Hayley is a Ghost

What about the skeptics?

Posted on: April 23, 2011

As a paranormal researcher who uses science and skepticism in her research, I often find myself wedged between people who believe in ghosts, or use pseudo-scientific techniques to research them, and those who identify as skeptics. This is why I’m always keen to speak to skeptical audiences, or more belief-orientated audiences – to show how both viewpoints can gain something from the other.

Something I have noticed though is that ghosts, and all the wonderfully odd things that are associated with them, tend to be things that are discussed and explored at skeptical conferences and events willingly, and although not at all on the same level, paranormal conferences have started to feature more skeptical speakers too.

Though the one thing that I realise I have never seen is some of the educational groups or paranormal research foundations trying to recruit members at skeptical conferences. the Society for Psychichal Research (SPR), The Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), The Ghost Club etc…

Maybe somebody can enlighten me as to why these groups don’t try to actively recruit people who attend skeptical events? Yet, when I attend paranormal events, there are always stands asking people to sign up.

Skeptical people are interested in paranormal research – I know, I’ve seen the applications from such people who want to join BARsoc, and I wonder how many of them would join up to organisations that allowed them to explore paranormal research from an angle they’ve never done so before, if they were just given the chance.

Or is paranormal research really all about beliefs?

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13 Responses to "What about the skeptics?"

You pretty much said what was on my mind at the end of this post – they can’t be arsed to have someone disagreeing with them.

I don’t agree as I know people who are just as skeptical as I am, who are members of these organisations. So it’s not about avoiding criticism.

How many groups will have such people, and what is their real expected behaviour during an investigation? Are they just a token skeptic who is expected to say “I think it’s the central heating” and then shut up?

No, you need to understand the nature of the organisations. They’re not just small groups of people.

It’s not about maintenance of belief and wanting to avoid crticism – as you say, organisations such as the SPR and ASSAP contain a wide range of opinions and generate useful debate – take a look at the SPR Facebook page.

I would say it’s about the sensible use of resources. Given the general attitude of sceptics, some of which can be pretty sneering and closed-minded let’s face it, why spend scarce time and money on something which is unlikely to be cost-effective? The SPR for one isn’t hard to find, so those sceptics who are interested in views which diverge from their own and willing to explore the issues openly can make contact without too much trouble (www.spr.ac.uk).

To be fair, “can be pretty sneering and closed-minded”, could also apply to people who believe in ghosts etc.

I’m sure that happens, Hayley, but the two sides aren’t symmetrical and I see more derision from a certain brand of sceptic (I do use the word ‘some’) than I do from people on the other side of the fence. The SPR welcomes all shades of opinion but I suspect that some sceptics would feel tainted by association. Their loss.

In truth I’ve not ever seen SPR or GC promoting themselves at events – or at least not events that I’ve been to.

Generally ASSAP has only exhibited at events where we’ve been invited or where we know the organisers, so it comes up in conversation.

As you say it’s not really about the mindset of members. Indeed most of our active membership is sceptical. And most of the people we recruit at paranormal conferences are sceptical. Generally the word ‘Scientific’ puts off most people. For the remainder when you disabuse of their notions the folks who think you can tell them the best way to use your K2 meter you mostly end up with sceptical folk.

We also exhibit at academic conferences, which is more of a mixed bag but being academics scepticism is present.

So why don’t we exhibit at sceptical conferences? Part of me thinks that we are more interested in people interested in the paranormal who are sceptical, rather than organised sceptics who are interested in the paranormal.

But that’s probably not a fair comment. We have some organised sceptics involved with ASSAP who add a lot of value. Similarly I’m sure a lot of people who attend sceptical conferences are people interested in the paranormal who happen to be sceptical.

So the real reason? I guess because we’ve not been asked. Or don’t know the people who run it to have that conversation.

It may or may not be worth our while going, but we’ll try anything once! So if anyone knows of any sceptical conferences coming up drop us a line…

I just want to point out that the British and American SPRs have a good track record of recruiting skeptics. They’re not all believers by any stretch. A contemporary example (one among many) is Richard Wiseman, who was a Council member for ten years and published at least two papers (that I’m able to find) in the official journal of the British SPR. The British SPR says, “Membership does not imply acceptance of any particular opinion concerning the nature or reality of the phenomena examined, and the Society holds no corporate views”.

Let’s also highlight a few of the (many) relevant historical facts.

The early British SPR actually *lost* members who believed that the organization was “too skeptical”. From Richard Hodgson to “The Fraud Squad”, the SPR has always had skeptical members. That’s a good thing. It just so happens that some of those skeptics “converted” because of their own experiments (in the case of Hodgson, it took several years of investigation with Leonora Piper under very stringent conditions). But even those who were “believers” (or at least sympathetic) from the start nevertheless displayed admirable caution and were sometimes brutally honest about the degree to which fraud was prevalent. Many of those “believers” also happened to expose hundreds of fraudulent mediums. Edmund Gurney once wrote to William James that “perhaps five percent of cases… prove [to be] worth something”.

Prior to joining the SPR, Alfred Russell Wallace reached out to Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley, and other scientists to form a psychical research organization, but they refused. The point here is that some “skeptics” are so confident that they can’t even be bothered to do serious investigative work. Darwin deserves some credit though; he eventually warmed up to the idea of doing experiments and (at his cousin’s request) he was supposed to investigate D.D. Home. Unfortunately, Home passed away before Darwin could investigate. (By the way, Wallace also went on to criticize the SPR for being too skeptical. For the record, I disagree with Wallace and feel that he was sometimes too gullible)

The founders of the American SPR chose an extremely skeptical person (Simon Newcomb) to be their president. Newcomb did not buy into any of the SPR work and, shortly after becoming president of the ASPR, he wrote an article for Science magazine in which he criticized and dismissed the telepathy work of William Barrett.

As to why they currently don’t reach out *as much* as Alfred Russell Wallace did, I don’t know. Maybe they should.

– Pat

Actually I’m not sure how the SPR got caught up in this, as you were talking about belief-oriented groups, and I think you will agree that the SPR does not fall into that category. I was struck by a post by Gordon Bonnet:

http://skeptophilia.blogspot.com/2011/04/who-you-gonna-call.html

I can’t say I warm to his tone overmuch but I doubt that the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee would disagree with his verdict in this instance. The situation is more complex than the uber-sceptics’ crude polarising sceptic/believer divide.

I was simply naming organisations I could think of based in the UK 🙂

I`m a believer in the phenomena, but believe each case has to be approached on a sceptical basis. A lot of groups & individuals are almost antagonistic towards anyone with a sceptical approach, as i think they consciously or unconsciously see it as an attack on their belief system. I`ve had numerous experiences with the “weird & wunnerful”, & would be just as happy with a logical scientific explanation, as a paranormal one. I`m afraid, though the sceptics no more have all the definitive answers, than “hard core believers”. Personally though i would be a lot happier to see more sceptics involved in groups for a bit more balance, & help keep some folks getting too carried away & over enthused that every piece of “evidence” is paranormal. The more questionable evidence is clearly debunked it devalues the good positive work done by others. Room for us all. Are we not aiming for the same targets – knowledge & truth? I`ll carry on talking to the “deadies” anyway!!

To say you’re a “believer in the phenomena” is quite a vague statment, could you clarify what phenomena you believe? Also, as a skeptical researcher I don’t claim to have “all the definite answers”, however, using a scientific method to analyse reported phenomena brings me (and other skeptical researchers) a lot closer to an answer that those who use belief-driven methods.

I too would be happy for more skeptics to be involved with paranormal research, but not for ‘balance’ as you described it, because that suggests that belief-based methods of research as on the same footing as rational or science based methods – and they certainly are not. I guess you could say all researchers are aiming for “knowledge & truth” but the problem is that the majority do so while letting their already reached conclusions (i.e. their beliefs) influence the knowledge they find. This the truth they discover backs up their beliefs.

I don’t think you understand the position I take on paranormal research at all. Sorry.

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Hayley is a ghost

Hayley Stevens is an advocate for science-based research into seemingly paranormal experiences and occurrences. With a background in the pseudo-scientific research into ghosts, Hayley offers a unique insight into the strange world of ghost hunting through her experience.

She describes herself as 'a ghost hunter who doesn't hunt for ghosts' and this is her personal blog where she writes about ghosts, people, and other interesting things. Read more here.

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