Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I have never quite understood the skeptical mindset. I have occasionally been skeptical about things, but it takes a lot. If someone came to me telling me that little evil invisible fairy people were controlling the world and contributing to global warming, I would not believe them mainly because the prevailing evidence gives no indication of this at all. In the absence of any supporting information, I give this theory none of my time.
However, if someone told me that they were abducted by a UFO I would first listen closely to their story without bias. Why? Because it has come up over and over and over again. A single incident is a curiosity. Many incidences are a pattern. I would be first interested in how they told their story rather than the contents. One of the benefits that I had in being involved in the New Age stuff for years was to meet quite a few people who were actually mentally unstable. What sets their stories apart from that of mentally stable people is that they are always the stars of their own drama. The more important they are in the story, the less likely the story is to be true.
My uncle on my mother’s side, for instance, is a paranoid schizophrenic. In his story, the army is using a captured alien technology brain control device that it uses to tell him what to do. It keeps him awake at night (actually a medication problem he won’t alter) and forces him to do certain things (which conveniently allows him to avoid changing.) He’s eternally waiting for the army to turn the machine off and award him the rank of colonel.
This story has the classic elements of the tales that mentally unstable people spin.
1. He’s the star of the story. The army has focused its attention on him making him important to them in some way.
2. He’s aware of a secret no one else knows. This makes him a hero of sorts.
3. Powerful forces are working together thwart him. Matters are beyond his control.
4. He’s waiting for someone else to do something. Change is postponed indefinitely.
5. Everything has an explanation. The story cannot be wrong.
Anyone who is relating an incredible tale that they believe to be true with these story elements is almost certainly mentally unstable. The story is a place they’ve gone to because they cannot cope. It’s their defense against a world that they perceive to be causing them pain.
There are other obvious clues as well, the most prominent being that the mentally unstable are always poor listeners and generally lack empathy. They also don’t like their stories questioned too closely.
Stories gain credibility with me when they lack the elements mentioned above. Unanswered questions, facts without explanation, or hedged explanations without certainty mean that the person relating the story is striving for accuracy and is not attempting to persuade. It is an attitude that conveys the meaning: “I know I experienced this, I know it sounds crazy and I don’t expect you to automatically believe me.” The fact that the person is separating the facts from the interpretation makes them credible because this is not a characteristic of mentally unbalanced fantasy. Thus, it is possible to distinguish between a sane person relating an incredible experience and a mentally unstable person spinning a fantasy.
Another indication of a credible story is the presence of vulnerability. Anyone experiencing an event which is far removed from their normal experiences is going to have a strong emotional reaction to it which is almost always fear. When people are relating a true story, they are also re-experiencing it to some extent. Some of the emotions involved with it will return and this will show up as they talk. Normal people will usually admit to having had a strong fear. The mentally unbalanced stories just do not have that component because they’re made up.
I find that skeptical people generally focus on the story and whether it falls within their belief system and ignore the manner in which it was told. They follow the logic that if the story sounds unbelievable to them then the source is automatically not credible. When people use this criteria for examining information, they will greatly limit what information gets through because it first has to get past a belief system to even be considered.
For example, we can gain more from believing the stories of UFO abductees than we can from dismissing them. It works like this: If we begin by believing them, then we will gather the stories together and compare them. If the stories all have the same flavor as those of mentally unbalanced people, then we can begin to draw conclusions about the sanity of the abductees. If most of the stories are told by people who appear credible, but a few go off the deep end, then we can discard just those few. They’ll stand out. If the more credible stories have similar features, then we can learn from them.
We can gather a picture of what those people are experiencing and find out if there is anything about their experiences that might help to gather information that might be more scientific in nature. If, for example, most of the stories have a component to them involving alien psychic ability, then perhaps we can use psychic ability ourselves to establish some sort of contact. Why not? What’s it gonna hurt? The worst that can happen is that all attempts to find some sort of evidence fail. So what? It happens. You don’t know until you try.
We can approach problems in two ways. We can be skeptical at first and then only believe when we are finally overwhelmed with evidence, or we can suspend disbelief until the evidence turns up that we were wrong. As a problem solving approach, the latter is much faster, flexible and easier than the former. The reason is that assuming something is true allows us to form theories about it, which helps us look for evidence in areas we might not have considered. As we fully explore the topic, it is either going to start holding itself up or collapse under the weight of its inconsistencies.
Psychic ability for example, says something very important about physics and psychology. It is a glimpse into the workings of both the mind and the universe. Waiting to even look at it until the mountain of evidence threatens to bury you is no way to approach the subject. For anyone of a scientific mind, this means that by the time the subject enters popular discourse, the skeptical individual is so far behind the curve that they will never catch up.
The idea that you would at first completely doubt an idea, look for ways to dismiss it, marginalize it and try to make it go away because it did not match your present theories is a poor way to progress scientifically. Yet this happens all the time in the scientific world. It’s been commented that the world of theoretical physics progresses by funerals. Skeptics fall into a trap typical of all conservatives. They end up accomplishing exactly the opposite of what they think they are doing. They think that they are helping science, but they are holding it back, they think that they are promoting rational thinking, but they are behaving irrational and they think that they are doing good for people when they are actually doing harm.
Skepticism? Uh, no thanks.