Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism

Bertrand Russell - Love is Wise quote

For me, skeptical activism is all about information and how it is communicated with the world. I’m a grassroots skeptic activist, so good activism is all about how rational information is shared – but how successful your skeptical activism is depends upon how you measure success.

Just getting someone to consider my point of view for a moment is a success in my mind (even if they’re not totally convinced by what I’ve said.) Some would say this is setting the bar low and that success for skeptical activism comes in the form of people turning their back on nonsense beliefs, but as a former believer in a few types of nonsense, I consider that to be a very big ask. The transition from believer to non-believer is a personal decision that takes a lot of consideration, especially if it is a long standing belief that has a lot invested in it.

Sometimes peoples whole lives are built upon the foundation of belief. 

At QEDcon this weekend Michael Marshall, Samantha Stein, Eran Segev and Susan Gerbic sat on a panel called Engaging Believers: Loud and Proud or Softly, Softly? exploring ways in which to approach activism while engaging with those who believe in the topic you’re opposing.

I guess that my personal form of skeptic activism would be considered ‘softly softly’. I use many methods to tackle nonsense claims; making complaints to the right authorities (Trading Standards, Advertising Standards etc.), speaking at events tailored towards believers, creating links with regional journalists and getting rational information included in paranormal-related news stories (or stopping hoaxes going to press in the first place), and making as much rational information available to the general public as I can.

Yet, I don’t think my skeptic activism isn’t ‘loud and proud’ either. I’ve participated in public stunts and demonstrations that call for an evidence based approach to health care etc. in compliment to the previously mentioned admin-type tasks. I do not believe that activism is either ‘softly, softly’ or ‘loud and proud’ and I think a mix of both approaches works if you judge it correctly. 

…unless, of course, by ‘loud and proud’ what we really mean is ‘aggressive’.

‘Guerilla Skepticism’ is the name that Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward (both speakers at QEDcon this year) would give to their own approach to skeptic activism, and after listening to them talk this weekend, it isn’t an approach that I find at all appealing. I also don’t think it is as productive as people would have us believe.

Although the tackling of pseudo-science on Wikipedia is admirable (Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia being one project of many headed up by Gerbic), the fashion in which it is done leaves many questions unanswered… as did Gerbic during her QEDcon talk about that very subject. For example, an audience member who is studying the way information is shared on Wikipedia questioned why the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group have a private (described as “secret”) forum away from Wikipedia if what they do isn’t agenda driven. This went unanswered with just “my editors only put out good stuff” given in response. If skeptics can’t get a straight answer is it any wonder that believers are wary of such a campaign?

During the Engaging Believers panel it was mentioned by Gerbic how there wasn’t much that could be done to change the minds of believers attending psychic shows and so it was about just shouting down the psychic instead and “letting them know there is a skeptic group in town and they’re [the psychic] not welcome there.” 

I dislike fake psychics and grief leeches as much as the next person (and trust me, it isn’t just skeptics who are opposed to psychic trickery), but I don’t want to censor them or chase them out of town. I want to help people spot psychic trickery and make the empowered decision to not attend a psychic show for themselves.

I think holding up banners (like the one pictured below) stating ‘Syliva Browne: convicted felon’ outside of Browne’s shows was done in poor taste considering her felony wasn’t connected to her psychic claims. We are routinely told that we can still trust Brian Dunning despite his guilty plea for wire fraud, but skeptics tell the general public they couldn’t trust Browne because of her felony for investment fraud? Hm.

Photo of the Felon banner

photo: MikkelHH from Stuffpoint

This feels too personal and as though there is a score to be settled, and it’s an approach I just cannot fathom, especially considering the fact that Mark Edward is a mentalist who performs as a working psychic without disclosing to his audience before or after his show what he is doing. He also actively opposes working psychics as a skeptic – the majority of which, he believes, are purposefully deceiving their audiences. There is so much conflict in this approach that I’m worried my nose is going to bleed if I think about it too hard.

“Get up on your feet and take out the garbage” Edward told the audience during his talk on Sunday. We are, Mark, we just tend not to call people garbage no matter how badly they may have behaved.

When I see skeptics behaving like this it disappoints me, and it makes me think of Simon Singh who, while sitting in an audience full of Sally Morgan fans, calmly explained to Sally face to face why she should undertake tests of her alleged abilities. In the end some people in that audience agreed with him. That is the kind of skepticism I can get behind any day of the week.

Edward claimed during the Skepticism and Magic panel chaired by Deborah Hyde and featuring Professor Richard Wiseman and Paul Zenon as well, that there is “wiggle room” when it comes to disclaimers about being a performer and not a “real” psychic and that revealing the trick ruins the illusion – a point that Professor Wiseman strongly disagreed with. Things actually got a bit heated during the panel, as they did at The Amazing Meeting! last year where Edward sat on a panel with Jamy Ian Swiss who didn’t think Edward was working the psychic phone lines to promote skepticism but, in fact, to make a living. As such, he claimed that Edward can’t be considered part of a skeptic movement. You can read more detail of that exchange here.

qed tweets

I also worry that an aggressive approach to skeptic activism can have the undesired effect of turning people further towards the psychic they’ve paid to see. When presented with two opposing views, those attending a psychic show are going to focus on the option that brings them the most comfort, and skeptics behaving badly probably isn’t it.

I appreciate that the organisers of QEDcon gave a platform to those who undertake different approaches to skeptical activism as these are important discussions to have, but you only had to look at the conference Twitter hashtag at certain times to see how uncomfortable such a confrontational approach made the majority of skeptics in attendance feel.

I understand what people feel when they attend a psychic show because I used to do the very same thing. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the front row at a psychic show hoping that a relative would come through because my belief in ghosts was wavering a little bit and I really didn’t want to believe that there was no afterlife. I can remember sitting there, desperate, wide-eyed and full of hope. I can remember the disappointment when nothing came through.

It makes me angry that I was decieved and it makes me angry that I was foolish, but it isn’t anger that I allow to lead my activism as that would be a mistake. Instead I allow my experience of losing a belief in psychics and more to help me find some commonality with those who visit psychic shows or visit a chiropractor or a herbalist. I try my best not to judge them for what they believe and I try and share the information that I think they should know, and if they listen I feel I’ve succeeded and if they don’t listen I hope they remember just in case they change their mind. 

My experiences as a believer are why I co-host Be Reasonable and interview people with strange or unconventional beliefs, because I know that behind every belief is a complex story, and often, before walking away from a belief a person has to work through these stories and make sense of them and that is difficult.

Ultimately, to conclude, it is difficult to engage with people who visit psychic shows and believe in psychic powers. It isn’t impossible though, and to ignore those attending such shows because they seem to be lost causes and instead “rattling the cage” of the psychic is easy.

Yet, although engaging with believers is not easy… I know which I prefer to attempt.

“Love is wise. Hatred is foolish” – Nate Phelps, QEDcon 2014
(based on a quote from Bertrand Russell)

The imaginary brain tumour they tried to cure with homoeopathy

homeopathy

Last month I visited The Healthy Life in Devizes, Wiltshire and told the woman behind the counter that I suffered from persistent headaches that bordered on migraines for three or four days at a time that often made me nauseous. I told the woman that nothing I bought from a chemist touched the pain and that I wasn’t able to sleep because of it and was constantly having to take time off of work and that I sometimes feel immense pressure behind my eyes.

ten23She prescribed me homoeopathic belladonna at £7.10 as it apparently works for throbbing headaches, even though I had described potential symptoms of having a brain tumour and mentioned casually my distrust of my GP. The NHS Direct website outlines all of the symptoms of brain tumours and quite rightly states ‘It is important to see a doctor if you develop a persistent and severe headache that does not have any obvious cause, especially if you also have unexpected vomiting.’

“Homoeopathy,” the health shop worker explained “is certain chemicals that they put together that they know the body will react to in a certain way. It’s natural chemicals not bad chemicals.” She went on to explain how it works, ‘Homoeopathy works on your own body chemical system. You’re putting it in your body to not get the headaches. The body will react to that and hep with your own pain relief so you don’t get the headaches.”

There are no active ingredients in homoeopathic remedies and the only thing my body would have ingested would have been sugar pills with a lactose coating. The woman seems to not understand what homoeopathy actually is or how it is alleged (incorrectly) to work. Either way, the remedy I was sold would not have cured my headaches or a brain tumour.

Read all about homoeopathy on the website created by The Good Thinking Society especially for Homoeopathy Awareness Week by clicking here. It is concerning that practitioners of this alternative medicine are prescribing it for potentially serious conditions and in life threatening situations.

Criticising psychics isn’t like racism…

FACEPALM

I can’t believe I am writing this. I just can’t.

I’ve just read a user submitted piece by ‘Tap’ over at the Daily Grail titled ‘Bigotry towards psychics: why it is no different to racism and homophobia‘. The opinion piece from September 2013 has been doing the rounds lately (which is how I stumbled upon it.) It was inspired by a 2006 article on The Guardian site by Charlie Brooker titled When it comes to psychics, my stance is hardcore: they must die alone in windowless cells’

In it Brooker strongly criticises OFCOM and their clearing Channel 5’s ‘The Baby Mind Reader’ starring Derek Ogilvie of any wrong doing with its tasteless show and exploitation of those involved. Brooker states that he thinks psychics belong in prison. His words are harsh, but this is Charlie Brooker and that is his style – over exaggerated anger while, underneath the pantomime angry man act, there are decent points being made. 

By writing this Charlie Brooker is apparently not only ‘displaying hate and bigotry against psychics and mediums, he’s also demonstrating how heartless he is to people he considers to be mentally unwell. Not only is he a bigot, but he has no compassion to boot.’

nope2Brooker wrote:

I’ve never fully understood the public’s docile acceptance of psychics, or why, when it comes to their supposed abilities, the burden of proof is assumed to lie with the sceptic, as opposed to the sort of shrieking idiot who claims to be able to contact the spirit world (or in Derek Ogilvie’s case, communicate telepathically with kids too young to talk).

I’m quite hardcore on this. I think every psychic and medium in this country belongs in prison. Even the ones demented enough to believe in what they’re doing. In fact, especially them. Give them windowless cells and make them crap in buckets. They can spend the rest of their days sewing mailbags in the dark.

The audiences that psychics prey on are equally infuriating, albeit less deserving of contempt. They’re just disappointing, like a friend who’s let you down. Often, they’re simply grieving and desperate.

Over at the Daily Grail, Tap finds this offensive and believes that Charlie Brooker’s opinions (which have been taken at face value) are kin to homophobia or racism. Tap states ‘Brooker is calling for the oppression and marginalisation of a group of people, a minority group who are different, a group that is outside what is considered “normal” or “mainstream”. Why? Because he *believes* they are all either fraudulent or mentally ill.’

nope

Likening the Brooker commentary to racism or homophobia is naive and it’s insulting to those who have to deal with actual bigotry on a regular or semi-regular basis. People of colour and non-heterosexual people do not have the burden of proof at their feet because they are not making claims that require evidence to back them up. They do, however, deal with ingrained prejudice in many areas of society despite this. 

People who demand evidence that gay people or black people are “normal” are bigots. People who demand evidence that psychics are psychics are not. Here’s why:

People who claim to have psychic or mediumistic abilities do have the burden of proof and most psychics, such as Sally Morgan, believe that they do not have to prove anything. This is why people are untrustworthy of those who claim to be psychic, and it’s why people like Charlie Brooker get angry when people who don’t provide the evidence to back up their claims are still able to harm those who are vulnerable without being held responsible.

By the way, Derek Ogilvie has actually failed controlled tests of his abilities by Prof. Chris French, so I think the anger is justified. It’s also worth pointing out that many people claiming to be psychics HAVE gone to jail because of their fraud – the most recent example being fraudulent psychic Rosa Marks. 

When Charlie Brooker says that all psychics belong in prison I think it’s safe to say he was over-exaggerating, but all things considered, he wasn’t that far off the mark…

The RI Podcast back catalogue

Righteous Indignation

Episode 91 of the Righteous Indignation Podcast (the one with the interview with psychic Vicky Monroe) has been getting a lot of listening in the last few days thanks to a post by a listener on Reddit. The podcast stopped being produced a while back BUT the back catalogue (minus a few episodes that we hope to re-add soon) has always been on my website.

The show was created by Trystan Swale who now hosts Fortean Radio, and it was co-hosted by myself and Michael Marshall with whom I now co-host the Be Reasonable podcast. If you enjoyed Righteous Indignation Podcast I suspect you’ll also enjoy both shows.

Weird, Intolerant and creepy: on being reduced to a little girl

little girl blowing rasberry

I cannot remember a time that I have fluttered my eyelashes to get my own way, nor can I remember ever stamping my feet for similar reasons. Similarly, I have never thrown a tantrum or a paddy because someone didn’t like me or didn’t agree with me. I am also almost Thirty years old.

bratty little girl giving the fingerYet, despite all of this, I am often reduced to a caricature little girl who flutters her eyelashes to get people on side – or who throws tantrums, stomps her feet and wails because people don’t like me or because they’re not agreeing with me… and my detractors would try to convince you that it was my eye-lash fluttering and ‘cute’ face that get me any media attention too.

It’s a bit like being dismissed as an ‘uppity woman’, but instead being infantilised. It’s all sorts of patronising, sexist bullshit rolled into one, and it happens because I, as a non-believer, don’t hold back when voicing my skeptical thoughts and opinions. I am unapologetically brash and it rubs people up the wrong way. Especially within paranormal research communities that I am a part of or associated with.

I am not going to justify my tone and I will not be tone policed by men who think so little of me. I will also not justify what I do, how I do it and any media attention that comes as a result – especially when I don’t seek such attention, and a lot of my work is uncredited consultancy.

Ultimately, there is nothing I can say to stop people from reducing me to a bratty child, but I wanted people to know that this isn’t okay and it happens on a regular basis and I’m not going to just quietly accept it any more. If you disagree with me, if you don’t like me, if I unfriend you on Facebook and you don’t like it (referred to as “H-bombing” apparently) that is perfectly fine and I can live with that, but reducing me to a caricature bratty child or uppity woman isn’t fine. It’s weird, intolerant and creepy behaviour.

Paul Lee 1
‘stamping her feet…’
H-bombed
‘she’s a psycho…’
Dave Skinner and Paul Lee
‘stamps her foot…’
Paul Lee & Robert Moore
‘doe eyed…’

 

 

true believer
‘a true believer, arnt’cha sugar?’

 

simon rogers