Four lessons I learnt in 2012

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster year, but then, when are years anything else?

The one lesson that I am constantly reminded of year after year is that us humans are so damned… human – with our limited experience being all we have, our ability to be so irrational a lot of the time, and our stubbornness and our reluctance to hold our hands up and say ‘I’m wrong’. So, here are four lessons that I learnt from 2012 – some came about from mistakes I made, and some were things I had known all along that had just become static noise in an endless sea of noisy ideas.

#1 – Be a better investigator

“I learnt from Joe Nickell, it is easy to sit at home and speculate as to what is happening and what the intentions of the people involved are, but you very rarely get things right by that process of investigation. It isn’t until you actually visit places and see the areas involved through your own eyes that you can start to get a feel for what is what. It isn’t until you speak to the people involved that you can start to understand what has happened. I have become so involved in the race to be the first to comment on the latest paranormal news story that I’ve really lost  a taste for what good investigative behaviour is, and I aim to remedy that immediately.” [from: The Monster Men]

In March I went monster hunting with Joe Nickell in Windermere and Loch Ness, in what was probably one of the best weeks of my life so far. Not only did I get to meet and work with Joe, who is a legend himself, but I got to visit some incredible places and meet some wonderful people, and I was made to rethink the way in which I approach paranormal cases in the future. There was, for me at least, a real sense of adventure throughout the week as we discovered leads and previously unheard tips about what may have caused monster sightings. As someone whose research was done mainly online it was an experience I had often missed out on, and something I promised to remedy as soon as I got home.

You can read more about my trip with Joe Nickell by clicking here. As soon as I got home from that trip in March I took a fresh approach to a case I was working on at the time and decided to do some investigating on the ground which led me to solve the mystery. Later in the year the eagerness some skeptics have to dismiss or solve paranormal cases without supporting research and data would be demonstrated with the latest Loch Ness Monster photo. Although it turned out to be a hoax, many skeptics dismissed it as one without any evidence. So much of my research is done offline now and it’s so much more fun and rewarding.

#2 – Talk & listen to young people

It showed me that the uncritical media coverage of these subjects was reaching a younger audience, and that these kids in front of me were well equipped with the critical thinking skills needed to assess the claims such coverage makes because of things such as Camp Quest. Yet there are children out there that probably don’t have those skills. There are probably children out there who are like the younger me, getting terrified at the idea than panthers are prowling in the wild and that ghosts lurk in the shadows… [from: My trip to Camp Quest: Engaging with Children]

Earlier this year I was invited to speak at Camp Quest UK about ghosts – my talk was titled ‘ghosts on the brain’ and explored and demonstrated how ‘What we remember isn’t always what happened’ and ‘What we see isn’t always what was there’. The children in the audience blew me away with their interaction and their questions and their willingness to not only learn new things, but to question what they didn’t understand and to answer their peers questions too. My time at CampQuest made me think back to my childhood when my questions were answered with nonsense ideas (ghosts at home, god at school), and part of me wished that something like CampQuest had been around when I was younger. Not only to rid me of my irrational fears, but also to help me learn to think critically from a young age. I think that’s a really key thing for young people – and it’s something I wasn’t taught in school during science lessons either. There’s never a lack of adults thinking it is their right to decide what their child believes, but armed with the right tools, the right information, and allowing them the freedom to explore ideas for themselves might just set young people on the track to examining things rationally.

#3 – Never be too certain

When you speak with such certainty about how right and moral you are in relation to your critics without considering the possibility that you may be missing a nuance or two, you cannot hold any sort of moral or intellectual high ground. – Barbara Drescheron oversimplifaction & certainty, ICBS Everywhere blog

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about how I got caught up in a lot of drama within the skeptical blogosphere without being as skeptical of myself and those I agreed with as I was of those I disagreed with. I was guilty of sometimes speaking with the certainty Barbara Drescher mentions in her post ‘on oversimplification & certainty‘. It wasn’t an instant realisation either. I observed a number of instances where the behaviour of those I had been agreeing with towards people they didn’t agree with made me stop in my tracks with shock. There are certain irrational behaviours and tactics that I cannot condone, and it saddened me to discover that people I held in high regard didn’t feel the same. I realised I had thrown my lot in with people I thought I had a lot in common with, when in reality I didn’t once past certain ideas. My approach to skepticism was not like theirs at all, and it was a huge wake up call for me.

#4 – Be hungry for change

“There’s no need to sharpen my pencils anymore, my pencils are sharp enough. Even the dull ones will make a mark” Ze Frank, An invocation for begginings, Youtube

I’m not going to pretend that I can change the world, but I know that I can make small changes sometimes. 2012 started off with a bang for me when the Advertising Standards Authority agreed with my complaint about the claims a group of faith healers called ‘Healing on the Streets’ were making. They told the group they couldn’t continue to make the claims the way they were. The huge media coverage of the ruling, the appeal, and the final decision in the case was never expected, but it did send out a really important message, and it caused a lot of debate – from regional news to international news outlets, radio stations, television shows, and more. All of this happened because this blogger made a complaint to an independent regulator as a British citizen because I felt something wasn’t quite right with the claims on the groups leaflets. It isn’t the first time a complaint of mine to the ASA has been successful, but it’s certainly the complaint that generated the most attention to the fact that bogus claims wont go unchallenged.

Life is, I think, about knowing your limits – and recognising those limits as things to be broken.

In 2013 I shall: make noise, laugh, listen, talk, think, learn, change things, and be hungry for more. Join me?

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5 Comments to “Four lessons I learnt in 2012”

  1. First, thanks for the shout-out!

    I suspect that you did learn critical thinking skills at a young age. Most of us (those drawn to Skepticism) were believers of a lot of things we now find unbelievable or even silly for much of our childhoods. We needed accurate information, maturity, and time to philosophize about these things before we were able to let go.

    What we have learned about cognitive development suggests that our methods for learning what’s true form pretty early and don’t change very much. What changes is our knowledge and social situations. For some, conclusions are easily gleaned from others who sound like they’ve got it right. For others, they come from a progressive thought process that requires objectivity, humility, and valuing truth and integrity more than social acceptance. The former is easy and allows people to feel superior to others without having to do the work. As long as you’re always doing the work, you won’t have to worry about being wrong because it’s part of the process.

    • You’re welcome, and yes I probably did, but what I meant was that we weren’t taught about logical fallacies and things like that. I think that would have been useful. Would it have stopped me believing in ghosts? I don’t know, maybe not, but it would have been useful nonetheless.

  2. Good list that reflects very well on you.

  3. Thanks for another year of thought-provoking (but never anger-provoking) things to read.

    Let’s hope that in 2013 the skeptics’ versions of the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front for Judea can sort out their differences.

    Merry Christmas/Winterval/Festivus/whatever!

  4. +100 kudos for point three.

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