In defense of scepticism

burds

As 2012 became 2013 I wrote a blog post listing 4 lessons I had learnt that year. The lessons were ‘Become a better investigator’, ‘Talk and listen to young people’, ‘Never be too certain’ and ‘Be hungry for change’. Throughout 2013 I wrote a lot of criticisms of the modern skeptical movement. In fact, when looking back through my blog I was quite surprised at the extent to which I had blogged my thoughts. Here’s a quick recap:

Community, you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means
James Randi & Social Darwinism | James Randi and Social Darwinism revisited
How it is
Walking the Walk
Communication disaster, the damage skeptics cause
On Guerilla Skepticism and Skeptical Outreach | Further thoughts for the day
I am woo? I am skeptic!

If you go back further you find more and more blog posts from me questioning the movement that until recently I felt a part of. It’s what sceptics do – having an open mind and casting the scepticism inwards as well as outwards, and there really is some funky stuff going on within parts of the skeptical movement that warrants scrutiny. Yet, in recent months it has become clearer and clearer that it isn’t scepticism that is the problem, but indeed a small group of very vocal skeptics.

I have been really thinking about skepticism since blogging on the subject again last week and I have decided to blog once more in the hope that this will be my final summary of why I feel disconnected from the skeptical movement, and what skepticism means to me. Organising skeptics is often referred to as ‘herding cats’, yet we – as a wider collective of people – are represented in the media by such a small group of individuals. How messed up is that?

For many people, being a part of the skeptical movement is being a skeptic and being a skeptic is being part of the skeptical movement. When I say that I don’t identify as part of the skeptic movement it’s often presumed that I’m saying I’ve turned my back on skepticism but this isn’t the case.

Scientific scepticism is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility – it is this that I use as part of a wider methodological approach to my cases, and also an approach I take to things that I encounter on a regular basis. That is why I call myself a sceptic.  To me it’s best to keep scepticism simple and well defined.

What does my scepticism look like? When I see claims made in public that are not supported by evidence I submit complaints to Trading Standards, OFCOM or the ASA if it is appropriate to do. I have gone undercover to unearth dubious health claims being marketed at the desperate, and to uncover hoaxes perpetrated to make a quick buck from the unsuspecting and undeserving who believe in fringe ideas.

Very recently I went undercover at a herbal medicine centre and told them about the very complex (and real) problems I am having with my ear. I told them all about my past surgery and my current symptoms which are indicative that I may have another tumor in my ear. The treatment required may involve surgery but the herbal medicine practitioner told me that acupuncture would treat my immune system and it was my immune system that was causing the problem in my ear. This is dangerous.

I’ve submitted hundreds of complaints to Trading Standards and the ASA since 2008 and have made international news through doing so (something I had no intention of doing). I also speak to a range of audiences about using scientific scepticism as a paranormal researcher – young children, older children, believers and non-believers alike. I act as a media adviser (for free) to outlets that range from the BBC and ITV right down to regional newspapers on weird stories they are covering or have been approached with. By doing these things I get to engage with people about paranormal phenomena and the best ways to seek the answers.

I have arrived at my current sceptical position because I was inspired by grassroots scepticism within the United Kingdom. It’s a scene that isn’t overly defined, where individuals come together to work or to share information and expertise, where there are no rules and there is very little point scoring. What works for one doesn’t always work for another but that’s okay because it’s organic, there are no expectations, but it often gets the job done.

Last year I spent almost a week in Stockholm listening to skeptics from all over Europe speaking about the work that their skeptic organisations do. Good, decent outreach work that tries to inspire the minds of the next generations, work in the media that counters misinformation, and lots of undercover work and research to make sure claims being made about products (especially medicinal products) are evidence based. Activism. It’s decent sceptical activism that makes a difference. It’s hating stupidity and loving people. It’s seeing wrong and caring enough to make it right.

Yet there is a small pocket within the wider movement/community inhabited by those who create a information feedback loop, who don’t actively research the claims they dismiss, who defend famed members of their movement despite their terrible wrong-doings (the cognitive dissonance is almost cult like). Ego is often the motivating factor, back-patting and a bigger platform is the reward, and differences of opinion are settled through point scoring and petty attacks. It’s a movement within a movement where agendas are hidden by smokescreens and mirrors, and where the rational aren’t very rational at all.

“They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. […] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts. Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly. – Marcello Truzzi

These people do not represent skepticism like they might claim to, but they do seem to have the bigger voice. They might have represented skepticism at one point, but in my experience, more and more rational people are becoming wary of such individuals and their increasingly irrational behaviour.

When I write criticisms of skepticism it isn’t that I’m saying skepticism is bad or unhealthy or that skeptics are bad people. I am rooting for the grassroots efforts. I’m saying ‘let us not tolerate bullshit from those who claim to be anti-bullshit’. Let’s not be consumed by a movement that drags us around and around, but let’s stand on our own two feet and question everything.

Let us be better investigators, let us engage with younger generations, let us not be too certain, and let us be hungry for change.

News, news, newsy, news

11101.jpg

My website got a new look! I’ve often referred to myself as a ghost geek, so I thought I’d incorporate that into the blog somehow.

What do I mean when I write ‘ghost geek’? I’m not for one moment suggesting I know loads and loads about ghosts (I would have used ‘ghost nerd’ for that, after all). I use the label ‘ghost geek’ in reference to my love of ghosts within modern culture.

As a kid I’d spend hours reading ghost folklore books in the ‘history’ section of Trowbridge library during the weekly family trip there every Saturday morning. As I grew so did my grasp of the strange landscape around me in the weird county of Wiltshire that I grew up in and continue to live in today. It’s hills lined with white horses, stone circles, long barrows, man made hills and crop circles every summer. The stories of strange lights in the skies of Warminster, the fairies of Avebury, demon dogs with red eyes and more whetted my appetite and set me on the path to becoming a paranormal researcher long before I knew what paranormal research was.

Growing up watching Jonathan Creek,  X-Files and Scooby Doo, reading Susan Hill, M R James and thinking I lived in a haunted house. Being enchanted by stories of Harry Price, the S.P.R, Endfield, Gef the Mongoose, Borley and then discovering the modern ghost hunting scene. That’s why I call myself a Ghost Geek.

In other news, I was interviewed for the Church of David Mabus show for Fortean Radio. You can listen here.

Bownessie has raised its head twice in the last week and I got quoted in an article about the second photo to surface here. You can read my take on the first recent Bownessie photo here. Could this be the start of another wave of Bownessie stories? Will I ever stop using water based puns?

Also: The science/skepticism conference, Kritisk Masse has just revealed details for their 2014 conference and I can announce that I will be delivering my ‘A Skeptics Guide to Ghost Hunting’ presentation. It’s being held in Oslo, and I’ve already been told they have a ‘haunted fortress’ for me to explore!

To finish off, here are some interesting pieces I’ve read recently:

There’ going to be an Interdisciplinary Symposium on Gef the Talking Mongoose in London!
An interesting piece from Henry Paterson – ‘Pseudo Science Makes a case for Entitlement’
On the tail of the Dodo (did they have tails?) – A Wild Dodo Chase

Give us a wave, Bownessie!

2014 bownessie full picture

It’s 2014, and after an absence from the media of quite some time the Bownessie lake monster has made headlines once more. Mr Matt Benefield got in touch with the West Morland Gazette to say he thought he might have captured the mysterious beast in a photograph he took when walking in Windermere on January 12th.

2014 bownessie full picture
A better view of the original photo (screen capped)

The paper reports that ‘he was at the north of the Lake, taking various photographs. When flicking through the photos back at home, he noticed something odd in the water. The 43-year-old said: “It was a really calm day and the water was very still. There was nobody out in the water, it was very quiet. When I was looking back through the photos, one caught my eye. I wouldn’t normally think anything of it but it was the two ripples in the water that got me thinking there was possibly something strange in the Lake.”

2014 bownessie oddity focus
A closer look at the oddities

I got in touch with Faye Greenwell of the Gazette who sent me the original photograph (not the one seen in the report which has been edited) and a few things became instantly clear to me about what we were seeing when I examined the photo.

1 – the photo was taken from behind a reflective surface – possibly glass. This isn’t so obvious in the smaller version used by the newspaper. There is light reflected on this surface that comes from behind the photographer, and out of focus black dots that could be mud, water or similar on the surface.

This gives some perspective on the distance between photographer and oddity and suggests that the break in the water is quite close to the shore and smaller than they first seem to be.

2 – The larger breaks in the water are just waves. The water on Windermere is always moving and the bow waves of boats that have long passed can take some time to travel to the edge of the lake. These waves could have been caused by a boat or by the wind. You can see other waves further out on the lake too.

3 – The smaller pair of ripples moving away from the bigger wave are quite small. They remind me of underwater driftwood being moved by water currents but it’s hard to say for sure. It could also be wildlife.

One thing I am certain of is that what we’re seeing in this photo is not as big as it first appears, and I do not believe it to be mysterious or monstrous in origin.

A sort-of-hiatus. One that involves staying.

Blah, Blah, Blah, 2008, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog will have noticed the decrease in the number of posts recently. I’ve been struggling to find a reason to carry on doing what I do, and what I do has increasingly become ‘filling the gaps around the more ambitious and hungry’. 

This is probably going to come across as some sort of self-discovery blog post, but it isn’t intended that way. This isn’t me being enthusiastic in an attempt to convince people that I’ve got my shit together. This is just simply me being honest.

Way back in 2007, in a completely different form, my blog was created as a way of documenting my personal exploration of paranormal research. I was a person who had believed in ghosts for a long time who was just turning her back on those ideas and all the baggage that came with them. Today I look around and I don’t find much of that wonder I used to find and that makes me sad.

I’m tired of this weird cycle that I have become caught in these last few years. An ever increasingly toxic relationship with the ‘skeptic movement’ that welcomed me with open arms so many years ago has left me recently feeling jaded. Insistence that I was ‘whining‘ or ‘being contrarian‘ when I was moved to question authority figures within the movement left me feeling the same urge a rebellious teenager feels to smoke cigarettes – not really wanting to, but knowing it would piss mum off. That’s not a good feeling.

To stay ahead as a skeptic paranormal researcher it seems that you have to throw the same old tired skeptic cliches at these stories without actually bothering to investigate them at all. You must not question other skeptics and their analysis of a case either.

That isn’t a healthy approach.

Pigeonholing strange reports as ‘hoax’ or ‘delusional’ or ‘bullshit’ or ‘probably nothing’ isn’t at all exciting. Being a part of the ‘Skeptical Movement’ actually seemed to halt my development as a person, and this is a realisation that saddens me a lot.

There often seems to be too many elbows jarring ribs in an effort to stay at the top of the game (whatever the game might be, and whatever the top might look like). I am not interested in churning out skeptical take downs of paranormal news stories or the eye-witness testimonies of strange encounters people have had.

We, as skeptics, often blame belief-orientated people of confirming their own biases by cherry picking information that suits their desired view of the world, but non-believers are guilty of this too. Some of the skeptical authorities who are quoted time and time again as expert sources are the most guilty.

Skepticism, it seems, doesn’t take well to being organised.

When I recently read Greg’s ‘Stop Worrying! There Probably is an AfterlifeI cried when reading about deathbed visitations because I forgot how touching I’ve always found such stories. I didn’t agree with his conclusions, but the book was a joy. Just the other day while talking to a friend we exchanged stories of weird stuff we’ve both experienced despite both not believing in ghosts – these experiences of mine have always been things I’ve swept under the rug when around other skeptics and I’m no longer sure why I felt the need to do so.

I also had a sort of mini-revelation when I read Will Storr’s ‘The Heretics’. The message I took from the book (among others) was something I had known all along really, but had sort of put aside in my mind.

People are stories.

It’s a wonderful thing when you think about it. People are stories… and I came to realise that I was more interested in those stories than I was of being right. I don’t see the appeal in ensuring people know that you are right and they are wrong anymore.

I am a ghost geek. I sometimes investigate weird things and most of the research I do these days is conducted away from my blog where is remains confidential and ethical. I like it that way. It feels… better.

I am a ghost geek, and I don’t think you can call me a ghost skeptic anymore. I still use skepticism (or scepticism, if you prefer the c to the k), but the baggage the ‘skeptical movement’ brings weighed me down and stopped me realising what my own story was, and I fully intend to carry on discovering it. This means I probably won’t blog about paranormal happenings as much as I used to I’m afraid.

Of course, I’ll share my thoughts often enough, and book reviews when I have time… and should I feel compelled to write an examination of the latest ghost news then I will, but know this… I’ll do it because it interests me, because I want to and not because it’s one of my chores.

 

Clean houses: Mi Casa es Su Casa?

clean

If Bigfoot researchers wish to be taken seriously, they could start by cleaning their own house. The biggest threat to their credibility is not skeptics nor a ridiculing public but instead those who provide an endless stream of bogus claims and evidence,”

The above is a quote from Bed Radford featured in an article on the International Business Times website about the recent Rick Dyer photos of the alleged big foot body. Dodgy Bigfoot “body” aside, the thing that really grabbed my attention was the idea that other individuals were in some way able to rectify the problem caused by people like Dyer.

This is an impossible task because there is a lack of formality to bigfoot research, just like ghost research and other forms of paranormal research. There are no official guidelines or standards, and there are no membership requirements meaning that anybody is able to become a Bigfoot researcher, a ghost researcher, a Chupacabra researcher, and so on.

When we think of group moral responsibility we think of a whole group being liable for the morally wrong actions of one or several members of the group.  This type of responsibility typically involves groups possessing a significant degree of solidarity, and that just isn’t the case within paranormal research fields.

The word ‘community’ when applied to most forms of paranormal research is often loosely defined. Even those organisations which seek to make a unified progress within such research fields often have debates within their membership about what approach and methodologies are best! Within all communities then – no matter how loosely or well formed – it’s safe to say that there will always be those who act irrationally or irresponsibly. There will always be hoaxers, there will always be peadophile ghost hunters, there will always be arsonists. Is it really the responsibility of loosely formed collectives who don’t see eye-to-eye at the best of times to own those problems?

Sometimes, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s necessary for researchers to take to a metaphorical podium and speak out against every hoaxer or irresponsible researcher.

Mi Casa...

From personal experience I know that within ghost research communities there are individuals whose behaviour is horrendous, irrational and unethical on a sometimes upsetting scale. However there are people within those same communities who try to discourage such behaviour and offer a way of learning to become good and rational researchers, but this doesn’t negate the the irrational and irresponsible individuals or teams and it never will.

That’s an impossible task. There will always be such people and their existence does not mark some sort of failure on the part of the rest of the community whatsoever.

To put this in another context, let’s look at skeptics. A large group of individuals that are so diverse that trying to organise them is likened to ‘herding cats’. When certain skeptics made claims that sounded suspiciously like Social Darwinism, or were accused of sexually harrassing others that was a failure on the part of the individuals and nobody else. Responding to such happenings by claiming they meant no skeptic could be taken seriously would have been a quite a generalisation and a lazy dismissal.

I think I’ve gone slightly off track from Radford’s quote at this point, but I, for one, think this also works the other way around. The world of paranormal research is messy, complex and not perfect but I don’t think it has ever claimed to be. Within smaller communities there are always people trying to make things better, but it’s a struggle. They’re up against a lot, and I feel bad for them when they’re dismissed out of hand for not keeping their houses clean.