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Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society

"Le doute n'est pas une condition agréable, mais la certitude est absurde."

—Voltaire

JREF Forum Members Opinons

These responses were posted on the James Randi Educational Foundation forums ( http://forums.randi.org ), and were used with permission.

I already posted this story in another thread, and I don't really like talking about it (SO embarrassing), but since it's a good cause, I guess I can dredge up all the skeletons in my closet and have them dance around for me a little bit longer.

AHEM...

I wasn't always skeptical. In fact, growing up, I was the most credulous person you could ever meet. A lot of this can be blamed on the environment I grew up in...I mean, the church I went to tried to exorcise me once, and there were scores of video games and cartoon shows that I couldn't watch because they were nebulously "evil". And so, for the longest time, I thought that was how the world worked. I was never really exposed to skepticism at all. I didn't know that there were people who didn't believe in ghosts, who thoughts UFO's were merely cases of mistaken identities or hoaxes. Most of all, I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that someone could doubt the existence of God.

Then along came high school and, with it, a score of new ideas that I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with, let alone accepting. I still remember my Biology teacher one day coming up in front of the class and announcing "I know there are a lot of people who don't agree with this. And I don't care. This is an important discovery in science, and something you'll all need to know." Not his exact words, but something like that, and afterward he lectured us on the theory of evolution. I didn't appreciate the knowledge at the time, and spent most of the class getting angrier by the minute that someone could be spouting something that was so obviously (or so I thought) false.

Prior to high school, my dad and I were really into the Area 51/Roswell conspiracy theory. We saw that phony alien autopsy thing before it even went out on Fox. I'm sorry to say, I bought it hook, line and sinker.

My dad didn't.

I remember how betrayed I felt. Here he was, arguing with me that the video was obviously fake. Not only that, but it had given him reason to question a good many of the other theories as well, and he had come to the conclusion that most of it, if not all, was absolute bunk. He started reading "Skeptic" magazine, and suggesting I read Carl Sagan's "Demon-Haunted World" to get myself some much-needed perspective. I went ahead and did, but didn't digest any of it; truth be told, I read the first chapter and spent the rest of the time thinking of clever ways to insult the guy.

But I can blame the environment, and I can blame my episodes of sleep paralysis (I didn't even know anything about this condition until a few years ago, so you can imagine my terror of it growing up), but if I'm going to be completely honest, most of it's my own fault. It's hard to question your own beliefs. And it's scary. I didn't want to face up to the fact that I was deluding myself, so I just ignored the part of me that was asking uncomfortable questions. What proof is there of God? Reincarnation? Atlantis? Do crystals really heal people and, if so, why aren't they in hospitals? How come nobody has any proof of ghosts yet?

Never mind any of that. Easier to ignore it.

Then, one night, after staying up late with a friend, scaring ourselves silly over ever bump in the house that we attributed to "ghosts", we got a terrible shock. Right outside, in our backyard, someone was thumping heavily against the wall. Just pounding on it! And it was late at night! Who could be doing that?

Partly terrified, but mostly giddy with excitement that I was experiencing something honestly supernatural, that finally here was the proof I needed to validate all my beliefs, I ran outside and started shouting at the night. It was there, screaming, that my parents found me.

I must have looked like an idiot. The look of pure shame on my dad's face was painful; he was completely let-down. To my right, the two rabbits we kept in the hutch against the wall were terrified; the same rabbits that freaked out every night, that bounced around and shook their hutch every night, that produced the same banging sounds again and again every night...I suppose, in my heightened state, I had completely forgotten it.

It was right then, exactly, that I realized what I had been doing. IU'd been lying to myself. This whole time, everything I'd believed...deep down, I'd known it wasn't true. But I didn't want to think about it. That little voice, that I'd been ignoring for so long, finally spoke up, only to say "See, I told you so."

Since then, I've been listening to that voice, diligently. If someone wants me to believe in their latest crackpot theory, that ghosts exist or that UFO's visit us, fine. Show me proof. If they can't do at least that, then they shouldn't waste my time. I spent far too many of my formative years swallowing every piece of half-baked swill someone served me, and I won't do it again.

-- Nihilanth

 

As far back as I can remember, I've always been fascinted by new and potentially exciting things. My naiive interest in what I thought at the time was "on the edge of knowlege" led me to explore science things as well as the parnormal and UFOs and all other things that seemed mysterious. The unknown drew me like a moth to a flame. I read all the magazines on psychic phenomena, UFO sightings, and strange and wierd things. I think it was the "discoverer" instinct in me to go where none of my friends ever thought to go. But slowly and surely, I began to want confirmation in the form of something I could check into myself and this lead to more critical thinking. But I still hung on to those things that I thought mainstream science just hadn't caught up with and I even embraced Scientology until I was in my late teens. And all the testimonials I'd heard and read about seemed to be overwhelming "proof" that "Something" was out there that still mystified even the best science. I'd even had my own Astral Projection experience by the time I was 13 and I truly believed that I could leave my physical body from time to time.

But finally, what really led me to skepticism and agnosticism and then atheism was the fact that my prayers every night were not being answered and neither were my questions that I'd had since Sunday School as an 8-year-old. My early family life was emotionally quite disturbing and ultimately the only way I could get through each day was to think it out for myself. I slowly found that it gets a little easier once you understand. I spent inordinate amounts of time pondering situations and trying to figure out the logic of things because I couldn't deal with my life on an emotional level anymore. Logic and reason got me through, not religion. And thus my questioning was borne of need to understand without just taking anybody's word for things anymore.

I finally found that I could think as well as some of the professed "experts" out there and some of what they said didn't make sense. So I'd do the research myself to confirm or reject what they said. Lo and behold, I discovered that even the great experts/authorities could be wrong from time to time. My "light bulb" went on and off for a number of years while I vacillated back and forth between skepticism and Woo, religion and atheism, science and the paranormal, etc. But in the end, I need proof now, not just someone's say so.

Publish me. If you wish to. I have a clear conscience now, how ever things turn out, because I have sincerely tried to understand by thinking things through myself.

What I learned at home during quality time with my family was science, history, nature, critical thinking skills and learning for fun.

I grew up believing that there was a god (or something) and I also thought "there might be something to" all sorts of things such as ghosts, alien visitation, ESP, the Loch Ness Monster; but I never took it all that seriously and whenever I looked into them, they didn't seem plausible. I think part of the reason was that when I asked, "Dad, why is there thunder and lightning?" I would get a lesson in electricity, enegry, heat masses interacting with cold masses, etc. and that was at 5 or 6 years old. So as I grew up I was suspect of vague answers like "and nobody knows why..." or "you just have to have faith".

For the record, I am perfectly comfortable with uncertainty, I just know not to mistake it for "truth". Something that is not known isn't scary to me, it's just something else I'll get to find out about some day if I'm lucky.

-- Mumchup

 

When I was a teenager I used to love stories about UFOs and ghosts and all that stuff. It was fun to believe in The Loch Ness monster and other so-called unexplained mysteries. This was in the late Seventies. Close Encounters had just been released and UFOs were everywhere, Bigfoot was soon to be discovered and Von Daniken was on the TV regularly.

I read a few books about these things and started to get a little annoyed by the fact that even I as a fifteen year old could see gaping flaws in almost every piece of "evidence" that these books presented.

Later I saw a TV show called "Cosmos". Now here was something real.

I read the book. Then I read other Sagan books. I found that the same thrill I had gotten from UFOs could be obtained by grasping concepts like Black Holes and weird Relativity Time Dilation and the like.

So OK I thought, maybe UFOs aren't aliens visiting Earth to poke people's bottoms after all.

When I went to university I was exposed to all the bits of the bible that they don't teach in Sunday school and was reminded of those unexplained mystery books again. So it wasn't long before I completely rejected that particular pile of woo. Along with the bible went ghosts and demons and witches and all that medieval claptrap.

So when people started telling me about homeopathy and healing crystals and whatever new age thing it was that month, I just smiled and said, "no thanks, not interested."

And that's where I am today. Constantly amazed at the ability of seemingly rational people to hold the most irrational beliefs.

But what about Bigfoot?

I still don't know about him...

-- Brainache

 

As youngster, I went to CCD and Catholic church. I asked a lot of questions. One day, our regular priest was sick, and an elderly replacement came in and used the microphone. I'd never heard sound coming out of the PA before, so I figured.. AHA! This is God! He finally showed up!

Well, I was quickly disabused of this notion. So I wondered, well, where is he? I postulated all sorts of ideas while watching Davey and Goliath early Sunday mornings..

At one point I concluded that God was simply a puppet master. And then, when I was sick, someone accidentally told me there was no Santa Claus. And it all fell into place. Adults will lie in order to make kids believe in things that are fun, but aren't true. No Easter Bunny, no Great Pumpkin.. and no God.

In college, I was briefly swayed by evangelicals and gave generic christianity a try. An honest, full-hearted try. At Bible study one day, I propsoed that we should love Satan, as he is our enemy. This idea was received with much hostility and horror. And more questions from me..

And then I realized, if there was a God, it would be so blatantly obvious that I wouldn't have any doubt.

Now, as for other stuff.. I've dabbled with runes, tarot, and even witchcraft. Once, I composed a spell and carried it out.. and the next day the snow I had asked for came. In great amounts.

It was fun to believe that I had such power, and I worked hard to cultivate that belief. But truthfully, it was just a compensation for a lonely childhood.

Now, as I approach 40, things are clearer and I only want to believe in things that are real.

-- Jeff Wagg, JREF

 

I stopped believing in things paranormal when I studied their track record and compared it to the record of those things non-paranormal.

I grew up believing in many paranormal things, including that I possessed at least some minor abilities relating to “raising ghosts.” I also grew up in a moderately religious household, and while I did not go overboard in my outward practices of religion, I did feel strongly about my beliefs and secure in my eternal fate. It was this strength of belief which eventually doomed it.

I began to actually read the stories I was told, and studied the dogma I was presented. I found that I liked none of it. Before finding inconsistencies, I found that, if the stories were true as written, then the god they described was a right bastard and deserved no worship. I kept this feeling to myself for the longest time.

Not long after that, as an amateur magician, I began to realize how desperately easy it was to fool someone, and how some of them would not accept my explanation that “it’s a trick,” opting instead to ascribe supernatural powers to me. This led to a curiosity-driven search about other things that might fool people, which led to the enjoyment of finding things out.

Finding things out inevitably caused my previously held beliefs to crumble like a series of sand castles falling beneath the advancing tide. ESP? Questionable evidence at best. Aliens? No evidence at all, really. Reincarnation? Wishful thinking. The powers of the Yaqi shaman? A concoction of the author’s. Mystical energy harnessed by the ninja? Myth. Polygraphs? Worse than zero value.

And, finally, my last bastion, my anchor—religion. That belief fought hardest. It wasn’t a violent letting go, no upheaval of my worldview. It was more a quiet melancholy as if taking my beloved dog to the vet to be put to sleep. I didn’t want to do it, and I shed some quiet tears, and occasionally I look back nostalgically at the comfort he brought me, but mostly I remember thinking “It’s time. You’ve served your purpose, but now you need to go for the good of us both.”

Since then, I have found no reason for regret. My life is fuller, my capacity for simple enjoyment much larger, and my tolerance much greater. But perhaps I would have these things even if I had retained my belief. It’s possible I’m attributing cause when there is only correlation. I’d like to know. And that is what I find most valuable about non-belief: I would never have even considered that possibility before.

-- Garrette

 

When growing up my Mom and Dad divorced when I was about 5 or 6. My Mom was Catholic and my Dad later married a Pentacostal (he became Pentacostal also). I went to Catholic grade school and went to Pentacostal church every other Sunday and was very concerned about going to hell (oh what joy religion brings youngsters).

As for non religous things I think I was actually pretty sceptical. I did enjoy hearing about the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and ET's but don't recall ever being convinced that these things existed. I remember reading a book about alien abductions (I believe it was called "Contact" not Sagan's book either) in High School and it had "A True Story" on the cover. Well while reading it I kept thinking "How is this a true story? All they ever do is go through story after story about personal accounts of alien abductions. There's no evidence to back any of this stuff up."

Getting back to religion. In college I was active in church and finally went to class to get confirmed as a Catholic. I joined the Newman Club which is a Catholic young adult Club and went to church sometimes 2 or 3 times a week. I also went to retreats and did other stuff. While overseas I got into a discussion with a an atheist and he said something like "Why do you think there's a God?" I know it sounds strange but I think that was all that it took for me. I'd never really doubted that God existed because everyone that I'd been around always told me he did. I remember being very scared for a long time because, although hell scared me, the thought of eternal nothingness scared me even more. I think for a number of years I struggled with this. I kept going to church through college and was even President of the Newman Club my Senior year. I think I just needed to mature a little bit to accept what I'd known a long time.

-- aargh57

 

I've always been curious about how things work. When I was in grade school I read every book I could find on science and technology and astronomy and any other scientific topic you can think of. I never wasted one minute of my life on fiction unless it was assigned. To this day I don't read fiction, ever.

The result of all this reading was that I didn't NEED a God to fill in my understanding of how the world came to be, how it worked, and what was eventually going to happen to it. I had science to tell me all that. As time has gone on and science has progressed, I've had to discard many of the things I thought to be true growing up. But it wasn't because I smartened up, personally; it was because we smartened up as a species and learned more about the universe.

Although, with a nod to my friend Brainache, I'm still open-minded about Bigfoot.

-- jhunter1163

 

Believe it or not, I was a true believer in the paranormal from the time I was a child until my late 30’s. I loved ghost stories as a child. I grew up watching Dark Shadows, The Sixth Sense, and Night Gallery. As I matured, my interest in the paranormal grew exponentially. I read every book on the subject I could find. I spent a portion of my allowance every month buying Fate magazine, UFO books, and several of the short-lived mags of the 1970’s. I even had my own deck of Zenner cards.

As I got older and went to college, I still believed there had to be something to all these claims. To validate my beliefs, I started researching many popular ghost stories, visiting haunted sites, and interviewing people who had experienced odd occurrences. Even though I went into this with the proverbial “open mind” and a strong will to believe, questions began to arise. I found that many of the stories, were just that, stories. They fell apart under scrutiny. Conflicting anecdotes abounded, stories grew much larger over long periods of time. Occurrences reoccurred and could be explained as something mundane viewed under faulty perception. Some were hoaxes and pranks. And so it went - disappointment after disappointment.

I no longer think the paranormal exists. I now look at it more from a psychological and sociological point of view. Current ghost and UFO stories are folklore in the making. Believing in ghosts, spirits or invading bedroom aliens is a psychological defense mechanism used by people at odds with the stresses of life. I’ve found the world around us to be far more interesting and rewarding than chasing spirits or space aliens.

-- The Vampire

 

I was raised in a church going family (mother & father both very active in church activities, in a Protestant church ... Dad was an elder & church treasurer, Mom taught Bible study) but was always taught the value of thinking for myself. Mom & Dad encouraged all four kids to participate in nightly after dinner discussions on any topic (often was something scientific, but very wide ranging), sometimes lasting hours, which almost nightly resulted in consulting some reference book or another.

By high school age, I was seriously doubting religion, and was a complete skeptic by the time I started college.

Since non-existence of things is generally impossible to prove, I neither believe nor dis-believe in most paranormal or religious claims; but have found that living my life as though the claims are all false works out just fine. But I'm open to new evidence.

It's always bothered me a bit that many skeptics believe in the non-existence of various things ... when that non-existence is often not testable and without evidence.

-- Stir

 

I used to have all kinds of beliefs but questioned everything anyone said to me. My questioning mind did not keep me from harboring woo beliefs as I lacked data. I believed in ghosts/Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy and various other superstitions common to kids. I did debunk Santa and the tooth fairy through experiments I designed. At one point I thought I had debunked God but decided at a later date that the experiment was not good enough for that. I thought I had something like ESP due to what seemed an ability to read minds in a few incidents. As I thought about the incidents I realized there were other explanations which did not require supernatural unknown forces. I used to believe in natural/herbal philosophies and thought the reasons behind their lack of acceptance were big companies and the government covering up their usefulness. I lived on a commune for a while and found that people believed and did various natural treatments for stupid reasons. Reasons like it was not the standard well accepted treatment and it was published in a book by someone who had the title Dr. yet who I found without much trouble was not even a doctor of any variety. They would switch between various treatments du jour because the other ones "work better". I began to realize the necessity for science even though I already thought science was by far the best method to study the world. I was still uncomfortable with uncertainty but those experiences led to me accepting it.

-- DogDoctor

 

Well, I started in a "loose" catholic household. I was always taught that most of the Bible was history, and that Christ's teachings were the most important part. There was no sharp turning point where I became an atheist. It was a gradual journey, over the course of which I just slowly realized that the idea of a God was just a comforting myth. I was a full atheist in my mid 20s.

Certain ideas stand out along the way:

* The Greeks believed in their gods as much as Christians do... how do Christians know that it's not the same thing?

* The amount of things attributed to God have slowly decreased. If you make a plot of time on the horizontal axis and God's level of involvment on the vertical axis, it's rather clear that he's either not there, or doesn't actually do anything. I'm aware that this is an inductive argument.

-- Almo

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