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Guerilla Skepticism

by Mark Edward, Mar 17 2009

img_9079After braving the darkest pathways and sunlit beaches of Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, I have returned to Los Angeles refreshed, but alas without the shred of a Chupcabra specimen to show for the arduous hours spent trailing my elusive quarry. We spotted a few mangy feral dogs skulking through the underbrush and begging in the streets, but nothing that looked like it could suck blood except for the occasional purse held chihuahua.

Meeting up with Randi was a reunion that was long overdue. Re-connecting with him has given me new confidence and inspiration. During my years in the psychic underground, there were tenuous times when walking the tightrope between the two extreme worlds of skeptic and “psychic entertainer” by necessity may have brought us at mild loggerheads, but I’m proud to say those days are over and we have buried any of the dull hatchets that may have dogged us in the past. We had a blast sharing our anecdotes about growing up in magic and the lore of magicians. Many a meal was spent finding out about people we both knew and techniques we both admired. It was a marvelous experience that has taken my dedication to all things skeptical to a whole new level. The JREF crew immediately felt like family and many new connections were made that will surely last a lifetime.

My lecture was entitled “Taking Advantage.” In it, I stressed that mentalists, psychics and professional scam artists are skilled in taking advantage of the moment. It is a technique that calls into place all the resourcefulness and cunning that can be rapidly summoned in any given situation. Like secret agents or cat burglars who are trained to think quickly on their feet, adherents to the criminal causes we are now faced with quickly learn that to be effective in their duplicity, scruples of any kind are a privilege of those who can afford it and each moment they are left to their own devices is a precious wedge that can be driven home to gain an advantage.

We are facing an unprecedented time when we can expect to see scientific terms and theories turned around and used against us like never before. As I mentioned in my“ESP Bootcamp” blog, new techniques of viral marketing and devious ploys of using 80’s self-help jargon coupled with carefully chosen scientific terminology are seeping into a new system of flimflam and unless we pay attention and are willing to ratchet up our own skeptic attacks, we are going to be left behind in a cloud of woo that may never be shrubbed clean.

In my lecture I suggested a new “guerrilla skepticism” as my method of choice. This would encompass consistent and systematic stings, hoaxes and performance pieces that the media would be drawn into through viral marketing of our own. In the past, people like Randi managed to pull off some ingenious operations like the Popoff and Geller exposures and The Alpha Kids, but these were few and very far between. These kinds of curve balls need to be pitched on a regular systematic basis so that the media and society in general begins to wonder what we are going to be up to next. Eventually they will learn to pay attention or miss out on news that everyone else will be anticipating. We need to make exposing woo fun and an entertaining alternative for the youth market who are embracing internet social networks and self-replicating systems to spread their word of mouth experiences. Viral promotions such as quick time video clips that are untraceable after hitting hard for a few hours, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images or even text messages need to be introduced into the cyber world to reveal the Achilles heels of the Sylvia Brownes, anti-vaccinites, creationists and every other cause we champion. It is time we took the gloves off and fought fire with fire.

The era when the mass media and the public thought of skeptical thinkers as wimps or nerds needs to be thrown into the dumpster of history like so many other bad stereo-types.  Do you think any of the people planning the next wave of “executive psychics” who we are sure to soon see appearing on television and radio touting their accuracy to the economically starved millions care one little bit about ethics or hard selling their crap? Forget it. Their dirty tricks are going to be coming at us in ways we can’t even imagine yet. You can bet that the “marketing geniuses” of the past decades who have now lost their corporate jobs are trolling for new ways to line their pockets. Never mind the pros who are going to be even meaner and leaner when they are released from their prison sentences. Guess how these bottom feeders will bilk the public this time around? There’s a newer and even more dangerous new age dawning. New gurus of “neuroanatomy” and “ephemeralization” are going to be going for the jugular vein in each and every one of us gullible enough to listen to their hype. And “listening” is no longer just television or radio. iPods and Podcasts are turning us into Pod People.

Get active. If you have computer skills in any of the areas I have listed and can lend a hand in finding ways to topple the towers of woo that are being built even as I write this blog, it is time to rise up and fight. Short of a “Manifesto” of some sort, I’m calling for an all-out attack on bullshit. If you haven’t already done so, find a skeptic group in your area and dig your heels in.

No word on the fate of “The Skeptologists” makes this an even more compelling plea for solidarity.

The Good News: The skeptical movement is growing. Randi reported that the last TAM meeting had over 900 people in attendance. The numbers for the upcoming TAMs are looking even better and there is some reason to take heart in the possibility of a future coming together of several skeptical factions that formally were separate. Persevere.

7 Responses to “Guerilla Skepticism”

  1. MadScientist says:

    I like your idea. There’s so much BS out there though – where do we start? I think it would be useful to discuss and target some specific things initially, and if that’s successful then branch out to deal with more BS.

    Pity about chupacabra, but did you at least get some good tacos, tortillas, and a chili to set a gringo on fire?

  2. Thor'Ungal says:

    Damn it sucks living on the other side of the globe from TAM. Ah well Aussie Skeptics will have to do…

  3. Calin says:

    The thing is, even with computer skills…what do you do? For instance, I’m a software engineer…and I have no idea what I could do that would matter even a little bit.

    I had thought once of doing a psychic test that gave real number answers as opposed to “negative forces” answers. Something that shows that no matter how much you think you picked enough wavy cards…it was still around 17% just like chance. However, someone has already beaten me to that one.

  4. Mark Edward says:

    Stay tuned. Opportunities to get more involved are going to start showing up here as well as through JREF. If you are not checked into JREF and the blog boards there, I suggest getting hooked up. Gears are in motion and I will be up-dating everyone where and what might be “attacked” as soon as we can pinpoint our first target(s). The “real number answer” idea is a good start and I would be interested in seeing what kind of website or program you come up with. Along the same lines, Randi told me about a project tha Richard Wiseman spearheaded in the UK whereby he set up “ESP boxes” all over England that were set-up to let people try their hand at guessiing random ESP symbols for free like an arcade game. When they tried they were given the honest answer which in turn was linked into a central data base. It went over very well indeed. We need more people like Richard.

  5. Calin says:

    Thanks for the response Mark,

    I don’t get much board time, but I do frequent the SGU message boards as well as reading this site, Neurologica, SBM, Pharyngula, Orac and BA. My wife’s a nurse so I read a lot of medical stuff to have science stories to share with her…she couldn’t care less about software design or physics.

    I found a version of what I was thinking of at

    It seems to be a pro-woo website, but the values look good. I haven’t double checked the math, but it does list p and z values for your final total. I only played it twice and was told my evidence for ESP was “NONE”, after getting 20% both times. That made it better than one I found who told me I was “covered in negative energy” and offered to teach me how to become psychotic after failing their test. Since its been done, I’d feel like a plagiarist doing it again.

    I think the Wiseman idea is great. It won’t likely change the minds of the hard-core…but it could really affect those on the fringe. Education is the key.

  6. Mully410 says:

    Great post Mark. I’ve joined 2 local skeptic groups. I’ve called out one of the groups for not being critical of a 911 conspiracy nut speaker they had. I’ve created a blog to help promote critical thinking. I’m all over Facebook with posts and links to critical thinkers. I post “orb” pics and other “paranormal” photos I randomly capture and provide explanations to my viewers on Flickr. I’ve joined JREF and got my tickets already ready for TAM!

    I’m doing my best and really appreciate the work you and others like you do. Keep up the good fight.

  7. HotRusGirl says:

    It looks like we have similar ideas on this subject.