When My Skepticism Offends…


When I write and talk about paranormal subjects I often find myself prefacing what I have to say with non-committal language such as “so-called”, “alleged”, “self-proclaimed” and similar so that people won’t accuse me of dismissing or accepting claims a priori.

Anyone who investigates, researchers or reports on paranormal subjects from a rational or skeptical position will often find themselves in a no-win situation with accusations of being too accepting or too skeptical at the same time.

Yesterday I had a light bulb moment in which I realised that it didn’t matter if I preface what I say with such wording because people will become offended regardless which is comes to the ideas they believe being questioned.

I saw a Facebook post that made the claim about how ghosts are just troubled dead people and I pointing out how I found it funny that ghost hunters often act as though they’re doing the dead a favour. Superhero complex or what?

In response I was asked where my respect was for this persons right to believe what they choose. It was pointed out to me that one day I would die – would it be funny then?

Well… possibly?

It has become really clear to me over the years that people who hold irrational beliefs don’t always know the difference between having a right to believe what they wish, and having the right to not have those ideas questioned or ridiculed. The later isn’t a right anyone has, no matter how violently they may try to claim otherwise.

I respect your right to believe what you choose to and I recognise the importance that belief in paranormal ideas can play in the lives of people, but I don’t have to hold any respect for the ideas themselves. I don’t find the perpetuation of myths a respectful thing, and I do not respect those who use and promote pseudoscience as science. Especially when there are bad consequences.

Ideas can be criticised and if you happen to believe in bad ideas and don’t want them to be criticised then you’re in for a bad time.

Telling people they’re being disrespectful when they question your claims sounds a lot like trying to wriggle out of having to back up the claims you are making with evidence and that’s just sly and questionable. What kind of researcher are you, exactly?

You can believe what you wish but you sure don’t have a privilege to see your beliefs go unchallenged no matter how much you dislike it. I become hugely suspicious of anyone who says that a person shouldn’t be criticising ideas because it is disrespectful. It reminds me a lot of secular students on university campuses who are censored for fear of offending religious students. Replace the religious students with people who believe in ghosts and it’s pretty much the same situation and the same sense of entitlement.

Fact is though that if your ideas are bullshit, your beliefs are based on bullshit, and you spread that bullshit then it’s bullshit and bullshit doesn’t deserve any sort of respect.

That’s Miss Spoilsport To You! In Defence of Rational Inquiry Into Paranormal Claims

argumentative child

Quite often when I am being questioned about my involvement in ghost research people get really hung up on the fact that I stopped believing in ghosts. They sometimes really struggle to get their head around the idea that someone who actively hunted for evidence of ghosts, had weird experiences while doing so, believed in ghosts and psychics and all other sorts of jiggery-pokery could suddenly decide that she was wrong and shed those beliefs completely.

To some people it’s such a huge commitment to say “oops, I was wrong” about something so… so life and death.

But it wasn’t an “oops, I as wrong” moment. It was a long hard look at all of the hours I spent in dark buildings in the cold convincing myself there was more than life and death and admitting it was time wasted, a fruitless venture, a mistake…

So easy it would have been to allow that time (not to mention money) invested to convince me there was something to it, but maintaining an open mind is important to me and the decision I made that so shocks people today is simply the product of an open mind. That’s all. Once I knew I was barking up the wrong tree I couldn’t allow myself to be drawn in by the allure of ignoring protesting information. I believed in ghosts because at that point in my life that made the most sense to me but after two years spent actually looking for ghosts I started to notice that the explanations offered up by people who didn’t agree that ghosts were real made more sense and I couldn’t ignore that because my aim has always been to understand the world around me and my place in it.

Why am I telling you this?

I love a good urban legend, folk tale, ghost or monster story as much as the next person but I think it’s important to acknowledge where fantasy and reality meet and it’s important to share that information. Annoying then that a number of paranormal proponents would have you believe that anyone who offers a rational alternative to their paranormal explanation is a spoil sport and closed minded.

This is a claim that I wholeheartedly reject, and one I have seen too many so-called authorities in paranormal communities using as a scapegoat lately.

In my experience the antidote to a false claim of being open-minded is rational inquiry of the claims the person is making. “I’m open minded about Electronic Voice Phenomena” quickly becomes “I’m open minded about Electronic Voice Phenomena and fuck you for thinking otherwise!” Start poking around the ideas someone says are true with a reason stick and they’ll grab the stick from your hands and beat you over the head with it just as quickly. Usually while claiming to be open minded and not realising that they are, in fact, being closed minded and being intolerant of open-minded discourse.

Ouija boards, mirror scrying and seances are great examples of this issue – widely debunked and yet still very popular, these spirit communication methods often crop up in headlines and RSS feeds because people are superstitious and believe them to be real. Often because people who stand to profit from the belief in these ideas have told them they are real. People genuinely think these methods can bring them harm, that they can be possessed or that they can bring a demon or malevolent entity into their home if they’re not careful. I don’t think that countering this information makes one a spoilsport – I think it’s the right thing to do.

Yet I don’t even think you need to be able to justify the countering of a claim by how much harm the false claim can cause. Bad information should always be countered with good information. False claims with factual claims. A reader of my blog recently got in touch to say that ‘the tool-kit that skepticism has provided me has been less of a ‘candle in the dark’ and more of a ‘blowtorch to the bullshit” after what skeptics wrote and shared helped them to make sense of their own personal experiences. No longer fearful of sleep-related incidents they can now make sense of their hallucinations and this is why it’s important to have these conversations and to share our knowledge. We shouldn’t keep it to ourselves just because people happen to be affronted by it.

Describing yourself as open-minded is fashionable within paranormal research circles – always has been. But actually being open minded… eh, not so fashionable! Accepting a large number of fantastical ideas as plausible doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an open mind but could indicate that you are fantasy prone and if you can’t enjoy your ghost toys because some mean skeptic has a different opinion than you then perhaps you need to pack up your toys and go home until you’re grown up enough to play with the big kids?

JREF In Forgetting-Women Shocker?


Some people have reacted in horror, anger and confusion as the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) revealed the confirmed speakers for their 2015 conference, The Amazing Meeting. Why? Because there are 20 men and 2 women and, out of these 22 speakers 21 are white.

So much diversity!

There are more speakers to be announced for TAM 2015 and I can only hope that they are all the minority speakers otherwise this is just a startling under representation.

I was curious though. Is this really a one off? Or is the JREF just guilty of what so many others are also guilty of? I had just returned from speaking at the 2015 convention for the AHS Students Society where the topic of attracting more diverse members into non-believer communities came up during the panel session I sat on. With this in mind I had a look at some of the other skeptical/atheist/humanist/freethought conferences that I am aware of/attending/speaking at personally this year and this is what I found:

AHS Student Society Convention 2015
9 announced speakers  / 5 women. 4 men.

QEDcon 2015
19 announced speakers / 11 men. 8 women. panels tba.

SkepKon 2015
21 announced speakers / 12 men. 9 women. panels tba.

Centre For Inquiry conference 2015 
38 announced speakers28 men. 10 women. more tba.

BHA Conference 2015
10 announced speakers / 7 men. 3 women. more tba.

American Atheist Conference 2015 
40+ announced speakers / 20+ men. 20+ women.

34 announced speakers / 18 men. 16 women.

SkeptiCal 2015
9 announced speakers / 4 men. 5 women.

European Skeptics Congress 2015 
19 announced speakers / 16 men. 3 women. More tba/calling for participants

Australian Skeptics Convention
11 announced speakers / 5 men. 6 women. More tba

Well that’s… damning, really. Other than the European Skeptics Congress that only has three women so far (mainly due to women approached being unavailable) the TAM speakers list stands out like a sore thumb. There has been so much discussion about diversity within the skeptic scene and skeptic movement in recent years and it is great to see so many event organisers putting in the hard work and finding interesting and diverse speakers to make their events reflect the audiences they want to attract.

Research has even shown that diversity (gender and racial) in speakers at non-religious conferences has increased from 2003 to 2014, as detailed in this paper written by Ian Bushfield and Chris Hassall.

…but this effort has to be consistent. The previous TAM was pretty diverse (despite women reporting they didn’t feel welcome), so what gives?

Hopefully TAM will be announcing more minority speakers over the coming months, but isn’t it a shame to launch an event with such an under-representative speaker list? It certainly raises a lot of questions.

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?