Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Skeptic Stigma

For some reason, skeptics are often met with scorn within the paranormal community, even from those who claim they are "science-based".   I remember attending a public ghost hunt a few years ago and the lead investigator announced if there were any skeptics in attendence to "keep their mouths shut" and "not ruin the fun" for everyone else.  Ironically, this person boasted that her team was made up of "serious investigators", using "science" as part of their research.  If this were true, one would think she would welcome an objective opinion because in actual science, this called peer review.  Then several weeks ago, I was on a radio show discussing my views about paranormal investigating.  I mentioned that I call myself a "skeptical believer", meaning while I believe in the possibility of the paranormal, I recognize beliefs aren't facts and approach research as a skeptic. In my opinion, it is more responsible because it decreases the risk of misleading others. One of the emails that came into the show asked me why ghost hunting teams offer their "services" for free, but skeptics seem to always "have an agenda" to sell books and make money.  As I explained on the show, there are flaws with this assumption.

First off, not all ghost hunting and paranormal investigating teams offer their self-proclaimed services free of charge. There are some teams out there who charge even though there is no accredited degree or certification for ghost hunting, nor is there any formal governing body that regulates the field.  Some people tag on labels such as "forensic" or "professional" or "ordained" - as if that magically gives them any more authority than anyone else in the paranormal community -  and use these titles as a justification to charge their clients.  Also, there are those who charge for public ghost hunts.  To be clear, I have no objection if the money goes to the venue, especially if it is a historical site, but some teams pocket the money for their "services".  Besides entertainment, what exactly, are these services?  Many of them also present "evidence" that would never pass muster in any valid scientific research.

Secondly, there are mountains of books for sale written by believers about "true" ghost stories.  There are also many "how-to" books or "case studies" written by ghost hunters from a non-skeptical approach.  Many assert opinions or personal beliefs as facts without any actual evidence to back them up. In my experience visiting various book stores over the past few decades,  as well as attending a few paranormal conventions, these types of books greatly outnumber those written of a skeptical nature.  And according to bookstore owners I've talked to, they tend to sell better.

Third, turn on the TV:  if you have basic cable, you will see several channels featuring paranormal "reality" shows: Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, My Ghost Story, A Haunting, The Haunted, Long Island Medium, Haunted Highway, The Dead Files, and the list goes on.  These all approach the paranormal from, and cater to, a believer's perspective.  In addition, many of these shows mislead viewers by presenting false positives as "proof" of ghosts, manufacturing claims or manipulating historical facts.  How many shows can you list that approach the topic from a truly skeptical approach? I don't mean those that debunk one or two things and then go on to present false positives and misinformation in the very same episode.

Then there are the para-celebs.  Generally, these tend to be people who are famous in the paranormal community because they've been profiled on TV, not for any useful contribution to valid research. Many of them go on and use their relative fame to write and sell books.  Some of them attend paranormal conventions and sell their books for a grossly inflated amount and then charge to sign them.  In many cases that I've seen first hand, some paracelebs also charge their adoring fans - who already paid a pretty penny to get into the convention - another fee just for the privilege of snapping a picture with them.  So far, I haven't seen any skeptics doing that.

Many times when I explain to fellow paranormal enthusiasts that I conduct research from a skeptical approach, I often get a somewhat lukewarm to frigid response.  Most of these people mistakenly confuse the term "skeptic" with the term "cynic".  They fail to realize that skeptics, unlike cynics, don't automatically dismiss claims and evidence.  They either dismiss - or support - them based on scientific methodology, including peer review and independently replicated results, etc.  Even after dismissing a claim, they remain open to the possibility if new evidence supports it.  Another reason is that some of these people are resistant to any information that may challenge their beliefs or "evidence".  To me, this suggests they're more invested in preserving their egos than finding valid answers or acting in the best interest of their clients.  And unfortunately, when I present alternative natural explanations, a lot of people draw the false conclusion that I assume they are stupid, crazy or lying about their experience.  That is untrue.  Think of optical illusions:  we see things that in reality, aren't there.  In certain situations, while trying to process data, our brains create misperceptions.  Does that mean we're unintelligent, insane or dishonest?  Of course not.  But perhaps for some, it's easier to "shoot the messenger" than to accept facts.

Do you see the black dots in the grid?  No, you don't.  It's a common optical illusion.  (Wikipedia)

One anonymous reader of my blog accused me of throwing rocks at investigators when I should instead be throwing them at the main-stream scientists who don't take paranormal claims seriously.  Believe it or not, I used to feel exactly the same way.   Furthermore, I've been guilty of many of the issues I now criticize!  But then, I started to actively participate in paranormal investigations, as well as research facts about common misperceptions and misidentifications.  I learned from people with professional expertise in fields such as photography, audio engineering and psychology.  I have personally observed that many investigators call themselves science-based, but fail to apply any science to their investigating. Since many paranormal investigators present false positives as evidence, fail to use any valid controls or protocols during investigations, and ignore environmental, physiological, and psychological factors that can explain claims, it's no wonder that mainstream science has little interest.

Many paranormal investigators post their evidence, saying they welcome comments.  Unfortunately, some of these people really only want to hear "good catch" and aren't receptive to informed opinions that can disprove it. They become overly defensive and delete such comments and call skeptics names like bullies, trolls, jealous, etc.  To be fair, there are some skeptics who are unable to participate in civil debate, resorting to name calling and personal attacks. A few of them also conveniently hide behind fake names or the anonymity of a web page while trashing teams. But ultimately, the burden is on those who claim that they caught evidence, to prove it.

When presented with links or articles with information that could explain many paranormal claims, some paranormal investigators grouse about why skeptics bother to investigate (or write about) the paranormal if we constantly dismiss claims.  Well for me, it's very simple: no one can authentically declare something paranormal without considering, identifying and ruling out every other possibility first.  Just wanting or believing something to be true doesn't make it so.  I often hear paranormal investigators state that they want to "help" clients or "prove" the paranormal is real.  Presenting false positives, misinformation, and personal beliefs as "evidence" does not help anyone, nor does it prove ghosts exist.  I started out as a true believer, accepting paranormal claims at face value.  I am now, as someone I respect described, a skeptic with latent beliefs.  This shift has occurred mostly by continuing to research information and applying what I learn.  But I'm finding myself being pushed further toward skepticism by the hypocrisy of those who say they want the truth, yet decry those who present it.

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