Archive for July 2010
Previously I’ve spoken about people who identify themselves as skeptics being friendly when dealing with people who hold opposing beliefs or ideas. I got a lot of criticism for what I had said, and somebody even went as far as to suggest that what I had said (on the podcast, originally) was part of the ‘don’t be a dick‘ meme that seems to have tumbled out of TAM8.
As far as I see it, that’s not what I’m talking about at all. The original context of my comments about being friendly and polite were with regard to comments that people who listened to the Righteous Indignation podcast were making about the people we had on the show who had ideas or beliefs that were questionable.
In the past I have seen people who listen to the show call our guests “insane” or “a moron” and other such things which, in the long run, aren’t exactly terrible things to call somebody. However, that sort of attitude to people who have opposing opinions can have a knock on effect when other people who hold the same questionable ideas or beliefs as the person we interviewed sees that reaction and the name calling. A shutter goes up and nothing that anyone says to them will make a slight bit of difference, whereas before, suggesting reasons why their ideas/beliefs are flawed might have made them think differently.
It also makes it increasingly difficult to get people with questionable beliefs or theories to agree to come on the podcast. Why would they? If people are just going to call them insane rather than offering up some sort of constructive criticism instead?
As a skeptic, I don’t view skepticism as meaning that I am trying to change what people believe about things that I don’t agree with. That would be preachy and arrogant of me. I feel that as a skeptic, the best way to stand up for logic and reason is to approach the subject in hand (whether it be ghosts, homeopathy, mediumship etc.) in a manner that means the person with the belief doesn’t feel like they are being ridiculed. I feel it’s more beneficial to ensure that they are aware that there are alternative explanations for what they are experiencing or seeing, which could plant a seed of doubt in their mind.
I feel that skepticism is a process that one comes around to in your own time. I know that when I became skeptical of the things I believed regarding ghosts, I didn’t do so because someone had told me I was wrong and my reaction was “yes sir!” – I became more skeptical because somebody suggested I was wrong and why they thought that, and it made me doubt my beliefs. This in turn led me to start researching things and my skepticism developed from there.
Yes, there are times when a more heavy-handed approach is required and there have been times when I have been not-so-polite to people. When it comes to people making dangerous claims like “I can cure cancer” or “there is an evil spirit in your house” I think it’s justifiable to become more stern in the way the situation is handled.
When people are making dangerous claims that can mislead others then it is vital that people who can see the claims for what they are, challenge them without worrying about upsetting the person making the claim.
I don’t dispute that. Call bullshit, bullshit.
However, a lot of the people that skeptics communicate with aren’t necessarily people who are making the claims, they’re just people who have fallen for the claims, who hold a belief that somebody has convinced them is right.
They don’t necessarily deserve ridicule and anger from a skeptic who is frustrated, and they certainly wont change their mind if someone gets in their face to tell them how stupid they are. I mean come on, be realistic here.
I’m not saying that we should tip-toe around people who have different beliefs to us, I am also not saying we should start self-censoring ourselves (as one person suggested I was) I’m just saying that there is a time and place for being stern and brutal in skepticism, and there is a time and place when that sort of behaviour isn’t necessary. People need to realise that, because if we’re rude in our approach all the time, we’re just going to get people’s backs up and give skepticism a terrible name.
It hasn’t exactly got a great reputation as it is, so why damage it even more?
I just read this news story from the US about some teenagers who were caught trespassing in a Hubbard Park in Connecticut which is near the former Undercliff Sanatorium for children.
They were found by police, and the group of “amateur ghost hunters” set off on foot to try and escape the police. Instead, they fell off of a cliff and became trapped at the bottom, seriously injured.
It really annoys me when I hear stories like this, as this sort of behaviour gives “ghost hunters” or paranormal researchers a really bad name.
I know of groups here in the UK who trespass on private land to get their fill of ghostly thrills in the dark and there are two major problems with this sort of selfish and destructive behaviour.
1) It is dangerous.
There are horror stories of people who have gone “ghost hunting” being really hurt. The story I linked to above is a good example, and another would be the girl from Toronto who fell from a roof to her death in 2009, or the girl in Ohio who was shot in 2006 when she trespassed on somebodies land because it was supposed to be haunted.
I honestly do not understand how the need to get scared or spooked in a haunted park or building can be greater than the need to be safe. Is it really worth putting yourself and other people at risk by placing yourself in dangerous position, in locations that you shouldn’t be in the first place?
Not in my opinion.
2) It is unlawful
To enter property that doesn’t belong to you, or that is closed off to the public (derelict buildings, graveyards that have visiting curfews etc.) is classed as trespass to land. The term ‘trespass to land’ refers to the “wrongful interference with one’s possessory rights in property”. While most trespasses to land are intentional, British courts have held liability holds for trespass committed negligently – but if you were to intentionally enter a location to look for ghosts, that’s not tresspass through negligence.
Several locations are aware of the fact that people trespass on their land to “ghost hunt” and it causes bitter relationships between those locations and all paranormal researchers.
I recall my co-founder being told to ‘fuck off!’ when phoning one location to enquire about the apparent haunting because of the trouble that location had experienced with unruly “ghost hunters” in the past.
I will never understand how people who hunt for ghosts and go thrill seeking in haunted places without the owners permission can justify doing so. It isn’t that hard to gain entry to locations with permission, and if a location says no then people should just deal with it.
It isn’t difficult to research paranoral phenomena while staying safe and within the law. You just have to be able to control yourself and know your limits and it’s a shame that so many people don’t.
The more mainstream the paranormal becomes through books, television shows and movies, the more it is readily accepted and believed by people. However, claims to believe in the paranormal are actually quite confusing.
I’ve been researching ghosts and monsters for five years and ufology for less, but in all that time I have heard numerous other people claim to believe in things that actually don’t make sense.
I’m not talking about “ghosts don’t make sense” or “mediums don’t make sense” – I mean the actual words they use to describe what they believe don’t make sense.
“I believe in UFO’s”
This is a great example, because I too believe in UFO’s. Remember, UFO’s are ‘unidentified flying objects’ and they exist. There are numerous things flying through our skies that we cannot initially identify so UFO’s do exist.
The biases, differences of opinion and cherry-picked evidence leaks into the situation when you start trying to decide what the source of the object in the sky is. Is it a plane or helicopter? A Chinese lantern? A satellite? An alien spacecraft?
It’s makes more sense to say “I believe in UFO’s and I think they are [insert cause here]” rather than just “I believe in UFO’s”.
Perhaps it’s through a lack of thinking of what is being said, or perhaps a lack of understanding about what certain terms mean, but some people don’t seem to understand exactly what it is they are saying they believe in.
“I believe in the paranormal”
This is another classic example, and a statement I hear from believers in ghosts a lot. It’s usually used as a way of expressing just how open-minded they are, but all it actually does is show how scarily open-minded they are claiming to be.
What they mean is:
“I call myself a paranormal researcher and I go ghost hunting in haunted buildings and places and I believe in ghosts and therefor I believe in the paranormal that I deal with which is ghosts.”
When you take the literal definition of what the word paranormal means, it becomes quite apparent, quite quickly, that claiming to ‘believe’ in the paranormal is an odd statement to make.
“Beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation”
So, to claim you believe in the paranormal is the same as claiming:
“I believe in an afterlife, animal psi, astrology, aliens, alien abduction, banshees, batmen, bigfoot, black dogs of omen, boggarts, the chupacubra, demons, elves, fairies, gargoyles, ghosts, giants, gnomes, god, gremlins, grims, the Jersey devil, karma, lake monsters (champ, nessie, teggie etc.), ley lines, lizardmen, luck, magic, mediums, mind control, moth man, moon power, NDE’s, occult, OoBE, ouija boards, owlmen, palmistry, pixies, psychics, pooka, psychometry, räelians, reincarnation, rune stones, satan, sprites, spring heeled jack, table tipping, tarot, teggie, trolls, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, yeti and zombies”*
I’m not trying to say that to hold a belief in one of these things is to hold a belief in them all because that isn’t the case. However, when people say “I believe in the paranormal” they aren’t specifying what it is they hold a belief in.Ghosts are not the only paranormal subject out there and it is a shame that people involved in ghost research don’t always realise this.
Or perhaps they really do believe in everything in the second list above, perhaps they are quite right to say “I believe in the paranormal”. However, that raises some serious questions over that individual’s ability to rationally deal with evidence, or a lack of it as may be the case.
When challenged about their claim to ‘believe in the paranormal’ some people will probably respond that we can’t know for sure if all of these creatures and ideas do or do not exist, so they believe in them anyway.
Not only does this show a lack of understanding of how evidence works (burden of proof and not being able to prove a negative etc.) this also calls into question just how open their mind is, I find it scary when people are willing to accept a belief in something regardless of evidence because not only is it naive, it’s also quite dangerous. Isn’t that how cults work, by picking out the naive and filling their heads with ideas that sound plausible?
Sometimes people who believe in the paranormal scare me more than some of the monsters I’ve been asked to research, and that’s saying something.
* there are many more subjects that fall under the term ‘paranormal’ but I got bored of typing.
I would like to think that the people who read my blog already know that I don’t read the Daily Mail, but just in case you didn’t I will let you know now. I do not read the Daily Mail. So when JDMoffatt contacted me on twitter to say that there was a readers letter about paranormal experts that might interest me in the Daily Mail for the 16th July I scrambled around the web desperately searching for some sort of mention or copy of the letter.
Luckily, my plea on twitter for a Daily Mail owner to come forwards didn’t fall on deaf ears as ben_shepherd came to my aid and emailed me a typed up version of the letter in question. He did tell me though that the copy of the Daily Mail in question belonged to his parents, so we shouldn’t be quick to judge him!
The letter from Cheryl Hopkins who lives in St Nicholas, Vale of Glamorgan writes:
It was fabulous to see the aerial view of the new crop circle (Mail). Try making that shape on the ground: it’s impossible!
Last week, a lady came to my meditation group to give a talk on Wiltshire crop circles and turned up with the expert himself, Fred Rusher, who had just arrived in the UK from Arizona to study this year’s phenomenal geometric circles.
Fred has been studying these shapes since they first appeared in modern times (though his research has found that the first crop circle chronicled was in the 1500s).
He showed a video of himself and colleagues demonstrating a possible natural theory as to how these circles form.
Fred sprinkled sand on a flat square board and then played high frequency sounds at it, making the sand whirl around and form various geometrical shapes. The shape changed with the sound frequency.
I challenge any human to imitate the intricacy of crop circles. To do all the detailing that one sees, especially the intricate weaving at ground level, would need an architect and an army of people working in the dark to make one overnight – and not leave a single footprint.
Particularly interesting was that Fred linked everything to God or whatever you call him. He said the messages in the crop circles are from the Divine creator and in this latest crop circle there are three distinct crosses.
There is more to the universe that scientists want us to believe but, fortunately, the truth is coming out.
As Ben pointed out it was likely she was talking about this article in the paper which features crop circles that are very close to where I live. In fact, I’ll be in Warminster tomorrow, and Westbury is only a ten minute or so journey on a train for me. I truly live in crop circle country (but I’m yet to actually see one with my own eyes…)
The thing that made me cringe about Cheryl’s letter was the notion she had that it is impossible to make the shapes on the ground in person. I would dispute that it probably is very easy with a lot of planning. We know that people in Wiltshire create crop circles using string and planks of wood, people have admitted it, people have even been arrested for it in Wiltshire.
I also think though that even if it were impossible for people to make that shape (the 3D cude design) this doesn’t necessarily mean that aliens did it. This is a leap of logic that people make time and time again and it frustrates me to no end.
I can recall being present at Trystan’s talk on ‘Disinformation within UFOlogy’ in Swindon earlier this year where the audience could not get it into their heads that simply because something is a bit weird in the sky doesn’t mean it’s an alien craft.
The Q&A became quite heated with people telling Trystan that “sometimes you have to make a leap of logic to get the truth” which is pure nonsense and doesn’t make sense. It’s desperation to be right in a belief in aliens rather than a desperation to find out the facts and the truth.
The theory that Cheryl speaks of regarding the soundwaves and the sand seems interesting, but I think it’s more plausable that the shapes have just been created by humans.I feel that the theory from Fred Rusher just overcomplicates something that clearly has a logical explanation.
The fact that Fred links everything to the god he chooses to worship sort of makes his theory void in my mind as is suggests he has biases that would have influenced the decisions he made.
It’s an interesting theory if you take out the god bit, but I think that if soundwaves large enough to bend crops into a pretty cube or circle foration did so, there would be other signs too. Not just an eye catching shape in one field, surely? While it might work on a tray of sand, if you think of the scale at which crop circles are made it suddenly seems much more unlikely.
As for messages in crop circles… this has been something that I’ve grown up hearing about because these circles and shaped often make the local news. It’s quite fun to pick out messages from them too – for example, a while ago the Great Jellyfish cropcircle appeared and on Righteous Indignation we were able to take from it that fact that the Jellyfish was warning us of the end of the world (as the Dolphins do in Hitchhikers guide by the late Douglas Adams) and more recently a mathematical looking crop circle was concluded to be an intergalatic takeaway menu by myself, Marsh and Trystan.
It’s interesting how people interpret these crop circles according to their own ideas about the world. I always wonder what people would think, or how they would react if they awoke one morning to discover a field in Devizes had a giant swaztika crop circle in it… would it be the divine creator then? Aliens? or thuggish hooligans out to terrorise people by playing a prank? What would seem more plausible to these people then?
Oh, and as for Cheryl’s last comment in her letter:
There is more to the universe that scientists want us to believe but, fortunately, the truth is coming out.
I don’t think there is anything I can say about this really. I think it speaks for itself.
In June I decided that it might be time to organise a skeptical society for people who live in Bath and the surrounding rural areas. There is a skeptics in the pub in Bristol but, as many people have commented, it’s sometimes hard for people who live on the farther side of Bath to get to Bristol to attend a talk.
I put together a website, email account, twitter account and facebook group for the Bath skeptical society and I began contacting venues in Bath who would be willing for us to hold our first informal social gathering there.
The only place that seemed willing was The Raven which is a lovely little pub that serves incredible looking pies (so lovely do the pies look that we’re actually considering hosting a ‘skeptics & pies’ evening, hehe.)
So yesterday we gathered in The Raven. There were nine of us in total which doesn’t seem like a lot of people but for a first meeting it was more than I had thought would come along.
Wonderfully there was also a real mixture of people attending too which made it even better. There was some great banter about all sorts of things too and a real eagerness to get things off of the ground in Bath and to get the skeptical society known about.
I have a bucket full of ideas that I’m going to put into motion because last night showed me one thing, and that was that I’m not the only one who wants something like this in the Bath area.
Watch this space 😉
In episode 56 of Righteous Indignation I made some comments about the attitude some listeners held towards the guests we’d had on in the past who held beliefs in certain things that didn’t stand up well the skeptical scrutiny.I said:
“I got annoyed that there were some people in the skeptical community that have a bad attitude towards people who have opposing beliefs, and ideas that aren’t scientifcally viable. Rather than debating with them and being polite there is name calling and stuff. It does nothing proactive for the skeptical community whatsoever.”
In response to the discussion on the episode about attitudes we have had some interesting comments left on the Righteous Indignation wesbite. One reads:
There’s no polite way of letting people know that you you think they are fooling themselves– that the thing they think is true is a thing that you think is woo.
Whether someone is rude or not is an opinion. I’m much more interested in what is true.
I love the show; keep up the great work! I like my truth “straight up”.
I wasn’t necessarily talking about the way in which believers and peddlers of bad ideas percieve skepticism because unfortunately that isn’t something that people who identify themselves as skeptics can always control.
However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be polite and structured in the way you approach a debate or a discussion with the people in question.
I also wasn’t talking about sugar coating the truth, I also like my truth straight up, but not in an aggressive smug way. You can be truthful without being rude and pushy. Two great examples of people who work in a respectful and polite way while still getting the reasonal point across would be Michael Shermer from ‘skeptic’ and Richard Saunders of ‘skeptic zone’ and ‘Australian skeptics’.
It’s true that a lot of people who believe in weird claims and ideas will not listen to people who are skeptical of those claims and ideas, it is also true that in a discussion they will sometimes get hot headed, rude and insulting.
What better position is there to be in other than one where you have been consistently polite and nice to them? Who looks the fool then?
Thinking that to be heard, or to get your point across you have to be loud is wrong, you can be heard just by being there and providing the information people need.
Of course, I’m not big headed enough to think I’m only one of few people who understand and know this. I’m not smug enough to start preaching at people because they’re doing it “wrong”, I’m just wanting to get my thoughts across because I have seen people who are rude and aggitated when they communicate with proponents of weird and bad ideas.