Joe Nickell, the Skeptic’s Conscience

We use the word “debunking” all the time in skepticism, right? All the time. It can seem like debunking is our raison d’être. Why we exist.

This attitude is one of the reasons Joe Nickell is so valuable to this movement. You already know that he’s probably the world’s most renowned investigator of the paranormal and extraordinary claims. But he also serves, when necessary, as the skeptic’s conscience.

Joe’s mission at CSICon this year was to put an end to the inclination of many skeptics to dismiss believers in paranormal claims before investigating the claim itself. Joe has done the hands-on and in-person investigation and interviews, and concludes, “We have to stop this attitude, stop this business [of treating witnesses] like there’s something wrong with them…these are intelligent, sincere sober people.”

He used as an example the Flatwoods UFO case from 1952, where locals saw something fall from the sky, and then encountered what they thought was an alien or monster with shining eyes, that glided toward them, made a horrible hissing sound, and bore “terrible claws.”

Joe pointed out that this was not a hoax by any means. It was not the result of stupidity. This was a real thing seen by real people. And they were absolutely terrified. They deserved to be taken seriously.

nickell-flatwoodsJoe of course figured out what really happened. Not a hoax, not an attempt at gaining attention, but a real encounter. It just wasn’t an encounter with an alien. It was a barn owl. The noise, the shining eyes (flashlights reflecting in the bird’s eyes), the ability to “glide,” and as reported by the witness, a head shaped like the ace of spades.

These weren’t crazy people. These were people who didn’t understand what they saw under very scary, tense conditions in the darkness.

There’s no benefit to just feeling superior to people who witness things they can’t explain. To the person who waves away the idea of investigating paranormal claims and says, “I already know there’s no ghosts (or what have you),” Joe responds, “Well, good for you. A skeptic and a damn genius as well.”

Joe knows there’s so much to be learned from these investigations. About psychology, mental states, how illusions work on our sense, and much more. “It’s not just about us,” says Joe.

So next time you wonder why Skeptical Inquirer continues to investigate hauntings, UFO sightings, and Bigfoot appearances, and you think, “Ugh, this again,” remember that each new investigation reveals something new. Not about whether these things exist, but the myriad factors that go into each event.

“In real investigative efforts,” said Joe, “the debunking will take care of itself.”

Ron Lindsay on Skeptics’ Reason for Being

Why are we here?

This is not a question about the nature of existence. Nor is it the beginning of a joke about James Stockdale. It’s a serious question about the reasons skeptics do what they do. Who better to try to answer it than the man who ran the Center for Inquiry from 2008 to the beginning of this year, former CEO Ron Lindsay?

Ron began framing his presentation as a kind of response to a talk by John Horgan earlier this year at NECSS that complained that skeptics had been wasting their time talking about things like ghosts and homeopathy, which Horgan said were “soft targets.” Are they?

Ron says no, and very clearly explained why. Pointing to the mission statement of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Ron highlighted the bit that focuses on “controversial or extraordinary claims.” Ron said, “These are the type of claims that many scientists aren’t interested in.” Scientists don’t think ghosts, homeopathy, vaccines, GMOs, and the like are controversial. They’re settled science.

But as Ron pointed out, these things are absolutely controversial among the general public, for myriad reasons. Our job, as a skeptic movement, is to make sure the public is aware of the facts behind the controversies, that these things actually have been settled.

Homeopathy is a rather simple example: Scientists all know it’s bunk, but it’s supported by a lot of marketing, by loose regulation, and billions of dollars in sales. That’s not a soft target, that’s a granite-hard target. So CFI tackles it to try and improve regulations and educate the public as to why it’s a waste of their money, that it won’t cure anything, and could in fact do harm.

But even with things like belief in ghosts or alien visitation, it’s not so much the beliefs themselves, but the thought process that leads people to those beliefs, rejecting science and evidence in many other areas, and falling for conspiracies and other scams. By pointing out the alternative, a critical thinking framework and an emphasis on science and evidence, we can have a safer, healthier, and wiser public. It helps all of us.

“Out work is important, our work is necessary,” said Ron, and he’s of course right. “And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”