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Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society

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


SAPS at Dragon*Con 2008


This year, SAPS returned to Dragon*Con for even more fun, with even better presentations, with an unbelievable amount of excitement, and our souls (or not, depending upon who you ask) prepped for an excellent time.

Then the airline immediately lost my luggage, and I shook my head to myself and wondered if my total lack of clean underwear and toothbrush was an indication of the kind of time I was going to have. Of course, my main presentation regarding SAPS (On the Trail of Ghosts: SAPS Investigates) was scheduled for that night. With no presentation materials, I had to cancel.

Luckily, the wonderful and ever-ready Ben Radford traded his slot with me, leading me to both worship him and (obviously) pimp his site through mine. Go Ben!

I spent the first night in my hotel room mourning the loss of my luggage until finally the airline discovered my suitcase hiding in a dark corner, laughing maniacally to itself.

Being the kind of lecturer I am (you know, smart, funny, all-around awesome) I immediately threw on my Alison Wonderland costume and went out to the Marriot, where I had an interesting time, as you can tell.

Yes, that’s Grant Wilson of TAPS. For those of you who thought we had some kind of kill-on-sight strategy in place, well, haha on you. I can be civil. Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t argue a little.

But really, I had a very nice chat with him. He seems a decent person. I say this knowing full well that in the future (and I mean like a week in the future, for those who want more controversy) I’ll be writing about ghost hunting equipment yet again.

One of the things I noticed about Dragon*Con was how divisive of a force skepticism can be. I mean, I chatted with lots of people with lots of different belief systems, but it seemed that many of them were a little careful with me. Like at any moment I might blog them straight into the skeptical pits of hell.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We’re still on that first night in the Marriot, where I spent another lovely portion of the evening with Dr. Michael Shermer of the Skeptic’s Society, photography whiz and longtime friend of the JREF Scott Hurst, and Jeff Wagg, General Manager of the JREF and SAPS Member.

It was a blast. Truly.

Of course, Dragon*Con is not all fun and games.

The very next day, it was off to the 2nd Annual Skeptics vs. Believers Debate which featured myself, Dr. Steven Novella, Ben Radford, and Dr. Michael Shermer (for the skeptics) vs. Haunting Evidence star and founder of Ghost Hounds Patrick Burns, ex-director of the Rhine Institute Graham Watkins, Father Bryan Small, and sci-fi author John L. Flynn (for the believers).

The debate started off with an apology from Graham Watkins. As some of you might remember from the first Skeptics vs. Believers debate, the session ended with Mr. Watkins yelling “James Randi is a fraud!” at the top of his voice. I suppose that, looking back on it, he realized that saying such a thing was a mistake.

He did still, however, say that the Million Dollar Challenge is a sham. Muahahaha.

Of course, maybe Mr. Watkins didn’t look back. Maybe he looked forward… and saw James Randi sitting in the front row.


Once again, though, during this debate, I noticed how divisive the paranormal can be. It isn’t “Skeptics and Believers Talk it Out.” For instance, as I said, Patrick Burns was on the panel as well. And I like Patrick. He’s a sometimes-friend, occasional consultant for SAPS. And yet I found myself screaming into the microphone at him, “AREN’T YOU DOING A DISSERVICE TO THE PARANORMAL?”

And the realization that we are all divided is what led me, before Dragon*Con even began, to invite Patrick behind the skeptical curtain, so to speak.

The next event I took part in at Dragon*Con was the Million Dollar Challenge demonstration. For the demonstration, I wrote a simple dowsing protocol and with the help of Tim Farley collected all the materials required for a test. (As an aside, Tim is also the one who purchased the red wagon on my behalf in Atlanta so that the SAPS ECTO-V could ride again. Awesome.)

Jeff Wagg hosted the proceedings, and even though we had never done a practice run of the setup or the demonstration, he pulled the whole thing together beautifully.


With the help of George Hrab and Soccergirl, Jeff set up the test in full view of Patrick. In a way, it was sort of funny to see Jeff hiding behind a sheet while George and Soccergirl held it in place as he yelled curtained instructions over his shoulder like some Wizard of Oz impersonator. I stood with my back to the experiment, not wanting to know where the water was and accidentally give something away. Instead, I talked with Mr. Randi and Sean, Mr. Randi’s personal assistant who is, I must say, a godsend. That guy is on top of everything, all the time, and yet somehow manages to slide off witty remarks as though he secretly owns a “Funny Stuff to Say in Public” calendar.

But I digress… Back to the experiment.

Now, let me be clear here, to my knowledge, Patrick doesn’t believe in the power of dowsing. However, a common view among believers (as you might have noted if you watched the Watkins video) is the assumption that the Million Dollar Challenge is a sham. By inviting Patrick to be a part of the demonstration, we were able to illustrate that the JREF has nothing to hide. And he did wonderfully. I guess Jeff’s curtained instructions were good.

Our volunteer dowser, Mike, did great as well. He managed to get two out of the three water locations! That’s significantly above chance – and he didn’t even believe in dowsing.

While all this was going on, Mr. Randi, Jeff, and I talked about the Challenge, including the most recently tested applicant, Rosemary Hunter.


The demonstration came off as quite a success, with only a single heckler.

Bravo, Mike, for your superior dowsing skills (even though you couldn’t get that third and move on to the Preliminary), and Bravo, Patrick, for your willingness to take the stage with us scary skeptics!

Patrick was so good about the whole skeptical thing, in fact, that I asked him to attend the On The Trail of Ghosts: SAPS Investigates talk, so that he could ask me the hard questions from the front row, and sort of get me back for that “disservice” comment from the SvsB debate.

I didn’t really expect him to come. Bad on me. Because he sure did… Walked straight into a room full of skeptics (I say this because when I asked if anyone in the room believed in ghosts, a sole hand went up, and I’ll bet you can guess who it was attached to).

I was so stunned I threw out all the plans I made for my talk. I started off, after introducing myself, by saying, “I woke up this morning, looked in the mirror, and said, ‘I don’t want to be Alison Smith anymore.’!” Weird, huh?

Well, I more meant the essence of Alison Smith… you know, the person that paranormal believers are afraid to associate with. Because I like people. I don’t think that all paranormal believers are scam artists or idiots. So, instead of doing the very planned-out talk I had envisioned, I took my seat on the stage and had a conversation with the skeptics (and with Patrick) about belief, where it comes from, and why skeptics and believers associate the way they do.

After a few minutes, it was obvious we needed more than one opinion on the stage. So I invited Patrick up, and we talked good-naturedly back and forth with the audience about our sides.

It was all going great until Patrick said he’s not a ghost hunter – he’s an anomalous activity investigator. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. And then I said, “I guess you should change the name of your group to Anomalous Activities Hounds!”

I guess none of us can change who we are.

(Don’t worry, I bought him a drink later.)

So there it is, the SAPS Dragon*Con experience. If you weren’t there, I wish you had been. It’s always a blast, and hopefully you’ll be seeing me there (probably in a silly costume) for many years to come. And if you do, swing on by and talk ghosts with me.

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