Storm and the devil: Book review

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 A new resource for the promotion of critical thinking 

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

The audience for 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. 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,

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

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.

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.

A Paranormal National disaster: Book review

pn nationI had such high hopes for Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot, by Marc E. Fitch (2013). I found it in an academic library, it was hefty, and the topics covered were ripe for exploring: paranormal culture in America, tourism, television, popularity.

Alas, it turned out to be a bloated, credulous, rambling mess. This was a book that screamed for better research, a fact checker, a skeptical approach, and a good editor.

There are certainly many bits of good info in this book. Fitch, from his bio, writes fiction and works in the mental health field. But he clearly does not understand how science works or the value of a skeptical approach. He has obviously extended far beyond his realm of knowledge here. And, unfortunately went on and on about 150 pages too long.

His inspiration for the work, he notes, was Discovery Channel’s show The Haunting. This was a popular “reenactment” style paranormal television show of the kind that grew from 1998 onwards (the other two styles being “documentary style” and “reality-based”). At first, Fitch’s stance on paranormal reality was not revealed. His premise is that there has been renewed public interest in the paranormal at times of massive social change and uses examples such as the Salem witch craze, the rise of Spiritualism, the flap of flying saucers and Satanic Panic as connected to sweeping social change and scientific advances. He suggests all can be seen through the lens of social dissonance in reaction to science development. While he does remark that various factors came into play in these landmark cultural events, it seems that he stresses the importance of science in the equation. Oddly, he remarks that “proving” the paranormal would be “a moral and ethical bomb”. What “paranormal”? Ghosts? Alien visitation? Bigfoot? Religion? He’s lumped it all together in a premise that is not coherent. It’s all downhill from there.

While science gets mild cynical treatment, skeptics are represented as a straw man and outright mocked. First, he gives a pass to the well-known outrageous psychic, Eusapia Palladino. He calls her a “trickster” (and lauds Hansen’s book the Trickster and the Paranormal as one of the “best” books ever written on the paranormal, so he is invested in this concept) who presented a “great challenge to science”. Science is stuck within limits and boundaries of understanding so she did not fit into their framework. Not quite… 

Fitch is not well-versed on the problems of perception (he states that the explanation of Venus as a UFO is “ridiculous”), or how science works to limit subjectivity and the ability to be fooled. Revealingly, he describes science as a matter of faith in the existing paradigm, like a religion. Nope. Wrong.

Once he characterized the “skeptic” as the “lonely nerd” sitting by him or herself at the lunchroom table, “a bit of a downer”, I began to see him arrogant and ignorant, with an agenda. [Ironically, Fitch will no doubt think of me as a downer since I’m not giving praise for this book. You can judge whether that is fair or not.]

Besides the formatting problems that make this book a chore to read at times – it’s highly repetitive with concepts and phrasing reused even in the same paragraph, has extreme amounts of quotes which makes sections feel like a high school term paper, and with rambling philosophical portions interspersed with personal anecdotes – there are two huge flaws with the work that make it unsuitable: it is poorly sourced and obvious mistakes abound.

Poorly sourced

pn america
Get this instead

My first thought, since this book was from 2013, was that it would draw deeply from Bader, et al’s Paranormal America (January, 2011). This source has become a definitive work with regards to modern paranormal belief in the U.S. and was based on sound research and field work. Fitch does not acknowledge it at all. It’s as if he hadn’t known of it and tried to invent his own wheel without proper planning and tools. He does use a Gallop poll from 2011 so he should have known of Paranormal America’s release. This oversight raised a giant question on the soundness of the work. 

In two examples of misplaced trust in sources, first, his questionable conclusions about the War of the Worlds panic tale is taken from It’s been disputed whether there was mass panic over this radio broadcast. I disagree it should have been presented this way.

Second, he cites Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror novel twice in reference to the idea that this famous haunting was related to a Native American burial ground. He states that burial grounds were regarded as sacred by European settlers and cites a blog about Native American paranormal belief as a source explaining that Native Americans are more powerful in their burial and sacred places because they have merged their essence with the land. That is, their soul became one with the land and the land is unhappy when desecrated. Where are the solid references on folklore or archeology? None. He didn’t look past the fictional account. He didn’t go to available primary sources in these fields. From what I’d heard, Hans Holzer was the originator of this concept. He’s not mentioned either.

Huge blunders

On page 15, Fitch names celebrity psychic John Edward as “John Edwards” multiple times. Such a mistake stands out to me as a lack of simple fact-checking. It gets worse.

Fitch states the “earliest paranormal-based nonfiction program was Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” in 1980. This is just plain wrong! It was In Search of… in 1976. Maybe he should have checked my list of Paranormal TV shows. In Search of… was far more influential on a generation than Clarke’s show, giving American kids like me their first taste of the mysterious Loch Ness Monster and the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot. In Search of… is not even mentioned here! That egregious error was bad enough to want me to chuck the book out the window and conclude the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but then… he does something inconceivable. He compares UFO researcher Stanton Friedman to internationally influential scientist and communicator Carl Sagan. I slog through three pages of drivel such as “[Both were] men on a mission to change humanity for the better”, and how both were visionaries, urging us to embrace science. This is unforgivably absurd. I’ve tasted quite enough to know this meal is not worth finishing.

Yet, there was at least one more huge blunder I noticed as I scanned the rest of the text to the end. Fitch says that a surprise red panda fossil in Tennessee was revealed (“notably first reported”) by Cryptomundo “a site dedicated to the research and discovery of mysterious and unknown species”. He expands on this apparently momentous find referencing Huffington Post. (What this has to do with the paranormal, I can’t explain.) I don’t recall this event so I look it up – something the author might have reasonably done. It turns out that Loren Coleman of Cryptomundo was visiting the Tennessee fossil site in 2010 when he heard from the paleontologists that there was an as yet unpublicized find of a red panda skull. However, the animal, Pristinailurus bristoli, was known from the site prior to 2004 when it was named . So, while this 2010 skull was a neat find, it was not a new species discovered nor was it as remarkable as Fitch made it out to be. Lazy, misrepresented stuff like this kills credibility. 

By page 220 (of 368, not including notes and index), I stopped reading carefully, skipping the rehash of several topics which appeared over again and more rambling speculation about the state of today’s paranormal horizon. It was not worth my time. He’d lost me at Stanton Friedman. But you can’t say I didn’t give it a chance. I wanted it to be good. It simply wasn’t. Lesson: Even if the premise for the work is good, you had better be prepared to throughly research it. Or else, it’s a dud.

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.


You were OK until the part on acupuncture: Book review

undercoverPhilThe Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies and Delusions
by M. Philips

I’m just going to do a quick review on this book which started out promising, lost me in the middle, and ended on an up note. You may be able to pull something valuable out of it, as I did, or you may end up soured and give up.

The beginning is a walk through how we are all hostages of our beliefs. This book, states the author, is about the obstacles and hazards we face on the road to an accurate view of the world. When Philips first talks about “skeptics”, this is the first “Hmm…” moment, and I was confused. He does not have the same definition of “skeptic” as I do. He considers them general doubters. I consider skeptics as seekers – after the best evidence. Throughout the book, however, Philips does stress the reliability of evidence and why it’s imperative that it be solid and reliable before we can rely upon conclusions. We have to work pretty hard to overcome our natural tendencies to be mistaken in how we gain our knowledge.

He introduces the concept of “knowledge machines”. I didn’t like this, it felt like an incorrect analogy, too mechanical. It is referenced throughout.

The book does not flow, heading into descriptions of post-modernism (it seems like “skeptics” in his sense are considered po-mo, contrasted with rationalists), taking a diversion into Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of intuition, talking about doctors and base rates of conditions – a worthy discussion but not explained well enough for me to grasp the big picture. There are good portions about memory and perception. Unfortunately, that is marred by a glaring misspelling of the phenomenon of pareidolia as “periodolia”.

There is a great concept the author relates about hearing bad science – it’s like listening to music out of tune. So, this book sounded like a week old garage band as the author describes how acupuncture is a sound treatment, a shame scientists were so slow to accept it. This surprising take goes against the rest of the book’s call for sound evidence! The justification for acceptance of acupuncture is hollow and, for me, just kills credibility. After this point, I really can’t bring myself to be interested in the sections that follow, about behavioralism and economics, which run on too long about subjects that don’t plug in well to the premise of the book.

There are certainly gems within that I wrote down and hope to use again, such as his description of post-modernism as a “litany of epistemic pessimism,” and the ending which declares that debunkers risk a lot – they are heroes.

It really is too bad the entire book was not solid.

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:

Why we have no use for a disembodied intellect – a book review

50 mythsA review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013) by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

I was excited to find the familiar name of Russell Blackford in a book in my local Pennsylvania library. I had to check it out. It turned out to be delightfully enlightening.

The 50 myths about atheism are grouped into themes. “What is atheism?” is addressed at beginning and end. How broad or narrow is the term? Is it absence of belief or denial of all theistic effects in the world? Is it akin to Marxism, Satanism, is it political, or just another religion? That last question, “Is atheism a religion?” requires asking the underlying question “what is a religion?”. This gets complicated.

Using my own life experience, I could attempt to answer some of these but philosophers answer it better. I found this book so useful as a reference to addressing these frequently asked questions, I must purchase it.

I understand why religionists would believe these myths and reject the philosophy of nonbelief. Atheism threatens the values association with religion. Believing such myths, such as “atheism robs life of meaning and purpose,” is a way to reinforce the believer’s own belief. I get it, I just find it untenable. This philosophical treatment highlights the complexity of human social interactions and issues. There may be no one “right” answer.

Popular opinion is rooted in confusion, ignorance, pride, and tradition. Myths reveal people’s fear within themselves. Aiming these value judgements at atheists externalizes these fears to a group. There are endless examples of society doing this with other groups as well.

This book is fair to religion in general. Yet in addressing several myths, the authors take on popular religious apologists. One in particular, Dinesh D’Souza, comes out looking like the self-righteous fathead that he is. Rational discussion reveals how ignorant and wrong their anti-freethought rhetoric is.

The section on why atheism arose contained excellent information. The authors collect thoughts from various references, noting the following factors: rise in alternative philosophy, the growth in secular theories of ethics, the success of science and rise in natural understanding of world, the increase in investigation into Biblical texts, the questioning of tradition, religions conceptions and the subsequent decline in literal belief in doctrines, an emphasis on logic and analytic investigations, the effect of wars and the feeling of abandonment by God, the advent of mass communication and rise of urbanization all mixed together to draw people towards an atheistic outlook.

My particular interest was the role science played in this shift. The last chapter includes the discussion of science versus religion and the dwindling human need to invoke a disembodied intellect as a cause. Humans grasped the fruitfulness of a naturalistic approach of science and a fruitlessness in invoking supernatural hypotheses. This clearly suggests “we live in a world without miraculous agents and powers.” It was not the intent for science to undermine religion, but the process is what it is. Maybe someday that will change, note the authors, but we’ve gone so far down the methodological naturalism path, it’s not realistic to think it will. “We live a world very different from what the world religions once seemed to describe.” Thanks, Science!

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.
Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Are science and religion compatible? The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no”. I once thought Gould’s NOMA was a nice idea. I see how it is not useful now. The authors lucidly unpack the reasoning and the attempts to create a truce or to mesh the two “magisteria,” but as I go on through life, I agree this just will not work. Early work, especially Newton’s, appealed to the actions of a God. Early modern science was accommodating to Christianity, keeping within a narrow range of natural philosophy. Until it didn’t.

This was my favorite take away: If the bible was divinely inspired, why don’t scientific findings that we have made match up with what is written? When the religious doctrines have to be modified or reinterpreted to conform with man’s discoveries, what does that say about the Bible and doctrines being divinely inspired to begin with? Yep, more solid rocks in the foundation for an atheistic view that the authors conclude is the “honest” and “reasonable” worldview to have.

Useful discussions on these issues are not simple. This book makes examining the myths, misconceptions, and arguments about religion and lack of religion coherent and compelling. I strongly recommend it.