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Carl Sagan’s Crazy Train

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 02 2012

[Questo post è disponibile anche in italiano nella versione online di Query, la rivista ufficiale del CICAP (Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sul Paranormale). Potete leggerlo qui.]

Steven Novella’s post last week on the complex topic of the ethics of speech was inspired by consideration of the ethics of “colloquial use of the term ‘crazy.’” This is an area of interest to me. I have often argued both for professional restraint in the things skeptics say and the manner in which we say them; and, for the importance of ongoing conversation on the ethics and efficacy of skeptical practice. But Novella’s post also had excellent timing, as I was already planning on touching on some of the thorny ethics at the intersection between skepticism and mental illness.

I should say at the outset that I have little in the way of solutions to offer. That’s natural and proper: I am not a mental health professional, so it should seem surprising (or reckless) if I had many answers—insofar as answers even exist. My professional experience in skepticism does suggest some troubling questions, however. As well, many people have personal or family experience with the tragedies of mental illness, serious addiction, or both. My own life has been no exception, so I confess that I feel acutely aware the topic.

That said, let’s look at some angles of interest.

Misleading Assumptions

One issue I have touched upon previously in Skepticblog (and which I discuss in some detail in my upcoming book with Don Prothero) is the misleading assumption of mental illness or dysfunction as a major factor in paranormal belief. Often this assumption is expressed in an informal or colloquial form. (Occasionally it is expressed more seriously as a hypothesis.) It’s not unusual to find skeptics referring to “the crazies” or “the woos” or the “tinfoil hat brigade” as somehow unusual—other and apart. The view of paranormal believers as social or psychological outliers, however, flies in the face of the science. Sociologists and pollsters know that the paranormal is in fact normal—that is, a large majority of people hold one or more paranormal beliefs, even when offered only a very short list from which to choose. Offering American adults a list of ten paranormal beliefs, for example, a 2005 Gallup survey found that 73 percent of Americans affirmed a belief in at least one of those ten items; 57 percent believed at least two of those items; 43 percent believed three or more.1

It hardly needs saying that those 73 percent of Americans cannot all be mentally ill. But it happens that social scientists have also drilled down into the question of mental health within subpopulations of paranormal believers or experiencers. For example, Harvard psychologist Susan Clancy’s studies of people who believe they have been kidnapped by space aliens revealed a population with generally ordinary mental health. (There was “little evidence that this was a particularly psychopathological group,” she wrote.2). Scoffers may feel tempted to view alien abductees as a convenient go-to example of a “lunatic fringe,” but that framing is profoundly unhelpful in the pursuit of scientific understanding of the topic of alien abduction. (I discuss Clancy’s work with abductees in more detail here.)

Even for the most hardcore “debunkers,” our goal is generally stated to be accurate information, not moral judgment. Remember the Spinoza quote that serves as the motto of the Skeptics Society? “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” It’s the nature of prejudice to distort and conceal the facts. If we are serious about our truth-seeking, follow-the-evidence aspirations, then we may find it a useful practice to cull as many expressions of prejudice or assumption as possible from our public and private language. At the end of the day, as one Skeptical Inquirer letter-writer expressed in regard to alien abduction, “It is disrespectful and misleading to talk about individual human beings as though we can be easily be labeled either ‘crazy’ or ‘sane.’ ‘Sane’ people can have crazy problems”—such as believing they’ve been abducted by aliens.3

Moral Concerns

My points above concern essentially amoral methodological considerations: if we care about accuracy, then it follows that we should avoid making statements that are not true or which we do not know to be true. By similar reasoning, we should avoid prejudicial language—language that offers a conclusion prior to investigation. To call people crazy is to commit Sherlock Holmes’s “capital mistake.”4

But methodology is not the only concern. People are not robots. There are also ethical and moral dimensions to the language of labeling—the dimensions discussed by Steven Novella’s thoughtful recent post (which in turn was a response to Elyse Anders’ thoughts on the same topic). “Crazy” in particular often carries a connotation that the person so labelled is so incoherent or disordered in their thinking that their arguments or feelings may be dismissed out of hand—a particularly ugly suggestion when we know that some paranormal proponents and interested readers of skeptical content must indeed struggle with mental illness.

Now, this is not to snipe at Novella. I agree with his overall point that context matters when considering the appropriateness of language, and I join him in hoping that listeners extend some charity of interpretation to speakers. After all, I’m in the business of voicing stuff as clearly as I can and then hoping it will be received in the best light (often a vain hope on the internet). As Novella puts it,

[I]f we grant that there is a responsibility to civility if we desire to function in society, where does that responsibility lie? One premise of Elyse’s stated position is that the responsibility lies entirely with the speaker. Rather, I would propose that there is a shared responsibility. You can make a reasonable argument that speakers should make an attempt to be aware of the effect that what they say, including their word choice, has on others. I would also argue that people should make a reasonable attempt to not be thin-skinned, to not take offense where none was intended, and to accommodate for the vagaries of everyday speech.5

The speaker is a stakeholder in speech; so too is the listener or target of speech (rendering the “there is no right not to be offended” argument for confrontational approaches bankrupt, in my opinion). The ethics of speech are then a collaboration, an exchange, a balancing act. Nonetheless, in light of my years banging the civility drum, it will surprise no one that I place the heaviest burden for civility, accuracy, and due diligence on the speaker.

I know from personal experience that the word “crazy” in particular can derail dialogue. In an otherwise fruitful 2004 email interview with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, I asked this colloquial, lighthearted question: “Are cryptozoologists crazy?” (I was deliberately fishing for a quote to the effect that cryptozoology is a reasonable pursuit given x, y, and z.) I was taken off guard by Coleman’s response—not because I disagreed with it, but because I had failed to anticipate it.

I’m sorry, but having worked closely with many people from various walks of life for over three decades, I find no humor in this question. Individuals with mental illness, bipolar disorders, and clinically defined personality difficulties are no joking matter.

To use words like “crazy” as a descriptor for anyone, let alone people that are conducting scientific research outside the mainstream, is demeaning and allows stigma to erect attitudinal, structural, and financial barriers.

According to Andrew Wahl, by the second or third grade children have already picked up on the fact “that people with mental illnesses are to be viewed less favorably than others” (Stigmatizing Media Images Affect Children). Mentally ill people are clearly not seen or treated as equal community members, and to reinforce this by labeling people that skeptics find silly or worthless is uncalled for.6

Well, fair enough. I apologized unreservedly, and rephrased my question. He was right—and I knew he was right, because of the challenges and sorrows of people I love.

Genuine Mental Illness

Skeptics may be too quick to dismiss unconventional beliefs or believers as irrational, but there is no question that we encounter mental illness in our practice. My inspiration for this post is a chapter from Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection. Sagan discussed the many different types of letters he often received from his readers—children, inventors, UFO enthusiasts, and so on. Among these, of course, were letters from people who were mentally disturbed, or in some cases even institutionalized.

But over the years there is one letter that stands out in my mind as the most poignant and charming of its type. There came in the post an eighty-five page handwritten letter, written in green ballpoint pen, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa. He had read a report in a local newspaper that I had thought it possible that life exists on other planets; he wished to reassure me that I was entirely correct in this supposition, as he knew from his own personal knowledge.7

Sagan’s correspondent had, he wrote, managed to make contact with a number of ancient deities, including Jupiter and “God Almighty” (both patients at the same hospital). God Almighty took him on a spaceship tour of the solar system.

And this, Dr. Sagan, is how I can assure you that the planets are inhabited.… But all this business about life elsewhere is so much speculation and not worth the really serious interest of a scientist such as yourself. Why don’t you address yourself to a really important problem, such as the construction of a trans-Canadian railroad at high northern latitudes?8

Looking over the enclosed “detailed sketch of the proposed railway route,” Sagan was unsure what to say. “Other than stating my serious intent to work on a trans-Canadian railroad at high northern latitudes,” he wrote, “I have never been able to think of an appropriate response to this letter.”

I can’t either, and it’s not an academic question. This letter is not particularly unusual. I have received similar letters myself. I’m sure this is true of many of my colleagues.

What is the appropriate response to encounters of this kind? And more generally, how can scientific skepticism develop practices that take seriously the weight and the risks of our work? It is the nature of this field of study that people contact us about the transmitters in their heads, or the ghosts driving them from their homes. We report on families in crisis, discuss recovered memories of abuse, report on vitamins sold as treatments for serious mental illnesses. In that context, how funny can “crazy” possibly be?

For example, couldn’t the title of this post be justifiably criticized as inappropriate, even cruel? Indeed, shouldn’t it be? I couldn’t resist the mashup of Carl Sagan and Ozzy Osbourne, but why is my amusement an excuse? Who am I to be so flippant about Sagan’s story? The man in his story was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, for god’s sake. He was a person in trouble, not a punchline.

That’s true of a lot of people. So my question is, what do we do about that? I open the floor to you.

References:

  1. David W. Moore. “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx (accessed Oct 1, 2012). For a detailed discussion of these and other data, see my upcoming book with Donald Prothero, Abominable Science (Columbia University Press).
  2. Susan Clancy. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.) p 129. Abductees do tend, however, to have certain normal traits in common—including a higher than average vulnerability to creating false memories ina laboratory setting. See Clancy (2005) pp. 132-133
  3. Pamela Roberson. Letter to the Editor. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol.22, No.5. September/October 1998. p. 64
  4. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Arthur Conan Doyle. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1. (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.) p. 189
  5. Steven Novella. “Call Me Crazy, But…” Skepticblog. Sept 24, 2012. http://www.skepticblog.org/2012/09/24/call-me-crazy-but/ (accessed Oct 1, 2012)
  6. Loren Coleman. Email to author. Nov 23, 2004.
  7. Carl Sagan. The Cosmic Connection. (New York: Anchor Books, 1973.) p. 77–78. Quotes from the patient’s letter are evidently Sagan’s paraphrase from memory.
  8. Ibid. p. 79. Quotes from the patient’s letter are evidently Sagan’s paraphrase from memory.
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43 Responses to “Carl Sagan’s Crazy Train”

  1. Mike McRae says:

    The American anthropologist Alan Young succinctly defines illness in one of his papers (in part) as “a kind of behavior which would be socially unacceptable (because it involves withdrawal or threatened withdrawal from customary responsibilities) if it were not that some means of exculpation is always provided.”

    So we identify any behaviour or function that we deem to not only be abnormal, but unacceptable due to its withdrawal from what we define as a social responsibility as a disease or condition. In doing so, we reduce the individual’s liberty (i.e., not being culpable, they have no freedom of control) and therefore their social status. As such, categorising things as diseases or conditions is as much a cultural exercise as it is a scientific one.

    I’m letting my bias show here, but I’ve found skepticism as a culture has long been dominated by a desire to eradicate beliefs rather than understand how they’re formed. Labeling them as crazy is one way to discourage people from adopting them, rather than an informed attempt to understand how people form beliefs.

  2. tudza says:

    The inclusion of this: “(rendering the “there is no right not to be offended” argument for confrontational approaches bankrupt, in my opinion)” bothers me a bit. It seems many people go to great lengths to be offended.

    No, I have not seen that movie, but rumor that it exists makes me very angry so I will go burn an embassy and kill people.

    That person’s views on religion offend me, so I will see that they are jailed or even executed under charges of blasphemy.

    One person’s reasonable disagreement can easily be viewed by another as confrontational.

    • MadScientist says:

      Yes, some people’s idea of dealing with reality is to squawk like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland: Off with his/her/its head! Now if that isn’t crazy, what is?

      • oldebabe says:

        Yes, it’s the idea, language, etc. that IS crazy. Not necessarily associating the person with the deed is not a new idea, tho the Q of H does make that difficult in her case..

  3. @b says:

    When we play with the idea of human illness, we know we aren’t toying with living breathing individuals. Though yes we recognise those words can feel like bad behaviour.

    Luckily skeptics don’t need to find a consensus opinion on where to draw the line on “unethical”. We needn’t even trust the professorial consensus of ethicists. Do we? (That might be a fun area of wikipedia for skeptics to dig deeply into.)

    As with most value judgments, our instinct is drawing up guidelines for our group to commit to. Or throwing up our hands if we notice that’s very difficult work. However it seems more important for fostering “good behaviour” (says me) that we continually remind other skeptics to slow down and look at our words through an ethical lens as we’re putting them out into cyberspace. Good behaviour requires on-going group feedback. Berating even.

    “amoral methodological considerations: if we care about accuracy…”

    I suspect that caring about accuracy is an oft overlooked virtue. Not all our interlocutors care more about the finer details than the easy answer; why OUGHTN’T they assert that calling a rival group “crazy” is always/never immoral? Are we arguing that nuance produces better behaviour? That nuance is a superior ethical principle? Or just feels good to us?

  4. d brown says:

    I once read that not that years ago one way of telling if someone was really “mad” was if they did the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome. It was said that back in the 20′s or 30′s there was a famous movie that had a train move past, hiding a nude woman coming out of water. It was said that a “mad” person would keep going to the movie hoping the train would not come at that time. This is no joke, yes really. It was one of the main things Docs looked for and still may. As for the main part of this post, remember logic alone is not the truth. I am not any kind of fan, but it seems Ozzy Osbourne was over medicated at the time he was on TV.

  5. Max says:

    You know the difference between literal and figurative? References to tinfoil hats and being off one’s meds are figurative.

  6. Shadow of the Hedgehog says:

    It’s simple. “Crazy” and “mentally ill” though used interchangeably by most, are not actually synonymous. “Crazy” means irrational/nonsensical. Just use the word to apply to concepts or statements and not to actual people.

    While this kind of examination of how we use language is good, I beg you to travel this road carefully; paved as it is with good intentions you know where it leads, and soon you’ll be substituting the neologism “kirksy” to avoid being called an ablist.

    • Shadow of the Hedgehog says:

      Apologies. I hadn’t seen that you had already addressed what I commented on in a previous post.

  7. Phea says:

    I hadn’t thought much about it until now, but “crazy”, is a very interesting word. It doesn’t mean much out of context because it has so many meanings. Beatniks used it like, the scene was crazy man, far out. It can mean confusing, excessive, erratic, weird, silly, odd, cu-coo, dangerous, and be sure to include pointing your index finger at your temple and making clockwise circles. We really don’t even need to equate crazy with mental illness as we have an abundance of alternatives such as, nuts, wacko, loony tunes, and not playing with a full deck, to list a few.

    Crazy can be a good thing, like Heart’s, Nancy Wilson going, “Crazy on you”. If Patsy Cline’s song is offensive to someone, I’d have to say it was their problem, not the songs. I’ve been in situations where the best way to describe them was crazy, and I’ve also met some people, I’m thinking in particular of a guy who used to get really violent… crazy, when he’d had too much to drink. Come to think of it, I’ve personally done a few things while drunk that could be called crazy.

  8. David says:

    @5. Max:
    What is your point exactly? My initial read is that you’re saying that figurative language is somehow less powerful or prejudicial…?

    • Max says:

      It sounds like Loxton takes insults literally, as if saying that someone’s tinfoil hat is on too tight means you really think conspiracy theories are caused by tight-fitting tinfoil hats.

  9. Trimegistus says:

    Has anyone studied the psychology of skeptics?

    I say this because I’m afraid it might reveal an uncomfortable similarity between skeptics and the paranormal believers we oppose. One can see a desire to demonstrate superiority via knowledge, the sense of being part of an embattled but righteous cause — and, of course, the obsessive interest in paranormal topics.

    I have thought for a long time that the most genuine good skeptics can do is to expose the frauds: the fake cures, the bogus psychics, the con men — people who use paranormal claims to exploit others and possibly prevent them from getting genuine help. That’s the real harm. Attacking believers simply as believers accomplishes little, and certainly destroying a person’s deeply-held beliefs is not necessarily a benefit to them.

    Would it be possible, I wonder, to devise some kind of experiment in which one could evaluate the sanity of a skeptic and a believer, without reference to specific beliefs? As I say, the results might be a bit uncomfortable.

    • Max says:

      “One can see a desire to demonstrate superiority via knowledge, the sense of being part of an embattled but righteous cause — and, of course, the obsessive interest in paranormal topics.”

      None of that is crazy, and not all skeptics have an obsessive interest in paranormal topics. I don’t. Delusions and paranoia, those are crazy.

    • Phea says:

      Tri, I’m probably not an average, or typical skeptic. In a way, my background has some similarities to Mark Edwards’. I was 18, selling books door to door to young GI’s… basically, a legal con game. I realized quite young that the world is chock full of cons, and that in many ways, they are the rule rather than the exception, (IE, ANYONE knocking on your door with a “proposition”).

      I don’t consider myself to be superior to someone just because I am more familiar and therefor, less ignorant, about how sales pitches are designed and why they work. Everyone is “superior” to other people in one way or another about something.

      I am not obsessed with things paranormal. I also find that the vast majority of folks who do believe, (that 73%), aren’t in any real danger. I am not on any crusade to save people from a belief I might happen to disagree with, (just thinking about being anything like a salvation pitching, bible-thumping, god salesman, makes me a bit ill). Funny thing about fanaticism, it tends to tarnish and diminish even the most noble, righteous causes.

      To me, the best overall thing skeptics do is, be skeptical. Individually, and collectively, they’ve become a small part of a solution, rather than part of the problem. The more people on the planet who are thinking critically, or at least trying to, the better. To me, that’s plenty enough, “genuine good”.

    • MadScientist says:

      That would be a very superficial view. Perhaps some skeptics are like that, but certainly far from most. There is a huge difference between how a skeptic appraises information and how a believer does; Brian’s recent post on the HuffPo UFO interview shows this quite clearly. Or as Randi likes to put it, if you heard the sound of galloping hooves on the pavement would you think “horse” or “unicorn”?

  10. Chris Howard says:

    Always give a human being their due respect, inherent by virtue of their “humanness.”
    One, does not however, have to, nor should one respect a delusional thought. Note the difference.

    As someone who worked in mental health I can tell you that that is exactly how therapy works. Specifically with regard to delusional clients. Why? One: Because we don’t live in a vacuum where our actions (based upon our beliefs) have no effect upon others.
    Two: If we simply respected everyone’s “crazy” thought patterns, (usually the same thinking errors that caused them to be in the hospital in the first place) and maladaptive behavioral issues then the client would have no hope of getting better, because no one challenged their erroneous beliefs.

    Again, please note that there is a difference between the deontological requirement of respecting another human being, and respecting their beliefs. A case could be made that, what is often times perceived as, being “mean” is nothing more than doing the equally ethical duty of challenging a potential dangerous thought, which could lead to a lethal outcome.

    This is why labeling someone as “crazy” or a “dick” is useless unless one understands the context, and other variables regarding any given situation, or conversation.
    People take all sorts of things personally, you and I have no control over what someone else will take offense at, and challenging beliefs IS personal, but it is NOT the person.

  11. Molly says:

    Thank you for this post. I was just commenting about this topic yesterday on the Doubtful News site. One of the reasons I like that site is that they do not have the mocking, derisive tone that some skeptic sites do, and they do not allow comments that refer to people with unusual beliefs as stupid, idiots, crazy, pathetic, etc..

    Unusual beliefs are not explainable by impaired intelligence or mental illness. To pigeonhole believers into those categories is a false belief in and of itself. They are mostly people who fall well within the established parameters and definitions of being psychologically normal. They just happen to be susceptible to one or more forms of unusual beliefs due to some underlying emotional need.

    Sometimes I can hardly blame them. If you only ingest the more mainstream media feeds it seems like there is no such thing as an objective truth. There is a sea of voices constantly lying, contradicting each other, twisting data, skewing statistics, and manipulating dialogue. How does one decide what to believe? If an individual is frightened and overwhelmed by the idea of truth being such a flimsy, malleable concept it makes following the assertive and assuring voices of woo purveyors seem very sane indeed. Ambiguity is scary. It is natural to want to find something certain and cling to it – and strongly resist skeptics who want to take that certainty away from you and replace it with what you perceive to be a cold, confusing reality.

  12. Rob says:

    It hardly needs saying that those 73 percent of Americans cannot all be mentally ill

    Why? There are diseases with a similar penetration.

  13. d brown says:

    True believers incorporate believe into what they are. True or not. its good to tell the truth. Nobody wanted too in Hitler’s time. A lot of people nowadays are “crazy” over telling others what to say and think.

  14. Daniel says:

    Am I crazy, or is that a lot of gum?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yk-hivskli0

  15. Zaphod says:

    A recent article similar in scope and tone to this blog post, and to the post by Steven Novella last week, by Andrew F. March (Associate professor of political science at Yale University) can be found online at the NY Times;

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/whats-wrong-with-blasphemy/

    Like Molly, one thing that has bothered me many times while reading this blog is the use of pejorative phrases by posters/commentators to describe our fellow humans who don’t yet share the skeptic view (way of life???). So far, I’ve never found that I can persuade another person to seriously consider what I’m educating them about while calling them “crazy”, “idiot”, “woo-head”, etc. So thanks for the discussion, it needed to be put out there.

  16. David S says:

    I’m a great fan of Michael Shermer, Daniel Loxton, et al. and the skeptic movement in general. I was raised to think critically and would call myself a skeptic since well before I even learned the term. I also suffer from bipolar disorder II (the less manic, more depressive type) which sometimes causes erratic or disruptive behavior. My disorder mainly impairs my judgment and / or restraint, not my ability to reason. (In fact, my propensity to demolish others with logical arguments is quite enhanced during my “episodes”.)

    All that to say: calling me “crazy” has no descriptive or explanatory value, and my particular brand of crazy has little or no effect on my beliefs or ability to reason and be skeptical. So Daniel is right, dismissing believers as “crazy” is just irresponsible, unethical, and lazy.

    • Max says:

      Are you offended by every use of “crazy” everywhere?
      “Coo coo for cocoa puffs” is an insult to depressed people? Give me a break.

  17. Crazy Person says:

    As a skeptic, a scientist and someone that has had mental health issues during adolescence (psychosis), I find the general picture people have of mentally ill people disturbingly far away from reality. Even amongst educated people, mental illness, maybe apart from depression and mild neurotic behaviors, has a huge stigma. There are mentally ill people that are perfectly capable of leading a relatively normal life, that have careers, have studied, obtained PhDs. Mental illness, even psychosis, does not necessarily mean that the person affected is completely disconnected from reality. I am personally not offended by the word crazy. I however feel offended when all mentally ill people are portrayed as if they were barely conscious and couldn’t possibly have anything meaningful to say. The discussion above shows shows that quite nicely. Keep using the word crazy, stop pitying the mentally ill.

  18. d brown says:

    I would like to recommend the book “The_True_Believer”. http://en.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_True_Believer. The book is better than what Wikipedia says about it. It tells about thinking and believing not just politics.

  19. Brycemeister says:

    As an artist who is slightly on the woo woo side, who is somewhat grounded in what I usually call consensus reality, and who finds himself as easily capable of common sense logic (and what is known as ‘mechanical reasoning’)as I am of flights of fancy, and who has endured many years of being mispercieved as woo woo’ (for instance, a now faded obsession with conspiracy theories was due to a fascination with a kind of underbelly, sociologically, while having no actual literal belief in the conspiracies themselves), I find the word ‘belief’ far more insulting, personally, than ‘crazy’. There are undoubtedly skeptics who believe in skepticism, just as there are those who research the paranormal, who do not debunk, and who have no real belief in the so-called paranormal. Loxton’s short essay is actually leagues kinder and more open-minded than many i have read/heard. I personally dislike ‘shrillness’ on either a skeptic’s or a so-called believer’s part. And for those who believe, on either side of the spectrum, I pose a more zenlike approach: try to translate an experience into something with meaning, rather than merely attempting to prove it did, or did not happen. Keep a critical mind, as always, but it’s not necessary to consider whether actual or not. I’ve seen what I consider to be objects of utterly unknown origin, but I do not give them names. I consider – what does the experience mean to me, if anything?

  20. Brycemeister says:

    Forgot to add = I was considered woo woo because people were convinced I actually believed in what I was interested in. They had, of course, simply assumed this, without actually discussing things with me at any length.

  21. ksb193 says:

    I’m new here, so forgive me if I seem naive, since I may not be quite up to speed on skeptical issues, but as a psychotherapist who has studied mental health, I’ve never been able to get a good definition of “normal” behavior/thinking. It seems to be “whatever is generally accepted” rather than some measurable “thing,” and what is generally accepted seems to change over time. Also, it is so easy to criticize others (often because we lack information and don’t completely understand them). It’s much harder to state what WE believe in, rather than to criticize others’ beliefs/behavior.

    • Brycemeister says:

      ksb – it’s a bit of a thorny issue, granted. As far as my own understanding goes, there seems to be two types of skepticism that I’ve observed. There’s the kind that people like Dawkins and James Randi have (only anecdotally reported, however)which appears to be an insistence on some basic principles, one of which seems to be “aint no such thing as paranormal.” Others can be broken down to everything is here randomly, there’s no overall meaning (but there might be pattern)and so on, suggesting an apriori set of assumptions about how the universe or reality works. These, in light of current evidence, might be considered beliefs, and possibly somewhat misguided, possibly a bit delusional. The other type merely insists on logical, science or reason based examination of the facts and aspects of the case/event, whatever, with attendant research and so on. Interesting to me, I’ve found skeptical thinking in both secularist and traditionally Christian ranks. Assuming that skepticism is strictly secular tends to not relate to the actual reality.

  22. Brent says:

    I was going to make a point, but find Rob already made it – but no one has addressed it. If 73% of the population had measles, AIDS, or chickenpox, would we be denying they had a disease? If someone has a leg that is malformed, but seems otherwise normal, do we just pretend they have nothing wrong with them – even when we know a cure could exist?

    • Max says:

      When 75% of the population is lactose intolerant, we don’t consider it a disease. If everyone in the world were deaf, it wouldn’t be a disease, just as being deaf to ultrasonic frequencies is not a disease.

    • Mike McRae says:

      Actually, I insinuated an answer in my response above. Diseases are culturally qualified. Pissing blood is so common in some Indonesian communities thanks to bilharzia infections, it’s regarded as a mark of adulthood for young males. It is incredibly normalised*.

      What qualifies a particular biological variation as a ‘disease’ depends on what a culture determines to be excusable, and what it determines are an individual’s responsibilities. Likewise, what serves as a benchmark for normality depends on a social group’s perceptions.

      The reason why this is significant is that it means there are two ways to address what’s considered a disease – we can medicalise it and try to change the biology, and/or we can change the environment that qualifies it as a compromise in wellbeing. If somebody has a leg they’re not happy with, the first question we often ask is ‘can we fix it?’. Not ‘what can we do to change the environment so people are comfortable with their variation?’.

      *Hunter JM (2003)Social Science & Medicine, 56(2)pp 219-234

      • Max says:

        I think wheelchair-bound people would much rather restore their ability to walk than have ramps everywhere.

      • tmac57 says:

        I’m just glad that our society didn’t get too comfortable with small pox being the norm.

    • I’m not sure that the concept of mental illness makes sense to me when applied to most of the population, but it’s peripheral to my point in any event: paranormal beliefs are common across the board, and are not in any sense restricted to those with diagnosable mental illness. For that reason, the presence of a paranormal belief tells us nothing about an individual’s mental health. Conversely, the concept of mental illness is not a useful to skeptics who wish to assess the truth value or understand the persistence of any given paranormal belief.

      • tmac57 says:

        Maybe it’s just me,but if I were a paranormal investigator,I don’t think that I would spend very much time looking into some wild claims by someone whom I knew to suffer from schizophrenia.Occam’s razor and all that.

      • That goes to the twin points of the post: most paranormal claims or experiences are not connected to schizophrenia or similar disorders; and yet, skeptics do sometimes encounter situations in which mental illness is likely to be factor. We have a need (in my opinion) to figure out how to avoid over-reliance on mental illness as a hypothesis, while at the same time ensuring that we are responsible regarding the health needs, dignity and wellbeing of the people we encounter in our practice.

      • tmac57 says:

        Okay.
        I was just showing a specific instance where the concept of mental illness might be useful to a skeptic who wished to assess the truth value of a given paranormal belief.
        I would not apply the principle in reverse,where the paranormal belief was cause for automatically suspecting the believer to be schizophrenic.

  23. d brown says:

    I am sure that many people need something to be better than they are. Knowing things that other do not would do it. They would incorporate what they want to believe into what they are. That’s not nuts, coco or mentally ill. It’s being human. Wrong but human.

  24. d brown says:

    Schizophrenics may have a physical disease not of the mind alone. There are real physical changes in the brain that worsen as they get older. Its hard to see how this could be anything but a physical disease. We are treating the systopms, badly, and may no be looking for the cause or the cure

  25. Mike McRae says:

    d brown – what would a mental disease be if not physical? That’s awfully close to dualism.

    To be charitable, you might be suggesting that schizophrenia is an ‘actual’ disease; in that the brain has ‘something’ that is different. It’s actually broken rather than just different.

    The problem is that nature doesn’t have categories of normal and broken. We impose that. Any neurological variation is either acceptable as part of the norm, accepted as outside the norm but considered harmless (i.e., person still meets their social obligations), or is considered outside the norm and deemed responsible for a deviation in responsibilities or sense of relative wellbeing.

    tl/dr: All mental illness is physical, just as all behaviour derives from a physical system. It’s an illness only because the variation is of a nature we deem to be bad or wrong.

  26. d brown says:

    “real physical changes in the brain (can be seen as the brain is damaged)that worsen as they get older. That’s in schizophrenia alone. A slow virus like HIV has been found. Whether its a cause is not known. The facts seem to be that schizophrenia may have little to do with the variation is of human nature. I can remember when it all had something to do with the mother.