Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

bhBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

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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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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.

page3-1026-full
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

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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parapsychology

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

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

Neutrality and the wood ape report

It’s very difficult to be truly neutral. In most situations, you can only get somewhere by taking a side and exploring it. Last week’s hubbub regarding the Wood Ape report that I posted on Doubtful News was illustrative of a number of different issues that arise when attempting to learn more about and assess an extraordinary claim.

My approach to the report, which you can read here, is one of interest and openness. To me, having seen probably hundreds of poorly done “reports” by amateur paranormal investigators (ARIGs) and obvious and ridiculous hoaxes, this one was not of those types. If we expect claims to be supported, and we ask for higher quality, then my view is we should not dismiss out of hand the product when we get it.

It was clear that this approach annoyed several Bigfoot Skeptics (for lack of a better term) – namely ones who follow Doubtful News who were disappointed in the lack of strong tone – and a few people from the former JREF forum (now International Skeptics) who have known me as a one who will dig into the nonsense such as that of Melba Ketchum (an OBVIOUS and embarrassingly awful presentation of pseudoscience).

Several people misunderstood my approach. I have gained much information and understanding by not being hostile or dismissive to those on the metaphorical “other side of the fence”. I’m not out to debunk Sasquatch. I wish to understand what people are experiencing and why they conclude this creature is real. Some commenters do not share that goal and thus had a problem with the post and perhaps my cordialness towards Brian Brown, host of the Bigfoot Show podcast and a NAWAC researcher who co-authored the report.

I feel that there is something to be explained in this Area X (Oklahoma) event. What is happening? Is it an elaborate hoax on the investigators from people launching rocks at the cabin in Area X? Is the land owner pursuing a monetary agenda? Are the participants promoting a scenario that will be turned into a profit making venture such as tourism, TV show or a movie? Is this a case of poltergeist activity perceived by the researchers? There are pretty much limitless possibilities to apply.

Asking “what’s going on here?” is not limiting the view, it is aiming the inquiry at the large topic. Language of neutrality is difficult. No matter how I try, there still will be some bend in the framework I use. I may have framed it in a way that suggested belief or led credence to the group or belief; it was not the intent to advocate for the existence of wood apes.

What has come out of this exposure?

I expected pushback but not Such opinions were asinine, unsupported, and conspiratorial – very UNskeptical indeed. But I concede that the framing of the piece may have been in such a way as to feel like a betrayal to those who thought I was more concrete in my nonbelief than I really am. So, I can understand if the harsh comments were a result of feeling that I was promoting the claim. Please consider that examining the claim is NOT promotion of the claim. I did not say it was any sort of proof or even good evidence.

The exposure did result in some people suggesting that there were potential shenanigans going on. But yet didn’t provide evidence for this. To assume that the reality was not as published means I would be accusing the researchers of exaggeration, deception, and, at the extreme, fraud. If they are f***ing with me than I will likely find out eventually and say so, thus putting them far back from whatever ground they could gain. I have no reason to suspect they are doing that. While I’ve lost faith in humans many times, I’m not ready to assume people who have previously been honorable are deliberately suddenly and drastically dishonest. It does not follow. (You can observe my interaction with Brian Brown on this episode of the Bigfoot Show).

I did contact Brian again to address the suggestions that there is something unscrupulous going on.

Is there money involved?

“We are a 501(c)3 and we operate using the funds we generate from member dues and any donations from interested outsiders. We do have a button on our website and a page dedicated to generating those donations, but that’s about it. We don’t make very many explicit appeals for donations from interested outsiders. Also, we have nothing to sell. No “product.” There has been discussion within the group of staging crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns for specific things (like more thermal cameras, for example) and we have toyed with the idea of things like t-shirt sales, but we haven’t pursued those things to date and I’m personally wary of doing anything that makes it appear as though we’re trying to profit from our work. 100% of our income (the vast majority of which is from member dues) goes into furthering our research. This year, for example, we purchased new communication equipment. Also, things like the tremendous amount of small lithium-ion batteries we chew through in a summer.”

So, their donations or support goes back into the research efforts.

What is the potential you are being hoaxed?

“We pay the owners a relatively small amount annually to be on their property for such extended periods (it’s not uncommon in Oklahoma for property owners to receive modest lease payments from hunters and such). We also contribute to the upkeep of the structures as there is a fair amount of wear and tear from all those people staying there over months at a time. However, we are most often not accompanied by the owners. They are only present over a few times of the year and a handful of weekends during the summer months. Is there a motive to hoax? I suppose the only answer to that is to weigh the effort that would be necessary against the benefit of doing so. It just doesn’t make any sense from that perspective.”

One commenter mentioned that locals heard the gunshots so it’s not a “remote” area. However, another, non-NAWAC, skeptical researcher assured me that it is remote and that hoaxing just does not make sense. Brian did not know of any residents within several miles since they have explored the area thoroughly in the 15 or so years they have been active there.

“Of course, this is Oklahoma we’re talking about and there are lots of guns and people who enjoy using them. While we rarely hear gunshots from others, it’s happened. Lots of people shoot guns around there.”

There were allegations made that Brian is in marketing and so, should not be trusted. (Poisoning the well attempt?) He responds:

“I’m in marketing, yep. Without making any attempt to try and raise anyone’s opinion of marketers in general, all I can say is I use my abilities to ensure the group is as well-presented to the public as possible. The NAWAC is filled with serious people trying to do serious things in a field littered with those it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s a daunting “branding” challenge, to be sure. Am I promoting the existence of the animal? Yes, 100%. I know they’re real and I know their habitat is threatened and I’d very much like to see them recognized and protected. Also, I take the mission of our group seriously, especially the part about education.”

So, yes, Brian does have an agenda to show they are real. That is the largest flaw in the foundation of the report, but it does not prevent the researchers from pursuing the falsification of the events in this particular location. If they are being harassed by people or other animals, they will attempt to show that so as to not be seen a promoting a false claim which would be embarrassing and at odds with their goals. The report, he notes, was meant to not be sensational. It’s well known that it’s very hard to be taken seriously in a field loaded with jokers.

On the podcast The Bigfoot Show, they did mention the idea of a fictional movie about Bigfoot. It’s not a stretch to make this dramatic wood ape attack scenario into a movie reminiscent of The Legend of Boggy Creek. So, in the back of my head, and knowing the viability of viral marketing, I could entertain the possibility that this is a setup for such a project.

Brian says:

“On the BFS we have discussed doing, essentially, a video version of the show (though that idea is pretty much dead at this time). […] At no time was the idea of bringing cameras to [Area] X considered by me (though Herriott may have suggested it on the show) nor would I ever involve the group like that. In fact, the NAWAC routinely turns down appeals by television producers (Finding Bigfoot in particular about 50 times — their producers apparently don’t talk to one another much).”

This didn’t exactly answer my question about this being part of a media scheme. So, I leave all possibilities open.

As I said before, but not everyone accepts, I’ve no dog in this fight, I just want to know what’s going on. I’m on the skeptic side of the fence but it does not mean I can peer over to the other side to see what’s brewing. Being in the center means on some days I make one side unhappy and on the other day I make the other side unhappy. So be it.

Response to comments these past few days

I’ve been getting some feedback from two specific topics in the past few days. One, the NAWAC study on wood ape activity and, second, from a few UFO proponents who seem to have become obsessed with commenting on the site and wonder why their comments don’t appear.

Well, there are a few factors at play here. Since I’m not going to answer all the requests individually (I’m already overwhelmed with stuff to do AND traveling at the moment), I hope this blanket response will suffice.

I would like the UFO people to stop pushing their unsupported views on me via email and comments. If your comment is not appearing, there is a good reason, and the DN comment thread is not for you. I’ve heard your argument but my website is not a suitable platform for a debate on it.

It is a different sense in which I regard the Bigfoot/wood ape concept. Many of you have expressed dismay at my positive, possibly endorsing, tone in the NAWAC piece. Comments have included alternative anecdotes, speculation, ad hominems, and outright dismissals, sometimes at me, mostly at the researchers. Contributing your informed opinion is welcome but I’m not going to change the post. Please recognize the difference between asking “What is going on here?” and endorsing the claim. There seems quite adequate evidence that something is going on. However, what that could be is wide-ranging; I will not speculate. I do not have an invested belief. I am exploring the idea. By accusing me of being gullible, you have greatly misunderstood and underestimated me. If it turns out to be an elaborate ruse, that’s a sound answer I will accept. But I do not see the evidence for that at the present time. If you have such evidence, beyond speculation and accusations, document it. I hope that attention to Area X will help uncover the answer.

Thank you for contributing your opinions. I read them and take them into account. My current stand is fairly neutral. I want to hear most sides (I’ll draw the line at delusional bullies and denialists skeptics). And if I choose not to dismiss but to entertain an event or claim for some inquiry, I will. I appreciate your visit to Doubtful News.

Nurture science appreciation – teach the controversy

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology,” said Carl Sagan, a person who inspired many to appreciate science and learning about nature.

Even though that quote is decades old, it applies now more than ever and continues to be pithy as each day goes by.

Today’s school science classes are still exercises in memorization and not much fun for most kids. Most students will not become scientists nor remember the processes, facts and formulas. But science is everywhere, affecting us daily. It is crucial that citizens grasp why it’s needed and valued for society. The average non-scientists likely sees no direct connection to science in their daily lives. Do we really need an educated society to know the specifics of scientific fields or do we REALLY need a population generally supportive of science as a way of knowing. I’d argue the latter which is why I would prefer classes in science appreciation. I interviewed Dr. Andrew Read from Pennsylvania State University (PSU) a little while back on his science appreciation class for freshman non-scientists called “Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy”. Dr. Read is able to draw his students’ interest by focusing on what they care about or what resonates with them in their everyday lives. Because science really is part of our everyday lives.

Making science immediately relevant to the life of any individual student might seem difficult in a chemistry or physics class. I propose that the most attention grabbing topics in these fields are the controversial ones, the mysteries, the things kids will encounter on TV, in movies and all over the Internet. Use popular examples to illustrate the value of good science.

Matthew P. Wiesner, in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, explores the small community of modern geocentrists. These are people who think that the Earth does not move but that the ENTIRE UNIVERSE revolves around us according to the Bible. To borrow the framework of a popular quote about evil and religion, “…for smart people to believe really silly things, that takes religion.” Geocentrists don’t do bad science, they do anti-science. What a great topic to explore from many angles (even if you avoid the religious angle). Geocentrists, like other pseudoscientists, are motivated by their own agenda, they must resort to conspiracies that have no evidence to support the claims, and they do funny math or no math at all. Regardless, they insist that what they have is REVOLUTIONARY! How their swiss cheese theory is better than the existing well-established explanation about how nature works is glossed over. Such an example can serve as a model for an array of pseudoscientific subjects showing students what red flags to watch for.

Wiesner holds, as I do, that ignoring nonsense claims doesn’t make them go away but allows them to spread further. Someone needs to put up a checkpoint. Why not use pseudoscientific claims, those made by self-described experts playing pretend science, in the classroom? Use these examples as illustrations. It’s fun.

I’ll be talking about this topic next month at a conference at Northern Arizona University called The Skeptical Classroom, providing examples in the natural sciences that educators can use to connect to their non-science students and show them how critical thinking is relevant TO THEM. By actively addressing claims that kids may hold, and forcing them to take a hard look at why they probably are bogus, will, if nothing else, plant the seed. It will get them thinking and engaged in a skeptical process.

Teaching earth and space science in high school? Ask students why aliens might or might not have visited earth. Ask them to assess astrology versus astronomy. If the moon has an effect on tides, does it affect human behavior as well?

Chemistry? PLEASE examine homeopathy and handily demolish its entire premise, hopefully sparing kids and perhaps their family members from wasting money on sugar pills.

Biology? Figure out if Bigfoot or lake monsters make sense. Attempt to identify what is represented in the picture of the strange carcass that washed up on the beach that everyone is calling a “chupacabra”.

Physics? How could this free energy machine actually work? Can we model out how paranormal entities can affect the environment – where does the energy come from to throw a lamp, how are the local EM fields manipulated, can something we see go through a wall?

Got younger kids? What is there favorite monster and do they think it’s real? Does it behave like humans or other animals?

Get students thinking about things that matter to them in a new way. They will love it and will learn a whole new appreciation for the value of science and practical skepticism. They will appreciate that it helps them to not be fooled. The early we can instill this, the better.

geocentric

Trouble bubbles between paranormalists and skeptics

Yesterday, paranormal advocates and skeptical paranormal researchers clashed over an old but complex issue. Former television Ghost Hunter, Amy Bruni, posted on Facebook that she wished skeptics would go do something more productive than “constantly bash” what they (paranormalists) do. She thinks the skeptic “cause” is to take on people with harmless beliefs different from their own.

I admit I reacted badly to her call to “take a little look at yourself”  – it was inaccurate and poorly worded because she was on the defensive, reacting out of emotion. Then, she did clarify somewhat to tone down the harshness but her view was still off the mark.

There were very many threads of thought that could be spun off this kerfuffle, but I will make just two points as a self-identified practical skeptic who has studied paranormal topics for decades.

First, I have every right to call out any questionable claim that is being presented as fact. I’ve written about this topic before. A few years back, I was on good terms with some paranormally-inclined people until I pointed out problems with their positions. Then I was told to get off my high horse and go back to my cubicle or my “lonely room.” Speaking for myself, but assuming that others like me agree, my intent was not to be mean, I was digging for accuracy. I really want to know, not just believe because it’s comforting or fun. Rarely am I called out on what I say about the science or facts. Instead, “skeptic” is used as a slur and I’m told to shut up or go away. Proponents of fringe ideas are annoyed by skeptical probing: we ask for specifics, question assumptions, and are keenly aware of the lack of good quality evidence for their pet beliefs. Skeptics make believers feel uncomfortable. Well, pushing boundaries into the discomfort zone is how we learn. It can go both ways.

Second, there is no endeavor that should be given a pass from critical thought and commentary, especially those that are at odds with well-established existing knowledge. Skeptics are told that, if we are so keen on advancing science, instead of harassing ghost hunters, Bigfooters and UFO chasers, we should work on curing cancer, developing renewable energy, and cleaning up the environment. Well, many of us DO such work every day – my daily job is in environmental regulation. There is no justification for the “why don’t you go do something more productive” ploy. There will always be the argument for why X is more important than Y. There will always be another X, it’s subjective. Everyone has their own interests or causes they feel passionately about. Knowledge and expertise is personal and we can pursue what we like. The exact same argument applies to paranormalists so it’s not prudent to ever use it.

Finally, there are a few interesting parallels between serious skeptical advocates and serious paranormalists:

  1. We love these subjects, we want to find out more.
  2. We want to help people.
  3. We think our task is important to society, not frivolous.
  4. We don’t like rude, know-it-all jerks.
  5. Our values in these areas are an integral part of who we are, how we define ourselves.

There is common ground. We rarely meet upon it.

Skeptics interested in paranormal topics might attempt to be more open to listening and understanding those who have had anomalous experiences. Those who espouse extraordinary claims would do well to up their evidence quality and get a grasp on what skepticism really is and why it’s important. Things might get interesting then. Imagine a situation where we could air our grievances without contempt and have a productive discussion. I’d like to be part of that conversation.

For more on the troubled relationship and communication fails between skeptics and paranormalists, check out my pieces from Sound Sciencey: