Doubt and About for Winter 2015 BRrrrrr

Oh man, it’s winter. Where is the sun?

I’ve been busy reading and watching monster movies and documentaries. I’m going to write up some notes from my readings and share some gems.

In an update from last D&A, I’ve closed down my public Facebook page for now. I’m more interested in working in the background. Speaking of that, I am still maintaining the social media accounts for the JREF but am focusing on helping to organize TAM#13 for 2015 this summer in Las Vegas. That’s a tremendous job but I’m absorbing what it means to put together a major conference event. I’m sure not doing the heavy lifting. But, people are so often quick to criticize without knowing what it entails.

I’m getting more and more jaded with silly ghost and monster stories in the news. So, the content on Doubtful News has been less frequent. I’m becoming more picky about what I put up there. I no longer can manage to list every big questionable claim made in the media. It’s often so ridiculous, I get a bit depressed I have to even mention that’s portrayed VERY inaccurately and quite dubious of a story. Or, it takes a considerable amount of effort to research and digest a story (like the latest Pew research on science and the public). I didn’t expect to get burnt out from it but, now that I think about it, it’s inevitable. Meanwhile, I’ve had another new project idea.

I’ve started the site Practical Skepticism. It’s what I think the public needs – to see how critical thinking processes can help ANYONE make better decisions in life. My goal is to show the inherent value of the skeptical process, that it’s not cynical, it’s not just for groups of old, atheist men, and it is tremendously valuable to have as a life skill. 

I’m moving away from aiming efforts at the fractionated, unorganized, “skeptic” community but focusing on everyday useful stuff that can improve society for all ages and lifestyles. If you would like to contribute to Practical Skepticism, drop me a line. I’ll be posting more in the near future when I populate the site with more content. But I sure hope I can get some other contributions posts in these beginning stages.

The public MUST be the audience for the message. I feel very strongly about that; I hope you see why and join me in this effort to refocus the goals of the skeptical community to be education and outreach. My main interest is in the relationship between science and the public. There are many factors involved in science appreciation and acceptance that are separate from the ‘don’t be fooled’ lesson of general skepticism. We have a lot of work to do to make forward strides but according to some thoughtful messages I’ve received, people will get behind such goals and show support.

Coming up on my agenda for face to face outreach this year, besides TAM in July, is the Skeptical Classroom event in March at Northern Arizona University. I’ve never been in Flagstaff so I’m very excited. I’m bursting with ideas for my talk about applying skepticism in the natural sciences classroom. 

I also got my first invitation to speak at a “paranormal” type event – the Albatwitch Festival in Columbia, PA next fall. I wrote about it here. I’m still thinking about how to address what will likely be a crowd of those greatly invested in paranormal beliefs. That will be a challenge. 

Tell me what YOU think. I read all comments posted here even if I don’t make them public.

Deliver me from another ridiculous “demons everywhere” story – Book Review

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A review of Deliver Us from Evil, R. Sarchie with L.C. Cool

deliverI shall cut to the main point. I didn’t set out to read this one. I saw it in the library and it looked like a fast read. It’s important to understand what’s being put out there as “true” stories. As usual, it was the same faith-based nightmare fuel meant to scare people into being more pious and to show that the author’s religion is the one true faith.

Ralph Sarchie is a NYC cop but he has taken on a role to deal with demonic “perps” as well as the genuine human horrors he sees everyday. Demons are criminals, exorcism is the “spiritual equivalent of an arrest”.

A movie of the same name came out last summer. This BBC piece on why exorcisms are so fascinating notes the same fears appeared in many movies about exorcism – a vulnerable child is involved. This is a strong hook likely exaggerated EVEN MORE in a movie that I doubt bears any resemblance to real life.

Also a strong theme is the need to feel that the world has aspects of good and evil and that the former will triumph over the latter. That simple dichotomy, good vs evil, is what this book is all about. It is stories from one guy who, with the help of others including the crack(pot) demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren [red flag], does “the Work” (of the Lord). Pre-enlightenment diabolic drama set in modern crime-ridden times – that’s what this is.

Sarchie is deeply, DEEPLY steeped in religious belief. His traditional Catholic faith permeates everything. His life revolves around God. He states in the afterword that this book is for people of faith and those paranormal investigators that come across this stuff. It’s not for skeptics who don’t take his belief-based stories at face value. He’s right there. In my opinion, these stories make no sense except in terms of complicated social, economic and psychological problems that are all but impossible to fix in the short term. But the route he takes is to do an exorcism, then pray a lot, (the afflicted should go to church more,) come back for another exorcism and it will probably be OK as long as God is the center of everything.

Possession used to be uncommon, says Sarchie, now these scumbag entities are all over, in our houses and inside our bodies. Why? The occult.

This is such a old, tired, baseless and NAIVE argument. He strongly asserts that Satanists are friggin’ EVERYWHERE you look, trying to recruit kids into their coven. Wearing an occult symbol or reading a grimoire can open you up to demonic forces. The Ouija board is a wicked occult trap and should be outlawed. Non-religious meditation is an invitation to be taken over by evil. There is zero evidence for any of these claims which are based on fear.

The idea that Satanic forces are at work committing crimes is from the Satanic Panic era of the 80s and 90s when cops were taught to recognize work of Satanists. The trouble is, there was no evidence that such organized cults ever existed and carried out these atrocities. But every anomaly was interpreted to be related to this evil cult permeating our wholesome society. Nonsense. All of it.

There have always been occult interests in society (but there hadn’t always been one or more exorcism-themed movies every year to enhance the acceptance). I see Sarchie’s stories as typical anecdotes of people who have a underlying point to make (go to God and to church) and a drive to convince listeners. It’s also not difficult to understand that Sarchie truly does believe he’s encountered supernatural evil many times, even in his own home. That’s his worldview. It is… fantastic. I mean that in the sense of being like fantasy. He states that if you call yourself a Christian, then you must believe the devil is REAL. Really real, not just a metaphor for evil.

All the angels, hierarchies in Heaven, Bible stories, all real.

Satan’s minions? Real.

Poltergeists? Ghosts? Naw, probably demons.

He hates when paranormal investigators fool people into thinking they just have a pesky but harmless noisy ghost. Only a diabolical force can move heavy things. Human ghosts are weak. Parapsychologists and other science-minded people [sneer] are clueless — to “debunk” a devil means that he has succeeded in fooling you that he isn’t real. To deny the devil provides him with power. What a convenient dodge of scientific testing.

In Sarchie’s (or the co-writers) religious self-righteousness, he sometimes claims to know better than the priest. He identifies a serious problem that some priest don’t even believe in the devil. None of this modern Catholicism stuff, only old school tradition applies. However, in a very New Agey twist, Sarchie describes chakras as places of psychic energy in the body. Demons can enter through these.

He uses pieces of the true cross on these spots to annoy the demons into leaving the afflicted. (I couldn’t help but wish for a double blinded study of relics and holy water with controls in an encounter with someone who thinks he is possessed. No science allowed in the realm of the spiritual, though.)

Your aura shows if you are free of sin; he can see its color. A strong aura repels demons. There is no word on where he gets this information from. I’d not heard it before. But I’m wondering how he might explain why atheists don’t seem to get possessed very often…

Other than those outliers, this book is preachy from beginning to end. It contains contradictions and non sequiturs and, frankly, some stuff that is just made up: A woman’s heart disease was brought on by demons in the downstairs apartment! “Still skeptical?” he asks, let me tell you ANOTHER story that is not referenced or documented. This is hardly convincing unless you are already ensconced in the good vs evil belief system.

There is not just one reason or a few quibbles why I find the entire concept of demons, Satan and exorcism un-compelling — there are many and various solid reasons to consider myriad alternative explanations to “demons”, such as illness and psychological conditions. This child-like belief in God and the Devil manifest makes the complicated human life into a comic book, oversimplifying the very natural and difficult trials of modern existence. I feel those who condone exorcisms are more often harming the people they think they are helping. Such unshakeable commitment to a supernatural worldview that has been displaced by natural understanding centuries ago is a tragedy. But, he sure leads a dramatic life, one that I wouldn’t want. I certainly feel sympathy for his victims and even for him to take on other people’s emotional wreckage. I’d love for more support to be made available. However, that recognition does not make demonic possession genuine or justifiable.

The people undergoing the exorcisms in this book are restrained either by cloth ties or by volunteers. Sarchie states the demon must be given “no quarter”, “no mercy”, it must be “forced out”. Here’s where this shit gets dangerous. He briefly mentions the death of Anneliese Michel, as if the devils inside her caused her death instead of the very real torture she endured. He made NO mention of the fact that she was malnourished and dehydrated due to the “rites” of exorcism and her parents and the priest were charged with a crime. I don’t care what deity you subscribe to or not but this is a human being, not a supernatural entity of your imagination. Exorcism is unethical and wrong!

The book ends with DIY prayers. I kid you not.

I don’t recommend this book; I won’t be seeing the movie; I don’t believe in Satan and his associated fiends of Hell. Demons are a creation of the human mind and not “real”.

Or, the devil won with me. You decide. I don’t care. Life goes on, same as yesterday. You damned deluded exorcists — your hatred for the devil and your sanctimonious pomp and exaggeration ruins people’s lives.

Rock and roll and the occult – A Book Review

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Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
by Peter Berbegal (2014)

seasonSaved it from what? I’m not clear. From “sugary teenybopper purgatory”? Meh. I don’t think the “occult” interest was the key aspect. Culture was changing and music reflected this. Pressing our conscious bounds outside the norm is the way of all art and creativity. Perhaps use of occult themes was one convenient path; but it was also widely used for just theatrics and to gain attention.

This book was not as good as I hoped. The subject matter – occult aspects within rock music – is rich with possibilities; every obvious aspect is at least mentioned – Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, the Beatles dabbling in Transcendental Meditation, The Rolling Stones lyrical relationship with Satan, Aleister Crowley’s connections to Jimmy Page (Crowley’s ideas are threaded throughout the book), the hidden meaning in Led Zeppelin albums, the Satanic imagery of heavy metal, alternative spiritual ideas, even Jay Z and the Illuminati symbolism.

But nothing is covered deeply. It’s written in an art-based language instead of what I would have preferred – a historical and sociological framework (surprisingly, since Berbegal is an expert in religion and culture). I just did not enjoy the language he uses. Here’s an example:

“Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipe for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled towards it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was not inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock muscians crafted music that did more than tug at the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them towards transcendence, towards creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.”

Such rumination is fit for the intro and conclusion but not what I wanted to read in the informational body of the text.

I did like the section on David Bowie very much. But several long parts of the book were more about drug use than occult ideas. It seemed to go off on tangents and be missing a strong focus and factual information that I would have preferred. Many music culture fans will find this book pleasing, my personal preference notwithstanding. So, your milage will vary.

Ask a Skeptic: What happens at death?

Reprinted from Huffington Post 9-Aug 2013

What do you think happens when your time runs out [death]? Does it all go black or something else? — R.B.

My short answer is death is the end of consciousness, of existence. I do not believe there is anything beyond — no heaven or hell, no returning of the spirit, no reincarnation. I don’t believe those things because the evidence for those claims is poor. The evidence is strong, however, that our brain is responsible for our “consciousness,” so when the brain is deprived of the means to function, the sense of self is gone as well as our physical functions ceased.

To some people that seems so cold, final, and unsatisfying. It’s none of those things to me. While I don’t place a spiritual meaning on death, I have a humanist view of it. So here is the longer answer.

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Ask a Skeptic: What about ghost TV shows?

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I’ve received the following email and was given permission to share it publicly to answer. Minor edits have been made for clarity.

My 13 year old daughter has me interested in TV shows like Ghost Adventures. I’m starting to have a healthy interest in the paranormal. I have always been a complete skeptic. I would say I still am a skeptic, but so many things are hard for me to explain in the field.

Why are there millions of people with their own paranormal stories – UFOs, ghosts sightings, Bigfoot, animal mutilation? Are all these people crazy, mistaken, have bad eyesight?

In Ghost Adventures, the three main hosts of the show seem believable as they investigate. But what seems so very believable are the witnesses. These are very common people, not actors. Their testimonials are truly believable. Are all these witnesses crazy too? They testify with great belief and conviction. Even professional actors could not be so believable.

Please email me back with your vast insight.

Thanks,
D.E.

Hi D.E.:

Thanks so much for writing to me. It’s flattering that you asked for my opinion on this. You say you are a “skeptic” and by thinking about this topic, you certainly are exhibiting some skeptical traits. But since there were a lot of juicy bits in your comments, let’s unpack them.

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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.

Spontaneous Weirdness: Murder Houses

I come across some interested bits and pieces in my daily travels. I figured I’d start sharing them. You know, learn something new everyday…

In Fortean Times 319: November 2014, Jan Bondeson describes how historic murder houses (in Victorian London) were often left without tenants as they developed a reputation for being haunted. No one would live there. A murder house may go through three phases: notoriety, rehabilitation and oblivion. All valuable houses reach the rehab stage and are reintegrated into the neighborhood while others are forgotten and just demolished. In contrast, notorious houses today may be desirable and fetch good prices. He opines why that might be: less local knowledge of the events especially to real estate purchasers from out-of-town, decline in religious or superstitious sentiment, and one thing he didn’t mention, the rise in paranormal or macabre interest and tourism that may actually prompt people to buy certain stigmatized properties.

Bondeson’s book, Murder Houses of London, chronicles these notorious places of murder.

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Doubt and About: Poking at nonsense with a sharp stick

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

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

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

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America’s most hyped haunts – Book Review

America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places
By Theresa Argie and Eric Olsen (2014)

ammosthauntedThere are books that people will love that others will hate for entirely distinct reasons. This is one of those books.

I categorize America’s Most Haunted as a paranormal true believer’s travel guide to “must see” places that are totally overhyped and banking on any paranormal popularity they can get. The authors count down ten locations that they have researched. There is no introduction to the book so it is not clear how or why they picked these ten, but according to their accounts and those of several contributors familiar with the sites, these are “tried and true” places for paranormal activity.

The book also has no table of contents, index OR references. No references means I can not care less about the stories inside – they are worthless as nonfiction, OK as entertainment. In that respect, the stories succeed because they are entertaining but they are often absurd in what we are asked to accept as true. The book is far more well-written than typical local ghost story collections. However, being well crafted does not make the stories any more reliable.

I have a fundamental problem with “stories”. As a collection of anecdotes, the reader has no way to assess if they are verifiable or accurate to any degree. Yet, people make serious assumptions from stories. No doubt many readers will swallow these outrageous stories of “it happened to me” without a critical thought.
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Two new videos

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

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

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

 

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