Book reviews: Fall 2014

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300x300Since my last book review, I’ve downed a couple more. I can’t manage to review everything but here is a rundown:

Ghosts, E. Russell (1970)
This book was recommended to me by a long-time ghost researcher. I enjoyed it, mostly. It was confusing in parts, uneven. But some excellent points. Harder to get but worth it to have if you are serious about paranormal history.

The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole (1764)
The first “Gothic” novel. Available outside copyright for free. Strange. Very strange.

Raising the Devil, B. Ellis (2000)
A very worthwhile reference. Learned a lot from this one. You may be able to get it through your local university library. A folklore perspective worth exploring.

Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, S. Poole (2014)
Vampira is entrancing. She was way before her time. This could have been cut down a bit but I enjoyed it all anyway. Now I’m a lifelong fan of Vampira.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956)
After I finished this book I realized I’d already read it 9 years ago. That explains why it didn’t seem impressively shocking. If you have read Price’s Most Haunted House in England, you MUST read this. Can be found in large university libraries.

Unnatural Creatures, N. Gaiman
Could not finish. I just don’t like short stories. Not bad, just not my thing.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters – M. Kaplan
Could not finish after first two chapters. Felt “off” as if Kaplan does not know what he is talking about. Focused on mythical monsters and uses guessing and speculation. Missed the mark entirely for me.

Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We need Critical Thinking, R. Bartholomew & B. Radford (2003)
Very good reference. Readable and noteworthy (I marked lots of passages for reference). A must for your skeptical library.

If you would like to purchase any of these books, go through the Doubtful News Amazon link. Thanks.

Doubt and About: I’m a proud Bigfoot skeptic and damn good at it

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This is a post about a specific, maybe touchy, issue in a very general field – we could use some internal support and shared respect as advocates of science, critical thinking and evidence-focused skepticism, as well as a reminder that the world is a diverse place of knowledge, opinions and expertise. And, I’m going to tell you a bit more about getting into the thick of things at a conference outside my comfort zone.

I’m very much a generalist, I know a bit about a whole lot of stuff, a lot about a good bit of stuff, and considered an expert in a very narrow range of subjects. This is an advantage in getting people across a wide social and educational scale thinking about weird things. If I can hit on at least of few of their interests, whether that be the paranormal, natural disasters, animals, the environment or health concerns a decent discussion will happen. This past weekend, I was at RavenCon in Richmond, VA, a sci-fi con of the BaltiCon and Dragon*Con type, which I had attended before. I can always find something of interest there. I may skip the Star Trek stuff and not know about this novel franchise but I’m all in for spooky stuff, Star Wars or LOTR discussion. I appreciate that the RavenCon folks decided to invite me and Bob Blaskiewicz to add a rational spin on some fringe topics. They understand the audience is diverse.

It seems indisputable to me that critical thinking habits must be taught as early as possible in order to have the greatest impact. That is, in the course of regular discussion, activities, and daily doings, incorporating good habits of inquiry and encouraging curiosity ought to be a goal of parents and educators for even the youngest kids. Generally, (I’m going to play the odds) when it comes to kids under 12, they love animals, monsters, dinosaurs, etc. This is an excellent gateway topic into thinking about how we know what we know and what to think about these possibly true, probably false, but popular and interesting topics.  RavenCon had a kids programming track. I had developed a new presentation for kids about monsters and was eager to try it out. It was an interactive discussion about historic monsters (dragons and sea serpents), movie monsters (Frankenstein’s creature to vampires to Godzilla), legendary monsters (Jersey Devil and Chupacabra), and monsters some people think are real like Bigfoot and Nessie. What do we know? How do we know? What should we think about them in terms of fact or fiction?

KIDS KNOW ABOUT BIGFOOT AND NESSIE. Most of them think they are AWESOME. What better way to start a discussion about evidence than with a topic they have curiosity about! Other than realizing I don’t know my video game monsters so well, I think it worked. Even the parents were grateful, they had learned something. I know a good bit about a lot of monsters.

There are more crucial topics to discuss, many would say, but this was not the place. I’m not going to be able to talk to kids about alternative medical claims or cancer treatment. I can’t connect to them about psychic scams or consumer protection. The monster angle is ideal. You start somewhere and work on the methodology of applying effective skepticism using a fun example.

Also at RavenCon, I was on the panels for Bad Science, Ask a Scientist, and Paranormal: Fact or Faked. I sat in on two other presentations from a local paranormal group, who call themselves scientific, where I asked questions and engaged with them. By the end of the conference, I had made a positive impression on several people who DO NOT necessarily believe what I believe or approach inquiry the same way yet they listened to my comments. I had planted the seed. They did not think of me as the curmudgeonly dismissive, debunking skeptic. I even plan to work with the paranormal group in the future. That’s a WIN! Inserting techiniques of applying skepticism at a science-fiction con is a FANTASTIC way to get people thinking more deeply about this stuff.

I understand that some people engaged in skeptical advocacy and activism think that talking about Bigfoot and paranormal topics is boring and silly. That’s because you’ve already thought through it and decided it’s not your thing. A significant proportion of the American population (typically around 20%) believes in some aspect of the paranormal, whether that be Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, psychic abilities, and the like. A huge number (varies depending on your religious affilation from 20-90%) would rather accept a supernatural explanation of the earth and species of life via Creationism. This is not trivial stuff. It’s normal. And there must be a voice of the counter-advocate. No, it’s not life or death (well, maybe it is about life, in general), it’s everyday life-enriching skills. We all need that. Learning to apply evidence-focused skepticism is a skill useful throughout life. Most people have not thought much about it.  Most people also don’t have PhDs, read philosophy, know logical fallacies, or value reason over other criteria. They learn most everything from their communities of interest, family, and television often never getting a thoughtful science-based view. Engaging them in skeptical thinking about their interests and communicating at their level of science understanding means they are less likely to tune out and get them thinking about things in a new way.

A twitter discussion began between Orac, DJ Grothe and others regarding Harriet Hall’s review of Abominable Science and her mention of Bigfoot Skeptics. It was a fine piece about the value of talking about monsters. Since commenting was not available on the feature, a back-and-forth in 140 characters ensued. Twitter is probably the worst place to discuss a detailed, thoughtful article. It’s an exceptionally poor medium for hashing out goals and preferences regarding social causes. Confusion arose about the “importance” of various specialties of skepticism (i.e., Bigfoot vs medical quackery). There is NO DOUBT that medical topics are the more critical areas in which to apply sound skepticism. This is also one of the subject area that requires the most expertise in order to be qualified to give an opinion. I know enough about medical claims to be able to judge whether they appear off or not (because of the generalist thing), but I would not feel comfortable expounding about it in depth. So I won’t. But someone MUST. We count on the experts in this field like Orac and the team at Science-Based Medicine to do it. So, I point to their sites and cite their work. I can’t do it better so why attempt it.

Meanwhile, I run the ultimate generalist site over at DoubtfulNews.com. I talk to kids about monsters. I look into sham science. I write for Forteans and cryptozoologists. That’s my thing and I’m pretty good at it. I find when non-Bigfoot skeptics talk about this stuff, they miss the mark, mistakenly characterizing a sizable portion of the population as silly or stupid, conflating interest with gullibility and belief. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s wrong. Do people point to my work on these topics? Sometimes. It’s really great when they do and I notice and appreciate that.

I have received a ton of feedback from people who say they love Doubtful News site, they like my writing in other places, and say I am one of the “reasonable” skeptics. Therefore, preliminary results suggest my approach is working out pretty well. However, it is rare to be acknowledged publicly from high-profile skeptics. As I mentioned, I like to call out good work by others, so it does irk me when projects I invest a big effort in aren’t mentioned as worthwhile across the skeptical community. In a way this is not a big deal, since that is not the niche I am aiming to reach, yet, it is nice to be recognized by peers and get positive feedback once in a while instead of being publicly and harshly critiqued, looked down upon, or told my work or opinion means less than your own. This has occasionally happened to me and to many others and it’s obnoxious.

The point was also made during the Twitter discussion that individuals can’t do it all and it’s a good plan to play to our strengths – “I can’t address this certain speciality (not my interest or expertise) but I’m glad others can.” We need generalists and specialists of all types to make a strong network – doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, geologists, historians, folklorists, artists, filmmakers, linguists, physicists, chemists, biologists, zoologists, philosophers, secularists, human rights advocates, mathematicians, computer and networking experts, and so on. I harken back to the concept of big tent of skepticism… because it makes the most sense. Anyone who has been paying any attention at all knows that forming ourselves into cliques with labels has been a terrible idea – causing huge rifts, increasing divisiveness and, consequently, limiting progress. I have been continually disappointed at the GENERAL lack of cooperation between skeptics but astounded by, and am grateful for, some SPECIFIC acts. There is a big tent and a place inside for enclaves of specialists, not cliques who believe this is better or more worthwhile than that. Tribalism, while it happens, should not be condoned. Respect should be maintained as well as understanding that there is a place for almost everyone, not ONE best way or one most important topic. (I don’t do to the Star Trek panels at sci-fi cons but I do like the Star Wars and LOTR ones.)

So, my trip abroad to the realm of sci-fi was a great experience. I’ll be writing it up for a future for Sounds Sciencey. I took seriously my role as a speaker and as a listener, to get the pulse of the opinions and attitudes around us and find out where we need to speak up and do more. What’s more important — teaching kids to think for themselves or saving some people from financial or health consequences? Well, that’s not a reasonable question, is it? The primary consideration for advocacy and activism must be the needs of the audience to which we are trying to communicate at that moment. Things change. Adjust accordingly.

I’m going to keep talking about monsters for a long time. If you can’t see the greater value in that, you are forgetting something fundamental about people – we are really diverse.

Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

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Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?

There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.

Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.

“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.

The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.

Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).

What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)

Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena miraculous, a result of religious, occult (or magical) forces that are outside of human doings. These forces don’t adhere to boundaries of nature, which are waived. Perhaps the entity decides not to be detectable, for example. When that happens, we can’t test it, capture it or measure it. We just broke science. Our understanding stops if the explanation allows for supernatural entities to suspend natural laws on a whim. We end up with a form of “[Insert entity name here] did it.” Game over.

Paranormal events can appear to be supernatural but that in no way is proof that they are. Some unaccounted for natural explanation can be the cause. There is really no way to have excluded all natural possibilities in an investigation. We just may not have all the information. So to say something is the result of “paranormal” or “supernatural” activity is faulty logic. It can appear to be but you can’t say that it is for sure.

If you look at older anomalistic literature, you’ll find the word “preternatural” — a perfectly cromulent word — in place of paranormal. It’s not used as much anymore but it denotes a situation where the phenomenon appears outside the bounds of what we consider normal. It’s not supernatural, just extraordinary.

An even better word to use for weird natural phenomena — like strange falls from the sky (frogs, fish, colored rain), mystery sounds and lights, odd weather phenomena, etc. (things that might also be called Fortean) — would be paranatural. Events seem beyond natural because they are rare, unusual and we can’t quite pinpoint how they happened, but we need not revoke natural laws to have them occur. It’s similar to preternatural but sounds more modern.

Sorry about the word salad in this post but terminology is rather important for effective communication in order to avoid being misunderstood. These various words reflect the degree to which you want to go beyond observable, experimentally derived evidence. They get progressively LESS likely to be the correct designation: Paranatural -> paranormal/preternatural -> supernatural (which we can’t actually “prove”).

Pedantry over. We now resume normal communication.

This was originally posted at Huffington Post May 19, 2013.

Defending the faith of cryptozoology

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My latest post, regarding the rational vs non-rational response to the new cryptozoology book by Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science, went live on Huffington Post yesterday.

Cryptozoology Gets Respect While Bigfooters Behave Badly.

When critical thinkers approach the subject of Bigfoot (or cryptozoology in general) with a focus on the evidence, they are met with reproach. We are challenging much more than the claim; we challenge their belief. They will resort to what Biblical literalists will do to evolutionists – they demonize, call us names, misquote, pick at small mistakes, and take words and ideas out of context. They create an extreme position and shoot it down (called a “straw man” argument) because it’s a power play to make them feel superior. (Note that some aggressive “skeptics” will do that and it’s not fair play in that case either.) All the while, they skirt the MAJOR flaws in their own conclusions.

Bigfoot-themed and other cryptozoology blogs and forums are typically hostile to skeptics, even moderate ones like myself. They can’t understand why we even want to participate since we are going to “deny” everything. Gee, sorry for being interested in the topic and in getting a good answer for peoples’ experiences. Questioning is not denying, it’s thinking.

A while back I challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and make a fair assessment. Some seem to have read it. Three known men gave it ridiculous reviews. They only read the parts that interested them and presumed judgement on the whole book. That is intellectually dishonest and really shallow, not to mention extremely arrogant, behavior. This is why we can’t take self-proclaimed cryptozoological experts seriously. They treat their subject more like a religion, based on faith.

Continue reading

Doubt and About for last week in May

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Geez, it’s summer and my calendar is jam packed. I just got back from a FANTASTIC trip to L.A. to do a presentation for the JREF which will be on YouTube as outreach in a few weeks.

But my NECSS talk “Sounds Sciencey” has now appeared on YouTube. Check it out and see what you think. I have to rewatch it. I’ve gotten some feedback from the skeptic side. Not sure how it will play with the paranormal crowd. Please note that your talks are tailored to the audience you are speaking to. Therefore, each one will be somewhat different depending on that focus. When it goes out to the internet, it plays differently and the reaction will, subsequently be different. It’s important to keep this in mind if you don’t want to come off badly to one audience or another. But my job was to speak to the NECSS (science/skeptical) crowd.

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Paranormal politicking

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My interests are in paranormal topics, coalition building, policy, and problem solving. Having visited the paranormal side on several occasions, I’m one of those skeptics that is not hated or despised by those that disagree with the “skeptical” scene. Distilled rom those interests, one of my goals is to find a way to interact effectively with the paranormal community and maybe come up with new ways of doing things. In order to do that, you can’t just jump in and expect change. It’s complicated so I try to explore the issues.

That serves as an introduction to an introduction…

I started reading Jeremy Northcote’s The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth: A Sociological Account. It’s already marked up from when I referred to it for my thesis project but it was time I read it through. Odd that sometimes you pick up a book years later and it resonates with you in a completely different way from the first encounter with it, thanks to life experience and current events.

So, I digested the introduction and I found some zinger ideas that I wanted to write down and contemplate anyway so I might as well share them and see how everyone feels about it (in consideration of my propensity to be collaborative).

The following are notes and ideas taken from the Introduction, pages 1-11. Continue reading

When I’m disliked by only one side, then I know I have a problem

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Some of you may know I now blog for Huffington Post as well as the usual outlets. Some of you have been kind enough to read and retweet. I appreciate that. My latest piece is out.

Suspend Your Skepticism and Just Listen.

I’ve been circulating in the Skeptisphere for a good long while. But I have not forgotten the value of being challenged and seeing alternative views. This draws me to paranormal conferences and events. I go there to be immersed in highly unskeptical ideas. It is immediately clear, to me at least, that I am out of my comfort zone at these events. I do not feel free to talk to anyone lest they determine I am not of their “ilk” and decide I should be shunned. But I am curious, and no one berates me for wanting to listen and observe. What is it about the paranormal culture that draws people here? Why is this population of people happy to spend a weekend engaged in these particularly paranormal activities, listening to speakers and making new friends?

This is a piece I wrote after I returned from a paranormal conference. I would strongly suggest all capital-S skeptics read it and would love to know what you think. I find myself cringing when I hear people (e.g. “skeptics”) laugh at paranormal believers (not beliefs but BELIEVERS) and soundly state “Bigfoot is a myth. Grow up!” How narrowly you see people. Skeptics lack empathy in many cases. You may decry me for giving paranormalists the time of day but I think they have something to say about being human. I’ve not been treated kindly by some in the skeptic-athesist community and I’ve been stabbed in the back and teased by some of the “skeptical believers” (I don’t accept their soft definition of “skeptic”) and of course you’re doomed if you are the Skeptic on a pro-paranormal forum. But, honestly, I’m so used to that. I write policy for a living. If I make everyone happy or NO one happy, I’m doing something right. It’s when I am only liked by one camp that I know I have a serious bias problem.

On the flip side, a new Sounds Sciencey was published this week as well. Continue reading