The Skeptic is the unwanted visitor to the paranormal-themed discussion. Questions are unwelcome; they spoil the fun. “Why do you bother nagging on the ghost hunters, the Bigfoot believers, and the UFOlogists,” they ask, “Why not go do something to stop real harm?”
Should skeptics leave some topics alone? No.
When I researched amateur paranormal investigation groups, I saw participants strive to incorporate science on their own terms. They did not want critique and closed the door on any hint of “skeptical” inquiry. In order to even talk to them, I had to conceal my skeptical persona. I still see that evident to some degree today. Skeptical discussion of these topics gets far less attention than those persons or media that promote the outrageous and mysterious aspects.
It is obvious that many proponents of ideas on the fringe are annoyed by skeptical probing. We ask for specifics. We question assumptions. We aren't bowled over by the evidence. We are pains in the butt messing up their beloved theories.
This post is a continuation of what I wrote in my last entry for Sounds Sciencey:Burning the Mean and Disparaging Skeptic Straw Man. In that post, I explained how I had appeared on a “pro-paranormal” (for lack of a more accurate term) podcast with mostly positive, but overall mixed results. Following that appearance, irritation erupted from a few of the online paranormal writers that skeptics should just stick to certain topics and leave the ghost hunters and Bigfoot enthusiasts alone. For example, this blurb appeared on The Anomalist website (emphasis is mine):
How can one bridge the gap between paranormal researchers of all stripes with skeptics? By hearing out the other side. Tim Binnall has a long interview with skeptic Sharon Hill. The common ground covered here is going after homeopaths and antivaxxers who ultimately hurt people. We question the invective directed towards ghost hunters and company, comparing them to juggalos for instance, whose greatest crime is trespassing in a place regular people don’t care about. The application and advancement of science would be better spent pursuing curing cancer, developing renewable energy, and cleaning the environment than taunting sexagenarians with MUFON as their homepage. Whether you agree or not, this episode is provocative to say the least.
The Anomalist writer seemed to regret phrasing it this way but did not take back the sentiment. I took this as defensiveness. There are several things troubling about this attitude. First, skepticism is not the same as application of science though we use the tools of science. I can't cure cancer. Second, in no way did I intend to give the impression that paranormal investigators are a terrible thing. I happen to like the concept of an overarching body like MUFON, so this characterization does not apply to me as a skeptic. The straw man reappears.
Go Do Something More Important
When I comment on these topics on popular websites, I’ve been regularly told to go back to my cubicle, my high horse, my “lonely room,” wherever they imagine that skeptics go to feel self-satisfied. My opinion is rarely appreciated but I'm not surprised. Hey, skepticism is not the fun club. But the world is not all games and good times. In contrast to those who accuse me of being closed-minded and a “martyr” to the skeptical cause (whatever that means), I gladly put out the question on my personal blog for people to chime in about this topic: Should skeptics limit themselves to certain topics?
Oddly, an oft-repeated theme of discussion in the skeptical community is exactly this—paranormal topics are silly and unimportant, so serious subjects like health claims, religion, and even social justice issues should be in the forefront. One argument against that states that a scope that was too wide would cause “skeptical activism” to lose focus, uniqueness, and purpose.
Here, I'm going to concentrate on the premise that the paranormalists stated: There is little/no harm in paranormal pursuits. Skeptics should go do something “more important.”
Is there specific harm in ghost hunting, paranormal pursuits, and believing in Bigfoot? Harm is hard to pin down. We can't presume what is harm for one person is for another. The real conversation may be instead about risk versus benefit. Is it worth the investment of time, money, and emotion? Does it lead to positive or negative consequences?
A paranormal conference of about 500 attendees happened in Gettysburg, PA in March 2013. I spent three days surrounded by paranormal investigators and enthusiasts. What I found, among many other useful observations, was that these people are serious. For many of the speakers, this is their life.
Any hobby can become an obsession, wreck your finances, and ruin your relationships. That can be said about weekend trips to find Bigfoot or a collection of Beanie Babies that overtakes your home. But paranormal pursuits have special features. Some paranormal investigators or Bigfoot enthusiasts have defined themselves in terms of this pursuit. It becomes an integral part of who they are. They become committed to “proving” something to the world. For some that began paranormal interests as a hobby, it is now the way they interpret everything that happens to them in their lives. The spirits come home with them, they fear their lives will be drastically disrupted, some fear they may be made ill from the evil energy. It's that extreme. In a conference of 500 people, it's not a minority view.
I saw people cry with emotion. I heard people tell stories about being pushed or choked by entities. One woman described how on a ghost hunt the previous night, her daughter and then the two other family members felt a malevolent presence try to suffocate them. Listeners were either fearful or jealous they only heard knocking on their respective ghost hunt. Many seemed to completely accept that this happened exactly in the dramatic way it was related.
Of course, not everyone is this serious. Some do it just for fun. Their pursuit or belief in weird things enhances their joy of life. The trouble is that I can't see a line of demarcation between having fun and being more seriously involved. The problem is with the claims made about cryptids, UFOs, and the paranormal. They claim they are real and are a valid explanation for a phenomenon.
Paranormal people tell me they are skeptical of real snake oil salesmen and support stronger consumer protection. They also dislike the celebrity quacks and fake medical treatments. Why don't us skeptical buttinskis stick to that life-threatening stuff instead? This argument to exclude targets for skepticism does not wash. First, there will always be the argument that X is more harmful than Y. There will always be another X. Is homeopathy more of a problem than acupuncture? Are fake cancer cures worse than homeopathy? What about campaigns against fraudulent psychics? Everyone has their own pet subject that gets on their nerves and makes them passionately angry. As with interests, expertise is specific. We all have our knowledge specialties. There is plenty of room for various topics. For all the positive play on any subject, there ought to be a fair critique to balance it out. If it's out there, it's open for comment.
“Go pick on someone else, we don’t want you here,” they say. Of course you don’t. But, I’m not picking on you personally; I’d attempt to apply this protocol to ANY claim out there. Skeptics don't harass the neighborhood ghost hunters. We argue about the claims ghost hunters make—that they have evidence for paranormal activity, that there is spirit energy in the house, that anomalies in environmental variables are the effects of psychic energy. Scientists work long and hard to obtain their expertise and are subject to community criticism. If you start making claims, especially ones that go against well-established natural laws, you are GOING to get called on it. The portrayal of ghost hunters as “scientific” or having credible knowledge feeds public scientific ignorance. We can’t afford that.
There are paranormal clubs that cater to kids and students. At the paranormal convention, which was quite a family event for all ages, there were dozens of kids that attending the Junior ghost hunt. It can be argued that teaching kids to seek out paranormal activity is encouraging belief-based thinking, contributing to the willful ignorance of the students by teaching them how NOT to be skeptical.
To be clear, I’m not about taking away freedom to believe, to spend your money on whatever you wish (even unproven cancer treatments). Obviously, the paranormal field brings excitement and a feeling of purpose to many who participate. I admit I have some confusion over the goals of paranormal investigators these days.
Fun or Do You Want to Know?
Either you want to understand the phenomena for real or you don't and just play around instead. When does it cross the line from being just fun to serious stuff? Even if you say this is for “entertainment purposes only” some people will confuse it with reality. Psychics and astrologers are advertised for entertainment but people make life decisions based on their advice. Another example is the TV show Finding Bigfoot. Is it entertainment? It is for some. Many people, however, absolutely think it's scientific and real. Even though they know they are watching a TV show, they imitate what is done, and by the exposure alone, it increases the familiarity of the concept that Bigfoot is real. I gleefully poke holes in the Finding Bigfoot nonsense because they are making claims that the creature is out there. If they were portraying this as less than serious, I'd have no issue. Instead, they are making factual claims. I am going to call it out as ridiculous for anyone who wants to listen.
If you want actual answers, then you need a skeptical approach, not the half-baked idea of skepticism that most paranormalists have. (A “skeptic” is anyone who asks questions.) Systematically eliminating the options takes work and objectivity. If you really want to best explain the experience, you need to be open-minded enough to consider that your current interpretation is wrong.
To immerse yourself in the paranormal culture means you run the risk, however small, of becoming detached from reality, obsessed with communicating with the dead or discovering the monster in the woods. Listening to one conference speaker talk about “holy shifts,” she described how the paranormal was her gateway drug to new spirituality. She started out with the scientific outlook and now is more religious. Perhaps this makes her happy and fulfills a need or perhaps this is the wrong path. It's not for me to say. But when she claims that she spoke to a ghost, this is certainly fair game for rational critique.