- 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
- (Link: http://www.rense.com/general50/james.html )
- 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: www.virtuallystrange.net/ufo/updates/ 2004/jan/m18-008.shtml
- and Winston Wu's Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments
Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena
- (Link: www.freeinquiry.com/skeptic/resources/articles/wu-debunking-skeptical.htm
- 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",
- 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."
- From http://www.randi.org/library/coldreading/,
- 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
- From http://skepdic.com/vanpraagh.html : "
- "... Edward has been exposed as a fraud by James
- 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
- 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: http://www.skeptic.com/newsworthy13.html).
- 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 show...do 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
- (Link: http://wildcat.arizona.edu/papers/92/152/01_2_m.html)
- "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
- "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
- "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."
- (Source: http://www.valleyskeptic.com/csicop_psychic.html)
- A detailed commentary by Randi on Schwartz can be read
- 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."
- (Source: http://wildcat.arizona.edu/papers/92/152/01_2_m.html)
- 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)
- (link: http://www.sheldrake.org/papers/Animals/dogvideo_abs.html),
- 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
- (From http://www.sheldrake.org/controversies/randi.html
- "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
- "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 http://www.randi.org/jr/011703.html :
- "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: http://www.courttv.com/onair/shows/psychic_detectives/
- 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
- (Republished: http://www.jamesblatt.com/Psychic%20arrested%20articles.htm),
- "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
- 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.
- (Source: http://www.jamesblatt.com/Psychic%20arrested%20articles.htm)
- 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.
- END OF PART ONE
- Michael Goodspeed is a 28-year old writer and radio personality
who makes his home in Portland, OR.