Embrace The Unknown
And Seek The Truth - Part 1
A 3-Part Essay Examining Unusual Claims and
Phenomena, and Skeptics' Reactions To Them

By Michael Goodspeed

A common mistake by advocacy journalists or commentators of any kind is to appeal only to those with whom they agree. Preaching to the converted and ignoring the criticisms of one's opponents is not only easy, but mightily tempting, particularly for those born with thin skin and sensitive stomachs. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "All fighting hurts," and this is as true of intellectual battles as it is of physical brawls. But this tendency to plead exclusively to the sensibilities of like-minded folk is a bad habit which ultimately diminishes one's debating skills. If you dislike your intellectual "enemies" and wonder just how the hell they can rationalize their world views, ask yourself, "Have I ever spoken to them directly? Have I asked them what they think? Do I really grasp the genesis of their arguments?"
For five years, I have been deeply involved in the paranormal issue. I have written dozens of internet essays on the topic, I have appeared as a guest on talk shows, and I've served as co-host of a late-night radio show which explored unusual phenomena. In all this time, only on a few occasions have I sought direct communications with people who call themselves "skeptics." I must admit, I never saw much point in pursuing the discussions further, as we seemed to have too few points of possible convergence. If someone tells me that I am comparable to a child who believes in Santa Claus because I think that UFOs MIGHT be real, where can the discussion go from there?
It is not unusual for fans of the paranormal to hit the mute buttons on their TVs when Joe Nickel or The Amazing Randi appear on their screens. A friend of mine once compared the personalities of self-described skeptics to "coffee enemas." Paranormal proponents often use worlds like "cranky" and "close-minded" to describe these folks, and in a recent article, I accused The Amazing Randi of chronic hypocrisy.
(Link: )
But I'm coming to believe more and more that focusing on the personalities of skeptics is counterproductive and a waste of time. The validity of a paradigm ultimately should and cannot be judged by the social etiquette (or lack thereof) of its proponents. What if skeptics turn out to be jerks who just happen to be right about everything?
The purpose of this 3-part essay is to present what may be compelling evidence of unusual phenomena, while posing confrontational questions to self-described skeptics. I'm not undertaking this exercise to try and change anyone's mind or promote my own opinions, although this is advocacy journalism, and I DO have opinions. Rather, I genuinely wish to gain as much insight as possible into the reasoning and logic behind common skeptical arguments. Some skeptics have asked me, "What basis do you have for believing that any of this (the paranormal) is real? Where's the evidence?" It happens that I don't BELIEVE, at least not to the point of conviction, in any "paranormal" or "supernatural" phenomena, but rather that the evidence of these phenomena - some anecdotal, some observational - is compelling enough to warrant further investigations by serious scientists. If you're a skeptic, you might be rolling your eyes and saying, "Are you suggesting we DON'T want to see investigations by serious scientists?" Only you can answer this, and I ask that you read on and examine the handful of cases I will cite as potentially "compelling evidence" of the paranormal.
Before I begin, I think we should briefly examine the true definition of the term "skeptic." According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, a skeptic is: "One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; an inquirer after facts or reasons." If the evidence I cite arouses in you a knee-jerk reaction of disbelief, if you assume a priori that the evidence cannot possibly be valid if it doesn't fit with your personal beliefs, if you think that there MUST be something wrong with the methods of the researchers responsible for the evidence, then I will suggest that you are NOT a genuine skeptic, and instead fall under the oh-so dreaded titles of "cynic" and "debunker,' or more pointedly, "believer."
Many exposes have been written recently on the quality and substance of common skeptical tactics and arguments; see Alfred Lehmberg's CSICOP's Six Points of Shame
(Link: 2004/jan/m18-008.shtml )
and Winston Wu's Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena
(Link: .)
If I cite a skeptical argument or tactic as "common", I will provide a specific instance when a noted skeptic has utilized it.
Let's begin by outlining 3 common "paranormal" and/or "anomalous" phenomena that are a matter of contention among skeptics and their opponents.
1. Psychic phenomena
2. UFOs & Crop Circles
3. Unusual creatures (yeti, sasquatch, "sea monsters", etc.)
Part one of this essay will address:
Psychic Phenomena
The late 90's saw a huge rise in the popularity of alleged psychic mediums in popular media, including best-selling authors and TV personalities John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and James Van Praagh. This issue is especially contentious, as skeptics like James Randi assert that these folks are utilizing a form of "mentalism" called "cold reading."
Randi writes: "The currently-popular 'psychics' like Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, and John Edward, who are getting so much TV space on Montel Williams, Larry King, and other shows, employ a technique known as 'cold reading.'"
James Randi enjoyed a long and successful career as a magician and escape artist, and has knowledge and training in the "art of deception." It is this expertise which apparently has led him to make the assertion that "psychic mediums" are faking it.
Many skeptics have credited Randi with successfully debunking these folks.
From : "
"... Edward has been exposed as a fraud by James Randi..."
Some questions for skeptics, regarding Randi's stance on Edward and others of his ilk:
1.) You say that Randi has "exposed" Edward, even though he has not tested Edward, and even stated on the Larry King show that he does not watch Edward's program. Randi's statement on Edward is an assertion, a statement of fact ("John Edward...employ(s) a technique known as 'cold reading.'"), which does not allow for an alternative explanation. Is it your position that Randi's expertise on cold reading is so great that he need not test a person to know if he or she is actually "psychic?"
It is true that Randi has an open offer to all alleged mediums to be tested by his organization...but do you think it is reasonable to ask "psychics" to subject themselves to tests by people who have already unequivocally condemned them?
2.) Some of you cite the testimony of a former audience member of Edward's TV show as proof of Edward's deception. Michael O' Neill, a former New York City marketing manager, has stated "I was on the John Edward show. He even had a multiple guess 'hit' on me that was featured on the show. However, it was edited so that my answer to another question was edited in after one of his questions. In other words, his question and my answer were deliberately mismatched. Only a fraction of what went on in the studio was actually seen in the final 30 minute show."
(Full story:
O'Neill also accused Edward of using strategically placed microphones to overhear conversations among audience members, presumably so that his producers could jot down all the vital information, then relay the info to Edward before and/or during the show.
Skeptics, do you accept as truth this anecdotal testimony of one person? Is it not your position that uncorrobrated eye witness testimony is consistently unreliable and not to be trusted? Out of all the thousands of people who have participated in Edward's you believe that Michael O'Neill was the only one with sufficient wits and guile to glean what was "really" going on? If Edward is so blatantly cheating, why have we not heard more complaints of a similar vane?
You seem to be asserting unequivocally that Edward is a fraud based on a) Randi's rhetoric about cold reading; and b) the testimony of Michael O'Neill. Is this true?
3.) In 2001, Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor and co-founder of the University of Arizona Human Energy Systems Lab, aroused tremendous controversy when he tested the alleged psychic abilities of five "mediums", including Edward. It was Schwartz's conclusions that the average "hit rate" of the five "mediums" was 83%, with a high score of 93%.
Excerpt from The Arizona Daily Wildcat, story By Sean Maclachlan:
"In the first experiment, each medium spent an hour with a subject in a laboratory, with a screen preventing them from getting visual clues. Under constant video surveillance, each began talking about the subject's deceased relatives.
"The subjects were allowed to respond to specific questions from the medium, but only with a 'yes' or 'no.' At the end of each session, the information gleaned by the mediums was analyzed for its accuracy.
"The transcripts of each session showed that the mediums typically produced more than 80 pieces of information about the deceased, from names and personal idiosyncrasies to the circumstances of their death.
"Mr. Schwartz said that when he analyzed the factual accuracy of the mediums' information, they achieved a success rate of 83%, with a high score of 93%. Similar success was achieved when the experiment was conducted with the second subject, and even when the mediums were not allowed to communicate directly with the subject." (END EXCERPT)
Obviously, Schwartz's findings have come under relentless attacks from skeptics, who say that he did not take the necessary precautions against cold reading and other forms of cheating. Leon Jaroff, the author of a scathing Time Magazing piece on Edward, went so far as to state on Larry King's show: "Gary Schwartz believes in the tooth fairy."
A detailed commentary by Randi on Schwartz can be read at:
and Gary Schwartz's rebuttal can be read at:
My question to the skeptics is, are your problems with Schwartz based more on your pre-conceived notions of what is "possible" and "impossible" than any specific problems you can point to with this study? As Dr. Chris French of Goldsmiths College in London said, "This study has results that are so out of line that one would want to have a very close look at how it was done."
If you contend a priori that Schwartz's results are out of line, if you compare Schwartz, a PhD and a university professor, to a child who believes in the Tooth Fairy, are you not revealing that you have already made up your minds? Remember the definition of skeptic: " "One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; ..."
Other scholars have performed controlled experiments on "psychic" phenomena among animals. Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, is a biologist and author of the book Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999). It is Sheldrake's finding that animals can "anticipate" the arrival of their owners at irregular hours at a rate considerably higher than chance.
From A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Coming Home: Videotaped Experiments and Observations, the Journal of Scientific Exploration 14, 233-255 (2000)
Sheldrake writes: "Abstract: Many dog owners claim that their animals know when a member of the household is about to come home, showing their anticipation by waiting at a door or window. We have investigated such a dog, called Jaytee, in more than 100 videotaped experiments. His owner, Pam Smart (PS) traveled at least 7 km away from home while the place where the dog usually waited for her was filmed continuously. The time-coded videotapes were scored 'blind'. In experiments in which PS returned at randomly-selected times, Jaytee was at the window 4 per cent of the time during the main period of her absence and 55 percent of the time when she was returning (p<0.0001). Jaytee showed a similar pattern of behavior in experiments conducted independently by Wiseman, Smith & Milton (1998). When PS returned at non-routine times of her own choosing, Jaytee also spent very significantly more time at the window when she was on her way home. His anticipatory behaviour usually began shortly before she set off. Jaytee also anticipated PS's return when he was left at PS's sister's house or alone in PS's flat. In control experiments, when PS was not returning, Jaytee did not wait at the window more and more as time went on....We conclude that the dog's anticipation may have depended on a telepathic influence from his owner."
It is worth noting that there are many accounts of pets inexplicably returning to their owners after being lost hunrdreds of miles from home. However, these accounts are difficult to verify, as we must usually rely entirely on the testimony of the pets' owners.
It should also be noted that Sheldrake and Randi have had their own public controversy. Sheldrake gave his account of their encounter via email:
(From )
"The January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine included an article on a possible sixth sense in dogs, which discussed some of my research. In this article Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, 'We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail.' No details were given of these tests.
"I emailed James Randi to ask for details of this JREF research. He did not reply. He ignored a second request for information too.
"I then asked members of the JREF Scientific Advisory Board to help me find out more about this claim. They did indeed help by advising Randi to reply. In an email sent on Februaury 6, 2000 he told me that the tests he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place "years ago" and were "informal". They involved two dogs belonging to a friend of his that he observed over a two-week period. All records had been lost. He wrote: 'I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so.'
"Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with the dog Jaytee, a part of which was shown on television. Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home, but did not do so before she set off. In Dog World, Randi stated: 'Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by.' This is simply not true, and Randi now admits that he has never seen the tape."
Randi has addressed the Sheldrake issue several times on his website.
From :
"My experience with Rupert Sheldrake has all been by e-mail, and my attempts to test his wonders have been refused. In describing his 'dog' tests some years back, I made an error, promptly admitted it, and seemed at that point to have been written off his list as an incompetent, a condition that's remained ever since." Still, James Randi, who has not tested Sheldrake's thesis or canine ESP in general, continues to assert that Sheldrake is a "devout believer" and his experiments should not be trusted. Randi writes: "I've always been puzzled by Rupert Sheldrake. Mind you, all devout believers in paranormal claims puzzle me, but usually those folks are uneducated, or religiously motivated. The physicists who steadfastly believe in dowsing, are even more confusing - and confused - though I'm aware of the strength of the idiomotor effect that can so easily bypass their common sense and judgment. Sheldrake has written such transparently inept accounts of what he chooses to call 'definitive; experiments, that I've a problem deciding whether he knows the experiments are badly done, or actually thinks he's done proper scientific work."
Remember that Randi wrote to Sheldrake, "I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so." What new information has he learned that leads him to apparently continue to belittle Sheldrake's work, and refer to his research as "transparently inept"?
Let's further explore "psychic" phenomena by examining what can best be described as anecdotal evidence. Many people in the general public have reported "psychic experiences," but much of the time, these experiences cannot be independently verified. However, there are some instances of individuals who have seemingly displayed abilities that cannot be accounted for by conventional explanations. For instance, there is the case of Etta Lousie Smith, recently featured on the Court TV television show, Psychic Detectives.
(Link: roadmap.html )
In 1980, Smith reported to the LAPD's Foothill Division police station that she had had a "psychic vision" of the murder of 31-year old Melanie L. Uribe. She allegedly had this vision after hearing about the missing woman on a radio broadcast. Reportedly concerned that police would not believe her, Smith drove to Lopez Canyon Road, above Lake Terrace View, where she and her daughter discovered Uribe's body.
Smith was arrested for Uribe's murder the next morning. Four days later, Smith was released when three men were arrested for kidnapping, torturing, and murdering Uribe. As reported by the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 1987
"The three (men), who have no known connection to Smith, are serving of up to life in prison."
In 1987, Smith sued the city for unlawful arrest, and was awarded $26,184. No connection between Smith and the killers has ever been established.
Police in the case speculated that Smith may have somehow gleaned the location of Uribe's body through neighborhood gossip. Also, an undercover officer in Smith's cell testified that Smith talked of wanting to get a "movie deal" out of her case. Smith testified that she only said her situation seemed strange enough to be a Hollywood movie.
In spite of the inherent skepticism one expects to find in police and other professional investigators, law enforcement has repeatedly utilized "psychics" in criminal investigations. Let's look at the case of Oregon "psychic" Laurie McQuary, and her involvement in a 1986 murder investigation by the Lake Oswego Police Department. In the Sue Kovach book Hidden Files - Law Enforcement's True Case Stories of the Unexplained and Paranormal (Contemporary Books, 1998), lead detective Robert W. Lee wrote of this case: "...I had a missing person's case that became a homicide real quick Alexis Sara Burke had disappeared after having an argument with her husband, John....We interviewed friends and relatives and did lots of exhaustive searches, but I had few solid clues and I sure had a lot of unanswered questions...Laurie told me 30 things about my case: who, what, when, where, how come, who knew about it, a description of the car used to transport the body...Laurie said that John had killed his wife, that he strangled her. She also said a whole circle of people around John and his younger brother, Daniel, knew all about it....John Burke...was charged with murder....It turned out that 28 of the 30 things that Laurie had said during our initial conversation were absolutely right on the money."
More questions for skeptics: Is it your contention that the involvement of psychics at any level of a law enforcement investigation is a waste of time and resources? Why are you apparently so quick to dismiss the testimony of law enforcement officers who insist that "psychics" have helped in investigations? And what about the case of Etta Louise Smith? The only apparent alternative explanation to her claim is that she learned the location of a murder victim through "neighborhood gossip," then immediately contrived a master plan to establish fame and movie deals for herself as a noted psychic. Does this seem reasonable to you?
As I stated at the outset, I do not consider any of the evidence I have cited here to be proof of the paranormal, but if you are not the least bit intrigued by any of this, then I am left to wonder how truly "undecided" and genuinely skeptical you are.
Part Two of this Essay (UFOs and Crop Circles) will be submitted in approximately one to two weeks.
Michael Goodspeed is a 28-year old writer and radio personality who makes his home in Portland, OR.



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