I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully

‘A cold, angry bunch’

Backlit_keyboard

Vice has published a great feature called The Real ‘X-Files’? It’s a mini-documentary about Roswell and the legend that still lives on and it’s fascinating to watch because of the insight Joe Nickell provides to the whole thing.

For those not in the know, Nickell works for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and is (possibly the world’s only) full time, salaried paranormal investigator. He has a history as a detective, journalist and more. The perspective he can bring to a case is amazing as I witnessed when I visited Windermere with him in 2012 to briefly investigate the Bownessie lake monster reports.

One thing that he says in this documentary in particular really struck a chord with me which has promoted this blog post. Joe talks about how it can be difficult to talk to someone who is a true believer and points out that ‘some of the flying saucer people are mostly male and when they get hysterical they start to threaten you and shriek… they’re a pretty cold, angry bunch.”

This is also true of ghost hunters posing as scientific investigators, conspiracy theorists and PSI proponents too and it’s heartening (in a selfish way) to know that other skeptical investigators also witness this hostility.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post called ‘the problem with militant debunkers‘ which was about some pretty dismissive stuff a blogger was writing about skeptics (aka militant debunkers) and this prompted quite an angry backlash in the comments section of my blog. The bitter, hateful language being used to describe me and other skeptics and our so-called motives was incredible to see. One guy even decicated a whole blog post on his website to what was wrong with me. These people all essentially accused me of having ulterior motives and of being dishonest and scared to face the truth. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Usually people only get that angry when they learn that you’re an atheist who thinks their god is make believe and the last time I checked Rupert Sheldrake (whom I dared to criticise) is not a god. Theirs was the sort of anger that hurts the person who is expressing it more than it hurts those they lash out at. I didn’t approve all of the comments (which is totally my right) but here are some of my favourite statements:

‘… you blythely parroting that bunch of vicious crap without investigation of your own…’

‘… constant rain of malignant big-money manipulated bullshit convincing mainstream media-suckled morons and so-called skeptics…’

‘I’m talking to you, inexplicably self-righteous militant skeptic. For shame!’

‘… the term ‘skeptic’ is not completely appropriate; instead they behave as little more than paradigm jihadists.’

Back to ‘The Real X-Files?’, the journalist, Casey Feldman, briefly talks to Stanton Friedman who refers to Joe as a “nasty, noisy negativist” which was rather confusing because the Joe Nickell I met back in 2012 was a lovely chap and a brilliant detective.

As Joe himself says in this documentary “when I see ghost hunter types saying they’re paranormal investigators I think no you’re not. They don’t want it solved. They want to sell the mystery. A detetctive’s motivation is to solve the mystery” and perhaps that’s why people like Freidman and those guys who got worked up in the comments section of my blog don’t like skeptics? Because skeptics don’t settle for what’s convenient or comforting, they want the truth and for some people the facts aren’t mysterious or magical enough.

This means that they have to find a way to dismiss the skeptic so that they don’t have to counter the criticisms and the best way to do this is to call them pseudo-skeptics, paradigm jihadists, militant debunkers and accuse them of having agendas.

The trick is to keep on keeping on. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the negativity of others (as I myself am probably guilty of here) but when someone refers to you and your colleagues as jihadists I guess you’ve got to recognise that now is the time to rise above it and Joe Nickell the hell out of some mysteries.

featured image: backlit keyboard by Colin

A Recent Investigation Into British Psychics Revealed Something Shocking

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Volunteers from the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) recently worked with the Good Thinking Society (GTS) with their investigation into psychics. The volunteers visited different “psychics” and filmed their readings and the results are, quite frankly, appalling.

The first investigation involved a GTS volunteer visiting a psychic in Blackpool and paying £30 for a 5 minute reading. The GTS outline the concerns with this first reading, point out that it ‘was inaccurate, vague and included 22 questions in under 5 minutes. The palmist showed no sign of the supernatural insight she claimed to be able to provide, and left us concerned that a vulnerable customer could be exploited.’

It seems this prompted further investigation and GTS teamed up with the MSS to go undercover with more psychics. Worryingly, one volunteer called Alice suffers from Hypermobility Syndrome (a chronic and highly-painful disability) and was given irresponsible information from the psychic.

The GTS say on their site ‘[Alice] responds to the palmist as she would have done prior to receiving her diagnosis. Everything Alice tells the palmist about her symptoms is true … [Alice] was told that her chronic, highly-painful disability was ‘nothing serious’ and that she would make a full recovery in a few months – and that she alone was responsible for how she felt. In fact, hypermobility is a genetic disorder which cannot be cured.’

I… just… what the…

Another volunteer posed as somebody with a gambling habit and the psychic encouraged them to continue their gambling. The GTS report ‘The palm reader directly encouraged a client with financial troubles to continue gambling, to expect a big win and to ‘do nothing different’.’

Then, in the final part of this undercover investigation three volunteers visited the same psychic for separate readings and the psychic practically gives them the same reading. When a fourth volunteer visits another psychic in the next booth (who happens to be the daughter of the first psychic) she too delivers an spookily similar reading.

What has been recorded in these videos is cause for alarm. The psychic industry attracts people out to make a quick buck from the general public who don’t seem to care about the welfare of the people they come into contact with. This has the potential for disastrous results.

Imagine for a moment that Alice didn’t know her condition and didn’t consult a GP as a result of this reading? Imagine if the volunteer pretending to have a gambling habit didn’t seek help and carried on, potentially getting themselves into further trouble which could result in homelessness or worse?

When I still believed in psychics I visited a stage show during which one of the guys on stage told a mother with a grown child who had some sort of developmental disability that her dead husband was telling her that her concerns about the medication for their son were correct and she should stop using those medications.

When I confronted the psychic about this online after the show he denied he’d said this and I wish I had recorded the show. With all of this in mind here are some steps that you can take to minimise the risk of being ripped off by a charlatan:

1 – Film your reading (and walk away if you’re told not to)
2 – Check reviews online before
3 – Ask for a receipt (and don’t pay and walk away if denied)
4 – Don’t answer questions with anything more than a “yes” or “no”
5 – Count the misses as well as the hits
6 – Count the number of questions asked and how many names you are given.

Yet even if you follow these tips the chances that you’re going to be ripped off is still pretty high. Last year I visited a local psychic fair with my mum out of curiosity and I was amazed at how flattering the psychics were during their readings. Nobody is going to disagree with an encouraging statement about themselves, are they?

Is it worth the risk? I don’t think so…

People can believe in what they wish and they can visit a psychic if that’s what they want to do, but investigations of this nature are important and should not be seen as non-believers/skeptics attacking believers. In my opinion, this is people working to help other people – in this case those who seek guidance from psychics.

I can only take my hat off to the MSS and GTS for this work. I hope it will open a few eyes.

A Humanist Ghost Buster

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I stopped believing in ghosts in 2007 and for the first few months I decided that the best use of my time was to explain to others how the things they thought were true were wrong. It bordered on me being almost offended that people could believe such silly things until I realised that I had believed in those things too and it had been really easy.

For a while now I have equally admired and loathed the fields of paranormal research for the complex systems that they are and for the way in which they have changed rapidly as the world around us has changes while, at the same time, not changing very much at all in some aspects. In doing so I have realised that over the years my approach to my paranormal research has become humanistic in nature which isn’t all that surprising considering I identify as a humanist, but of all the places that these values would manifest themselves ghost research seems the less obvious place. That is… until you start looking a bit closer at ghost research and the variety of people who come with it.

Paranormal researcher, CJ Romer, once described his main method of research as a Cup of Tea method where the well-being of the person or people that a case of potentially anomalous phenomena centres around comes before the research into the phenomena itself. “As an academic one of the first things you are taught is that you don’t do research with the recently bereaved and unfortunately one of the groups you’re most likely to be approached by is someone who has suffered a recently bereavement … Do you look at the phenomena, do you offer anything more than a cup of tea and sympathy– my preferred approach -and break off contact as quickly and gently as you could?”

Important questions. Ensuring your research is ethical should be a priority – this is something I interviewed CJ Romer about previously on this blog. Once you start considering the ethics of your research into anomalous phenomena and once you start focussing on the people more than chasing the ghosts I think you acknowledge the complexity of being human and belief and your approach becomes humanist in nature.

In the skeptic movement the “Don’t Be A Dick” talk by Phil Plait at The Amazing Meeting in 2010 (video above) felt like a pivotal moment at which those who didn’t care about how they engaged with believers and those that did care often found themselves in debates about their approach to skeptic activism or outreach. I have written extensively on this blog about how I care about how I communicate with people regarding what they believe in and why. Belief is often a complex thing and to attack someone simply because they believe in something you think is irrational isn’t productive or rational. Time and time again we see psychics being exposed as tricksters only for their fans to group around them because of the cognitive dissonance they’re experiencing.

Over at Scientia Salon Massimo Pigliucci, in a piece titled Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements wrote that he’d ‘rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent Christian than a frustrating one with an obtuse atheist’ and it’s a sentiment I know all too well. I cannot tolerate those who dismiss paranormal claims and eye-witnesses a priori because they are convinced they know what is right and think that is rational when it is anything but. The whole piece by Pigliucci is an interesting evaluation of the freethinking movements that so many people become a part of and then find themselves uncomfortable with and I would recommend that you consider reading it in full.

Similarly, over on his blog Ashley Pryce has written a post called Dealing with those that believe and talks about how, as a public speaker, he encounters people in his audiences at skeptical events who aren’t necessarily skeptics. This post by Pryce was finally written by him after many failed attempts after a discussion we had on a Facebook post finally prompted him to finish it. In this social media exchange I had shared how ‘I sometimes find it difficult to do my talks because there are people in the audience who desperately need to believe and it makes me feel so guilty.’ Unsurprisingly I’m not the only one who deals with this issue and feels this guilt.

Some would say to simply dismiss the claims to psychics, tell them all psychics are frauds and ghosts aren’t real so grow up. I do not think that is the right approach, in fact I think it is so much the wrong approach I would consider those that make it to be more damaging to rational discourse than those who insist that ghosts are real. – Ashley Pryce

When speaking for Skeptics in the Pub groups you deliver your presentation which is then followed by a break. The audience are invited to then return for a Q&A session and it is normally here that I encounter those who want or need to believe in an afterlife and I have become quite talented at answering questions in a way that wouldn’t be considered unethical by CJ Romer’s Cup of Tea standards because I acknowledge that some people need to believe in ghosts and an afterlife in order to grieve and find closure. To stand in front of them as an “expert” and blow their hopes out of the water would be easy but it is not at all appealing.

A few years ago a lady approached me after a talk to tell me that she had lost a baby and she sometimes thought that she saw a child out of the corner of her eye when at home. “What do you think it could be?” she asked me. As soon as she had approached I’d known that something of this nature was coming because it happens regularly with all sorts of people who want my honest opinion but probably don’t. You can sometimes see the battle. To this lady I replied “there could be a perfectly ordinary explanation but it would be unfair of me to speculate about what you’re seeing as I’ve not been present. But if you think it is the ghost of your baby and that thought brings you comfort then there’s nothing wrong with that.”

She cried and I think she was a little shocked that I hadn’t tried to explain it away. She hadn’t asked the question during the Question and Answer session because she was scared the skeptics in the audience would have laughed at her.

If my time as a ghost research has taught me anything it is that some people will believe what they need to believe regardless of your rational ideas and some people just need you to acknowledge that they’ve had a strange experience. I think that this approach that echoes humanist values is the most productive approach and it is certainly the more rewarding for all involved.

The Harm Of Belief: Does Believing In Ghost Make You Vulnerable?

belief

Yesterday evening I spoke to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub group. It was a really enjoyable evening and I was glad to have been invited to speak by the organisers. Several people in the audience asked me about the potential for belief in paranormal ideas to cause harm to the believer and whether I personally think it’s okay for people to believe spiritualist ideas if they’re not harming others. These were some good topics to discuss but I didn’t have the chance to talk in depth about them at the time and I want to address them here.

One of the key messages I try to deliver in my public talks is that people have weird experiences. That’s a fact – I’ve had weird experiences, I know other non-believers who have had weird experiences and so on. Sometimes, for some people, these odd experiences can be profound and what one person would count as ‘just a bit odd’ someone else might consider to be significant. This could be because of things happening in their lives, because of their peer groups, their pre-existing belief systems and other such circumstances.

When I was asked if I thought it was okay for people to believe in paranormal ideas as long as they don’t harm people I answered that, in my opinion, of course it’s okay. If someone believes that ghosts are real based on an experience they’ve had then as long as they do nobody harm that’s fine. We are all entitled to believe or not believe in things, after all. As long as you don’t take offence to people questioning your claims related to your belief then I think that’s all cool.

Some people disagreed with me. This, I think, is because some people in the audience were worried that people who are in a vulnerable position may be preyed upon by bad people who see them as potential profit. Now, I’ve met plenty of non-believers who think “stupid” believers deserve what ever happens to them for being so ignorant, so it was lovely to see people seeing beyond that and sharing their concerns for their fellow humans. To see the human situation at the centre of a paranormal belief system truly requires an open mind. More skeptics like the Birmingham audience, I say.

I also completely get where they’re coming from too. But it gets really complicated when you try to define how someone who believes in something paranormal can harm another person or can be harmed. You might instantly think of psychic con-artists tricking believers out of their cash in return for a few psychological tricks, or the haunted venues who promise they’re haunted but don’t tell you about the man hiding in the attic making the knocking noises.

These are legitimate issues to be worried about. But what’s the alternative? Well, it’s to try with every bit of energy in your body to convince people that their paranormal beliefs are wrong or irrational – but is that actually useful? My opinion is that it isn’t useful at all. Firstly, you could actually push the person you’re trying to convince into the arms of the dodgy psychics and secondly, you might actually cause them harm yourself.

As I told the audience last night, as a paranormal researcher I sometimes find myself in the tricky position of communicating with people who are in a vulnerable place because of their circumstances and it would be inappropriate for me to work with them in any aspect. All that I can do is kindly suggest they speak to their GP about grief counselling, or listen to what they have to say from a neutral position (because some people just need to share their experiences and not be rejected because of them.)

It doesn’t achieve much but I’m fine with that because I understand the complexity of the human belief in the paranormal. I once wrote a piece called The Ghosts of Widowhood in which I touched upon the complex situation of paranormal beliefs forming part of the grieving process.  In it I spoke about research published in the British Medical Journal in 1971 by W Dewi Rees. The paper was called The Hallucinations of Widowhood and showed that roughly half of those interviewed (293 widows and widowers) reported hallucinations or illusions (e.g. non-visual experiences) of their dead spouse/spouses, and that these experiences were most common in the first ten years following the death. The paper stated

‘It was unusual for the hallucinations to have been disclosed, even to close friends or relatives. These hallucinations are considered to be normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood. [1]

There is real potential for the belief that these mourners have/had that their dead loved ones are/were still with them to make them vulnerable to the lecherous advances of con-artists, but at the same time these beliefs were helpful to them at the a very difficult time of their lives and it would be wrong to try and turn them away from that, even out of concern for their well-being.

I genuinely do not believe that there is a simple resolution to this topic. Not everybody who believes in the paranormal is in a vulnerable position, and paranormal belief doesn’t automatically make you stupid enough that you fall for scams but there is the potential for this to happen, yet at the same time it might not be useful to try and convince somebody that what they believe is wrong or irrational. I guess all that we can do is continue to call out the bad guys who would prey upon the grieving, continue look out for each other and continue to care about people regardless of what they do or do not believe.