Surfing For Skepticsby
Margaret C. Douma
Do you ever watch those ads for psychic hotlines? You know, where someone says something like "She said I was raised by my grandmother". "And you were raised by your grandmother?" asks the excited interviewer. "Yes!" says our guy. This exchange keeps me asking one question: Why does he need a psychic to tell him he was raised by his grandmother, since he already knows that?
I know what you are going to say. The psychic has to offer apparently privileged information in order to establish trust. It makes the subsequent reading more convincing. My problem is that I know a bit about cold reading - the technique that people who claim to be psychics use to extract information from their clients. Since I know how it can be simulated, I want to see unambiguous proof of psychic activity that can't be duplicated by someone using other means. I want to see evidence that is more than anecdotal. I want to see these claims tested in well designed experiments. I can't just take someone's word for it. I am a skeptic.
I am also skeptical about crop circles, alien abductions, Nostradamus, and psychic surgery. I haven't believed in a six day creation in a very long time. But it is tough to be a skeptic these days. Television is full of UFO and alien abduction stories in which no one seems to ask skeptical questions. Psychic hotlines must be making money or they wouldn't be in business. Book stores still have plenty of copies of the prophecies of Nostradamus, and there seem to be more astrology books than ever. And the Internet! Don't get me started.
What is a skeptic to do? Well, check out these sites; it is not a full and complete list, but most of these pages include links to even more sites. Some of them may include links to both sides of a particular debate (some won't). You may not agree with everything you find there, but the goal here is to start thinking about critical thinking. Why do you believe what you believe?
The InterNet Skeptic's Resource Page asks and answers the question, What is a skeptic? It also has skeptical links, and Quick Jumps to Specific Phenomena.
For another look at specific phenomena try The Skeptic's Dictionary which has entries from abracadabra to zombis.
Another good place to start is the sci.skeptic FAQ. This is the FAQ for the sci.skeptic newsgroup, which you might also want to try if you are so inclined. The FAQ answers questions about skepticism in general, the scientific method, UFO's (including the ever popular crop circles), psychic phenomenon, faith and alternative healing, creation vs. evolution, conspiracies and theories about AIDS.
This FAQ is a page on Bill Latura's Left Hemisphere site. There is a long page of links, broken down by subject, for your convenience. Well worth browsing.
The James Randi Educational Foundation website gives you access to some skeptical links, and James Randi opinion pieces. You can also read about his standing $1 million paranormal challenge. Randi is a magician, escape artist and a real annoyance to charlatans.
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal runs a few articles from its publication, Skeptical Inquirer, but I find its news section to be of particular interest. This past summer there was another flurry of interest in the Shroud of Turin, with claims being made about pollen found on the Shroud. Did you know that the person who took the samples (years ago) was the same man who proclaimed the Hitler Diaries to be authentic? I read the first story in the newspaper, I certainly didn't see the second.
Another skeptical organization is the Skeptics Society. The site includes an index of their publication Skeptic Magazine, and a compendium of skeptical sites.
Do you remember that Alien Autopsy that aired on Fox a few years back? It still crops up now and then, and apparently Fox has now run a show that exposes it as a fake. (I think getting two stories out of the same footage is very clever, don't you?) In case you missed the expose, The Truly Dangerous Co. has a great site. Their Alien Autopsy pages outline in detail why it looks like a fake, and how a competent special effects team can make one. It is lots of fun, but their comparison of the alien autopsy to a real autopsy may not be for everyone (although I can't say that it bothered me much).
If you are concerned about dubious psuedoscientific medical treatments, you'll probably be interested in Quackwatch.
There are more Canadian sites too.
Why do I care about any of this? I think truth matters. I think some people are being taken advantage of. I think some people are endangering their lives. It also worries me when people appear to give up critical thinking; as a society, and as inhabitants of one planet, we face some serious problems. It seems to me that a well-informed public, capable of rational, analytical thought is necessary if we are to solve them.
In the area where I live, road signs abound with the simple message "Bridge deck freezes before road". It amuses me in July, and I also enjoy that hard kernel of fact. That pithy statement summarizes the consequences of some well documented science.
There is one message in particular I'd like to see stressed as often as the
Department of Highways admonishes me to use caution on bridges in cold weather.
How about this:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
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