually think of a person who may be trained in a subject as a hobbyist or self-taught in some way. Certainly we would not consider ranking an amateur with a scientist when it comes to understanding of a subject. If it come down to the advice of a scientist or an amateur, well, there is no contest. The scientist must know best. That is an easy one.

In a similar comparison, the difference between a technician and an engineer is often the technician’s common sense, practicality based on hands-on experience and usually a more pragmatic view of things. Engineers too often have theoretical understanding of things gained by teachers who, themselves too often have only theoretical understanding. Of course, experience makes both technicians and engineers wiser, so the real question should be how well-informed the person has become about the subject at hand.

So if words are things, then how do you select the right words when you want to convey the sense of technical authority when you may intend “technician” but know your listener will be looking for “engineer”? Of course there are important exceptions, but scientists too often have theoretical understanding but hardly any hands on experience. Then there is the problem of areas of expertise. We routinely have scientists pronounce opinions about things etheric when they have virtually no training in the subject. Yet, their authority “out ranks” people who have years of experience in the field because by all academic standards they are amateurs or technicians and not scientists or engineers.

Learning to talk about what we believe is to a large extent learning to find words that have the right meaning. As I have described in the essay about pseudoscience, terms such as “study,” “Research” and “science” have special meaning. What does your audience think of when you say that you are researching something? If your listener has a background in science and you are clearly only reading about the subject in a magazine, your listener is going to doubt that you know what you are talking about.

In a different context, when a person says that you “claim” to be conducting research, the listener will likely hear that you are making a baseless assertion because “claim” is a word used to characterize a person in a negative light. If the person says that something is pseudoscience, the listener will likely discount all of the subject when in fact, the only real point of disagreement may be that science has not yet documented the underlying principles of the subject.

In “Global warming” or “climate change”?: Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording, doctoral candidate Jonathan Schuldt with the University of Michigan noted that 60% of republicans believed climate change was real but only 44% believed global warming is real. 86% of democrats indicated belief no matter which term was used. “Climate change” and “Global warming” generally mean the same thing, but the conservative republican position has always been that global warming is a myth concocted by the democrats to scare Americans.

Words are our culture’s symbols developed to describe the world today. It is especially important that you understand the mental imagery called forth by the words you use. The footer of each page includes: “Believe what you wish but know what you believe.” In the same way, I would tell you to “Say what you wish, but know what you are saying.” The belief in climate change or global warming study is a good example of how words take on a cultural  meaning. Who is your audience?

Words Have Power

While words may have special meaning that might be different than their usual definition or perhaps an obscure definition that is very important in a particular context, some words also have the power to evoke strong feelings. Some people might say that a particular word carries a lot of baggage. As an example, if you want a favor from a person working in the timber industry, you might not want to say that you are an environmentalist because of the long and contentious history between “tree huggers” and “clear cutters.” In a similar way, there was a time when being called a witch could carry the death sentence.

Power words are given such power to evoke feelings by society, and the power is specific to societal situations. In some cases, they are given the power by way of carefully orchestrated propaganda as we have seen the Skeptics give power to the words, “pseudoscience” and “quack.”

An important lesson of “words have power,” is that many of the words we use have been given a specific power by other parts of society; these are words that have unintended meaning for etheric studies. For instance, “spirit” calls forth thoughts of religion and angels. In fact, we–and religions–use “spirit” for many different meanings, including the essence of us, the essence of God, heaven and ghosts. That is why I looked for an alternative term and came up with “etheric.”

We have the power to shape the special meanings of words. Consider what we have done with “orb” and “investigation.” because of this ability to shape our society’s perception, it is important that we speak with more of one mind than we do today. Consider this the next time you write about your interests or try to explain it to a friend. Chose your words very carefully.

The medium is the message

While words have power, perception is everything. In 1962, Marshall McLuhan told us that: “The medium is the message.” This is to say that how the message is presented–style, media and tone–becomes part of the message and how it is perceived.

Our skeptical detractors know this very well. There is a well-organized effort in the skeptical community to create names for us and then to institutionalize them. An Internet search for “pseudoscience” will produce page after page of skeptical websites discussing the evils of pseudoscience with Wikipedia up first. Sadly, many of the sites are university related. There are other terms, such as pareidolia (finding meaning that is not there) and quack (fraudulent medical practitioner).

Some of these terms are coined by psychologists to name a personality trait and then adopted by the skeptical community. The effect is that a name is coined for something that is to be branded as bad and then made official by careful placement in the literature–usually in academic media. It is simply name calling, but mainstream society has the “bully pulpit” and the paranormal community is increasingly seen as a threat to society.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has identified pseudoscience as an important threat to society’s understanding of science and technology. Its reference for that is an article published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Since the NSF is federal Government, the perception is that whatever it says is right. Yet, from the definition and use of pseudoscience, it is clear that the NSF has simply taken the word of a rabid anti-new thought advocate. As a reliable source, quoting him is about the same as quoting a hunter about the reasonableness of hunting.

A similar effect can be seen in Wikipedia. As an encyclopedia, it is expected to be a reliable source for who, what and why about subjects. That is the message of the medium. The reality is that it is strongly biased against what Wikipedia editors refer to as “fringe subjects.” In this case, the editors know the message/perception of the reader and uses it to their advantage.

You might consider yourself a member of a serious hauntings investigation organization. However, look at your website. Does it look like it represents a ghost hunting club? Most do; not because they are not well designed but because of how the content is presented. The message of the medium is that the groups are not to be taken seriously at all, and the community they represent is “just for fun.”

This website is not as professional looking as it could be. Since I do not have it proofread and produce so much material, there are errors in both structure and grammar. (I appreciate all of the copy edit help I can get.) The academic community is typically better organized and certainly there are a lot more people working on publications. Your tax dollars help fund much of it so why not? My point is that, in the sense of “the medium is the message,” the impression this website gives is probably one of self-published amateur. It will remain that way until we have a support community that has the human and financial resources to tend to the medium to improve the message.


All of this should be taken as “good to know but don’t beat yourself up” advice. I listened to a talk the other day in which the speaker used “spirit” probably fifty times and in half a dozen different contexts. The thing is that I knew exactly what she intended and it was a very good talk. Yes, she would surely have been ridiculed at an academic meeting or amongst Skeptics, but she was amongst friends and we were all in agreement. If you feel like using “spirit,” then do so. Just be sure to know your audience. It does not matter how much moral authority you have to use terms that might be considered religious. The only thing that matters is that you communicate what you intend to communicate.

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