Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Dear Amy.... Addressing common misconceptions about skeptics.

This blog is a response to a message posted by Amy Bruni on facebook today 16/02/15. The reason I'm writing back to Amy is I think that she has some common misconceptions about skeptics and, in particular, the operations and causes they take up.
For those of you who don't know, Amy is one of the investigators on "Ghost Hunters", one of the more popular examples of the current glut of paranormal TV shows. As such, she's never really registered that much with me. I don't mean this as a slight. I don't bother with paranormal investigation shows, they are nothing but fluff really. The methods they use are laughable and the results obtained, frankly, questionable to say the least.

Here's Amy's post:

Dear Amy,

I am writing to you in response to a widely shared Facebook post you made on 16/02/15. as it seems to repeat some of the many misconceptions and misunderstandings "believers" tend to have about "skeptics". Chiefly the confusion between a "skeptic" and a "cynic". A cynic seeks to dismiss claims out of hand regardless of evidence. This is a position that is almost as illogical as accepting a claim without evidence. A skeptic is simply a person looking for evidence to verify a claim before they accept it. A cynic is close minded. A skeptic, usually, anything but.

Don't confuse the two.

I agree with your proposal of everyone's right to hold a belief, or a set of beliefs. But this is quite different than stating that these beliefs should remain unchallenged! Its also quite different to imply that all beliefs are equally valid. Put simply, beliefs that are ill-formed and based on little to no evidence, should be challenged.

Amy do you really think that its "weird" that skeptics seek out disscussions with believers? I don't. I think that many believers don't come to skeptical meetings because they don't want their beliefs challenged. They aren't secure enough in their beliefs to defend them. Most skeptics would love believers to come to skeptical conferences, most of us love talking about these topics. Most of us like to be challenged!

Why should believers and skeptics remain separate?

For many believers this is a matter of convenience and comfort, they simply don't want to consider opposition to their position. That isn't healthy and its certainly not productive.

That's the opposite of why skeptics such as myself engage with the conversation. I'm comfortable in my approach to the supernatural, so I'm willing to look at the opposing views. Many believers want this too, they are adopting a skeptical outlook as well.  Because scepticism isn't a whole hearted rejection of any and all beliefs. Its adopting the scientific method to analyse claims and beliefs. This isn't a negative thing, nor does it mean that believers immediately have to drop any or all belief. They just have to accept that the evidence isn't there yet. Whether they continue to look or not. That's down to them.

Why would anyone want to limit this growth, which comes through interaction?

Unless they stand to lose something, of course.

You talk about skepticism as a belief system. It isn't, and this is an extremely common misrepresentation. Skepticism is a common position that is held by most of the world's population Amy. For example, when you shop for a used car and you check under the hood, look for rust and check the wheel bearings, you are applying skepticism. You are not accepting the word of the seller verbatim. You are wanting to obverse and test things for yourself. Its sensible. It would be reckless to do otherwise, right?

Now if that seller, refused to allow you to examine that car, If they were filled if righteous indignation and demanded you leave their property, and further more implied that you were some how, less of a person for trying to impart some of what you had learned about the car to other potential buyers... you'd be mighty suspicious of their motivation wouldn't you?

So you can conclude there that skepticism is a process that you've gone through to examine a specific claim. Yet turning that process on claims of the supernatural is somehow distasteful to you it seems. Why should we question the claims of the used car sales man but leave the psychic unchecked?

You then move on to the subject of skeptical activism. I have a quite strong stance on this. Believers should not be opposing skeptical activism, they should be WHOLE HEARTEDLY SUPPORTING IT.

There is absolutely no doubt that there are frauds and charlatans at work in the paranormal field. Even the strongest believer would have to admit that there those in the field who are claiming such skills and abilities falsely for the purpose of extracting money from others. If you are a believer surely you would want these fraudsters exposed?

I've talked about this "sorting of the wheat from the chaff" in the paranormal field for some time, in my opinion its about time that believers started working with skeptics on projects such as Susan Gerbic's excellent two-part Operation Bumblebee and Ice cream Cone, which exposed techniques used by a particular psychic. Surely this is a good thing for believers?

Unless you have a sinking feeling that maybe all psychics are faking their abilities in one way or other, either knowingly or unknowingly. Maybe you feel that when one of the cards is removed the whole house of cards is at risk?

In that case it would prudent to discourage these kind of actions. Polarising believers to see "skeptics" as the enemy somehow. To create and us versus them type mentality. Would this help persuade believers not to scrutinise any claims at all?

As for us skeptics having something better to do: yep there's lots we could all be doing to help the poor and the needy. Your BLATANT appeal to emotion there is duly noted. I for one happen to think that it is DAMN important to encourage others to think critically. And that's all skeptics involved in this kind of action are doing.

We want people to think more critically. We aren't telling anyone what to think. We want to show people how to think more clearly.

And the brilliant thing is, we've all been there. Most skeptics were at some time, believers of some description. Hell, many of us still are.

There was a time when I believed all sorts of nonsense. No one could have discouraged me from having these beliefs, but when I started to read about critical thinking and the importance of evidence and testing and the burden of proof, etc... I started to untangle these things naturally, by myself.

But its not like encouraging critical thinking could save a life is it?

Actually... I'm pretty positive that it could.

Gloria Sam, a child who died of a severe, but treatable skin compliant, in Austarlia 2009 could have perhaps been saved if her parents had been exposed to critical thinking. If they had consulted standard health care instead of relying on homeopathy, I have little doubt she would be alive, and they would not be jailed.

What about the children of a Maryland Mother who murdered them in an "exorcism" attempt last year? Would they still be alive if their mother had been exposed to critical thinking techniques? Would they still be alive if there was less propagation of the idea of demons and possession as fact throughout the media?

One can only speculate. But I'd be willing to bet the the promotion of critical thinking would definitely lessen human suffering as a whole. If you need persuading of the URGENT need for the encouragement of critical thinking visit What's The Harm. There you will find a whole raft of cases were a little critical thinking could have lessened suffering, or saved a child's life.

What's this got to do with exposing of psychics, and the highlighting of faked evidence for ghosts, or something as simple as pointing out that "orbs" aren't the spirits of the dead, but very explainable phenomena?

The connection is that critical thinking has to start somewhere, often it starts small.

Sometimes it takes practice, sometimes it takes the simpler demonstrations to lead to something greater and more worthwhile.

Early on in your post, you use the word "accosting". Again I think this is an appeal to emotion. But I'd like to show you a real "accosting". This is a video of the abuse, skeptic Mark Tilbrook received whilst handing out leaflets outside a Sally Morgan show last year. The perpetrators were Morgan's husband and son. The abuse including numerous homophobic slurs and threats of violence.


 The next time you decide to use such a hyperbolic phrase as "accosting" perhaps you could consider the abuse Tilbrook received and question "Is a skeptic asking for evidence of a claim really on a par with that?"

Tilbrook's crime was simply one of trying to encourage critical thinking. His leaflet (reproduced below) did not attack Morgan or any other physic directly. It was simply designed to encourage critical thinking about psychic's and their methods. Why would this warrant such aggression?

Hopefully reading this may of better informed you on the skeptical approach, and hopefully persuaded you that critical thinking is a desperately needed commodity.

Robert Lea
- Skeptic's Boot.

PS. Wondering what was the cause of Amy's outburst. I've followed this up here.