Doubt and About: Poking at nonsense with a sharp stick

I think that title is going to be my new tagline…

This sub blog (D & A) has become a semi-regular place for me to update what I’ve been doing for anyone who cares to follow. There are a few of you… thanks.

But occasionally I get too damn involved with other stuff to update my own site.

Continue reading Doubt and About: Poking at nonsense with a sharp stick

Two new videos

Recently posted are two videos from The Amazing Meeting 2013 (yes, 2013 but better late then never).

The first is me talking about the Doubtful News website and what it means to be an “honest broker”, a concept we can all utilize to present information.

The second is a presentation by Don Prothero then a panel discussion with Don, me, Daniel Loxton and Blake Smith. It’s about cryptozoology and their typical “abominable” standards for science and scholarship.


Doubt and About – End of Summer 2014

June and July were all about getting ready for and attending The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas. I stayed a few extra days to explore some interesting places around Nevada. While there I had some very interesting interactions and discussions I would never have even imagined years before. Never let anyone tell you that hard work and dedication don’t pay off.

Me with Australia's Dr. Karl
Me with Australia’s Dr. Karl
VIP seating at the Penn & Teller show.
VIP seating at the Penn & Teller show.

I’m happy to be an official part of the JREF now, working as their Creative Consultant and eventually as the Content Editor for the web site. I’m very excited about the new challenges for those who advocate for evidence-based skepticism and critical thinking about extraordinary claims. There is always something old returning, packaged in fresh wrapping and always new woo around the corner. This is my passion. The future of skeptical advocacy organizations means a lot to me. So, color me happy to be involved and willing to accept a challenging new project. Or two…

Not only did I start a new Facebook group to discuss weird stuff, called the Group of Fort (after Fortean topics). But I also started a new research society with Ken Biddle.

First, the Group of Fort. Come on over to talk about the paranormal, monsters and anomalous phenomena of all kinds.

Kenny and I decided that a casual investigation group, Anomalies Research Society, to look into local claims would be a good idea. If people don’t call us for the their second opinion about a haunting, maybe we could call them and offer to take a look. The aim is to be an ethical, evidence-based group of diverse experience and to respond to the nonsense propagated by the scientifical groups – the ones that play pretend science with their gadgets and blinky things. We’re after answers, not to bolster a belief system.

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.
Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.

Meanwhile, due to my activities, there has been a slacking off at Doubtful News. DN content will eventually head to the JREF website when it is relaunched in a new format. While we continue to get excellent traffic, especially via search engines, on the site, I’ve become far more selective about stories I feature. It is discouraging to post the same nonsense stuff everyday like Bigfoot non-news and “Paranormal group finds haunting evidence”. It’s all the same garbage. I’ve started to look for the gems, stories that illustrate an important aspect of our culture or understanding. I also will accept guest posts on appropriate stories from regular readers.

It’s a case of picking battles, too. Every once in a while I’ll call out paranormal BS in public just to show that not everyone is so gullible and YOU shouldn’t be either. But my audience is the public, not other paranormal researchers or those who will believe no matter what the evidence suggests.

Because of the slowdown on DN, I’ve stopped donations to the site. I’ll still keep the server up. Some people generously agreed to continue to donate to those costs. That is really important because of the links and search results that still bring people in to read about topics that are back in the news. You still can contribute via the PayPal account or through Patreon.

Finally, I’ve had a bit of a change in feeling about social media. I’m not about getting 5000 friends on Facebook or about promoting atheism or freedom from religion. Not interesting to me. I’m engaging in less discussion online. I value my personal space so I’ve been cutting back some FB friends. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I don’t know a lot of you or why you asked to friend me in the first place. Well, I guess that is personal. But it’s not a reflection of you being a bad person, it’s more of me wanted to shore up my privacy and make sure I see things that I need to see, not outrage or drama. If you feel unfriended in error, send me a message. You still can find my public page here.

Your help needed: What do you want and need from a “skeptic community”?

Skepticism: An approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason and applies tools of science most often to extraordinary claims (those that refute the current consensus view).

We are a small very loose association of like-minded people who are not always so like-minded. Priorities vary. Greatly. Some have left disillusioned because the community was not what they hoped or wanted. Some find the focus is misplaced or personalities get in the way. Is there a better way?

Out there are vast numbers of people who do not identify as “skeptical” but who apply the above approach focusing on evidence and reason. There are A LOT of people who value this approach and wish to see it used in health care (human and animal), the media of all kinds, and in policy and government.  What do they need? How do we reach them and start the conversation?

Consider this an open forum. I’d like to hear from everyone.

Tell me what you think is important in skeptical outreach, education and activism. What should be avoided? What audiences need to be reached? What are good approaches to try? What are bad habits to avoid? What turns you off of organized skepticism? What would you support? Please, let me know.

If you wish to comment privately and remain confidential, please send an email to me personally (if you know my email address) or to This is tough but really important. If you value reason, critical thinking and science-based approaches, please give this at least a few minutes of thought and communicate your opinion.

Thank you.



I used to be a skeptic, but then…

Arm yourself against narrative devices that draw you to the dark side

Here is something to keep in mind when listening to EVERY PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR EVER (it seems) who is telling you his favorite “It happened to me” story. They will insert the phrase “I used to be a skeptic” in order to elevate the believability of their story. It’s a ploy they use without even knowing, in order to make themselves appear more credible.

This may seem obvious but a new study has come out to demonstrate this in quantitative terms with experimental evidence.

First, definitions:

“Avowal of prior skepticism (APS)” – a narrative device designed to enhance the credibility of the narrator and meant to increase the likelihood that the listener will attribute the event to a paranormal cause. The technique “At first I was skeptical” is followed by a description of a potentially paranormal occurrence and then admission of conversion to belief.

People will use this technique in conversation in order to show he is a normally rational person, not prone to silly ideas. It bolsters the source credibility which is really important if you are trying to influence the listener. It also is a way to be more potentially dramatic in a story. It’s a clue that something rather unbelievable is coming up and you should pay attention.

“Stake inoculation” – a way that the narrator addresses in advance an expected counter argument.

APS is a form of state inoculation since one of the obvious arguments against a person providing a questionable claim regards their believability and credibility. They don’t want you to think they are a gullible fool.

Sheep-goat – the divide between “believers” (sheep, suggesting followers) and “skeptics”(goats, suggesting stubborn rejection). I prefer to use advocates versus counter-advocates. It’s less inflammatory. Also, I didn’t know that was a real thing people understood but I must have heard it a dozen times the past few months with regards to psychical research.

The study showed that if you admitted you were a sheep before telling your amazing story, it wasn’t very convincing. People possibly saw you as overly-credulous. But if you preface the claim by saying you are a goat, people are more impressed and more likely to buy your amazing claim. UNLESS… they know you are doing this on purpose. When people knew of the strategy, they were likely to notice and see it as an attempt at manipulation. Being aware of this APS ploy is at least a little guard against how the narrative attempts to sway you. You may be more likely to focus on the evidence, not the flowery details designed to pull you in. When someone says “I was skeptical,” YOU should be more skeptical.

Narratives are more persuasive than dry statistics or scientific messages because they carry value and emotion in the social act of communication. But narratives, we also call them anecdotes, are one person’s interpretation. They are unreliable for accuracy. Yet, it’s how we get most of our knowledge every day. We rely on what people tell us. HOW they tell affects what we believe.

You can find out more about the study here.

A few other tidbits were notable in this study.

- Anna Stone coauthored An Anomalistic Psychology with Professor Chris French. I love the concept of this branch of psychology – to examine people’s strange experiences without presuming a paranormal cause. It’s a (big) step above parapsychology and I think the way this field is going. It certainly has the promise of progress, there is no house of cards being supported.

- Women are still seen to be more gullible and less credible than men. Is this an old stereotype still hanging on? It’s worrisome to see that. I suggest skeptical woman provide more examples of why that’s not true.

- It may not be education level that is a predictor of belief in the paranormal but cognitive performance. The author notes that students who are more analytical in their thinking are more prone to skepticism and thus a lower level of belief. Are we born with skeptical minds? Or are they made? I argue they CAN be made if guided early.

- Finally, there was mention of peer pressure. You are less likely to express doubt if everyone else is on board. But, your expression of doubt can trigger the same in others! So stand up after that talk and express your doubts and ask the tough questions. The appearance of consensus can be influential to the person still sitting on the metaphorical fence. Once a belief is established, it’s REALLY hard to dislodge. So, it’s far better to prevent it from taking root.


Doubt and About for May 2014

I go into these phases where I research a topic deeply for a while, a few months or so, to feel like I have a pretty good handle on it.

So far this year, I have been researching the state of psychical research or parapsychology. I used a classic book, Ray Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry to see what an objective, knowledgable person’s first hand take on it was. Then I followed up with Ray and others’ views of the current state of the field with the essay anthology: Debating Psychic Experience edited by Krippner and Friedman. This book had an array of opinions and arguments by psi advocates and counter advocates. I plan to write this up for my next Sounds Sciencey piece because it’s REALLY interesting. But what I can tell you is that it hasn’t gotten ANY BETTER for psi research. As much as advocates wave their arms and shout, make excuses and complain, there is NOT a stronger case for psi than a century ago. Something is wrong there. I have my notes all out to compare and examine. Why do this? Because if I’m going to weigh the evidence, I actually have to listen to the advocates and counter-advocates and see who makes the better case and not just parrot what others say off the cuff. I really want to know if there is something there. Seeing the two groups interact in print has been hugely informative and I’d like to bring this example to light for others to discover for themselves.

So, I finished my reading on psi research when a new topic dropped into my lap. A paranormal researcher that I met at RavenCon asked me what I thought about ley lines (as a geologist) relating to earth energies. I admitted I didn’t know enough to comment intelligently so off to the Google I go. Luckily, I also have access to a university library (and the nifty Kindle lending library) to track down some good references on the history of ley lines. Discovery of the concept is not that old and has everything to do with archaeology and anthropology, though I am checking out a possible connection with lineaments and fracture traces (real geologic features). Is there a connection? I don’t know yet. But again, it’s almost a guarantee that when you look into these things, you uncover some cool surprises. I plan to write-up what I find when I pull enough info together as well as share what I learned with the paranormal advocates. Maybe they might appreciate the opinion. And possibly ignore it, like has happened, disappointingly, with cryptozoologists…

I have made a rule for myself to no longer discuss topics on Facebook cryptozoology groups (with the sole exception of Monster Talk group). It’s pointless and I end up villified and misunderstood. No skepticism is allowed. Speculation is the game there. The level of intellectualism is low nearly across the board. There certainly are rare exceptions of cryptozoologists to want to apply critical thought to their beloved beliefs. But they don’t seem to speak up a whole lot.

For the same reason I could not stomach a tour of the L. Ron Hubbard house (run by those who think of him as the “prophet”), I can’t manage to tolerate the know-it-alls in these groups, who have read all the pop books on Bigfoot, telling me what’s wrong with me. I can think of far more productive things to do such as focus on the public.

If you appreciate the work I do for public outreach, you can be my patron! By pledging $1 or $2 a month as a patron, that money goes to support my work in skeptical-based outreach online and abroad. I hope you will consider helping me reach out with a friendly rational take on paranormal topics and questionable claims. See more at the Patreon page. Thanks.


Getting noticed for not calling people stupid

Two observations today: one positive, one negative. Want to make an impact with your skeptical commentary? You TOTALLY can.

First, an unexpected effect. I was contacted by researchers in Japan who saw one of my Doubtful News articles railing against media who published a baseless story about a woman who claimed MSG (monosodium glutamate) in many foods resulted in a glutamate imbalance that caused autism and other neurological disorders. The article that I cited was published on Fox News but they had pulled it from the San Francisco Chronicle. It was copied without much additional info to several other sources. It was worse than “false balance”. Even though the original article mentioned no scientific research supports this claim, that point was lost in the scary headline. The researcher who contacted me noted that my piece was the only one that was openly critical about the story. That was the gist of my piece – one person (supported by some ridiculous autism woo woo sites) has a zany idea and that is considered news? That is fear mongering for no reason and it’s a problem in our society.

The researchers, who were affliated with a big e-commerce company in Japan, were interested in the market image of MSG in the US and other countries. I was able to provide some informed opinion about food fads and fallacies that I learned through my work on Doubtful News and by through skeptic-based health media.

I consider the exchange with market researchers, as well as my various contacts with reporters and journalists, a direct effect from blogging a science-based point of view, building a web presence, and appearing high in search results. How about that!

Google search results
Top search results in Google for MSG+autism

I really don’t think I’d get so many requests for exchanges if I was one of those asshole skeptics. While talking to other science-minded people about my interest in the paranormal and why people believe, I too often hear dismissiveness. And worse, I hear paranormal beleivers being called “stupid”, “idiots”, “moron”, and the like – that they deserve to lose their money or waste their time because they’re dumb. No. That would be YOU who are dumb. It’s well-established that paranormal belief or buying into questionable claims is NOT a sole result of education and IQ. Smart people believe a lot of nonsense things.

I find great value in my discussions with pro-paranormal people. By treating them with respect and finding out about their opinions, I can better understand the subject completely and work to change misperceptions. If I went around yelling that “BIGFOOT DOESN’T EXIST, you idiot” or “How can you be so stupid to think that a place is haunted?” I would be exactly as obnoxious as the people who regularly scream at me on blog comments and email telling me to “Get educated” or “Shut up about stuff [I] know nothing about.” Yeah, I get that a lot. I’m not going to go down the name-calling road. It makes me hit delete so what do you think happens when we do the same?

I’m pissed that skeptics are still thought of as curmudgeonly, closed-minded, know-it-alls. No wonder people dislike them. Many do seem to be complete assholes. The answer to why people subscribe to paranormal or fringe beliefs is far more complicated than “they’re stupid”.

Deal with the claim, not the people. And I still follow the trope “don’t be a dick”. It actually works.