Should I have been a sociologist?

It was not with conscious intent. It evolved organically. I want to know how and why a group functions the way it does (or doesn’t). First, I studied paranormal investigators, or what I called ARIGs – amateur research and investigation groups. One particular aspect I focused on was how these activities appeared to enhance their lives.  I’ve always been interested in why people believe weird things. I think I understand a bit about why religious, paranormal, and superstitious beliefs play such a dominant role in human society. Of course, there is much left to learn.

Regarding the skeptical community, I started noticing pathologies and problems, groupthink and misplaced focus. Why did this happen and what happens next?

In a Fortean group, I asked about sharing questionable “news” sites – does accuracy matter?

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Doubt and About: I dream of animals (Spring 2015)

Doubt and About is personal contemplation about stuff going on in my sphere. 

I’ve been dreaming about flying rays, monitor lizards and leeches. These days, I have a surplus of tiny spiders on the back deck that enjoy crawling on me and using me as a launching pad for their silk ballooning. I should have been a zoologist, obviously. Meanwhile, my job is to keep writing up rational responses to crazy news stories on Doubtful News.

Does anyone not know that I do DN? It’s not unusual to come across skeptics who have never heard of DN. How does that happen? I do all I can to promote it. I’m pretty passionate. This stuff means a lot to me and has for 20 years. Well, this relates to a worsening problem I’ve noticed in the past few years – lack of support and cooperation among skeptical advocates. There are many good groups and bands of individuals that get together to do projects. But it seems like asking for a blog post, Facebook share, a retweet or even a mention of your latest project or important post is met with the sound of crickets. Why is that? Shouldn’t we be helping each other to spread the word about positive stuff?

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Even the tough ones can be kind

When people think about “Skeptics” (capital ’S’), they often think about James Randi, Joe Nickell, Phil Klass, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, etc. – the tough ones, the ones that did not accept the bullshit being handed out.

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Skeptic Trumps by Crispian Jago: http://www.crispian.net/page3/page3.html

I’ve seen many comments aimed in particular against Mr. Randi (who retired from his Foundation this year but is STILL traveling and doing outreach). I think people epitomize Randi as the Leader of all Skepticism because of all he has accomplished and the real contemptible characters of the woo-woo world that he has taken on head to head – Peter Popoff, Uri Geller, Sylvia Browne, even Nostradamus.

But here is a funny thing I wish people would realize… Randi is human and understanding. Ken Frazier reports on the Australian Skeptics convention last November in the March/April 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. In his editorial, (page 4) he relates a comment James Randi gave to a question he was asked — how does one respond to a friend who is deep into nonsense.

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You say closed, I say open with reason

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I get emails. People tell me I should be more “open-minded”.

There is that clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”. This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s a fine saying.

I’m reminded about my narrow lack of vision (as they see it) when I report about recently deceased mystery mongerers or self-proclaimed miracle workers. Their followers chastise me not only for speaking ill of the dead (I’m sure they were all nice people, but that does not excuse their bad ideas), but that I did not experience their miracles or I fail to understand their work because I’m not thinking “out of the box”.

Here’s one example. Lloyd Pye was committed to the idea that a curiously-shaped skull he had is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promoted the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings. You can read my post about his death. There is nothing offensive about it. Yet, I got a SLEW of messages telling me how horribly misguided I was. I disagreed with his crackpot ideas. I’m allowed to. The plausibility of it is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty sci-fi story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be completely irrational.

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Critical Groupthinking

I’ve been thinking a lot about group dynamics lately. In-groups, out-groups, fitting into to groups and falling out of them. I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics in the past few years in skeptical circles.

Working in groups is an important part of many people’s lives. I get tasked to head committees or workgroups and I have a staff that has to work collaboratively on projects. I see groups in my neighborhood and community. And with a teenager and a pre-teen, I see social groups, for better or worse, in operation every day.

With regards to skeptical outreach, I’m curious if coherent groups can be formed with diverse individuals, what might hold us back and what may work to move ahead.

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Stone-throwing wall-thumpers: Review of Australian Poltergeists

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APPaul Cropper sent me a copy of his new book with co-author Tony Healy, Australian Poltergeist: The Stone-throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. He must have known how much I love this topic and was eager to learn about various cases around the world.

I learned about the concept of poltergeists before many of today’s weekend ghost hunters were out of diapers. It seems like today’s paranormal investigators do not know much about the long and detailed history about this particular type of haunting. I didn’t know as much as I wanted to but Australian Poltergeist gave me great info but also an increased interest in seeking out more.

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Did you know Richard Wiseman doesn’t do parapsychology anymore?

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That makes me sad. But it’s true. I didn’t realize this until I watched this recorded panel from earlier this year. You can hear him admit it around 24:00.

He explains that his reasoning is laid out in the piece “Heads I win, Tales you Lose” published in Skeptical Inquirer in 2010.

‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’: How Parapsychologists Nullify Null Results – CSI.

After more than sixty years of experimentation, researchers have failed to reach a consensus about the existence of psi (psychic ability). Some argue that there exists overwhelming evidence either for or against the psi hypothesis, while others believe that it simply isn’t possible to answer the question one way or the other. One of the main obstacles to closure on the psi question involves the way in which null results are viewed (Alcock 2003). Many parapsychologists have adopted a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to their work, viewing positive results as supportive of the psi hypothesis while ensuring that null results do not count as evidence against it.

While I haven’t worked directly in the field and published many papers like he has, I can certainly see his point. I’ve not been impressed by the methods of psi researchers and said so.

In this talk, he talks about the field of parapsychology and its future — that it’s a complete waste of time, a true pseudoscience. If after 70 years, there is nothing to go on, it’s time to move on. (Note how this can be applied to UFOs, Bigfoot, ghostly encounters, as well.) So, you can’t very well blame him for no longer pursuing a lost cause. (I often feel this way myself about the skeptical community.)

Professor Richard Wiseman: “Heads I win, tails you lose”: How parapsychologists nullify null results from APRU on Vimeo.

I find myself often referencing Wiseman’s works because they cover exactly what I need to be addressed and they are readable. He’s been a great teacher for me. He’s now moved totally into the realm of self help ideas and the concept of luck. Also good but not the anomalistic psychology I am fascinated by. Oh well, we all move on.

If you go to his website now, you’ll notice that parapsychology themes are second to more conventional (but still SKEPTICAL) topics like sleep and dreams, luck, and perception (mainly the quirkiness of our perception and how we can be fooled). That should not stop you from picking up this excellent book: Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there by Richard Wiseman

Storm and the devil: Book review

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stormI like reading historical books when the narrative flows and the information is new and intriguing. I really liked A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience by Emerson W. Baker, a professor at Salem State College.

I’ve read some about the Salem witch trials but this book was from another angle. We get a look into the widespread problems faced by the Massachusetts Bay Colony including the cold summers that hindered food production, illness, fear of raids by the natives, and fighting over land holdings from small to large tracts including the concern of wars.

Baker notes that science can’t solve all the mysteries of the past but concludes that conversion disorder, psychological trauma, and sleep paralysis played a role; ergot poisoning, the paranormal, or real demons did not.

I am now aware of the troubles with Reverend Samuel Parris in the town and can imagine how the tension in the community was so thick that one would have trouble breathing there. Because of the turmoil with the colony’s charter, legal conflicts went unresolved and festered. The economic, social, political, and spiritual factionalism that existed certainly led to the unique situation in Salem.

Baker goes into the history of the people involved and winds the threads together so that we see a tinderbox of trouble ready to catch on fire. Simple explanations of “why Salem?” fall short. But it was clear that Puritanism was under threat, capitalism was a growing trend, and the community was unstable. It did not take much to convince people that the town was under siege by Satan.

My favorite part was learning about lithobolia, the stone-throwing demon. This sparked a new interest for me in the poltergeist- and Bigfoot-related activity of rock assaults. The lithobolia incident mentioned was not in Salem but in Great Island, New Hampshire ten years prior. Thankfully, Baker wrote an entire book about this event which I picked up right after finishing Storm called The Devil of Great Island.

devilofgreatisland200In this book, we can see community factors in common between Salem and Great Island, both of which had increased tension and crushing factionalism. The situations were very similar – bitter disputes about the formation of a new parish, religious tension, outsiders, and difficulty resolving political and economic disputes.

Devil is loaded with historical context. It reminds us that it was unpleasant to be unlucky with your inheritance or societal position, or a woman in these early colonial times. A “monstrous” birth could get you accused of cavorting with the devil.

Baker shows us that the lithobolia incidents that occurred in New England had strong human motivation behind them when there was little recourse to punish a social enemy. You pelted their house with rocks, making trouble, or destroyed their fences, and then perhaps accused each other of being a witch or wizard. Sound unfun.

In Storm, Baker concludes by examining the aftermath of Salem that surprisingly still bubbles with trouble to this day. Salem struggled with their history like a “Scarlet Letter” but then the majority choose to embrace the wild aspect and now Salem is a tourist trap, especially at Halloween (no significance to the history). It’s all very sobering and sad that things turned out the way they did and many important lessons were forgotten (and reappeared in the Satanic Panic and modern cases of conversion disorder centuries later).

Great Island, now New Castle, did not capitalize on their famous demon attack of 1682. Curiously, stone throwing (outside and inside a house) was a hallmark of poltergeist activity up until a few decades ago, although, some similar cases still occur. Bigfoot is also described as throwing stones. Curious indeed. Stone throwing remains an act of aggression and defiance. There are “demons” involved for sure, but your characterization of them will vary. What’s going on? Each case may have unique secrets of their own at the core.

Introducing PracticalSkepticism.com: A new resource for the promotion of critical thinking 

I’m pleased to announce the launch of PracticalSkepticism.com, an outreach and education outlet for those new to the principles and value of everyday skepticism.

The audience for PracticalSkepticism.com is the GENERAL PUBLIC — the material is easy to understand and is designed to be shared with family, friends, colleagues, and students.

The goal of the site is to expose an inclusive array of readers to the basic concepts of skepticism in a relatable, non-confrontational way through examination of extraordinary claims, but also via everyday decisions about consumer products, medical treatments, and social media-derived information. PracticalSkepticism.com is a first step to make critical thinking a life habit.

Content includes examples of applied skepticism and where skepticism would certainly have been beneficial. Regular themes will draw attention to topics that deserve critical thinking but that may not be obvious, such as human perception errors, eyewitness testimony, and health and media claims. The site will feature skeptically-themed writing and highlight media recommendations.

Current examples already up include the following:

Please stop by and take a look at the site.

Consider contributing content that may fit (new or existing).

Help promote the site to educators, reporters, and any social group interested in honest inquiry and rational decision-making.

Sharon Hill, PaSkeptic@gmail.com

I know, not just believe, this book is nonsense: Book Review

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IMG_5484Sometimes publishers and authors send me stuff. I’m not sure why they think I’ll suddenly be open to unscientific, fringe ideas about how the world works and overthrow what we know via just one book. Yes, that’s right, KNOW. This book, Paradigm Busters, from the Atlantis Rising magazine library, starts off by confusing conditional scientific knowledge with belief. “We don’t KNOW, we BELIEVE”. Maybe YOU do, but that’s not how I roll. Science is the most reliable way of gaining knowledge, in short because it removes as much error as humanly possible and is open to many people’s scrutiny and new evidence as it comes along. Some knowledge is certainly tentative but your kooky theory about pyramids is not going to overturn the entire field of archaeology and Egyptian history.

“Know” is interchangeable as “believe” in this book, that’s clear: “We already know… [that ancient spiritual places concentrate electromagnetic fields]” Oh? Where are the scientific references? There are none. This book is a collection of terribly researched, mystery mongering speculation and hopeful belief in something beyond reality.

We go way off on the wrong path right from the beginning as one writer suggests that magicians and entertainers may indeed have paranormal powers; that is, David Copperfield is NOT doing an illusion, he’s really supernatural! This book also suggests that people really are magnetic (nope), chi (which you can’t measure) could be the primal source of all matter and energy, animals can do complex math equations (in English), there are healing properties of coral slabs, energy beams are focused by the Georgia Guidestones, Mary Magdalene founded the Royal Dutch House of Orange, spirits can invade humans, ETs have visited us in the past, and that ideas about quantum physics were known in ancient Egypt. All baseless.

The contributors disregard normal explanations and sneer at anything related to orthodox “science”. Appealing to neuroscience and psychology, they still use sciencey language in that typical “I hate you but want you to accept me” relationship. Science is wrong, they conclude, let us upturn it for you.

Old and investigated tales are taken at face value with the non-supernormal explanation rejected out of hand (or not even mentioned). Therefore, there is more to fire walking than simple physics of insulation and heat exchange, the DaVinci code is real and reveals ancient secrets, and the Montauk Monster was a mutant from Plum Island research facility, not a long-drowned raccoon. It’s pretty much ridiculous stuff like this cover to cover.

I don’t have anything positive to say about a conspiratorial, anti-science book written by non-specialists who seem to have never studied the foundational literature of these fields. Oh, I didn’t find any typos and the grammar was acceptable. There.

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