brightwanderer: Ariel from The Little Mermaid (Ariel)
[personal profile] brightwanderer
So I'm listening to this really awesome podcast called The Black Tapes. If you like paranormal/horror stuff, I highly recommend it. One of the characters is in the habit of investigating paranormal reports from the point of view of disproving them, and has a "normal" explanation for everything he comes across. He's also massively condescending, which often goes hand in hand with that sort of mindset. He is often referred to as the foremost "paranormal skeptic" in the series.

Here's the thing: he's not actually very good at skepticism. People use skeptic to mean someone who automatically disbelieves something that other people believe. Tell a skeptic a ghost story, describe a miracle, or express your belief in the immortal soul, and the skeptic will tear your narrative to shreds with cold, sarcastic logic.

That person is failing at being skeptical. That person is actually just a different kind of believer, as biased and wedded to their own beliefs as the person they're trying to debunk.

A true skeptic, confronted with a ghost story, starts with a blank slate. She starts from the idea that there could be a ghost... or there could not. She doesn't make any assumptions either way. Then she looks for data. She looks at the data of the physical world, at recordings, locations, objects. She looks at the data of personal experience, by listening to accounts of witnesses. She looks at the data of history and probability (can she point to any other occurrences that conclusively suggest it is a ghost?). She looks at the data of culture and society (can she demonstrate that there is a strong cultural narrative around ghosts that could have informed this story?). She looks at the data of psychology, individual and social (do people have a tendency to associate specific experiences with an existing cultural narrative?).

She considers the possibility that a ghost caused the events told in the story. She considers the possibility that something else, some natural force or combination of actions caused them instead. She considers the possibility that the people telling the story are lying. She considers the possibility that the people telling the story are remembering incorrectly, attributing cause and effect incorrectly, or have been influenced by each other in the time since the events.

She tries to recreate the events if possible, and she records her efforts. If the events can be repeated, she tries to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces until she understands every fragment. If they can't be repeated, that's another data point.

When she makes up her mind, she does it without resorting to absolutes, and with an understanding of the limits of her data. Maybe she determines that the whole thing was a setup. Maybe she can demonstrate that some of the events were natural, and show that is plausible that the others were misinterpreted. Maybe she is left to conclude that it may in fact have been a ghost - or even to decide so unambiguously because a great big white scary thing pops out of a haunted basement while she's investigating.

The character in this podcast is not a skeptic. He scrambles desperately for any plausible (by his standards) explanation that isn't supernatural, and he does it with a smugness that is infuriating. If he can come up with something that sounds like it could be the explanation, he stops investigating without trying to prove his thesis. That's a cardinal scientific sin! You don't declare the case closed just because you've come up with a good story about it. That's exactly what the people you're trying to disprove are doing.

(Quick note: I really like this character! This is not a rant about him, just some thoughts about how skeptics are portrayed and how people IRL identify as skeptical.)

A skeptic realises that many very big questions don't have hard and fast answers, and gets comfortable with the idea of probability instead of certainty, and keeps looking for more data. A skeptic might conclude that the vast body of evidence to date suggests that ghosts do not exist, and that there are plausible and convincing explanations for every ghost story, but she keeps in mind the fact that it is impossible to prove a negative. And if she finds something that doesn't fit the patterns, she doesn't try to cram it in there. She accepts that she might be wrong. And then she keeps digging.

I think this is a really important distinction because skepticism isn't just about ghosts. There are a lot of things in life that we should be skeptical of. We should be skeptical of the news we hear and read (because we should understand that all words are filtered through the minds of the people who write them, and that bias is not always conscious, and every single person on the planet has an "angle" whenever they open their mouth). That doesn't mean we automatically disbelieve it. But it means you check, when you can. You try to get more than one view point. You pay attention to the kind of words that are used.

We should be skeptical of the workings of the universe, of our mythology and religion, of the motivations of people around us. I repeat: that does not mean being a cynical asshole who assumes that everybody lies. It means being willing to look for evidence and consider alternate viewpoints. It means recognising your own biases. It means understanding that doing this does not imply distrust or disbelief.

It is legitimate to be a skeptic and also be religious. It is legitimate to trust another person but still verify their story. It is possible to believe something but be willing to examine it, test it, and weigh it up. It is not a betrayal. One of the key signs that something is wrong, whether in a personal relationship or a social situation, is if someone is telling you that skepticism is betrayal - that to question is not to believe. And it's much, much easier for someone to tell you that if they can define "skeptic" as "non-believer" or "attacker" or "sarcastic asshole", instead of what it should be: someone who always, always questions - and weighs the answers against the world, and chooses carefully.


(... but seriously, go listen to The Black Tapes. Just... possibly not right before you go to sleep.)

Edited to Add: Re-reading, I feel like this topic should come with a "full disclosure" type statement, so: I do not believe in gods and I do not believe in ghosts. I am absolutely the person who in my head is responding to ghost stories with "Ooh! Sleep paralysis! The Cotard delusion! That weird thing where staring at your face for too long messes with your brain! The permeability of memory and the astounding ability of the brain to hallucinate convincingly!". Which is why this particular characterisation bothers me, I guess. I don't see why anyone has to be an asshole about it, and besides, we're always learning new things that would have sounded crazy a few years previously!
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brightwanderer: Guardian Sol from Celestial Chronicle (Default)
Helen Bright

January 2017

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