As a professional skeptic (I know, that phrase sounds weird to me too—even after all these years—but you know what I mean) I deal with all manner of believer. Some are respectful, some are not, but the one constant is that we are approaching the topic from different viewpoints, including different standards of evidence and different ideas about what constitutes good evidence in the first place (the canard “the plural of anecdote is not evidence” often comes up). Since the general public, like the casual skeptic, doesn’t often engage in these run-of-the-mill interactions, it is useful to review them, as they provide insight into the differing worldviews.
I thought about this recently when I received the following e-mail from a woman named Julia (verbatim throughout):
“After watching a documentary about psychics, I really must comment on the fact that your skepticism is not only naive, but also arrogant, and actually quite rude, when clearly there is evidence for this phenomenon. Not all science has the answers; this has been proved in history, when science thought they knew everything; even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb. This is just one example. Please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box, so that we can move forward. I have experienced Clairaudient, and can honestly tell you that I know more than you do. I am of normal mind, but I am not naive, arrogant, know all, or ignorant to the possiblity that just because we cannot see, smell, hear, touch something, that it does not exist. We have a physical body, and etheric body, spiritual body. If you, or any other orthodox sceptic refuse to understand this, then it is sad- for you at least. More and more scientists, psychologists- to name a few: Robert Lanza, Raymond Moody, Stuart Hameroff, have been studying this for many years, and have very interesting facts. Orthodox science will be proved wrong, even if they do not like it. The world is changing; there will be a shift in consciousness, and mindsets like yours will be left behind. I hope that you see this message, because you need to know that you do not have the answers to this Universe. Have a nice day.”
I couldn’t tell if the closing pleasantry was sincere, sarcastic, or merely a polite formality, but in any event I felt compelled to reply:
“Hello Julia, and thanks for reaching out to me, good to hear from you. You don’t state which documentary you recently saw about psychics, or whether I was featured in it, so I can’t know exactly what information you’re referring to.
In any event I’m not sure why you consider my skepticism about psychic powers to be “arrogant” or “rude.” I would never suggest that you (or anyone else) is arrogant or rude merely because you believe something different than I do. I celebrate the beautiful diversity of opinions and do not feel that others must believe the same things I do (or share my opinions on) science, religion, life, or anything else. We may disagree about whether there is evidence for a given proposition or claim, but I don’t feel that you are “naive, arrogant, and rude” for not sharing my beliefs. I find such intolerance disappointing but of course I respect your opinion.
I quite agree that science does not have all the answers; indeed that’s a hallmark of science! Scientists keep trying to learn about our world and use scientific methods to experiment and test hypotheses. But I’m puzzled by the example you give: “even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb.” I was not aware that scientists called Edison a lunatic for inventing the lightbulb; from my understanding scientists such as Humphry Davy had been developing incandescent lights since the late 1700s, and the idea of an electric lightbulb was widely accepted by scientists throughout the world in the 1800s, including by many of Edison’s contemporaries. Edison’s problem was not that scientists thought he was crazy for using electric current to light homes, but instead that the existing filaments burned out too quickly to be useful. Of course I may be mistaken, and as you have asked me to “please educate yourself,” I would appreciate any correction or clarification you can offer about the example you gave.
The same goes for evidence for psychics; you claim to hear voices and while that may be true it is of course not something that I can research. When you ask me to educate myself, what specifically would you suggest I educate myself about? Are there certain scientific studies you believe prove that psychic powers exist?
I’m familiar with claims made by Moody (I’ve read several of his books, including Life After Life, about near-death experience and reincarnation), but I’m not aware of any research or published works by him about psychic abilities. I’m less familiar with Robert Lanza, but a quick internet search reveals no experiments or research testing or proving the existence of psychic powers. However I am more familiar with Stuart Hameroff, who appeared in the widely-discredited New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know, along with several other scientists who stated that their comments were taken of context. Like Lanza, Hameroff has not offered, and has never claimed to offer, evidence of psychic powers that I can find.
So when you write “please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box,” I am willing to do so, but I need to know what it is you believe I should educate myself about. You cited three people, none of whom are (or even claim to be) experts on the validity of psychic powers. I can’t educate myself about your personal experience or beliefs/opinions (everyone’s are different, subjective, and equally valid), so I’ll need to know what education you have that I don’t, that would clarify the issue.
I’m also curious why you believe that my desire for scientific evidence for psychics is preventing progress; you wrote “Please educate yourself… so that we can move forward.” How is my lack of belief in psychic powers preventing people (or society) from moving forward? Does psychic power require universal belief in its efficacy, or the assent of skeptics? I don’t understand what you mean, so if you could clarify that would be helpful.
It’s always struck me as odd (and a bit sad and cynical) that when someone disagrees with me about a topic I’ve researched and written about, I’m often accused of being ignorant, arrogant, and (often wilfully) misinformed. In contrast, I don’t assume that about other people when I’m exposed to new ideas or different opinions. I don’t assume that the other person is stupid, ignorant, or intentionally spreading misinformation.
Instead I believe that perhaps we simply have different information, or spoke to different people, or had different experiences. No one can know everything about everything, and inevitably some people are better informed about some topics than others. Experts are one example, but writers and researchers, as well, tend to be better informed about the topic on which they’re writing than laypersons, if for no other reason that they’ve spent considerable time (certainly hours, but often days or weeks) specifically looking into it, seeing the various claims, contacting experts on both sides, etc.
Instead of taking such a hostile, “us versus them” position, I believe people can have an honest difference of opinion without one or the other necessarily being stupid or arrogant. But that’s just my approach.”
Julia wrote back a day or two later:
“Hello Ben- thank you for your insightful message, and apologies for the name calling. Not something I make a habit of. Please do not take it personally. I just hope that more and more people become enlightened, and a shift in consciousness will take place- as has been predicted. Those who have experienced something spiritual; who have a faith (not talking about religion), and like me, who have had a profuound, tangible experience- which, by the way, I do actually question still, purely because we(experiencers) also tend to try and rationalise everything, but cannot because our experience was so real- both visually, and audibly, are the ones with the truth, I feel. Surely those who have really seen, heard something beyond our five senses, are the ones who know the truth. Scientists studying consciousness/life after death, have now ben able to prove that consciousness does in fact continue for 3 minutes after the brain has shut down: LIFE after death has been “confirmed” by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died.
We all have Auras- including animals. We all have a soul. The outer layers beyond the physical body. Intuition, a knowing. Prayers being answered time and time again. Coincidence is one thing, but what I am taliking about it something different. It can be difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced anything, and I do respect your opinion, and what you say, but all I am saying is that those who have experienced something beyond the physical senses is proof surely.
Animals (cats and dogs for sure) are definately in tune with something beyond the physical. If someone is highly sensitive/empathetic they tend to be on a higher vibration meaning that they are more likely to experience something spiritual. The consistancy in NDE’s, and other phenomena is interesting also. I do not believe everything I hear from others, so I guess I do have some scepticism, or to put in better words, I am not gullible, because there are alot of crazy people out there, but one can normally distinguish between what sounds realistic or not. I do look for consistancy in peoples experiences, and prohecies etc about afterlife, and it is nice when there is a consistant explanation as with NDE’s. Anyway, I hope I make some sense, and even though I may not have answered all your questions, hopefully I’ve covered some of it. Take care.”
I appreciated the apology but noted that she ignored most of what I’d asked and discussed with her. She made a claim about Thomas Edison, and when I politely asked her for evidence or to explain what she meant, she chose not to (I assume because she realized she was wrong and had misunderstood or misapplied the Edison anecdote). I was neither offended nor surprised, but it seemed to demonstrate a tacit disregard for the truth, or at least an unwillingness to admit error. There was also no engagement with my ready admission that science doesn’t have all the answers, and other points. I was engaging with her respectfully and on her own terms.
In replying to her request to educate myself, I asked her—quite sincerely—what specifically I should educate myself about, what topics or research or experts I should consult in order to understand her position or be better informed, since the ones she mentioned had little or nothing to do with the topic. Once again I got no response; instead of directing me to a book, journal article, or other resources that had apparently informed her opinion, she referred vaguely to auras, prayers, personal experience, and so on.
In sum, I had politely asked a firm believer—who’d specifically requested that I educate myself—for information and sources upon which to do so, and was ignored. Sensing that the fruitfulness of the dialogue had reached the point of diminishing returns, I replied:
Yes, I’m aware that a new age of global enlightenment has been predicted and promised for decades (most prominently in the 1970s and 1980s) and earlier (with Edgar Cayce and even the Spiritualists, if I’m not mistaken). It’s a common belief, that the Truth will be revealed just around the corner. I’ve seen it written by UFO experts in magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, who say that any day now our space brothers will come down from the stars and usher in an age of peace (or that the global UFO government coverup is about to end). I’ve heard it from apocalyptic and Biblical End Times authors who for decades have assured their followers (and anyone else who will listen) that Judgment Day is imminent. I’ve seen it in psi researchers, Bigfoot believers, and in countless other paranormal, occult, or “unexplained” subjects, that there’s so much clear evidence that surely any day now the general public will just understand what they understand and we’ll all be on the same page. You (and they) may be right, but so far they’ve all been wrong.
You wrote that “LIFE after death has been ‘confirmed’ by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died,” and you asked me to do some research and educate myself. I would respectfully suggest to you that I have educated myself on the topic: I’ve read several books on the topic (pro and con, skeptic and believer), and spoken with or interviewed several people who have researched it including Gary Schwartz. I’ve read books by Kenneth Ring, Raymond Moody, Ian Stevenson, Chris Carter, etc. on their claims for reincarnation and life after death. To get a balanced view I’ve also read books by G.M. Woerlee, Susan Blackmore, and Paul Edwards on their analyses/criticisms of NDE and reincarnation claims and research. My skepticism is borne not of ignorance about the subject, but knowledge of it.
Let me ask you this: Have you educated yourself about the topic? Have you read any books that critically examine or analyze the claims, or have you limited your research to only one side of the story? Critical thinking (and determining what’s true about the world) often requires that we be open minded and engage in ideas, evidence, and opinions that are contrary to ours. We don’t have to, of course, but a willingness and tolerance for different ideas is important, I believe.
We clearly have different approaches to evidence and different opinions on these topics. I’m certainly not going to talk you out of your beliefs, and would not even try. However I can tell you with certainty that there is a whole world of open-minded, legitimate, and evidence-based analysis of auras, life after death, NDEs, ghosts, psychic powers, and so on. Whether you choose to seek them out or engage with them with an open mind and open heart is another matter, but the material is available. If you’d like more information there’s an excellent free resource online called the Skeptics Dictionary; you can find it at http://www.skepdic.com/. It has short, readable entries and a good bibliography for further reading or research. If you have specific areas you’re interested in, let me know and I’d be happy to select a few of the most credible sources of information.”
That’s all I could do.
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!