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A Skeptic Among the Paranormalists

by Michael Shermer, Sep 15 2009

On Saturday, September 12, after flying 17 hours from Cluj, Romania to Budapest, Hungry to Zurich, Switzerland to L.A.X., I drove straight to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where there was a big paranormal conference hosted by Dave Schrader of Darkness Radio. Dave is a very open-minded fellow, in the sense that he thought it might behoove his flock to have them hear what scientists think some plausible natural and normal explanations there are for the various supernatural and paranormal phenomena that his members tend to believe in and talk about at such conferences (there was even a ghost hunting expedition on the Queen Mary later that night, but I was wasted from flying for so long and passed on being spooked on the ship).

My keynote talk was Why People Believe Weird Things, a shortened version of which you can see on Ted.com, where I originally delivered this lecture. It includes much discussion about how east it is to fool the brain, perceptual illusions, cognitive missteps such as the confirmation bias, priming effects (where you prime the brain to see or hear the world in a certain way), and especially the power of expectation.

Surprisingly, everyone there was most friendly toward me, even though what I was basically telling them is that pretty much everything they believe about the paranormal is wrong. Many came up after to tell me that they too are skeptical of many of the phony baloney scam artists there are out there who are ripping people off with various flim flams, but of course they added the proviso that not all paranormal phenom are perpetrated hoaxes and that they like science because it can help them to discriminate between the true and false paranormal patterns. Okay, whatever it takes to get people interested in science, however, I did make it clear that to date science has yet to find any conclusive evidence for ESP and the like, so that instead of turning to the paranormal as an explanation for presently unsolved mysteries, why not just leave it as a mystery until science can explain it? In science, I noted, it’s okay to say “I don’t know.”

Here’s some iPhone pics I snapped while waiting for my talk to begin. Included is a pic of Frank Sumption and I. Frank is the inventor of “Frank’s Box,” which I wrote about in the January, 2009 issue of Scientific American. Frank’s Box is also called the “Telephone to the Dead,” and consists of a simplified radio receiver that cycles through the stations at breakneck speed such that one only hears snippets of words and sentence fragments, and it is here where the dead allegedly sneak in their messages to us living (or, where in my explanation, the “patternicity” happens, or the natural tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. I also snapped some pics of Bruce Goldberg, with whom I once appeared in the mid 1990s on a television show about past lives. Bruce is still churning out the self-published books, now on how he communicates with time travelers from the future. Finally, I will admit that New Agers have the coolest crystals.

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35 Responses to “A Skeptic Among the Paranormalists”

  1. I prefer the crystal cave – which is gosh darned astonishing that even the NatGeo pictures look suspicious to me: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/04/photogalleries/giant-crystals-cave/

  2. Jim Shaver says:

    Included is a pic of Frank Sumption and I.

    That should be “… a pic of Frank Sumption and me.”

    Mr. Shermer, that presentation from the TED conference is so cool! I’ve seen it before several times, but I just had to watch it again, on account of its aforementioned coolness.

  3. bigjohn756 says:

    I love crystals! I wish that I could afford some of the incredibly beautiful crystals I have seen. Perhaps if I had them, I could win the lottery. Just think, if the payoff was big enough, I could give you a few million! Now, you will be praying for me to win the lotto, won’t you, Michael?

  4. AUJT says:

    Yes. Very pretty crystals. What can ya say…. I enjoy you lectures, Mr. Shermer. Thank you for them.

  5. catsnjags says:

    Michael,

    Just watched the new Mr. Deity.

    GREAT JOB! Fantastic. Bravo.

  6. John says:

    I’m astonished by the number of times I make the claim that “I don’t know …. yet.” is an acceptable answer to a question that has no evidence to support an reasonable answer and I get “No it’s not!” There are an incredible number of people out there who are very uncomfortable with uncertainty. They’ll buy anything as long as it avoids, “I don’t know.” even when throw the “…. yet.” in there. BTW, you were great on Mr Deity.

  7. MadScientist says:

    The Hungarians are starving again – they’re in Hungry.

  8. kabol says:

    OH, now i see who ‘dave mabus’ (drma – drmab) is…no wonder his posts end up missing.

    michael shermer, you’re either very brave to always face the woo head on and in person or you are a cheerful and unfailingly optimistic sort who can easily and gently handle the woo hordes.

    probably both.

  9. Hayden Jones says:

    Holy Cow, Michael Shermer is on the latest episode of Mr. Deity.

    Mr. Deity and the Skeptic!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gnQz32c5EA&feature=sub

  10. Nexus says:

    drma posted: a link to a site stating that “Atheists caused 9/11.”
    ——————

    drma, you are a coward who resorts to baseless name-calling, ignoble meme-spreading and are therefore a failure of a human being who, with all due appearances, makes absolutely no effort what so ever to verify the ludicrous statements with any indication of a prior logical thought process.

  11. Dr. Shermer

    I really appreciate you being a part of our event and I hope it was overall a good experience for you. I have had a lot of great feedback on your talk and panel discussion and would love to speak with you at more conferences.

    Hope to see you again.

    Dave Schrader

    • ParanormalRanger says:

      Hmmmm, guess you won’t be sending the same best wishes to the panel you so rudely interrupted during DragonCon. Especially since you used the occasion to plug your crappy new book.

  12. LovleAnjel says:

    They sell WAY better crystals at the Geological Society of America national meeting. Valuable ones, like, y’know, diamonds ‘n’ stuff.

  13. Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhh! Frank’s Box! KILL KILL KILL!

  14. Scepticon says:

    Frank’s Box sound’s like an awesome pareidolia machine, I think I want one.

  15. Bill says:

    It’s amazing that Michael Shermer is skeptical about almost everything with the one exception of government False Flag operations.

    False Flag operations are covert operations conducted by governments, corporations, or other organizations which are designed to deceive the public in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by other entities. The name is derived from the military concept of flying false colors; that is, flying the flag of a country other than one’s own. False flag operations are not limited to war and counter-insurgency operations, and have been used in peace-time.

    Michael says anyone who believes False Flag operations are real is nothing more than a Conspiracy Nut. Isn’t that amazing?

    http://www.cracked.com/article_15974_7-insane-conspiracies-that-actually-happened.html

    I wonder which Intelligence Agency Michael works for?

    • leaford says:

      Not to speak for Mr. Shermer, but I think you’ll find his actual position to be a bit more complicated than that. He contends that 9/11 in particular was not a false flag operation, and anyone who thinks it was is a Conspiracy Nut. Not that no false flag operations have ever been real. See the difference? (If not, you should reconsider your position.)

      • Bill says:

        I have asked Michael Shermer if he could name two False Flag Operations that have occurred in the last 75 years that he believes are true. He was not able to come up with even one. He believes False Flag Operations exist only in the minds of Conspiracy Nuts. He will not seriously investigate any of them.

      • kabol says:

        perhaps dr. shermer is busy investigating other more pressing things. why do you need him to investigate for you? if it’s that important to you, and it sounds like it is for you to hijack this topic over it – “investigate” them yourself.

      • Max says:

        This doesn’t address Bill’s point.

      • kabol says:

        in the first sentence of his OP, bill says shermer is skeptical of everything except false flag ops.

        in his last sentence he says shermer thinks anyone who thinks false flag ops are real is a conspiracy nut.

        so tell me, max – what is his point?

      • Max says:

        Bill claims that Shermer won’t seriously investigate any alleged false flag operations because he’s convinced that they all exist only in the minds of Conspiracy Nuts.

        “Investigate them yourself” doesn’t really address this claim, and almost accepts it as being true.

        Just recently, Shermer posted that “Conspiracies do happen, of course.”
        http://www.michaelshermer.com/2009/09/paranoia-strikes-deep

      • kabol says:

        “investigate them yourself” wasn’t the complete point that i made. i thought my own point was pretty clear, even if bill’s wasn’t.

        bill’s assuming shermer’s position on black flag ops is a blatant hijack of this topic.

        i made nor make no such assumption about shermer’s position on an off-topic topic — i’ll just stick with if it’s that important to bill to be topic-hijack worthy, he should investigate it himself.

        cheers!

      • Max says:

        All right, so you tell Bill to investigate it himself, and he goes straight to prisonplanet.com. Or chances are, he’s already been there and just sees your comment as a defensive cop-out.

        Now, I’m interested whether “Michael says anyone who believes False Flag operations are real is nothing more than a Conspiracy Nut.” Where did he say this? If he really couldn’t name one true false flag operation, that’s a shame.

    • catsnjags says:

      sorry… i can’t accept cracked.com as a ligitimate source. if it’s not in mad magazine (their arch rival) i won’t believe it.

      seriously, CRACKED.COM

      FAIL!

      • Bill says:

        Who gets to decide what is a ligitimate source and what is not a ligitmate souce? What is the criteria for evaluation? Some people will only accept what is in am establishment university journal. Anything outside of that they will not accept as ligitimate. Is that your criteria?

    • Max says:

      I wonder which Intelligence Agency Michael works for?

      If he denies that the Moscow apartment bombings were an FSB false flag operation, then I guess he works for the FSB.

  16. New oxymoron: “crystal clear”

    Old foxymoron: Jenny McCarthy

  17. Baloney Detective says:

    Hey Mike, I saw the “Mr Diety” bit and I got to say first good job. Now I know what I’m going to say if faced with that. Second, not to embarrass you, but I noticed the hairline is making a beeline for your behind. You are not alone. I suggest that you shave your head and grow a goatee. With this new “satanic” look you could scare the crap out of the believers.

  18. ParanormalRanger says:

    David Schrader only does what is good for David Schrader pure and simple. Here is a gent who has a real honest to goodness radio show and he believes it makes him a celebrity. When he is not disrupting speakers during their presentation with inappropriate humor, he is arguing with those involved in a panel discussion while he is sitting in the audience. It is bad enough to put up with the likes of Chip Coffey and Christopher Moon but Schrader is in a class by himself. By the way, he has failed that class several times and will hopefully be put back a couple of years

  19. Jeshua says:

    On the subject of Why People Believe Weird Things, why do people think word check will correct all their (not there or they’re, BTW) spelling bloopers (“..how east it is to fool the brain” Yes, it is!). And why is it that even though i carefully review everything i write before releasing it, those kind of errors always show up when it’s too late!