*update* Paolo Viscardi has pointed out that the Skeptics I write about could be classed as Pseudo-Skeptics because “a skeptic doesn’t dismiss an area of investigation because they think it’s woo”. This is a fair point I didn’t consider at the time of writing, so the term ‘skeptic’ is used throughout this post.
On Sunday I spoke at the 15th European Skeptics Congress about Ghost Hunting using skepticism (there’s a great summary here by Bruno Van de Casteele). I used examples of my research to demonstrate how you can investigate ghosts, monsters, UFOs and all sorts of paranormal topics while using scientific skepticism. I finished my talk by going over 7 ways in which I work to promote rational and critical thinking about paranormal subjects, and those points were:
- Build up a good relationship with local journalists
- Engage & work alongside those who believe.
- Make rational information easily available
- Never stop talking
- Stay one step ahead of the fakers
- Teach others (especially kids) the tricks of the trade
- And finally: have fun!
I want to focus on point 2 in this blog post. ‘Engage and work alongside those who believe’.
When I stopped believing in ghosts, psychics, UFOs etc. it was because I initially doubted certain things happening around me and then went online to try and answer the questions that this initial doubt inspired. It was thanks to people like Bob Dezon, who engaged respectfully with me about certain paranormal topics, that I was able to eventually turn my back on nonsense I used to believe in.
Ever since then I’ve thought it important to not think of those who believe in Paranormal ideas as ‘them‘ or as some group of other people who have no common ground with us non-believers, because that simply isn’t true. When I spoke in Stockholm I pointed out that just like everyone in the audience there that day, lots of people who believe in Paranormal ideas detest fake psychics, hoaxers, and scam artists and do what they can to stop such people harming others. Those who believe in Paranormal ideas also want to know the truth, but perhaps are off the track slightly with how they apply logic to what they’re dealing with. I used to do exactly that and know how easy it is, and as a skeptic I also know how frustrating it cam be to see people making the same old illogical arguments too. I get that… yet I see, with great regularity, those who identify as skeptics dismissing people simply for being involved in paranormal research or journalism, or for believing in Paranormal ideas.
Believers in Paranormal ideas aren’t necessarily stupid people and there is often a complex story behind their belief. It’s this story that we try to learn about on the Be Reasonable Podcast that I co-host with Michael Marshall (Marsh), and we’ve often finished our interview having learnt something completely new about someone else’s perspective on a topic. We may not agree that Pterosaurs still exist like Jonathan Whitcomb thinks, or that the Earth is flat like Michael Wilmore of the Flat Earth Society… but we get where they’re coming from. A bit… and that’s something.
In the majority of cases you are not going to convince someone who believes in a Paranormal idea that they might be wrong… and even if they do have that moment of enlightenment (as I did) there will be two new believers to take their place almost instantly. This isn’t a battle, though. It should never be a battle. It’s a whole bunch of stories unfolding second by second. Widespread belief in Paranormal ideas is very unlikely to go away, so what do we do? As skeptics, as non-believers… do we continue to roll our eyes and despair at their stupidity? Mark these people off as no-hopers, focusing instead on those who sit upon the fence? Is that good enough?
Personally, I don’t think it is. I may not be able to agree with you that ghosts exist, but I’d prefer to focus on our commonalities rather than our differences while still getting that message out there. I’d rather work with someone who believes in ghosts any day over a non-believer too lazy or stubborn to engage with others they don’t connect with.
The amount of tips I receive while working on cases that come from those who believe in Paranormal ideas is incredible, and that’s why it annoys me… no… angers me, when skeptics dismiss believers completely without looking beyond the label. The tone that many skeptics take while talking or writing to or about those who believe in Paranormal ideas leaves me scratching my head because they’re so dismissive of those they often claim to be trying to reach out to or engage with. Doubtful News, for example, is a site that does great work with Paranormal media stories, yet often seems to not realise that they’re putting peoples backs up with some of the commentary they offer on those news stories. It’s small things like this that make or break relationships between believers and non-believers.
In the next couple of weeks I am speaking at the Seriously Strange Conference in the city of Bath. It’s ‘The Paranormal Conference of the Year’ because anyone who is anyone in the UK paranormal research fields is likely to be present or represented in some way or another. It is being hosted by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena – a paranormal educational charity who educate ghost hunters on how to conduct scientific, rigorous and ethical investigations into allegedly Anomalous Phenomena.
The reaction to this years conference from skeptics has been shameful; I’ve written about this previously. To recap though, I have seen skeptics mocking speakers for appearing ‘at a paranormal conference’ despite the conference not being purely Pseudo-Scientific in nature. People have been extremely quick to judge those involved because the conference is about Paranormal topics which is quite unfair because we, as skeptics, constantly tell those who promote Paranormal ideas to be more scientific, to be more rational yet when they are rational and scientific we dismiss them anyway because of the unfair connection we force upon them with those who are credulous.
As a speaker at the Seriously Strange conference I have also been mocked and dismissed as a “woo-woo”. I am not a woo-woo (a term I despise, by the way). This isn’t a one off reaction though, as just today I was dismissed in a discussion thread on the Skeptical Inquirer Facebook page as ‘a true believer’ for defending UFOlogists from the accusation that the field cannot be scientific.
The post was a link to a recent piece on the CSIcop website about UFOlogy entitled ‘UFO Research up in the air: Can it be scientific?’
The comments went like this:
Me: Of course it can be scientific, what a silly question…
D1: If UFOlogy was intellectually honest and applied the scientific method, would it not simply then become mainly meteorology on the weight of evidence gained?
Me: You can investigate UFO sightings and so on while using Scientific Skepticism. Plenty do. Or are you suggested everyone who investigates sightings must automatically be a psuedoscientific believer?
S: Only silly to you I guess, Hayley. It’s a legitimate question if you read the piece.
Me: I did read it, and I disagree with the final paragraph where you state: “For now, UFOlogy attempts to sound sciencey, but it is not nearly up to the standards to be called “science.”’ Nice of you to tar everyone with the same brush.
D2: Hayley’s a True Believer. Arnt’cha, sugar?
Sexist, patronising and dismissive nature of this response aside for a moment – I’m defending those who research a certain Paranormal idea therefore I must be a believer, and because I’m a believer I must therefore be incorrect, despite the fact that I was making perfectly decent points? Riiiiight…
Do you see the problem here? Do you see why skeptics are often thought of as the bad guys among believers? I do, yet so many non-believers and skeptics don’t see it. Perhaps it’s because I count believers as my friends and my colleagues, perhaps it’s because I am a part of their communities as much as I am skeptic communities… but sometimes I wonder just what some skeptics are actually trying to achieve, and whether they realise that they’re often completely missing the target?
Believers aren’t people to be spoken about or spoken to. Try talking with them. Strangely, they have thought and ideas. Like humans.