Taming My Skeptical Side

And how a podcast helps guide me.

As a skeptic, I’m not likely to believe any outrageous claims without solid proof. Unfortunately, I’m surrounded by people with all kinds of weird beliefs.

I have friends and relatives who believe in things such as ghosts, astrology, psychic power, homeopathy, magnetic therapy, crystal power, and other tested yet unproven concepts. Over the years, as I’ve learned more and more about how unproven these ideas are, I’ve wanted to share my insight to “enlighten” these people in my life. All I’ve faced, however, is frustration. They cannot let go of these beliefs — even enough to see how “proofs” can be faked.

Strained Relationships

One example of this is psychic power. I know people who watch John Edward on television and visit psychics and swear that they’re proof of real psychic power. Yet it’s pretty obvious to me that all these “psychics” are doing is using cold or even hot reading techniques and relying on human nature to remember the “hits” and forget the “misses.” I try to convince these people that what they’re seeing is a scam, but they don’t believe me. In the end, frustrated and disappointed, I feel a great loss. My inability to reconcile my knowledge with their conflicting belief causes me to lose my connection with them. I can’t see them the same way anymore. It puts a huge dent in our relationship.

In the end, I simply begin avoiding the person with the wacky beliefs.

I should clarify here. There are a lot of things people believe in that I don’t. For example, God. I’m an atheist, but I understand why people believe in God and how it helps them in their daily life. If we don’t discuss it, their belief does not affect my relationship with them. The same goes for any other relatively harmless belief that they have but generally keep to themselves.

It’s only when a wacky belief becomes a regular conversation point that I start to back off. Some people want to “convert,” me, to make me a believer, too. But they’re unable to provide the proof I need to believe. I’m unable to convince them to look at things from my point of view. We’re deadlocked. If this becomes an issue each time we’re together, I’d rather just avoid them.

And yes, I realize that “wacky” is a strong and possibly derogatory term. But from my point of view, many of these beliefs are just that: wacky.

Realistic Expectations, Curiosity, and Caution

Actually SpeakingEnter the Actually Speaking podcast. This is a different kind of podcast for skeptics. Instead of preaching to the choir by providing us with the facts and scientific evidence we need to understand the reality of unproven beliefs, Actually Speaking helps us deal with non-skeptics in a way that won’t ruin our relationships. Podcaster Mike Meraz offers advice, not facts. And the advice is, on the whole, very good.

Want an example? Well, the frustration I feel when dealing with the wacky beliefs of my friends and family members is a perfect example of how my skepticism can damage my relationships with these people. My reaction — to just back off — isn’t doing anyone any good. Mike suggests, in Episode 2, to develop realistic expectations for discussing conflicting beliefs. My goal should not be to convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong but to try to guide them to the point of Episode 3, curiosity and caution. After all, does it really matter what they believe? Isn’t it more important that they consider looking at their beliefs from other points of view and not get hurt by decisions made based on faulty beliefs? (For example, using homeopathy to cure a real problem rather than visiting a physician and getting real medicine.)

I realized, after listening to these two episodes back-to-back, that I had actually taken this approach and had a very positive outcome. I thought I’d blog about it to share my experience with other skeptics.

The Dowser

The situation dealt with dowsing. According to Wikipedia, dowsing is:

…a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials, as well as so-called currents of earth radiation, without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsing is also known as divining (especially in reference to interpretation of results), doodlebugging (in the US), or (when searching specifically for water) water finding or water witching.

A Y- or L-shaped twig or rod, called a dowsing rod, divining rod (Latin: virgula divina or baculus divinatorius) or witching rod is sometimes used during dowsing, although some dowsers use other equipment or no equipment at all.

In this situation, an acquaintance — we’ll call him Joe — claimed to be able to dowse gravesites to determine the gender of people buried. He uses this “skill” out in the desert to comb through pioneer cemeteries and other unmarked gravesites and report about people buried there.

A friend of mine — we’ll call him Bill — often writes articles about desert exploration for a Web site I manage, wickenburg-az.com. He went on an outing with Joe and documented Joe’s findings. He then submitted an article about their outing for inclusion on the Web site.

While the general content of the article was interesting and I was sure the site’s readers would enjoy it, Bill included a detailed listing of the gravesites Joe had dowsed, including the number of graves (all unmarked) and the genders of the people buried there. I had a problem with this. I don’t believe that dowsing can provide factual information like this.* Including an account of the dowsing and its results could undermine the otherwise fact-based account of their outing. It could make the site look like a supporter of unscientific beliefs or, to use a term that’s falling out of fashion among skeptics these days, woo.

Worse yet, the article could provide a source of information for serious researchers attempting to find gravesites of specific individuals. Was the female grave at the site the grave of so-and-so’s long-lost aunt Mabel? How could I allow the article to state that there was a female grave there at all if there was no real proof? After all, the only way to be sure there was a grave at all would be to dig it up — which was completely out of the question for so many reasons.

I was in a quandary. I wanted the article, but I didn’t want the dowsing information in it. Bill, I felt, was a reasonable person. I was surprised that he believed in the power of dowsing. So I asked him straight out if he thought the dowsing results were reliable. I told him that I hadn’t heard of any scientific proof of dowsing claims. I told him I was skeptical and didn’t want to report unreliable information.

Bill, to his credit, considered my words. He got on the Internet and started doing some research. He found some documents that seemed to support dowsing. But then he found better documents from better sources — scientific sources — that indicated that dowsing was unproven and likely not possible. He sent me links to everything he found. He seemed embarrassed that he had been taken in by Joe’s confidence in his abilities. He rewrote the article to remove the mention of dowsing. I published it on the site.

By encouraging Bill to be curious about dowsing, I’d helped him come to his own conclusions about dowsing. He made the changes I needed in his article to feel comfortable about publishing it. Our relationship didn’t suffer at all. In fact, Bill seemed genuinely glad that I’d questioned him about it and that he’d had an opportunity to learn more.

Exploring the Human Side of Skepticism

Actually Speaking has helped me see how the way I dealt with Bill’s belief was the right way to deal with it. I didn’t tell him he was wrong. I didn’t belittle or insult him. I treated him like the intelligent human being he is. I made him curious enough to do his own research and come to his own conclusion. This tells me that the advice is Actually Speaking is good, solid advice because it can work.

Are you a skeptic or critical thinker surrounded by people with wacky beliefs? If so, give Actually Speaking a try. I think it might help you with your relationships with these people.


* Curious about dowsing? Check out this article in the James Randi Educational Foundation Library: “The Matter of Dowsing.” You can also read about an actual test in James Randi’s book, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions.

Natural Food Hypocrites

People who make a show of buying “organic” and “natural” but still eat junk.

My husband Mike and I eat very well. We buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and eat relatively little processed foods. We don’t eat much fast food at all. When we cook, our foods are usually grilled or steamed or pan-sauteed. We don’t fry.

We don’t go out of our way to buy organic. We don’t see the benefit. If the organic apples are on sale and they’re cheaper than the regular apples, we’ll buy organic. And since we do a lot of shopping in Trader Joe’s near our Phoenix place, we wind up buying organic there, since much of what they sell is organic. But it’s also cheap and tasty.

I’m pretty much in agreement with what Brian Dunning has said in his Skeptoid podcast about organic food myths and organic vs. conventional agriculture. (And if you don’t listen to Skeptoid, you should try it; it’s a great weekly dose of reality.)

That said, I still try not to put crap food in my body. But I’m not one of those people who talk the talk about good food and forget to walk the walk.

We have several friends and relatives who are what I call “natural food hypocrites.” They buy “organic” everything — no matter how bad it looks or tastes or how much it costs. When they come to our home, they expect us to buy and serve them organic, too. When we go out to dinner together, they question the source of the chicken or beef and make a big fuss about choosing something that’s free range or farm fed or whatever.

Unless it’s just not convenient for them. Or they feel like having a diet soda. Or want to cut 16 calories off their cup of coffee by using Sweet ‘N Low. Or the guy at the next table in the Mexican restaurant they didn’t want to step foot into just had the Chicken Enchilada and it smells good. Or that chocolate mousse log from the supermarket freezer section looks too damn tasty to pass up.

They’ll put us through hell when they come to visit, making us feel as if we’re not good hosts if we buy regular milk instead of organic while they’re with us, but pop open a Diet Coke to wash down their vitamins with lunch.

Natural food hypocrites.

Arguing with a True Believer

It’s a waste of time.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve been a skeptic for at least the past 10 years, although I didn’t have a label for it way back when. After realizing that there was no proof in a lot of things I’d been told to simply believe, I started looking at things with a more skeptic eye. Although you can’t prove a negative — for example, something doesn’t exist — you can withhold believe until proof of the positive. That’s where I sit now.

Mary’s Mother

It’s also where I sat a few days ago when a house guest brought up the topic of a person’s spirit continuing to exist after death. When she — we’ll call her Mary (not her real name) — asked me whether I believed a person’s spirit existed after death, I said, without hesitation, no. She then launched into a long story about why she believed that spirits do go on after death.

It was kind of pitiful. Mary’s mother had died about two years before after about a year of declining health. Mary lived in California. Her mother lived in New York. Her mother was financially stable and had hired in-home nurses to care for her as she began the dying process. She’d been an alcoholic for most of her life and although she was always upbeat and fun, her last months were painful. Mary believed that the Hispanic nurses had held back on pain medication until her mother “accepted Jesus” — not very likely, as she was Jewish — and, as a result, her mother’s eventual death was more painful than it should have been.

Mary and her brother visited during the months their mother’s health was declining. In the end, they stayed until it was over.

Mary claims that a few days after her mother died, she had a dream that convinced her that her mother had died “a horrible death.” (I have trouble believing that, as she was fortunate enough to die at home with family nearby.) Mary claimed that her mother’s spirit was trapped in her house, unable to escape to whatever other place spirits are supposed to go.

Desperate to resolve the situation and save her mother’s tortured spirit, she sent a family member to the now unoccupied house to tell her mom to leave. (Mary was back in California by this time.) I don’t know if this family member actually did this.

Mary then contacted a psychic in California for assistance. I didn’t get all the details on the first contact. Apparently, Mary e-mailed the psychic a photo of her mother. I don’t know if she provided her mother’s name. In any case, they spoke by phone and the psychic managed to convince Mary that she could communicate with her dead mother. Tarot cards were involved; Mary didn’t understand why she needed them but was willing to put that aside. She told Mary that her mother was indeed trapped in her home and that the only way to free her spirit was for three people in three different places to light candles and play her mother’s favorite music and pray to her mother to “cross over.” I think they had to do this for three days in a row, but I may have that wrong.

So Mary asked her husband and cousin to do this. She did it, too. She says she’s not sure if her cousin did it.

Afterwards, she met with the physic in person. The psychic told her she did not remember their initial contact. She asked the psychic about her mother’s spirit. The psychic said that her mother’s spirit had been trapped but then something had “popped” (her word) and her mother had crossed over.

Mission accomplished.

I don’t know how much money exchanged hands, but I know Mary can afford whatever it was. And I do know that Mary is happy now, so I guess you can easily argue that no harm was done.

I’m not quite that generous, though.

Cold Reading

What followed was a discussion of cold reading, where a “psychic” makes a bunch of guesses and then reads his subject’s response to zero in on actual facts. It is documented that the human mind is more likely to remember correct guesses than incorrect ones. So if a “psychic” does a “psychic reading” and makes 5 correct yes/no guesses, 9 yes/no misses, and one direct hit, people come away thinking that the “psychic” has real psychic power.

Of course, John Edward came up in our conversation. Mary fully believed in his power. She had examples of “proof” of his power. She was not interested in the fact that every John Edward Crossing Over show is taped and then edited. They edit out the discussions he has that result in mostly misses and leave in the results that are mostly hits. The result might be something like this, which I don’t think is very convincing:

Did you watch this video? This is classic cold reading. Throwing out a common name, picking the person who responds, and asking questions to get information. Guessing all kinds of things that are relatively common — cancer, military service, etc. Pulling info out of people with questions. And they think he has real power. But listen carefully. How much is he actually getting right? How much is he telling them? Isn’t it more of a fishing expedition to suck information from people who already believe in his ability?

As Joe Nickell writes in his piece about John Edward:

The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit.

I could not convince Mary. She was not willing to believe in my explanation of how he could have gotten a particular detail correct. The discussion got heated. She kept trying to convince me. I could not be convinced about a “trick” when I knew how it was done.

What I find particularly disturbing about all this is that Mary has a PhD in psychology and treats patients with particularly troubled backgrounds. She should be the voice of reason in these people’s lives. I hope that “woo” does not find its way into her diagnoses or treatments.

Another Friend

When I tried to relate this story to another friend of mine, he said two conflicting things in the same sentence: “You know I’m skeptical about all kinds of things, but I really believe the psychic I go to has real power.”

It was difficult for me not to explode with laughter.

He then went on to tell me about what was likely a personal, one-on-one cold reading. He’d make an easy subject. He’s a real talker and it wouldn’t take much to pull information out of him. He’s also willing to believe, which makes him more likely to remember hits more than misses or turn partial misses into hits by voluntarily providing information that makes a wrong guess right. This is why true believers will always continue to believe. They don’t understand that if a person had real psychic power, he/she should be able to make far more factual statements than errors. And the technique wouldn’t be a glorified guessing game, like the one John Edward plays on his television show.

My friend told me I should go see his psychic for proof. He’d set up an appointment. He’d tell her that I was a skeptical friend —

I stopped him right there. I told him I’d go, but only if he didn’t tell her a single thing about me — including my name. He didn’t seem to understand that she could simply Google me to learn all kinds of things about me that would be useful in her “reading.” It wouldn’t be a cold reading anymore; it would be a hot reading. She could simply recite things off my bio.

Will I go? Only if I’m sure she doesn’t know anything about me when I arrive. I may throw out my first name to see if she takes the hispanic bait (in Arizona, it’s far more likely for a woman named Maria to be Mexican than Italian). I’ll likely dress myself up a bit to alter my appearance and lead her to believe things about me that might not be true. I think these would be good tests of her ability to read minds rather than physical appearances. It would be an interesting experiment.

After all, I am a skeptic. Although I don’t believe that anyone has psychic power, I’m willing to let them try to prove that they do.