“There is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out.” Why sceptics are no longer welcome in the paranormal community. - Written by Jessica Nichol
I start this opinion piece with a title that includes a quote from The Amazing Randi (James Randi), a magician, and famous sceptic of all things paranormal, who we sadly lost in 2020. A man, who if alive today would be a formidable foe for many paranormal investigators. I will return to The Amazing Randi and his thoughts and work later in this piece.
Why am I writing this? I am a sceptic, a real sceptic of the paranormal (more of what I mean by this coming up), but at the same time someone with a huge interest in it. How can you be both? Something believers often can’t understand. I love all things unusual, mysterious, and odd, I am drawn to this for many reasons, I think many sceptics are, because there is an opportunity to discover something new. It’s exciting and interesting, and escapism in a world which is so often hard and cruel, but also a world that is difficult for us all to understand sometimes.
I think many believers are drawn to the paranormal for the same reasons, which is why I find it odd we often cannot get along. I have met many believers who are kind and generous and really welcoming, and who are happy to be challenged, but over the years and especially recently there have been increasing incidents where real sceptics are shunned, pushed out and made to feel increasing unwelcome in this so-called community.
I think I should clarify by what I am mean by the term ‘real sceptic.’ So, sceptic means ‘a person who doubts the truth or value of an idea or belief’ Oxford Dictionary or ‘a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual’ Cambridge Dictionary.
What I am meaning by a ‘real sceptic’ is someone that adheres to the definitions above - someone that has a scientific level of evidence gathering and critique and who understands what is good and what is bad data. Someone who has a high and accurate standard of what can be determined as evidence. Someone who does not self-identify as an ‘expert’ in areas they are not but gathers real experts (physicists. Psychologists, Engineers, Audio Technicians, Biologists, Chemists among others) to understand what is going on. Also, someone not afraid to call out fakery (even in the face of abuse).
Why am I going on about this! Well because firstly there are many out there (even more now we have the pandora box of the internet!), who firstly identify as sceptics, when they are simply not. They are believers (which by the way is totally fine to be!), or charlatans, who use the term ‘sceptic’ to give themselves a sense of validity, to make it seem like they are all I have mentioned above, when they are not. Because they say they are sceptics, you cannot question when they say something is real, I mean they are telling you they are sceptical, therefore this evidence must be good (when it is so often incredibly poor (or faked – well more on this as well later)).
Also, and now this really raises my hackles – self identified experts – I mean jeez yes, I know the internet is full of them in this day and age, but those who talk at you like they know about something or a piece of equipment, when they really do not.
The amount of, let’s be honest complete bullshitting, about all things, from a complete misunderstanding of electromagnetic fields, or of audio equipment (to name but a few) - I have seen audio technicians explain clearly and calmly why you get so called anomalies, or ‘EVP’s’, who are just completely ignored (psychology, confirmation bias and audio pareidolia also come in to play here too).
Just staying with equipment for the moment, I think it is not just the misuse or misunderstanding of equipment that is used in the paranormal field, but also using a bunch of equipment which has never actually been tested for its intended use (I am not even going to talk about apps, I mean make a paranormal app, guaranteed cha-ching!).
Why not vigorously test this equipment, know what its limitations are, how often it can give false results, understand what it is recording, or measuring, and how this already fits into physics and science and what is already understood, studied, and recorded in the world – I mean there is a lot I do not understand about physics, especially things like quantum mechanics for example. All of this could allow for some good and interesting paranormal evidence to be recorded and studied.
I have just read back what I have written, and one thing stuck out to me already, I keep using sceptic and believer as these two complete separates, which initially does feel wrong, but there is a good reason for it.
I know there are lots of people out there who are ‘on the fence,’ not sure, have seen/heard somethings they find interesting, but also feel like there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence. I completely acknowledge you, and what you think, but here in this piece I feel I need to have a distinction between sceptic and believer, as it is being used to promote bad data, bad evidence, and fakery. They force feed us bad evidence (or fake it) and tell us to believe it and shut up.
Just staying with equipment for a moment longer, something which is often said to me is,’ individually the equipment results are insignificant, it is when several bits of equipment respond at the same time that is interesting.’ But, again, without understanding what is already studied and understood about the world around us, testing this equipment, and understanding confirmation bias and psychology, it is still means nothing. Sorry, but it does.
Scientific method requires this:
1. Make an observation.
2. Ask a question.
3. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation.
4. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
5. Test the prediction, gather data (experiment/investigation).
6. Analyse date.
7. Draw conclusions (without bias and based on data).
Nearly every paranormal investigation I have ever seen (and taken part in), never follows this – therefore there is often never a ‘scientific paranormal investigation.’ Just stop saying scientific when it is not!
Repetition is also key and leads me into the term debunk or debunker.
To debunk – ‘expose the falseness or hollowness of (an idea or belief)’ Oxford Dictionary. Again, the internet is full of self-proclaimed paranormal debunkers. Let me just back-track there, there are good paranormal debunkers out there – these often don’t get the credit or exposure they deserve, but there are bad debunkers out there too.
It links into using the term sceptic as a way of validity, using the term debunker to give a sense of knowledge or expertise, when there isn’t any, or there is, but they pick and choose who they want to expose.
I’ve witnessed paranormal debunkers ‘expose’ one team while praising another, who from a real sceptic point of view are one of the same!
There are a lot of debunkers who believe in the paranormal, this is ok, but I suppose but there are still issues with it. So, they will debunk or expose ‘fakes’, while acclaiming another team’s evidence is good and un-debunkable (is that even a word?), when the evidence is far from this.
Also, and I often end up yelling at the screen at this, walk in somewhere, and with very little investigation, claim with real so-called integrity, ‘I can categorically say there is nothing untoward going on here, the evidence being captured is real.’ ‘What?’ I will howl at the screen! I would want to see blueprints of a building, explore every, I mean every room, understand who exactly comes and goes every day, do baselines upon baselines to test environmental factors, test for hidden devises, I would want to be there for days, weeks, years! Before exclaiming proudly, yep, this place is legit! It honestly just astounds me the real lack of standard in this aspect.
Wait, am I straying from the title of this piece, ‘Why sceptics are no longer welcome in the paranormal community’? But I think I am trying to give a base for what it really means to be a sceptic or a debunker, so you understand why real sceptics are being ousted.
Fakes. Oh dear, yep, we are here. This is nothing new, it has been around for centuries, but in the age of the world wide web (gives away my age), it is prevalent, and it’s angry.
Now, let’s get this straight, I am not against paranormal entertainment. I know weird right? For me it is like a horror film, I think it has its place in entertainment, I enjoy watching it. What I have a huge issue with, is those that fake and exclaim with the highest most aggressive voice, that they are the real deal. Then attack any who dare speak up (it happens, paranormal bullies are real (and no need for an emf detector to find them!).
Look if you have captured/recorded something unusual, it is completely expected to be called out as fake, perfectly normal in this day and age (it’s everywhere). Now if it is not fake, then prove it! I do not need to prove you are faking, the point of verification and authenticity lies with you, you have the burden of proof. It requires investigation, scientific method, repetition, bringing in actual experts, as if your evidence is real, you would not be afraid to have it scrutinised to the highest degree.
Trust is also important here, humans lie, sometimes with reason, sometimes for money and fame, sometimes because they are so caught up in a belief or lie, they can’t help it. Trust comes with allowing people to scrutinise and criticise you and your evidence, allow it to happen, and trust will form. Shout people down, and you will seem even more untrustworthy.
This comes back to standards, and standards are low in the paranormal field (there are some groups out there that I think do have a higher standard, but again these do not scream and shout over the tops of everyone else, they also often don’t go screaming from locations either, weird that?).
I think the above doesn’t just cover fakery, it covers poor evidence or data as well.
You should be free to call this out, to talk, discuss and argue these points, and you should be able to do this in a respectful and open way. This is exactly what is often not happening anymore, we are supposed to be striving for the same thing, but we’re not, it often feels like sceptics are one side of the ring and believers on the other.
I am by no means saying that all sceptics are kind and respectful, but I have had some bad experiences from the other side, and I do now feel very unwelcome in the paranormal community.
I remember being on one investigation and unfortunately the pub who had initially agreed to close early for us, decided to stay open late instead. I did not see the point of starting while the noise was so bad, but others were keen to make a start elsewhere in the building.
Later (while folks were still enjoying their pints, no last bell yet), a member of the team returned to say they had captured a weird noise, and they were sure it was paranormal. I listened intently several times, and calmly and respectfully said I didn’t think it was anything as you can clearly hear the partygoers in the background, and with that, the noise could literally be anything. I was in the process of suggesting repeating this again when the pub was quiet, and this team member went off at me, they were angry at me, this is not verbatim, but they said something along the lines of ‘nothing is good enough for you!’ I was shocked, I wasn’t mean, I wasn’t mocking, or anything along those lines, I just couldn’t except this as a standard that’s all. Although this happened several years ago, this started my uneasy feeling within this community.
‘Nothing will ever be good enough for you’ is often the response sceptics get, but this is wrong, and so wrong, and an easy out for believers. Everything so far is not good enough, yes, the standard is low, and it is not being raised, raise it, and maybe something will be good enough!
To any believers who are reading this (if any!) - this is not an attack on your beliefs or on you personally. Much like being an atheist, although I do not believe in religion (yet, as a sceptic, I am waiting for the proof), I do think you are free to believe whatever you want (apart from pushing your religious beliefs onto others – in regard to education, health, policy etc. but that’s a whole other article!).
Anyway, I honestly have nothing against believers, I have come across some lovely people, who as I said before were kind, friendly and more than happy to be challenged. That’s the point I suppose, who shouldn’t get angry if people want to challenge your beliefs (especially if you are making money from it!).
Ahh money, the crux of it all maybe. When money is being made, or fame breeds narcissism, the truth is nowhere to the seen! The truth becomes unimportant, and any who question it become a problem.
I think sceptics (real ones, ok I’ll stop), just see so much opportunity wasted, I suppose the story ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ comes to mind, one day one of these investigators will stumble upon something unexplainable, but no expert will take them seriously, and it will be lost.
I will end this back with The Amazing Randi, a real and true debunker, although he preferred the term sceptic or investigator. In his lifetime he challenged many to prove the existence of the paranormal, or of their supernatural powers, he was angered particularly at those that cheated people out of money.
“People who are stealing money from the public, cheating them and misinforming them — that’s the kind of thing that I’ve been fighting all my life,” he said in the 2014 documentary “An Honest Liar,” “Magicians are the most honest people in the world: They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.” New York Times 2020.
His remarkable One Million Doller Paranormal Challenge is still left unclaimed. I think today, someone like Randi needs to bring this back, and show these so-called paranormal experts and investigators up for who they really are.
I will end with two more Randi quotes and a simple ask for kindness and the ability to challenge beliefs without being treated with contempt or anger. Let’s make this really a community, open to all, unafraid of challenge and striving for better. I hope for this, but I think I am out, so good luck to all who stay.
“Yes, I'm a materialist. I'm willing to be shown wrong, but that has not happened — yet. And I admit that the reason I'm unable to accept the claims of psychic, occult, and/or supernatural wonders is because I'm locked into a world-view that demands evidence rather than blind faith, a view that insists upon the replication of all experiments — particularly those that appear to show violations of a rational world — and a view which requires open examination of the methods used to carry out those experiments.”
― James Randi
“I want to be, if I can, as sure of the world--the real world--around me as is possible. Now, you can only attain that to a certain degree, but I want the greatest degree of control. I've never involved myself in narcotics of any kind, I don't smoke, and I don't drink because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality--fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers--and I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That means giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways, but I'm willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world, or as close as I can get to it.”
― James Randi