Yesterday, paranormal advocates and skeptical paranormal researchers clashed over an old but complex issue. Former television Ghost Hunter, Amy Bruni, posted on Facebook that she wished skeptics would go do something more productive than “constantly bash” what they (paranormalists) do. She thinks the skeptic “cause” is to take on people with harmless beliefs different from their own.
I admit I reacted badly to her call to “take a little look at yourself” – it was inaccurate and poorly worded because she was on the defensive, reacting out of emotion. Then, she did clarify somewhat to tone down the harshness but her view was still off the mark.
There were very many threads of thought that could be spun off this kerfuffle, but I will make just two points as a self-identified practical skeptic who has studied paranormal topics for decades.
First, I have every right to call out any questionable claim that is being presented as fact. I’ve written about this topic before. A few years back, I was on good terms with some paranormally-inclined people until I pointed out problems with their positions. Then I was told to get off my high horse and go back to my cubicle or my “lonely room.” Speaking for myself, but assuming that others like me agree, my intent was not to be mean, I was digging for accuracy. I really want to know, not just believe because it’s comforting or fun. Rarely am I called out on what I say about the science or facts. Instead, “skeptic” is used as a slur and I’m told to shut up or go away. Proponents of fringe ideas are annoyed by skeptical probing: we ask for specifics, question assumptions, and are keenly aware of the lack of good quality evidence for their pet beliefs. Skeptics make believers feel uncomfortable. Well, pushing boundaries into the discomfort zone is how we learn. It can go both ways.
Second, there is no endeavor that should be given a pass from critical thought and commentary, especially those that are at odds with well-established existing knowledge. Skeptics are told that, if we are so keen on advancing science, instead of harassing ghost hunters, Bigfooters and UFO chasers, we should work on curing cancer, developing renewable energy, and cleaning up the environment. Well, many of us DO such work every day – my daily job is in environmental regulation. There is no justification for the “why don’t you go do something more productive” ploy. There will always be the argument for why X is more important than Y. There will always be another X, it’s subjective. Everyone has their own interests or causes they feel passionately about. Knowledge and expertise is personal and we can pursue what we like. The exact same argument applies to paranormalists so it’s not prudent to ever use it.
Finally, there are a few interesting parallels between serious skeptical advocates and serious paranormalists:
- We love these subjects, we want to find out more.
- We want to help people.
- We think our task is important to society, not frivolous.
- We don’t like rude, know-it-all jerks.
- Our values in these areas are an integral part of who we are, how we define ourselves.
There is common ground. We rarely meet upon it.
Skeptics interested in paranormal topics might attempt to be more open to listening and understanding those who have had anomalous experiences. Those who espouse extraordinary claims would do well to up their evidence quality and get a grasp on what skepticism really is and why it’s important. Things might get interesting then. Imagine a situation where we could air our grievances without contempt and have a productive discussion. I’d like to be part of that conversation.
For more on the troubled relationship and communication fails between skeptics and paranormalists, check out my pieces from Sound Sciencey: