Skeptical damnation: What happened to withholding judgment?

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching Professor Ray Hyman’s writings about the field of parapsychology. I don’t have to tell some of you how awesome he is (but shame on you who don’t even know WHO he is if you call yourself “skeptical” Sorry, didn’t mean to pull an almost “no true Scotsman”).

In the 1980’s, Hyman and parapsychologist Charles Honorton went back and forth in a public debate regarding a database that Honorton (and others) put forward as the best evidence for psi (extrasensory information exchange). The details of this project are endlessly fascinating but, in a nutshell, two top representatives from opposing viewpoints had a productive, intellectual discussion which resulted in the issuance of a joint communique between them stating what they agreed upon. Hyman noted that this document influenced the quality of future experiments of this type. The interesting quote I found from Hyman caught my eye today since it had less to do with any particular subject than with peoples’ response to opposing positions in everyday life.

No one knew the ins and outs of the extensive database like Hyman and Honorton because of their in-depth discussion. This was a huge collection of specialized information and five years of thoughtful critique. Yet, many commentators in the peanut gallery felt it their place to put in their two cents worth of opinion. To this wave of opinionation, Hyman said:

“Neither sides’ supporters had the necessary grasp of the details to independently judge which one of us was right.”

[R. Hyman, "What’s wrong with materialism?" In Debating Psychic Experience,  Krippner and Friedman, Eds., 2010, 144-145.]

Yet, judge they did.

This statement hit me square in the face today. We hardly ever have a solid grasp of the evidence in order to make a fully informed conclusion about an issue, let alone to condemn another person. Thanks to the internet, we feel inclined to head to our respective team corners and respond publicly and emotionally as soon as possible, to shoot from the hip based on less-than-valid information. Then, we defend that position.

I’ve been APPALLED by self-styled “skeptical advocates” who have made a habit of jumping to convenient conclusions on a controversial issue instead of waiting for evidence to be verified or even to come out at all! Especially when it involves personalities that the individual dislikes, the drama-bloggers, facebook-swearers, and rage-tweeters are ever so quick to point fingers and call names. They feel obligated to state their opinion regarding even highly personal and subjective issues, even to the point of being libelous and defamatory.

Really poor skepticism abounds. There have been so many incidents of outrage theatre over the past few years where snap judgments (followed by a conviction and metaphorical execution) have been made – mostly about feminist, social justice or he-said/she-said disputes – based on poor or no evidence except someone’s story or second or third-hand claim. Or, let’s throw a fit simply because he/she really hates him/her. It’s been embarrassing to watch.

What are you, twelve? This behavior is juvenile. However here are professionals, organization employees, and role models who are doing this. Last I checked, we are supposed to be rational adults. Any outside observer to the skepto-atheist community would be hard pressed to come to THAT conclusion based on evidence all around.

There is nothing wrong with defending or supporting your friends. But that does not mean blindly accepting that they are faultless and ganging up on others who have a different view. I have admitted that I support my friends who are in trouble, but that does not excuse whatever bad behavior they exhibited. I’m learning to take no side regarding right or wrong because I can’t know what the truth is. I also won’t condemn people for eternity for a mistake that they have the ability to make right. I value positive contributions and will continue to do so.

Excuse my bluntness but, Jeez, what a bunch of self-absorbed know it alls are around! Maybe, try taking a break from the flame-fests on the internets for a while and do something that’s not destructive to yourself, your friends, your reputation, and your philosophical colleagues who agree with you about generally everything else except these few internal squabbles!

You do not have a grasp of enough detail to judge who is right in a personal dispute that is not your own. Neither do I. But at least I recognize it.

Exploring extraordinary topics and people: Back from a conference

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I have returned from this weekend’s Exploring the Extraordinary (ETE) conference in Gettysburg. It was a three day event, about 40 participants, many academics, and me, who sat through the whole thing as a self-identified materialist skeptical person.

I am going to write about this conference for my Sounds Sciencey column but I decided to hit a few high points that were more personal.

I can find nothing to criticize regarding the event. It was well done all around. I attended every talk. They were varied and unique – a blend of arts, science and speculation. Since lunch was served there was extra time to sit together and chat. While I did not attend the dinners in town (I had work to get done), that also gave people a chance to chat so there was a nice cooperative, networking, friendly vibe. Cheers to the organizers!

One of the speakers, a grad student, spoke about her anthropological research of a local ghost hunting group. Much of her findings overlapped with what I had also observed in my work. I asked her a question about the group being “scientific” and she said she purposefully left that angle out. Curious. But the next day, she came over to me and said she was happy to meet me because she was familiar with my thesis and articles, she knew that scientific aspect had been covered by my work already but didn’t even know that was me asking the question! We laughed and agreed to keep in touch.

I actively took a TON of notes and learned so much. I was furiously writing during George Hansen’s talk on liminality – the betwixt and between. George was the one who notified me of this event. He is not on a side. He is known in both the skeptic and believer communities. Now I am too. Maybe we are both in the liminal zone in that sense! I don’t agree with all the speakers said, but I don’t always agree with the conclusions and attitudes displayed by several skeptics either. However, I can listen and learn and gain a much greater understanding than I would closing myself off to one or another viewpoint. I am in the liminal zone between skeptic and believer.

The first day, when I was with Howard Lewis of The Skeptical Review, we self-identified as nonbelievers in life after death during a “straw poll”. I wasn’t going to lie or remain hidden. By the end of the second day I was CLEARLY the only person there who was a participant in skeptical activism. While in the lunch line, one attendee said, “So, you’re the skeptic? Why are you here?” Her tone was snide. My reply was that I am interested in various persepectives and this meeting had great content. I also heard grumbling about the “skeptics” editing Wikipedia. (After a quick check with Susan Gerbic via twitter, I found out they were complaining about an entry her team didn’t even touch!) In running into another person I’d so far just known via the web, who publishes a predominently non-skeptical paranormal web site, he assumed I’d be skewering the speakers and ideas or that I was some sort of spy who would take info back to CSI or JREF. I have no clue where people get that from. Is it just a skeptical stereotype? Do I look and act like a skeptical stereotype – I’m not old, not male, not curmudgeonly, not a debunker, not hostile, not argumentative, not confrontational. I have an opinion but it’s an informed one. Or if I don’t know, I will tell you so. I’m no stereotype!

This morning, one of the organizers, a Gettysburg professor, introduced himself and mentioned they were talking about me at dinner the night before.

“Oh? In what sense?” I asked, slightly uncomfortable.

“That you were nice,” he answered.

HA. Maybe I am doing my part to change the skeptical stereotype. I do hope so. This is the second paranormal-themed conference I’d attended where people were openly surprised and probably suspicious about a “skeptic” in their midst. But why? I’m just as fascinated and curious about these topics. I just make a slightly different conclusion sometimes. I think I only had a question/comment twice in the three days.

Perhaps I belong everywhere. Or nowhere. Sometimes it feels that way. I’m not PRESS, I’m not a spy. I’m just curious. But I have to say that I am utterly disgusted with the bad mouthing of “skeptics” at the pro-paranormal conferences (which I did hear a bit of). Yet, I am just as disgusted with the bad mouthing of “believers” at the skeptical events. I could find much common ground with these lovely folks who are mediums, or have had paranormal events happen to them, or who research spiritualism and psi. And they also noted much common ground with me.

All in all, it was a excellent forum for exchanging ideas. As I’d heard about the TAM experience, several people at ETE noted they felt energized by the conference. I had a enlightening time and I was quite comfortable there.

Doubt and About: Spring means conference season

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Time for another summary of skeptical “serious leisure” activities.

Conference season is here. I gave a keynote at the Central New Jersey Mensa gathering a few weeks ago. It was my first keynote, on “Sounds Sciencey”, and it went really well. As with skeptical gatherings, I found a range of opinions here from those who can think pretty deeply about stuff. They were also of the typical demographics of a skeptic con.  I was nervous about the Q&A thinking they would catch me on something philosphical. I was struck, however,  by two things the crowd responded to: They HATE religious shield laws that allow faith healing families to kill children and not get harsh penalties; and, they are disturbed by genetically modified organisms. It was a odd crowd to be in as you can hear people remarking to themselves while you are speaking – positive and negative. There were many good questions and much agreement. On the topic of religion, I stressed the importance of skepticism and speaking out in support of children’s rights over the parents’ religious freedom. With the case of GMOs, gene insertion was problematic. My rejoinder that there is not much natural about agricultural AT ALL and there never was, wasn’t satisfying in comparison to the ability to put a glow in the dark gene into fish or similar cross-species manipulation. I understand that it’s complicated. That’s about all I could point out. Public policy issues involving science and society are ALWAYS complicated. Anyway, I emerged unscathed.

Only one incident of note occurred: one man could NOT comprehend why I didn’t take at face value his story about his psychic experience. It was one of those “How do you explain THAT?” situations which I dislike. He had no concept of the poor quality of memory and witness testimony. I had to leave that since there was nothing I could say. It’s too much to talk about in one exchange and likely pointless.

Having one-on-one discussions like that or being put on the spot are a bit stressful for me since I want to say the right thing and not offend or get people angry. Writing is easier because you can pause and edit (I proof and edit five or more drafts before finalizing sometimes) or come back to it when the mood suits. This is one reason why Virtual Skeptics was a bit more taxing than writing. I was nervous about saying something controversial or that would be misconstrued. It’s happened before. I don’t know WHO is watching or listening. So, it’s very difficult to match the delivery of the message to the audience in such a casual show. At least, I found it difficult. I don’t like getting the facts wrong. Now that I’ve left VS, what will I do with Wednesday evenings? Hopefully read more. A kind soul has sent me some back issues of Fortean Times and I buy way too much off Amazon one-click so I never lack for an array of stuff to suit whatever subject I’m in the mood for. I’ve just finished Ray Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry – cover to cover and took tons of notes. I’ll be writing about that in the future. It’s FULL of gems of wisdom.

I also have many other project ideas and have the next few Sounds Sciencey pieces in outline.

This weekend is a trip to the “other” side. I’m heading to a paranormal conference. This is seemingly an academic-oriented one even though it appears many are amateurs. But it’s not a paranormal fan party like typical para-cons are. This one will have substance, not TV stars. I’m so curious! I’ll be writing that up too.

April is a visit to a sci-fi con I’ve not been to yet – RavenCon – another new experience that I’m looking forward to. I like to see  how people react to the skeptical POV. I’m not the normal-looking or -sounding skeptic so it can be interesting.

[I owe thanks for those last three items - the meetings and The Elusive Quarry - to Barry Karr.]

I’m planning for Balticon in May, and TAM in July, as well as a few days of sun and NO critical thinking. I have gotten no where on my book draft progress as I’ve been researching a few more aspects to round it out. It will come together in short order. I’ve stopped worrying about it. But I dream of a day when I can do this full time, to have long stretches to work things out instead of trying to squeeze in time on nights and weekends.

Finally, I’ve cut back some on social media. There used to be a time where I felt like I HAD to speak out about stuff that bugged me. I engaged others online and fired off replies or tweets. But after a while, I thought, “Who am I to spout my opinion?” Some people probably think that’s obnoxious. I think it’s obnoxous when many other people do it. So I set up some rules and restricted myself from areas of discussion that would cause strife. Within reason. That is, pick your battles.  I don’t need to put in my two-cents about everything. If I’m asked, I’ll answer. Again, within reason. With those self-imposed rules in place, I have felt a distinct lessening of the need to react (and possibly overreact). Instead of burn-out, I’m going to consider that a sign of maturity instead.

I depart Virtual Skeptics

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The show will go on in capable hands.

I have been jettisoning projects here and there – podcast contributions, my Huff Post blog, as well as being less active on my own blog – in lieu of attention to writing projects and Doubtful News.

Not gonna hide it, I need some down time so I don’t get burned out, not just with skeptical stuff (aired live and saved for posterity), but day-to-day, career/family/self stuff. I feel that feeling coming on far more often lately. Typically a good sleep whisks it away. It must be managed, so, I plan on taking a few extra hours a week to do that.

It is with regret that I bow out of Virtual Skeptics hangout/webcast. I feel certain Bob, Brian, Eve and Tim will carry on as before and will find someone wonderful to replace my face-space.

Meanwhile, I’ll be around, still writing, doing conferences and researching, just slightly less than usual, specifically not on Wednesdays, live at 8 eastern. Rock on.

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Engage outrage, sacrifice skepticism

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Drs. Carol Tavris and Elizabeth Loftus are two female role models of skepticism and critical thinking that tower above any others for me. They have established an influential body of work that has informed, influenced and inspired many people. This work has nothing to do with their personas, their creation of drama for attention (the drama came as a result of their scholarship that was sometimes shocking and controversial, but scientific), or their gender. They are also friendly, kind and lovely people and I consider it a privilege to have met both of them and chatted for a while.
carol and sharonsharon and beth

Feminism in skepticism is a messed-up, misguided issue right now. Any story about harassment or rape is loaded with emotion, not reason. Reason, if applied, is seen as a betrayal. That’s disgusting and I rarely talk about it. However, truth matters to me.

This brings me to two important stories that came out yesterday, one of which was written by Tavris and quotes Loftus. The second references the Tavris piece and has a foundation in the work of Dr. Loftus.

Memory. It is flawed.

This is one of the most important concepts that any human in modern society would do well to grasp. Imagine the problems it could alleviate if we could admit our memory might be wrong about something; if we could recheck facts instead of being so invested in a flawed system of memory.

Tavris wrote a feature for e-Skeptic called Believe the Survivors or the Science? What the science of memory can teach us about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case. If you are at all interested in the case, PLEASE READ IT. It captures exactly my concerns when I read the harrowing letter by Dylan Farrow and didn’t know what to think about it. Here’s a bit:

When an emotionally compelling story hits the news, it’s tempting for all of us to jump to conclusions. Many people are inclined to believe, as I first did in the McMartin [preschool Satanic abuse] case, that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wrong: sometimes there’s just smoke—and mirrors. The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

Of all things skeptics should be aware of is how we can so easily be fooled. Yet, I see tripe about victim blaming and shame heaped on some for questioning claims. HOW CAN YOU FORGET the Satanic Panic, the Salem Witch trials, the false eyewitness testimony that put countless people in jail and possibly some to death? This is not trivial.

Ben Radford wrote this piece: The Anatomy of False Accusations: A Skeptical Case Study | Center for Inquiry. It outlines an accusation of sexual assault where the evidence clearly points to the conclusion that it didn’t happen. And then cites many more. Many, many more certainly exist that we don’t know about.

We need to accept that not everyone is speaking truth, whether they consciously know it or not. But… that does not necessarily make them a liar, a bad person, or worthy of scorn. People are complicated. Our brains, our culture, our relationships are complicated. Accept that things are not black and white. There is no justification for “for me or against me” statements. I am not against an alleged victim or for an alleged perpetrator. I am for the best solution which means the relevant facts should come out before judgement. We are people and we make mistakes, all the time.

Please, spend some time thinking about the judgements you have made against people who have not been in a position to defend themselves. Is it really worth it to condemn them based on one or a few outrageous allegations and a swell of public outrage? I have been appalled at the feminist-skeptic-niche’s (which is a false label) reaction to some allegations (ALLEGATIONS!) of assault and/or rape. You aren’t helping anyone by being closed-minded and automatically defaulting to the female victim. She needs your sympathy but she also needs more than just that, because things are very complicated.

From Tavris:

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.

Doubt and About: Damn! This is a long winter

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I haven’t been “about” very much these past two months. I have to take Vitamin D supplements because I don’t think I’m getting enough sunshine exposure! We continue to have worse weather in PA than in southern Norway these days.

Been writing pieces, talks, doing interviews, and, of course, the weird news continues unabated. I wish I could blog here every day but there are simply not enough hours in the day. So, the thoughts remain in my head, simmering.

Currently, I’m reading The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research by uber-Skeptic, Ray Hyman. I am astounded at how much I am learning about the current state of paranormal research from Ray’s insights into the the BEST years of parapsychology. Honestly, comparitively, today’s “paranormal research” is a mess. But that DOES NOT mean it has to continue to be a mess. I’m working on a book. While I have no high hopes it will be read by those who REALLY NEED IT, it will be out there for anyone.

The Elusive Quarry is a bit hard to find at a reasonable price but a signed copy was graciously lent to me to read. Sadly, I will have to return it. Meanwhile, I’m take copious notes. Yes, it looks like I’m studying for a test but I want to squeeze the bits of wisdom out and preserve them for future use. I do this will all of my books and dump the notes into Evernote.

I despair when I see self-described skeptics or paranormal researchers seem unconcerned with history, who are completely oblivious to knowledge that has been gained before. You ignore the skeptical literature at your peril. It is head and shoulders above the level of today’s popular “ghost” and cryptid books which are mostly trash.

Anyway… it’s been a busy month of February —  with contacts about Rick Dyer’s Bigfoot body sideshow and baseless libel threats about my article on the Paracas skulls. Seriously, people, just request a clarification, I’ll be happy to do it. If you threaten me with a lawsuit in the first contact email, that first impression is shot to hell. I’ll cooperate but I won’t think very highly of you.

I am overwhelmed with doubtful news, for sure. It gets discouraging when you repeatedly try to get better info out there to no avail. But I am committed to Doubtful News. I’ve heard from so many lovely people who say it’s their favorite site and that I should keep on keeping on. So, I know it’s making a difference.

In March, I’ll make my first “keynote” address. It will be at a Mensa gathering in New Jersey. It should be interesting. Then, I will take a weekend break so I can enjoy my books. I still love books — they don’t swear back at you.

I also put up a public Facebook page, please visit and “like”. I feel insignificant so far. I’m uncomfortable with self-promotion, but with the number of reporters wanting a skeptical POV, I thought this was a wise idea. Besides, I’m not feeling all that comfortable with the number of extreme atheists, Bigfooters and random men making friend requests on Facebook. I’m going to have to cull that “friend” list.

That’s all for now.

Doubt and About: January – and so it begins. Monster talking.

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Gosh it’s cold. I can’t recall a colder winter. Winter is for reading and writing. And so I have been.

Things are super busy over at Doubtful News. We can hardly keep up with the stories. Honestly, it’s wearing me down so I may have to ease up a bit. I’m behind on my Sounds Sciencey piece for January because I’ve been doing news stories, some podcast interviews and working on a manuscript. Also, been reading up on ghost hunting history. I’ll have lots more on that in the future. LOTS more.

I’ve redesigned the website. It’s uncomfortably self-promotional. But that’s the way things go; everything is a brand, even people.

I’ve quit blogging for Huffington Post. They took my last post and removed 75% of the links (or more) because it didn’t fit their style. Those links were there for reference. The piece made little impact without the references as examples. So, I reproduced it here with all accoutrements, including embedded pictures and video. Much better. I’m sort of known for being independent and I consider the Huff Po thing to be a worthwhile try but not a good fit for me.

I did two reviews of the news year. One on The Skeptic Zone and one on Skepticality.

Also, I did a piece on the Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty show for Paranormal Pop Culture – a new audience!

And, just up, is a chat between Blake Smith and I on Monster Talk regarding the array of Bigfoot bodies supposedly lying around. (There’s a pun in there for ya!) “You Won’t Believe What These Skeptics Have to Say About Bigfoot”.

Hold it Bob, we can see your wristwatch.

Hold it Bob, we can see your wristwatch.

Weather permitting, I’ll be back at a familiar place this Saturday, the PA Nonbelievers meeting in York, talking about skepticism.

I have my first Keynote speaking spot in March at the Central NJ Mensa Snowball meeting. That will be on “Sounds Sciencey”

I don’t know yet what I’m going to be doing but I will be at RavenCon, April 2014, in Richmond, VA (or close to it) (Also with Bob Blaskiewicz.)

And I’m tapped to do a talk on the World of Weird News at Balticon on Memorial Day weekend in May 2014, Hunt Valley MD.

Cheers.

A ruse by any other name still stinks

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As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it’s probably not.

There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.

Made for TV hoaxes

Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.

In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.

Was this paranormal activity? (There were obvious signs that it was not.) It was such a fun video that it was passed around extensively. Finally, in December, it was revealed as a hoax for a TV show. The reveal happened on a broadcast that did not get good ratings. Most people may still assume the video was actual evidence for paranormal activity.

The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!

The prank was released on YouTube as part of a marketing stunt by UKTV’s entertainment channel, Watch, to launch the show “The Happenings”. I really wanted that bioluminescent beastie to be real.

Continue reading

Video: Media Guide to Skepticism

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A while back, I produced with the help of many others, this guide to skepticism for beginners and for journalists and whomever else was interested.

In May of 2013, I was asked to come to L.A. to do a live presentation on the topic and a Q and A session as well for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The video is now online. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of me and Barbara Drescher talking and demonstrating.

It’s gotten some nice views and compliments already, so enjoy.

Doubt and About: Hit the new year running

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I’m behind on podcasts, especially long ones. But I’m getting there. I just got a chance to listen to BoA’s interview with Dr. Tyler Kokjohn. Dr. Kokjohn has been a valued online correspondent and shares my values about putting paranormal topics to scientific tests. I was flattered that he noted I was one of the skeptics that believers could communicate with (about 57 min mark).

I was also a guest on BoA [binnall of america : audio] back in February.

It’s not easy to have these discussions. The participants come at it with different points of view, world views, assumptions, understanding, experience, priorities and definitions. It’s just plain hard to make any progress. Take a look at Bigfootery, for example. The actual scholarly researchers find tremendously interesting things but the mainstream ‘footer world is wrapped up with silly YouTube videos and hoax after hoax.

There are few academics that contact me regularly to comment, give me stories or advise. I appreciate that. I don’t think the same occurs with believers. Continue reading