‘A cold, angry bunch’


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

Just A Believer Deep Down*


A popular reaction to the piece I wrote regarding comments made by Amy Bruni has been to assume that I believe in psychics and that I was writing from that perspective. Some even went as far as suggesting that “deep down” I was a believer even if I claim otherwise.

The truth is that I don’t believe in psychics, or the ghosts and monsters that I investigate but I did come to my skeptical position from a position of belief in such subjects. I guess that’s why people think I am “defending” believers when actually I’m just pointing out that they might have a point in their criticisms, or when I say things like “belief is complicated” in response to people acting as though it is anything but.

Weird, isn’t it, that when you show empathy with those who believe in psychics or ghosts some people are unable to get their heads around it? As though you’re either with or against the psychics, with or against the believers. It’s irrational to deal in such absolutes. Another would be that “all psychics are con artists” which leaves no room for those people who aren’t psychic but genuinely believe they are and aren’t intentionally scamming people. It’s a lazy generalisation.

Anyway, I digress. The point I was making in my previous blog post on this subject was that I didn’t think the ends justified the means when it came to the Guerilla Skeptics “stings” on Chip Coffey. This wasn’t to say stings shouldn’t be used as people seem to have assumed I was saying. I absolutely think that sting operations can be justified and are a useful tool of expose but I do not believe they are a method that should be deployed without careful consideration and experience. Daniel Loxton wrote a great piece about this over at skeptic.com

I also wrote that although they’re trying to reach the middle ground- people who neither believe or disbelieve- I thought it was more likely that the outcome of their actions wouldn’t make the waves people were expecting because, after all, they didn’t actually reveal very much that people didn’t already know. It’s also naive to presume that believers will not listen to skeptics. When I ran Project Barnum- a now closed educational resource about psychic trickery -I was sometimes contacted by people who had believed in certain psychics who had started to question that belief because of our resources or because they had spoken to someone handing out our leaflets outside of a theatre show. People also used our “learn how to be psychic” horoscope game to demonstrate to their relatives who believed in certain psychics how easy it was to fool people.

I’m not an expert when it comes to educational engagement but I have enough experience to know that it’s really difficult to get it right and really easy to get it wrong. I am living proof that people can be inspired to change their minds when presented with the right information in the right manner and because of this I am not so keen to chalk up believers as some sort of a lost cause, or as people who need to be rescued from themselves. Maybe they do but I don’t think that’s my call.

If you disagree with me about any of the above I’m totally fine with that because I’m not egotistical enough to demand that you accept that I am right and I won’t bombard you with comment after comment about how wrong or ignorant you are.

However I do think it is odd that some involved with the Guerrilla Skeptics seem really keen to launch sting operations against other psychics at the drop of a hat as seen below. screen shot of discussion about sally morgan sting

It almost seems personal and that can be unwise… but what would I know? I’m clearly just a believer deep down*.


Amy Bruni Has A Point…

bruni FB post

I used to identify as part of “the skeptic movement” but after a lot of consideration I stopped doing so after being unable to agree with the actions many took in the name of “skepticism” which, for me, has always been more of a methodology than anything else. I wrote about this a while ago here.

Recently, Amy Bruni- who used to be on the US hit television show Ghost Hunters –made a post on her Facebook page that reprimands skeptics for their behaviour. It was (I believe) because the Guerilla Skeptics (GS) group recently made information public (here and here) about a number of undercover stings they did on Chip Coffey who claims to be psychic.

Bruni said

I don’t see people who believe in paranormal and psychic phenomena accosting “skeptics” at their conventions and gathering – or posting constant blogs and forums about how skepticism is terrible.

Strangely enough, we really don’t care what their belief system is – because it is their right. And personally, I don’t care or have to justify what I believe to someone else. So, why do they feel the need to constantly bash what we do?

So, why do they feel the need to constantly bash what we do? Arrange “guerrilla stings” on psychic and paranormal conventions? I mean – puh-lease, you must have something better to do. Truly – there’s a while lot of bad in this world. And if your “cause” is to take on people whose thoughts on fide and existence are different from yours (but causing you no harm), I think it’s time you take a little look at yourself.

Some people have (rightly) pointed out that Bruni doesn’t seem to understand what skepticism is in this rant and is using the behaviour of a few bad eggs to dismiss a whole methodology. However, she has since made a clarification that suggests the above was written out of anger and that she does actually understand rational inquiry perfectly well. She says

Critical thinking IS severely lacking in this field and it makes us easy targets. Which brings me back to my original post. Again, I have nothing against skeptics in general – but I do have everything against the methods some are employing and the fact they are attacking people who I love and trust intensely.

I hear you, Amy. It seems to me that Bruni isn’t suggesting for a minute that Coffey has the right to not have his claims questioned. Her issue is with the way in which the GS went about doing so.

Psychics in general routinely refuse to have their abilities tested in controlled conditions that would rule out positive hits being the result of chance. The results of their public readings often suggest they could be using other non-paranormal techniques and that warrants further questioning. I personally admire the research into psychics that the Good Thinking Society does and inspires others to do. They go to a show and report on what they see as an audience member. In recent years this method alone- with no stings or intentional misleading involved -has shed light on techniques that Sally Morgan might be using at her psychic shows simply through the power of observation… methods that some audience members report she has since occasionally stopped using so much.

That’s pretty powerful.

I have written previously about my concerns with the actions of the GS which you can read here and here. The GS claim that they’re not trying to change the minds of the people who already believe in Chip Coffey and his paranormal abilities and that they’re just trying to educate the general public… but I’d like to politely suggest that they’re doing nothing more than shouting into an already noisy echo chamber and serving their own interests. Both of their stings provided us with no new information, by the way, so although using tricks to exposure scams can work (Randi exposing Popoff, for example) I think it’s important to make sure the ends justify the means…

As someone who uses rational inquiry to investigate paranormal claims and the strange experiences that people report having I’d stand with Amy Bruni and Chip Coffey believers any day rather than associate myself with “skeptic activists” who don’t seem able to see past their own noses. It isn’t always about being right and it isn’t always about point scoring. There’s a whole human side (dare I say humanist side?) to being involved in paranormal research that so many people miss and that’s pretty tragic, don’t you think?

Do 34% Of Brits Believe In Ghosts?

ghosts and hauntings

The Sun newspaper recently commissioned a poll from YouGov to see what percentage of the population believed in paranormal things, such as haunted houses, ghosts, and the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead. They found that ‘one in four British people (39%) believe that a house can be haunted by some kind of supernatural being, and almost as many (34%) think that ghosts actually exist.’ Here is the breakdown:

39% believe a house can be haunted
34% believe in ghosts
28% have felt the presence of a supernatural being
9% have communicated with the dead

You can see the data in full by clicking here but to summarise, participants of this study were asked a series of questions with different sets of answers

SET 1: Generally speaking, do you think that each of the following do or do not exist?

Other supernatural beings

Possible answers: Definitely exist / Probably exist / Probably do not exist / Definitely do not exist / Don’t know

SET 2:

Generally speaking, do you think there is life after death?
Generally speaking, do you believe that a house could be haunted by a supernatural being (e.g. a spirit)?

Possible answers: Yes / No, I don’t / Don’t know

SET 3:

Have you ever seen or felt the presence of a supernatural being (e.g. a spirit)?
Have you ever communicated with the dead?

Possible answers: Yes, more than once / Yes, once / No, never / Don’t know

The results of this study are significantly different than a similar poll run through YouGov by ASSAP, the results of which were released this time last year. I wrote about my concerns with the poll data when the data was made public, but the poll conducted on behalf of The Sun has created even more questions.

The ASSAP poll found that 52% of the population believed in ghosts, a 2008 Comres poll found that 39% of the population belied in ghosts, and a 2005 poll found that 40% of the population believed that houses could be haunted. Why did the poll conducted last year by ASSAP cause such a huge leap on the number of people reporting that they believed in ghosts that led to headlines such as Do You Believe In Ghosts? More And More Britons Apparently Do.

I personally believe that the answer lies in the language used in the individual polls. Now, I broke this down in the article I wrote about the ASSAP poll, but basically – if the ASSAP poll asks “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement: ‘I believe some people have experienced ghosts’ and gives you the options of ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘slightly disagree’, ‘slightly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘strongly agree’ or ‘not sure’ there are more chances for you to score a “positive” answer to that question than in a poll, like The Sun poll, that asks ‘Do You think that the ghosts do or do not exist?’ with the options ‘Definitely exist’, ‘Probably exist’, ‘Probably do not exist’, ‘Definitely do not exist, ‘Don’t know’.

I’m not a statistician and I understand that YouGov are the experts here, but I find it hard to understand why there would be a decrease in just one year – especially when previous polls in 2005 and 2008 have suggested consistent percentages of people reporting that they believe.

These are very complex subjects to deal with and belief is never straightforward. I would wager that there are some people who believe that a house can be haunted but that this wouldn’t automatically mean they believed in ghosts, there are those who believe in ghosts in a completely religious context and I know people who don’t believe in ghosts who believe in “earth energies”. I’ve dealt with eye-witnesses who don’t believe in ghosts but have experienced something they cannot explain. With this in mind, I don’t think we’ll ever gain a true reflection of how many people believe in ghosts and similar paranormal beliefs but a consistent poll that asks the same questions year on year would be a good way to start gaining some insight. Until then I think we have to take such polls with a pinch of salt.


Sexism: A Symptom Of Skepticism?


I am a skeptic because I evaluate claims using skepticism and rational inquiry but I do not identify with the skeptic movement for reasons I have stated previously on my blog. Today an article on Buzzfeed by Mark Oppenheimer asked the question ‘Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?

As Betteridge’s law of headlines dictates, the answer to the headline is ‘no’, of course. But it doesn’t mean that the misogynistic aren’t trying to make the atheist, free-thought or skeptic movements  unwelcome spaces for women. They are. It’s a real thing that is happening. I’ve experienced some pretty nasty behaviour from men and women who have reduced me to either a crazy radical feminist or a child throwing a tantrum if I should criticise or question them but what I have experienced is nothing compared to the experiences of other women who exist within or around these movements.

I’ve seen many people outside of the skeptic movement using these particular issues as weapons with which to bash skepticism and skeptics as though people who doubt your claims of paranormal abilities or occurrences are somehow misogynistic by default and therefore not to be trusted. It doesn’t. Sexism is not a symptom of skepticism. It is a human problem, (there’s that law of headlines again, damn it!)

feminismIt’s genuinely great if people from outside of these particular movements want to show support and solidarity with women and men who receive misogynistic abuse, but to use their abuse and their attempts to hold their abusers accountable, seek solutions to the problems that exist, and work to make their communities and movements more welcoming and diverse spaces as a way in which to throw skeptics that  you happen to dislike under the bus is not supportive. Especially when these issues are not the property of these movements alone.

Let us not pretend that paranormal communities don’t have their own issues when it comes to gender representation and that although women are more likely to hold paranormal beliefs in things like astrology, ghosts, new age medicine and psychics it is men who dominate paranormal media and paranormal related public events and speaking engagements. I have never attended or spoken at a paranormal/alternative event that has a harassment policy in place that made it clear how inappropriate behaviour would be dealt with but have attended plenty of skeptic and science conferences and events that do exactly that.

Does this matter? To an extent yes, but this isn’t an exercise in excusing what happens in the skeptic, atheist and free-thought communities by claiming that the paranormal communities are worse. There is no way to measure that and I don’t think it would be particularly useful. This is simply me asking that if you’re going to speak out against the harassment problems in the skeptic, atheist and free-thought communities let it be because you actually care, that you don’t think women deserve to be gaslighted when they speak out about assault and harassment, that you think men who harass women regularly should be held accountable by their peers without having their actions excused time and time again, and not because it’s an easy way to score points. That’s not cool.  It’s cheap.

Don’t be cheap.

Solidarity graphic