Hayley is a Ghost

When skepticism is off target

Posted on: December 3, 2011

a target graphic, similar to that of a guns cross hairs.

*update* Just to clarify, the Burzynski example included below refers to one person on twitter. It was included as an example of an ongoing problem. The tweeter in this case is what prompted me to write this post.

Skeptics are a varied bunch. Some skeptics are assholes and others aren’t. It’s that simple.*

I hate watching some conversations unfold on twitter where people who call themselves skeptics show the clear lack of knowledge they have about how to tackle misinformation and how not to, and make skeptics everywhere look like assholes when, in fact, they’re not.

When the whole Sally Morgan thing unfolded, for example, it became apparent that there was a small group of skeptics who were intent on punishing Sally Morgan through continual postings online and through digging up facts, dirt and personal information as though it would make some sort of difference. They were viscious and obsessed. It was pathetic and scary and borderline dangerous. They were borderline dangerous.

It’s the sort of behaviour that should be discouraged. Yes, people who mislead others (intentionally or not) need to be challenged, but there’s a right way. Yet, it’s not just the people doing the misleading that skeptics on twitter and facebook seem to try to punish. It’s also those who dare be misled. People who supported Morgan, for example, were attacked online and called names – their crime? being misled.

More recently, with the skeptical focus on The Burzynski Clinic that has been taking place, I’ve seen it happening again. Those who are the victims of misleading information being targeted by skeptics.

 Skepticism doesn’t have anything to do with punishing people for being misleading, or for simply being misled by others.

Chances are that many people who are skeptics and seek to punish people for ‘being stupid’ would have called me pathetic and stupid years ago. In fact, some skeptics DID call me stupid, worthless and pathetic when I used to believe in ghosts.

My crime was being misled and confused. Rather than seek out a way to help me and others understand our errors, they just sought to punish us for daring to come to a different conclusion than they did.

Look at me now. I’ve changed, I’ve learnt, I’ve understood. It wasn’t those skeptics that called me stupid or belittled me online that helped that.

Basically, people who are interested in skepticism need to stop targetting those who are the victims of misinformation. It doesn’t help them, it doesn’t help you – the only person it will probably help is the person misleading them in the first place by pushing the victims closer towards them. Not only that, but in certain circumstances, telling someone they’re wrong about a treatment they’re seeking, or a belief system they’re clinging on to can have serious consequences to their health, both psychologically and physcially.

Don’t tell a stranger with cancer that the hope they’re clinging on to is a waste of time. Why would anyone think that’s a good thing to do?!

Don’t target the victims of quacks, target the quacks**.

*it’s not that simple.

**in a non-violent, non-personal manner, of course…


25 Responses to "When skepticism is off target"

In defence of most of the people posting on the #burzynski hashtag I’ve only seen one instance thus far.

yes, it just reminded me of the Morgan thing. I’ve seen people also comment on FB ‘how stupid can you be’. Not majorly bad, but still a negative attitude towards desperate people.

This is an on-going theme in the skeptical community. Anyone with a different opinion is branded ‘not bright enough’ or ‘not educated’ or also swiftly blocked. I often wonder why skeptics don’t engage with people who think differently from themselves instead of A. mocking them or B. Bullying them.

That’s the point I was making though. Most skeptics do, there is a small amount that don’t think about it before writing.

I agree 100% Hayley. I’m either lucky that my Twitter friends don’t engage in this behaviour, or haven’t been paying enough attention to notice it.

I prefer the gentle approach of encouraging believers in questionable or outright disproven treatments to consider that there might be another side to the story. Nobody ever changed their mind because someone called them stupid.


Thankfully, Lucas, it looks like you didn’t hear about it because it involved less than a handful of people.

I haven’t followed these cases in specific detail, but this post raises extremely important points about general principles of practice—especially when engaging with patients and the public about medical matters. There’s a reason that medical ethics comprises an entire scholarly discipline: these issues are complicated, and missteps can literally put people in danger.

Maybe I just choose who I follow on Twitter well, or I flat-out missed it, but I never saw anyone post directly to a clinic patient or their supporters. Mostly folks have been using the hashtag and not even engaging the Burzinski accounts themselves directly.

Good post. Fundamental principle: never blame the victim.

Interestingly, I was one of those suddenly attacked out of the blue by a Twitter account claiming to be a victim I’d been harassing, which is total nonsense. I haven’t mentioned her by name or even linked to her fundraising site, let alone commented directly on or about it.

My first reaction was that this was a troll. I was then assured that this was almost certainly the person she claimed to be.

My blog isn’t exactly high-profile, unless you do a search for Burzynski. I note that this is happening at approximately the same time as the real Burzynski lawyers take over from Stephens and wonder if there hasn’t been some instrumentalising going on. If this is indeed the case, then this is beyond despicable.

If his treatment works, he should publish so that everyone can benefit, noty just those who can pay his swingeing fees. Threats, character-assassination and bullying are not the way.

Who is attacking the patients of the Burzynski Clinic? I’ve only seen people standing up to their bullying by former contractor.

There was one instance, but I only included that as an example.

Thanks Hayley. Great and necessary words, that I fear will be shouted down by those carrying torches and pitchforks.

Good important post Hayley. Thanks so much for this.

In all fairness though, this blog post has a stupid, worthless and pathetic “snow falling” effect distracting me from reading it

Of course Sally Morgan deserves to be punished, as does any so called ‘psychic’ who takes money from the gullible and distraught for this utter nonsense.
I believe it’s called fraud.
For the most part the ‘sceptics’ where politely asking questions and providing information that was entirely reasonable, they refrained from name calling and foul language…unlike the true believers.
The sceptics where culled from her facebook page on the pretext of using bad language (which in the vast majority of cases was untrue) strangely not one ‘believer’ was banned, though many of them swore like dockers.
What did it achieve? more then a few former ‘believers’ re-examined their beliefs in light of certain facts that were brought to there attention, facts they might have otherwise been unaware of…several expressed there gratitude for this.
They were not forced to change their views, they were merely afforded the opportunity to see the other side of the story and reason and good sense did the rest.

I’m fully aware that some skeptics politely asked questions and provided information and changed peoples p.o.v – I’m the founder of Project Barnum.

As for punishing Sally Morgan. No. That isn’t your place. If she is a fraud then it is up to the law and its representatives to punish her accordingly.

I have to ask why skeptics care what adults want to do to themselves. If they want to use homeopathy that’s their problem. They’re adults.

That’s a really uninformed thing to say. Skeptics tend not to care what someone chooses to do. They care when people are misinformed, when people are harmed through that misinformation.

And if they’re informed and still use homeopathy?

If they’re informed and STILL use homeopathy I’d have to ask what they’ve been informed of because if anyone truly knows and importantly understands what homeopathy actually is and still uses it, well I find it concerning and maybe (in some cases) a little dishonest to oneself.

People can do what they want and if they’re informed then fine, but I would be a little concerned for them- how can you be fully informed about what homeopathy is and STILL use it unless you are being dishonest to yourself, or buying into what homeopaths tell you ignoring the actual scientific evidence?

Take Chiropractic. Two years ago i would seriously have considered using it for back problems or similar issues. Now, knowing what it is, what it’s efficacy is and just how far out there Chiropractic is I would never consider it. Same with homeopathy.

I find it difficult understand why someone could be informed of just what homeopathy is and still use it – unless they buy into the misinformaiton and twisted ideas of science that homeopaths push. I don’t think the person is stupid or unintelligent- after all, the people actively involved in homeopathy research aren’t usually stupid or unintelligent but they are wrong. Like with Creationism and Intelligent Design, some of these people are very intelligent. But intelligent people can still be wrong.

It doesn’t make them a bad person, or a stupid person, but they are wrong. And we’ve all been wrong on things before. Hayley will be the first to tell you that her beliefs and some of her actions when younger were wrong. She wasn’t stupid or unintelligent but she was, and freely admits now, wrong. And so was I, so are many skeptics. Being wrong is usually what lead us to where we are now, digging and looking into the beliefs we held so dear.

I understand that skeptics can be seen as overbearing, intimidating and arrogant. We’re not, we’re just deeply concerned that it’s 2011 and a species as intelligent as we are can still be hoodwinked, and in some cases in dangerous ways.

You only need to spend an afternoon on http://www.whatstheharm.net to see for yourself what belief in these things can do. People really do die because of their beliefs.

I have to ask why Electriczara cares what adults want to do to themselves. If they want to use skepticism that’s their problem. They’re adults.


I’ve never suggested they not be skeptics, I have said many lack tact though which apparently several skeptics feel too.

I completely agree and have been trying to make this point in several places so forgive me if you’ve already read the following…

It’s disappointing that people tweeted Burzynski patients out of the blue, in a less than tactful way. To clarify, I personally replied to some quite angry tweets from a patient. There were several of these and I thought it would have been rude and cowardly to ignore them. I also should have made clear to my followers that I don’t blame that patient for being angry at me and that, upsetting though it is, I can handle it. She is entitled to lash out at me. Anyone contacting Burzynski’s patients is not doing so in my name.

I think the overwhelming majority of bloggers and ‘skeptics’ (incidentally, this kind of behaviour discourages me from identifying as one myself) who have commented on the Burzynski scandal have done so with sensitivity (and with a respect for the facts). That some people have been tactless has enabled The Observer to paint us all in a bad light, particularly Andy Lewis and Rhys Morgan (who were named in the Readers’ editor column).

It is another important point that people outside the ‘skeptical’ community see us as some sort of network (as the infamous Red Arrows email demonstrates). It is not just the likes of Marc Stephens who have this impression: the patient who had been angry with me on Friday had also contacted me that morning to point out an error in someone else’s blogpost.

As Keir Liddle has pointed out several times (see 21st Floor posts http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com/?p=3200 and http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com/?p=3184), we should be doing what we can for the patients and make it clear that the issue is not with them.

Maude, this is not a strawman argument. As I quite clearly wrote in the blog post you are COMMENTING ON, this is just one more example of a problem that spreads across all sorts of topics, discussions and campaigns that skeptical activists are involved with.

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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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