Confessions of a Skeptic
An editorial by D. Trull
I recently received the following email message from a ParaScope reader, which pointedly sums up a concern that many others have also expressed, in one way or another:
"I would think you would want your forum staffed by believers, or at least people who would not appear so patronizing or close-minded.Those are heavy charges, but I have to admit, this letter raise some perfectly valid questions about ParaScope's editorial approach to paranormal subject matter. I'd like to take the opportunity to explore the quandaries and complexities of skepticism, to clarify some common misconceptions, and to make a confession or two about what I believe in.
Yes, it's true, I'm the editor of ParaScope's department on paranormal phenomena, and I am a skeptic. I spend my time researching and writing on topics whose factual existence I find almost entirely in doubt. That's a strange circumstance to be in, no denying it. It might seem sort of like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, or hiring an atheist to deliver a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Why would a skeptic want to do this, and why would ParaScope want to have me?
Skepticism itself is a very weird thing. To the outside observer, skeptics may appear to be smug, elitist curmudgeons who have made a sport out of tearing down what others believe in. The various personal interests and avocations that people are into, whether it's football, mountain climbing, video games, gardening or sex, are almost always positive in nature, revolving around a subject that you like or enjoy. Skepticism, on the other hand, seems to be a hobby based on a negative -- namely, preaching that there's no such thing as Bigfoot or flying saucers.
That perception makes skepticism something of a suspicious activity to begin with. It's fine for there to be organized opposition to a universally recognized evil (for example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving), but it's unseemly for a group to devote itself to denouncing and discrediting that which others believe in. That disreputable category of human expression ranges from the Ku Klux Klan to web pages entitled "The Spice Girls Suck." To some degree or other, people often associate skepticism with the vile dregs of organized hate. The hostility that I have seen directed at James Randi and other prominent skeptics has approached levels normally reserved for crimes against humanity.
The core of the problem is this: conventional wisdom dictates that if you dislike or disagree with something that other people follow and believe in, you should just turn away and leave it alone. Live and let live. If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. If you don't believe in ghosts and healing crystals and ESP, that's fine, but for goodness' sake, don't obsess about how fake they are, or turn your doubts into some kind of ongoing crusade. That seems like an unhealthy thing to be doing. If you don't believe in these things, surely you can find something better to spend your time on.
As that reader remarked, "If I didn't believe, I wouldn't be here." If I don't believe, then why am I here?
The answer is complicated, and it requires a detailed explanation of what skepticism is -- or at least, what I consider it to be. To be a skeptic does not mean that you don't believe in anything, and skepticism is not a fixed platform or ideology, like liberalism or conservatism. It is a tool for understanding the world around us, and a method for evaluating the veracity of extraordinary claims and observations. Skepticism may at times seem to involve nothing more than the knee-jerk debunking and gainsaying of whatever weird phenomenon comes along, but in fact, it is not a pursuit rooted solely on negation and tearing down. Skepticism has very much of a positive basis, and corny though it may sound, its objective is the search for the truth.
That being the case, it's high time I came clean with a true fact that I have never before admitted publicly in the pages of ParaScope.
I am a skeptic, but there are paranormal phenomena that I do believe in.
Throughout my life I have had personal experiences in which I knew what someone else was thinking, or I predicted some event just before it happened, or my wild hunches turned out to be true. I have frequently had déjà vu episodes that were so compelling I felt that it had to be more than just my mind playing tricks on me. There have been times when I was convinced that I had some form of ESP, and sometimes I still feel that way. I also believe without reservation that there is intelligent life in outer space. And I believe there are strange and undiscovered animals hiding on our planet. And I believe there may be undetected forces at work influencing our existence. In general, I believe there's a whole lot of things going on around us that we don't know or don't understand, which will make our present conception of the universe look hopelessly primitive some day. I wholeheartedly concur with what Hamlet had to say on the limits of human knowledge: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
So why, then, have I chosen to be a skeptic? Why not use ParaScope as a vehicle to assert what I believe in, instead of casting doubts and aspersions on paranormal claims? I can offer three main points of explanation.
The first and most important reason is that I cannot prove any of the paranormal phenomena that I believe in. I consider these to be very personal and private beliefs, on a level with religious beliefs, political beliefs or sexual orientation. I may feel in my gut that I have some glimmer of psychic ability or that extraterrestrial life definitely exists, but I know intellectually that I cannot prove these things, and my views are no more "right" than anyone else's. I want for there to be proof, one way or the other, so that my beliefs can edge closer toward the realm of knowledge.
I see skepticism as the best approach toward this goal. I demand proof for extraordinary claims, and when it's not there, I feel compelled to point out the deficiency. Of course, lack of proof doesn't mean that a claim is necessarily false. The scientific method is imperfect, as are the human beings who implement it. But with truth as our objective, science is the best system for analysis and evaluation that skeptics have.
The second reason why I am a skeptic is more of a practical decision, a deliberate bid for widespread credibility. The public at large is suspicious of fringe topics like paranormal phenomena and any in-depth discussion thereof, and it's also suspicious of the Internet and the proliferation of wacko web sites devoted to all manner of crackpot ideas. As an independent start-up with a web site devoted to fringe topics, we at ParaScope knew at the outset that we were in for a double whammy of negative perception. In an effort to forestall this reaction, I decided it best to make Enigma a skeptical forum based on facts and documentation, rather than representing paranormal phenomena as true at face value. In this way I hoped to distinguish Enigma from the throngs of poorly-researched and credulous web pages on such topics, and possibly win over readers accustomed to thinking that everything on the Internet is full of baloney.
This strategy doesn't always work out. Just as I receive email feedback criticizing me for being skeptical, I also get plenty of email accusing me of being a gullible believer. "Your ghost pictures are obviously fake," they say, or "You mean you idiots actually believe all this crap? Get a life, you losers!" Apparently when they surf into ParaScope these folks jump to the conclusion that we're a bunch of lunatics who think every alien autopsy and Nessie sighting is absolutely real, and they must not bother to read a word of the text that accompanies all the kewl picturez. And whenever I tell someone I meet about this web site I write for, I nearly always get the impression that they think it sounds silly, no matter how readily I explain that I don't believe in all that stuff.
The third reason for my skepticism is more of a personal issue. As a writer I am far more interested in being a humorist than a journalist. When we we starting up ParaScope, I knew that I wanted to use it as a vehicle for humorous material. But I thought it would be unfair to do all of the Enigma section as a joke, so I created Fortean Slips, an isolated humor column where I could go nuts while leaving the rest of Enigma intact for serious articles. To bolster this self-imposed dichotomy, I initially resolved that the straight Enigma stories would be unfailingly objective and impartial, and that I would not allow any opinions or judgments to be expressed, not even in the form of humor or sarcasm.
Well, I quickly learned that I was overcompensating for the levity of Fortean Slips, and that purely objective writing on paranormal matters is dry, lifeless and horrible, not to mention mind-numbingly difficult to produce. In particular, I discovered that this editorial stance came across as weak and lobotomized, complacently accepting the merit of any paranormal claim even in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. I quickly dispensed with my misguided adherence to objectivity, and began inserting opinions and dissent into my straight Enigma articles, and before long I was fearlessly writing as a full-fledged skeptic. This was a necessary move if my writing was going to have any integrity, and any balls. I must admit, though, that I do really get sick of using the words "alleged," "supposed" and "so-called," over and over again.
Despite its evolution, my straight Enigma voice still remains distinct from my wild and wacky Fortean Slips style, a mildly schizophrenic situation which has led some ParaScope readers to ask if "D. Trull" is a real person or a pseudonym used by several writers. It's a wonderful and fitting irony that I have managed to make my readers skeptical about my own existence.
So that's the long-winded answer to why there's a skeptic running ParaScope's department on paranormal phenomena, and why I think that's okay. Being skeptical doesn't mean that you don't believe -- it means that you're careful about what you believe, and even more careful about what you say is true. I know that a lot of determined believers won't be convinced by my explanation, and will continue to think that all skeptics are patronizing or closed-minded. But I hope that others of you reading this will now understand that I'm one of you, in a lot of ways. I'm not a nihilist, I'm not a party pooper, and on the day when some paranormal phenomenon is finally proven to be real, I'll sing and dance and party with the best of 'em, by golly. Believe you me.
Of course, now that I've "outed" myself as being somewhat of a believer, there may be those who accuse me of being a liar or a hypocrite for also being a skeptic. I can only respond that I know the difference between my personal feelings and verifiable fact, and unlike some people, I think it's a good policy not to treat those two things as if they're interchangeable.
As a human being, I want to believe. As a skeptic, all I'm looking for is a good reason.
© Copyright 1999 ParaScope, Inc.