Joe Nickell – Skeptical Inquiry vs. Debunking

December 16, 2005

Dr. Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow for CSICOP, is considered world’s leading paranormal investigator. A former professional stage magician and private investigator, he taught at the University of Kentucky before joining CSICOP. Using his varied background, Nickell has become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries, and hoaxes. He has been called “the modern Sherlock Holmes,” “the original ghost buster,” and “the real-life Scully” (after the character in “The X-Files” ). He has investigated scores of paranormal occurances and haunted-house cases, including the Amityville Horror and the Mackenzie House in Toronto, Canada. A veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances, he is the author of over 20 books, including Inquest of the Shroud of Turin, Secrets of the Supernatural, Looking for Miracle, Entities, Psychic Sleuths, Real Life X Files, The UFO Invasion and the new title Secrets of the Sideshows.

Conversing with DJ Grothe, he cautions the skeptic against debunking, and argues for open-minded investigation of paranormal claims.

Also, in the first of a two part interview entitled The Real War on Christmas, Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, urges listeners to wage an actual war on Christmas, in defense of America’s religious diversity and the rights of nonbelievers.

In Ben Radford’s regular commentary, Media Mythmakers, he discusses recent public scares over violent video games.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 16th, 2005. 

Hello, I’m DJ Grothe he. Welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Point of Inquiry seeks to draw on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. And to bring you each week interviews and commentary focusing on the three research areas here at CFI, first Pseudo-Science and the Paranormal. Second, we’ll focus on the growing alternative medicine movement. Third, on point of inquiry will focus on religion, secularism and nonbelief. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we will be joined by Dr. Joe Niccolò, senior research fellow for PSI Cop at the Center for Inquiry. Then later in the broadcast, I’ll talk with Barry Carr, executive director of PSI Cop, about the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. You’ll even learn how you can get a free copy. We’ll also feature the first in a two part series entitled The Real War on Christmas by Tom Flynn. But first, a point of inquiry contributor and Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford brings us a segment entitled Media Mythmakers, offering criticism and insight into how the media sometimes deceives the public. 

The debate about violence in entertainment has surfaced once again in late November, a media watchdog group, the National Institute on Media and the Family, issued its annual report on videogames. Not surprisingly, the institute was not happy with what it found. Animated violence, profanity and sexual content. Its latest report even includes a Made-Up word to describe the violence, claiming that, quote, Kyllo graphic and sexually explicit games are still making their way into the hands of underage players, end quote. That’s right. Killer graphic is actually in the official report. Don’t bother looking it up. There’s a little tip for all you amateur media critics. You know, if someone doesn’t have a strong argument when they have to make up words to explain what they’re saying. The fighting’s got the attention and support of several politicians, including sycophantic Senators Joe Lieberman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom promised to enact legislation to stem the threat of videogame violence. This is typical of pandering politicians who champion any cause that involves children without thinking it through or even asking basic questions. Yet before rushing to craft additional laws, we should make sure there’s a problem to fix. Moving from the realm of advocacy and politics into science and evidence, several issues should be considered. For example. While many teens do play video games, including some violent ones, they are hardly kids stuff. The average video gamers, 30 years old, most mature or adult rated video games or purchased and played by adults. Secondly, while some studies claim that violent entertainment may be linked in some way to violent behavior, many other studies contradict that assertion. Richard Rhodes, a writer for Rolling Stone, found that approximately 200 studies on media violence are remarkable, primarily for their inconsistency and weak conclusions. Some studies find that violent programing can increase in aggressiveness. Another finds that Mr. Rogers neighborhood does several studies, including the most cited ones are deeply flawed, mythologically. Still, those fighting media depictions of violence cite the studies in ignore their lack of scientific validity. Perhaps most tellingly, the video game critics fail to specify where exactly the evidence of harm lies. Assuming that teens are being exposed to bad language and animated violence. So what? What’s the problem? Daily teen life involves profanity. Adult situations that violent entertainment has. The sexual material resulted in an increase in teen sex? No. The National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that fewer teens are engaging in sexual activity than in the past, and the rate dropped significantly between 1995 and 2002. Has the video violence resulted in an increase in violent crime rate? No. On October 17th, 2005, the FBI released figures showing that the U.S. violent crime rate declined again last year. In fact, violent crime has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, just, by the way, as video games have become more violent. With a quivering lip, Senator Lieberman even decried graphic scenes of cannibalism in video games. In fact, Lieberman said that the animated character Stubbs the Zombie, is, quote, just the worst kind of message to kids. Now, it’s not clear what sort of message the esteemed senator thinks is being sent to kids. Is it that it’s OK to eat other people’s brains? Should America brace itself for a rise in teen cannibalism? What the hell is he talking about? Violent video games have been around since nineteen ninety one. It clear evidence of any harm has yet to emerge. Is this really the most pressing issue for Lieberman and Clinton? Do they really have nothing better to do than propose worthless legislation to fix a problem that doesn’t exist? Don’t we have a war going on somewhere that’s costing us six billion dollars a month? How about stopping the mass killings in Darfur, Sudan, for that matter? Where is Osama bin Laden, the guy responsible for September 11 attacks? How about using some of that political power money to track him down? Lieberman is busy freaking out over cartoon cannibalism. That’s our government, folks. Think about it. 

We are joined in the studio by Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, the world’s largest journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Mr. Flynn is chair of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and he’s joining us today for the first in a two part series entitled The War on Christmas. Welcome again to Point of Inquiry, Tom. Oh, it’s great to be here. D.J., you’re on the show today to talk about what some people, like Bill O’Reilly have been calling the war on Christmas. Now, you were the one person I can think of who’s actually been waging a war on Christmas for years, starting with your book, The Trouble with Christmas actually going back earlier than that, I have been you will freeze since 1984. 

And basically I treat Christmas as just another day. If it falls on a weekday, I come into the office and and so on. And in the course of that, I really, really got a taste. And I grew up Roman Catholic and celebrated Christmas ardently and never really realized until I stopped that there’s nowhere to escape in this culture at Christmas time. If you’re not Christian, if it’s not your holiday, there is no getting away from it and people throw it in your face over and over. So in my book, I predicted that basically I predicted the war on Christmas. I predicted that there would be growing pressure from non Christian Americans. They’re becoming increasingly numerous, both devout members of non Judeo Christian religions and non-religious people, humanists, atheists. What have you. That Christmas would be more contentious and that has come to pass. Although what we’re seeing this year is the radical right is blowing the minority reaction against the Christmas holiday all out of proportion and making a bogey. Men who aren’t there, it’s really pretty absurd. 

It’s pretty strategic, but absurd. You spent about half of your book, the first half slaughtering, if you’ll allow me to say it this way, slaughtering some sacred cows about people’s views on Christmas, you skew where you go after views people have regarding Christmas in terms of Jesus and and Santa Claus when said he is Christmas trees. But you spend the last half year book really focusing on this argument that since America is the most religiously diverse nation, that there’s real trouble with Christmas in our democratic society. 

Exactly. I mean, there’s there’s no two ways about it. Christmas Christmas is an inherently, inescapably Christian holiday. And this reminder remains the case, even though the vast majority of the things that Americans do at holiday time are actually borrowed from pre-Christian traditions or come from post Christian secular traditions. What are some of those? Well, the whole idea of decorating with evergreen trees, for example, and Holly, about that goes back to the ancient Egyptians. A lot of our Christmas celebration is based on the winter solstice. So that’s hardly Christian. It’s actually in the book. I did research and found only one aspect of the traditional Christmas that was a unique innovation by Christianity. And that’s the idea of having a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Everything else was borrowed. And yet the holiday is the birthday of Jesus. So all of these pre-Christian and non Christian elements become part of Christmas. And at that moment, they become emblematic of Christianity’s dominance in the culture. All right. And that’s the problem. Even even Santa Claus and the elves sends a message to non Christians that they are second class citizens because this holiday is the agenda of the whole culture and they’re not part of it. 

The trouble with Christmas is mainly an argument, this Democratic argument, that Christmas is bad for our democracy in this religiously pluralistic society. But before we get into that discussion, let’s talk about some of the more pagan origins of Christmas, because I think when some Christians rail against the commercialization of Christmas, they’re on your side. 

In a way they are. I mean, if you look at some of the smaller, more radical Christian communities, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they don’t celebrate Christmas. They teach that the holiday is pagan in its origins. And most of the critiques they bring are pretty accurate. As you know, as I point out in the book, almost everything that we do at holiday time comes from non Christian origins, the very idea of a savior, God, who it takes human form and is born of a virgin. That’s a trope that appeared in mythologies all across the ancient world. I mean, at the time at the time of Christ, if you were any sort of religious leader or thinker. Or even political leader. It was said of you that you were born of a virgin and were fathered by a God. 

So there are pagan origins to the way people celebrate Christmas. 


Oh, very much so. I mean, from the timing at the winter solstice, the whole idea of giving gifts, the nature of the festive holiday meals. There’s a whole tradition of supernatural all gatherings of the future, which has kind of transferred itself largely to our New Year’s holiday. And we have traditions like burning a Bayberry candle down to the socket to bring wealth to the pocket or however the nursery rhyme goes at New Year’s. Well, that’s a pagan tradition that goes back to pre-Christian northern Europe. And just, you know, you can go down the whole catalog giving of gifts, the nature of Santa Claus, the tradition that children have to be in bed asleep. That originally started out going way back, went into European history. What we now celebrate as Halloween and New Year’s and Christmas and Thanksgiving, we’re all one holiday. OK. And there was an extensive tradition that Christmas Eve was regarded as a time when the spirits of the dead roamed the land, sort of the way that Halloween is thought of in some circles now. So this is where our tradition of leaving milk and cookies out for Santa Claus. And it’s an it’s an echo of exactly the same tradition as giving candy to the little kids in costume so they won’t soap your windows because they were legends of either shades of the family dead or a local God who came around on Christmas Eve and checked out all the homes to see if things were in good order and you left a food offering out for them. There was also a tradition that people shouldn’t be out during the evening on Christmas Eve because they might have a run in with one of these wandering spirits. And this echoes down to us. And then a reminder that children have to be asleep or Santa Claus won’t come. All right. All this material comes from this tremendously rich fund of pagan sources. But I think of a lot of Christians knew more about the origins of the holiday and some of their holiday practices. They might think twice about it. 

Right. They might have the same kind of trouble with Christmas that you have. I want to remind our listeners that you can purchase a copy of the Trouble with Christmas on our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Tom, your argument in the second part of the book is really for a downsizing of Christmas, even the elimination of Christmas as a national holiday in view of America’s diverse population. America is the most religiously diverse nation on the planet. Does this mean. Are you arguing that we should have a war on Christmas, therefore? Actually, I am. 

I think war war is probably an inopportune term, but I think we need to act to downsize Christmas, to move more of it into private life and more of it out of public life. Would you eliminate it as a national holiday? I would eliminate it as a national holiday, which of course, would wouldn’t do nothing to eliminate the holiday. It would simply take away this act of the government endorsing it as an official part of the calendar. Right. 

In what other ways would you like to downsize it and make it not public in any way? No public displays at stores? No. 

I mean, what you’re really talking about is some would argue anti capitalistic, because Christmas, the Christmas buying season is the chief buying season the whole year. 

Well, I think we need to distinguish first between public spaces like public squares, public buildings, spaces that are owned and operated by the government. Right. And public spaces that are privately owned like shopping malls. The thing that’s amusing with this year’s war against Christmas and I suppose anything that drives a wedge between the religious right and Wal-Mart as a good thing. But O’Reilly and his ilk are most frightened by the fact that all on their own without the ACLU nipping at their heels or anything. Merchants are moving into saying happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas simply because they recognize that there are so many non Christian consumers out there and they want to make more room for these people not to feel that, you know, they have to buy everything they need before Thanksgiving and then not come out for six weeks. 

And even O’Reilly is kind of involved in that act because he’s. Pedaling on his show, holiday ornaments, not Christmas ornaments, so there was a little hypocrisy. 

The one thing you can tell is six months ago when these guys were ordering their Churchgate, they didn’t know they were going to do this. 

Right. Tom, thanks for joining us. 

We’ll continue this discussion about the war on Christmas on the next episode of Point of Inquiry. I want to remind our listeners again that you can purchase a copy of Tom Flynn’s thought provoking book, Trouble with Christmas on our Web site, point of inquiry dot org. Thanks again for joining us, Tom. Thank you. D.J.. 

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We are now joined in the studio by Dr. Joe Nicole, whom many call the world’s leading paranormal investigator, a former professional stage magician. He was resident magician at the Whodini Magical Hall of Fame for three years and a former private investigator for a world famous detective agency. Dr. Niccolò taught at the University of Kentucky before joining Psychopath’s senior research fellow using his varied background. Nicole has become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries and hoaxes. He’s been called the modern Sherlock Holmes, the original Ghostbuster and the Real-Life Scully after that character, an X Files. He’s investigated scores of haunted house cases, including the Amityville Horror and the McKensie House in Toronto, Canada. Author of more than 20 books, he’s a veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances. In fact, he just finished nine episodes for National Geographic’s new series entitled Is It Real? Joe, thanks for joining us in the studio. And for joining us on Point of Inquiry. 

My pleasure. First, to get the ball rolling, why don’t you tell us how you got started in skeptical investigations, how you got started investigating the paranormal? 

I think like everyone, I was interested in the paranormal at a very early age. Everyone really is, whether it’s haunted houses or flying saucers or some aspect, psycho paranormal psychics. 

We’re all intrigued by our world. What’s what is real in the world, what isn’t. 

And these things matter. If ghosts exist, if if angels exist, these things, these things, the consequences are huge. So we wonder about them when we’re very young. You know, we have a grandmother that keeps us believing in in Santa Claus longer than the other kids. And then we find out, oh, that wasn’t true. And we become a little more skeptical. And that was that was my life. 

I found my very early interest in Whodini as a as a young kid doing magic in grandmother’s parlor with a glued on mustache and wanting to sort of be a magician. And then found myself actually a magician at the Hoody Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls and learning even more about my hero Whodini. 

What year is this? This would have been about 70. 

Nineteen seventy two, seventy three ish. 

And by then you were already interested in the paranormal investigating the paranormal or you were beginning that trance. 

I was already interested in as early as sixty nine. Because I remember that was my first science that I helped set up to contact the spirit of Whodini for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio. And I remember the spiritualist as soon as he saw sort of a point from the control room, fingerpointing, sort of that we’re on the air. He went into a trance faster than any I’ve ever seen. And suddenly he was allegedly conversing with us. But curiously, it had lost most of his memory or. And you think it was convincing? 

Who are some of your influences in paranormal? 

Investigator will add Whodini Hall of Fame. I met actually, I’d met him even earlier, but I met him more seriously and spent time with the amazing Randi James, James Randi. And he was already out causing trouble. Investigating paranormal claims and challenging psychics and and investigating basically investigating people who claim to have special powers. 

And says just like Houdini before him, using the skills, the tools of the magician to investigate the paranormal. 

Exactly. Randi’s life had had paralleled Houdinis quite a lot. He had was at that time the world’s greatest living escape artist, too, and was getting out of straitjackets and so forth. 

And he also was challenging the kinds of people Whodini did, which was to people with claiming to talk to the dead and and of course, the Spaniard with x ray eyes and and others and exposing them. And Randy was doing that. And I thought, gee, that’s a that would be great fun to do that. The interesting to do that. 

So that got the ball rolling for you. You you said just now that there are implications to the answers to these kinds of questions about the paranormal, that these things matter. Why do they matter? Why does it matter if ghosts exist? 

Well, most of the paranormal, I think, taps into our very human hopes and fears. 

If ghosts exist, then we live after we die before voting. I don’t know about this, not for that. My hand is going up as we speak. If we’re voting, unfortunately, we aren’t voting. We’re trying to find out what’s true right for aliens. If if aliens exist, then we are not alone in the universe. 

That’s that’s hugely important. If psychic power is real, then maybe we can get an edge on our future. May we get a glimpse ahead of time and avoid disasters? Or, you know, I remember Carl Sagan saying once that heard him say this directly and it was very moving about how he wished he could contact his dead parents. He said even if just once a year to tell him how the grandkids are doing. All right. And that’s a very human feeling. He didn’t think we could, but he would want to. And I think also the implications of these things are powerful. 

Yeah. These questions of the paranormal have real world consequences, hit people where they live and breathe. I’d like to focus most of our discussion today on skeptical inquiry vs. just being skeptical, let’s say skeptical inquiry versus debunking. Why don’t we start that discussion by having you define exactly what skeptical inquiry is? Is it different than skepticism? 

Yes. One one can be skeptical of anything. One could. There are people who were skeptical of of the moon landing. Others are skeptical that there was a holocaust. There are people skeptical of things that there’s good evidence for. So skepticism is not really an end, an end point. I think it’s really a means of thinking. It’s a means of what I think most of us that are good skeptics really mean when we say we’re skeptics swimming. We’re critical thinkers. We doubt that which is new. Unlikely, seems far fetched or seems to have some kind of huge promise. I mean, we say, wait a minute. Be careful there. All right. That sort of critical thinking. And after all, the skepticism really is something that we can use to. 

Learn the truth about our world. So you said it’s more a means, not an end in itself, a means to arrive at the truth. Exactly. And when we say inquiring, then that’s what we’re doing, where we’re using skepticism to launch an inquiry. 

Inquiry is a very good words, a very resonant word, because it means to look into. 

I go maybe even further than maybe mere inquiry sometimes to say because we could we could inquire about something in a broad sense, sort of gather research data. What I’m often trying to do is specifically doing a targeted kind of research or inquiry that I would call an investigation. In other words, we could look into something and gather data about it. And that’s always that’s a good starting point. Once we do that, because that can inform us, then where where some possible clues are and where some hypotheses could derive from. And then then we have an investigation. The purpose of which, though, is to actually, I would say, solve a mystery. 

And that’s why to arrive at the truth about a mystery. 

Yes. Hopefully arrive at a truth. I think they’re most of the people who deal with the paranormal, unfortunately, or like let’s say lots of people who deal with the paranormal. 

You just quickly define the paranormal. Oh, yeah. Anyone? Let’s hear a show. Sure. Might not be familiar with that term. 

Paranormal means that which is beyond the normal range of science and nature and human experience. It was I mean, how is that different than supernatural? Well, it would include all of the supernatural because of course the supernatural is. But it by its very word. Beyond that, beyond the natural. But it could also include those things such as Bigfoot, for example, or an alien who might be a real flesh and blood creature and therefore not supernatural, undiscussed, undiscovered, unknown, maybe unlikely from certain standpoint. 

So included within the category of paranormal are things you just mentioned, cryptozoology, things like Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, but also UFOs and alien abduction claims. Psychics talking to the. 

All that I guess I got power could just be a sixth sense that’s hitherto undiscovered. Or it been might not be supernatural at all. 

And so you’re drawing a distinction between skeptical inquiry and mere skepticism of the paranormal kind of rejecting out of hand. 

Yes, I think so many people, when they approach the paranormal, start with the answer. Mm hmm. And they work backwards to the evidence that bonking. Well, the debunker on one just to put those parameters out there right now. Yes. At one end of that is the debunker who says, look, there’s there we’ve looked in lots of haunted houses. There aren’t any. And so we don’t need maybe to look at it anymore. The other side that is the true believer who already sort of knows that ghosts exist in the Shroud of Turin is genuine and has a whole agenda of things that and they both sides have an answer. 

They begin with the and they begin with the answer. And they’re interested in evidence. I I suspect sometimes only insofar as it confirms what they already believed. And so they pick and choose if it if it supports them, they’re quick to accept it, even though it may be wrong. If it doesn’t, oh, they’ll really attack it and really go after it. 

Okay. We mentioned debunking is one of those extremes where they begin with the answer. They they reject out of hand those claims. They know from the beginning that there ain’t no such thing. What’s so wrong with that? You know, you’ve investigated so many haunted houses, have you found a ghost yet? 

I suspect that the debunkers are closer to the truth than they then the believers, because after after more than 30 years, my first real case was 1972. McKinsey house haunting. Right. Which someday we can we can talk about in depth. But there’s where I really learned the values of investigating and and that only going and actually investigating would would clarify history that there’s there’s not another way to do it. 

They can just sit back and say, oh, ghosts don’t exist. We don’t even need to look at it. 

Exactly. Let me make a little little silly analogy. But I think it’s I think it’s fun and makes the point. 

Imagine if we had a police department. And one day the sergeant comes rushing in and says, Lieutenant, there’s been a shooting across town. And the lieutenant says, well, it’s probably, you know, another another suicide with iteration of those recently put it down as a case of suicide. 

And the sergeant says. But but. But, sir. And the guy shot three times in the back. And the lieutenant says, yes, a very bad case of suicide. Well, we wouldn’t put up with that for a moment in law enforcement. We expect, Pete, people to use a CSI approach and go to the crime scene, investigate and tell us what actually happened to instigate. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the paranormal. 

I suggest that we actually investigate and that if we do. That if we just go as as honestly as we can, as open mindedly as we can and investigate the debunking, we’ll take care of itself. We find the answer. And so far, it’s it’s been debunking. But so why does it matter? Because we have to have this willing suspension of disbelief in order to look for the actual facts. It’s not to me, it’s not enough to just say whether the house is haunted or not. Because to talk to other people and to be to explain to them why that house isn’t haunted, you need to have the facts that will convince them. And I think when we do that, we’re much more convincing. 

And it’s also much more interesting if you begin with the answer, if you begin by being skeptical and rejecting out of hand the claim you. I think you tread very closely to cynicism, but both you and I know cranky skeptics who, you know, might not value investigation. They just say, oh, goes, no such thing. UFO is no such thing, psychic energy, no such thing. And kind of in this curmudgeonly, sourpuss sort of way. 

Yes, it’s very it’s very negative, in fact. And and, you know, I get that occasionally someone says, hey, Nicole, you know, found and he goes slightly hahaha. 

And I think that’s just the wrong attitude, because to me the question is not just as the house haunted. 

But but if people if people believe in these things, then how do you how do you deal with that? How do you that’s the real issue is people believe that houses are haunted. And how do you how do you find out and convince them while if you’ve never been to one. If you’re just being dismissive and making fun of them, how how convincing are you. 

So just as a on a human level, just a level of human values, you have to respect people and say, I know you’ve had some experiences. I’ve met lots of people who’ve had real experiences. That is the nature of. 

Yes. The nature which has to be clarified. But they have, quote unquote, seen a ghost or her to go store. 

And the experiences, while they might not be supernatural, are paranormal. They were real experiences in that they experienced those exact. 

Even if it was some kind of hallucination that they had that experience and that they deserve something better than laughter. They deserve someone to try to explain it to them. 

So some of your writings more than even just investigating a claim, you’ve gone exploring why people believe this or that. 

Why do people believe in UFOs? Is it a kind of cultural myth? Yeah, I do. People believe in alien abduction. 

Yes, I’ve I’ve used all the techniques that scholarship can can muster to to look at things like the iconography of things. I think what what iconography is the study of an image? 

And I’ve I’ve examined how alien images have evolved along with science fiction and have we’ve kind of decided on the little big eyed, big headed humanoid for reasons that are may not explainable by the cultural anthropologist. 

Exactly. That that are part of our culture. And you can actually trace it in the culture. And so techniques like that, techniques of psychology, of really a folklore, any of these techniques that can tell us more about ourselves and our world. That’s the main thing that we have to be looking for. And I say that as a someone who’s also a poet and someone who investigates life in other ways. And I think that’s that’s the goal, not just to be negative about about something we think is silly. 

So basically, don’t just be tough minded. Be tender hearted, too. You’re not hard hearted. You’re not rejecting out of hand. You’re not this cold nonbeliever. You are open to the evidence. It just so happens you haven’t found any good evidence in 30 years of doing the right. 

And a lot of the people who believe in in things like talking to the dead are wonderful people. I mean, they’re just really, really nice people because they are very open, maybe to open. In some ways. They need to toughen up, get a little more critical facility here and there. But they’re often quite, quite nice people and they deserve better than being laughed at. 

Joe, in 30 years. Well, I just said I assumed you haven’t found any good evidence for any of these paranormal claims. I know you outside of the studio, so that’s my best guess about your experience. But let me just ask you, have you ever conducted a skeptical investigation that gave you pause, that made you wonder really about those claims, that specific claim in that case? Have you ever been stumped? 

I really would almost have to qualify that a little bit in that if it’s the. Question is, have I found anything I couldn’t solve? Well, yes, I. I find that people tell me stories all the time. It was 1969. I was driving near Peoria and I saw a bright light. What was it, Mr. Skeptic? Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And there’s. Because there’s not enough evidence. Exactly. And most of these cases are not very investigative. All they’re what I call long ago, far away. And so but when I’ve had a fair chance to investigate, when I’ve had access to something. Been permitted to come on the premises and take a sample or look at something than I have invariably found eventually some more likely explanation. 

So never wants investigated a paranormal scene. 

Call it Grindin stumped right at the beginning of some cases. I have found, you know, some things that I did not know what the answer was. I did not know exactly what was happening with crop circles. I remember and I did not remember. I did not know what was the explanation for spontaneous human combustion? I suspected it wasn’t supernatural, but I didn’t know what the explanation. 

You investigated both and arrived at much more likely possibilities about which maybe will talk. 

We could talk about sometime. Yeah, right. Well, to conclude our short time together today, I just want to I want to ask you. He’s said in 30 years you haven’t investigated any scene that’s given you pause. How much longer you’re going to be investigating? How much? How how much longer do we need to continue investigating these claims before we can just tie everything up in a nice little package and say, case closed. Done peop people should no longer believe in the paranormal because we’ve investigated for 30 years. Is that ever gonna happen? 

It’s not going to happen. Not in our lifetime and not not in the future of the world. I think because these issues we can just look back historically and see that some of the same issues. I mean, okay, they didn’t have crop circles in earlier times, but but they sure had ghosts and spirits and psychics and mediums and so forth and some of the same kinds of things that were emotionally driven beliefs which people wanted to believe in things, and that will continue. It’s our job to continue to try to be a voice for reason and critical thinking. And so I think sometimes I make the analogy to forest firefighters. There will not be a time that that we will we will disband fire departments and firewood firefighters. What we will do is, is count on them to dampen back the flames. Save a town here. Help people with a home there. Evacuate people or necessary. And dampen back and keep back and keep it a minimum. But I would say the fires of superstition and and and misinformation, we come to the paranormal that we should we should be like firefighters trying trying to specifically explain things and thereby dampen back those those encroaching fires. 

Thank you very much, Joe, for joining us on on this show. Thank you. 

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Every week on point of inquiry, we’ll bring you a segment called From the pages of this time. It’s from the pages of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I’m joined in the studio right now by Barry Carr, executive director of PSI Cop and the Center for Inquiry, to talk with us about Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Welcome to the show, Barry. 

Good to be here. D.J., thank you for having me. 

Barry, what do people have in store for them with this current issue of skeptical inquiry? Maybe I should at first say that Skeptical Inquirer is the leading magazine for science and reason out there. It’s a skeptical magazine. 

Yes. And this issue in the skeptical choir. It’s kind of a more of a cornucopia of ideas here. Now, in the past, for instance, we’ve done theme issues. The last issue was an evolution in the ideas wars. But the current issue has topics that’ll interest a wide number of people. We have we run the the themes from the memory wars, talking about repressed memories. Again, Darwinism. That’s one of our big, big topics these days. But just things from paranormal beliefs in general to lake monsters and ethics investigation. There’s something in here, I think, for for everybody if you’re a, you know, in quotes, a skeptic. 

So it’s really a smorgasbord. This issue on all things skeptical, a lot of different issues. You mentioned memory wars. What are the memory wars? 

Well, the memory wars back to clearly more so in the 90s. There is a big debate about repressed memories, whether or not people can we, you know, have suffered traumatic experiences, particularly in childhood could. Years later, under a therapy, I had no tougher makeover than memories. So it’s been a raging debate within science. Skeptical inquiry actually has been one of the leaders of it. I think we published one of the first articles by Martin Gardner back in the very early 90s. 

Martin Gardner considered really the grandfather of the modern skeptical. 

Yes, he is. He’s written classic books and he is a regular columnist for The Skeptical Inquire for many, many years. And he did retire from the column a couple years ago. But now he’s back with us and he’s be visiting ground that he covered back in the 90s, talking about the current state of the memory wars, which, you know, it’s still it’s still topical, still raging debate. But right now, it seems like the evidence is that people do not have the ability to repress memories like that. A lot of things that are coming up or have been maybe been more moist led by the people conducting the interviews. Right. 

People who have a vested interest in the belief that memories can be, that repressed memories can be still raging, region is still a raging debate. 

And, you know, as a matter of fact, many people know this. You know, Psych Up is currently involved in a lawsuit over one of the articles we published on this debate. So what article was that just. It was Elizabeth Loftus abuse, Jane Doe parts one and two. And the Jane Doe in the case is currently suing psych up. So. Well, as I mentioned is a raging debate. 

That’s the perilous work of skepticism. What else is in the magazine, this issue? 

Well, I think, again, some of the interesting ones are, Ogopogo. It’s an investigation of. We had two people, Ben Bradford, Joe Nicole, go out to British Columbia and actually conduct a search conduct investigation of the alleged Ogopogo Sea serpent, Loch Ness Monster type. 

Our Lake Monster. Yeah. You said like like like like the Loch Ness Monster. 

And so they went out there and spent several days out on the lake. And we actually use Ben as bait, but we couldn’t get any monsters to take a Nevill and our investigation did not show any OGO Pogo’s. 

One of the articles on this issue is about Darwin at Westminster Abbey. Who wrote that one? 

That one is by R.G. Way and and again is looking at the historical context of the current ideas wars. You know why if Darwin was considered an atheist, why would he be by many people considering it? Is he himself didn’t use that label, but why did they bury him in Westminster Abbey then, which is a very religious place? Why? 

Why then would he really the big the big kleve in in in science? 

Very modern. Yeah. This is science. You’re right. 

Why were they buried in Westminster Abbey? And, you know, the it’s more or less that to honor him. And British science is what the general theme of the article. 

One of the most interesting articles. This issue is an analysis of college students paranormal beliefs. Can you tell me about that article? That’s one I think a lot of people would be interested in getting. In fact, let me remind our listeners that they can receive a free copy of this issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a sample copy by calling one 800 six three, four, 16, 10. That’s one 800 six three, four, 16, 10. 

That’s right. Well, this was an attempt to. They looked at the information from the Gallup. Polls, which shows a belief in the paranormal and various topics of people, and they thought that they could try to replicate the results of the Gallup poll by using college students in the Southwest. So they looked at levels of belief and education among these students. And they actually come to an interesting conclusion on this. Well, actually, I’m not going to give it away to make their conclusions, yada. 

OK, well, give us a hint. Give us a hint about the conclusions. So people, you know, call that number, get a sample. Copy this issue. Take a take a look at these articles. 

Well, that they look at the education levels and how they compare to belief. 

And my best bet. And maybe I’m a little biased, but my best bet is that the more education you have, the less likely you are to believe in some of these parents. That’s what you would think. But but stay tuned. I read the issue. Barry, thanks for joining us for a couple of minutes on the show for a smattering introduction to some of these articles. And this issue is Skeptical Inquirer. I’ll remind everybody again by calling 800 six, three, four, 16, 10, you can get a sample copy of this issue. Thanks for joining us. 

Good to be here. Thank you. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us for upcoming episodes to hear interviews with Richard Dawkins and Druyun Chris Mooney, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris. Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Inquiry or its affiliated organizations. Questions or comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. Or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnally and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed by Michael Whalan. Contributors include Sarah Jordan, Naum, Alan Tom Flynn, David Capsule, Ben Bradford, Barrie Carr, Thomas Donnally and Lauren Becker. 

I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.