Lynne Kelly – The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal

February 15, 2008

Lynne Kelly is a writer and science educator in Australia, and a founding member of Australian Skeptics. An expert on the paranormal who uses aspects of the magician’s art to advance skepticism, she holds degrees in education and engineering and is the author over a dozen books, including The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Lynne Kelly examines differences in paranormal beliefs between Australia and the United States, and whether such beliefs are growing. She talks about various paranormal topics from her book, including crop circles, psychic detectives, and communicating with the dead, and explains how to best convey a skeptical approach to students when addressing such topics. She addresses why she avoids overt skepticism of religion when educating her audiences, and why skepticism as a movement has often avoided religious faith claims. She also debates the perils and proper use of the magician’s art, especially “cold reading,” when teaching skepticism.

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This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, February 15th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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I’m really happy to have Lynne Kelly on point of inquiry. She’s taught science and mathematics for over 30 years. She holds degrees in education, also in engineering, and she really excels at bringing skepticism to young people, to audiences of all types, in fact, and especially in using certain aspects of the magician’s art to advance that skepticism. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Len Kelly. 

It’s fantastic to be here. 

When you wrote this book a few years ago, Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal. To start off, I want to ask you. Would you say that belief in the paranormal, astrology, E.S.P, UFOs, Bigfoot, all this stuff? 

Has it grown since you’ve written this book? Or has skepticism as a movement been making a measurable impact, diminishing belief in the paranormal? 

I believe it’s been having a measurable impact. The media here, in fact, it’s become more skeptical, especially a really well-known current affairs shows. 

Not wonderfully. I mean, let’s not fool ourselves that the pro skeptical, they still promote the paranormal, but much less so. And they are giving a more skeptical viewpoint quite regularly. 

A lot of people here in the states say that it is shrinking as well. But if you look on TV, there are many new shows touting belief in ghosts or the unexplained in. I think the same is true for Australia, right? 

Absolutely. We get all of yours as well as that one. 

So you get a double dose? 

Absolutely. Medium is hugely popular here and ghost hunters. 

And now there’s paranormal you or whatever that is. 

But a lot of people see them just as humor and joke and entertainment, which I don’t have a problem with the ones I have a big problem with a medium and the ones that do psychic investigations into cold murders. And my problem is that particularly with teenagers that I work with a lot, you get them watching the syncing murder type ones so I can investigators and so on, which are promoted as fact. And then you get medium, which the kids believe is promoted as fact. And so you’re getting something presented as that is fiction being promoted as if it’s nonfiction and believed in that case. And that’s where my big problem comes. 

And as an educator, do you think your students are more gullible than the average public, given their age, more susceptible to believing this stuff? You know, it’s in a documentary style, believing, therefore, that it’s true, even though the producers are obviously putting it out there as entertainment. 

Absolutely. And I’m allowed to be sexist because I’m female. The girls in particular. And that’s my concern because I believe the gullible is the same as trusting. It’s the same, therefore vulnerable. I trust people naturally and therefore I’m vulnerable. And this is what I think more true of females. And that’s where I depend on skepticism. And when I’m out in schools, I always talk about skepticism as a protection against being exploited by these sort of claims. And when I’m talking exploitation, it’s not necessarily financial because I believe the emotional exploitation is far more significant. 

Lynn, I want to stick with this question of the rise or the decline in belief in the paranormal. I have a lot of friends who live in Australia, and though it isn’t kind of hard and fast evidence, I get the impression from them that more people believe in the paranormal there than here. Astrology and psychics, for instance, appear to be a lot more widespread and mainstream in Australia than in the U.S.. 

That’s a really interesting point. I’ve been to the US quite recently and I think I’ve got a reason to that. And I would agree that that’s the case. And I think it’s because the religious beliefs here are much less so. 

We don’t have a stronger church movement. It’s a much more secular society. And I wonder if that’s why there is more belief, certainly in psychics. And that’s why the area made my special field is the psychics. I think that is fairly strong here. 

They say the same about northern Europe, which has a high rate of nonbelief in traditional religion. But there well, there’s belief in nome’s in the Nordic mythologies. 

You’re saying the same holds true for Australia, not Nome’s there is anything like that, but certainly psychics have a lot more power than they should. 

Yeah. And because it’s filling the gap that religion occupies, maybe here in the states in particular, when people are going through problems, especially emotional problems. 

A woman I met quite recently who is very intelligent, normal, happy woman, except that her marriage is broken down. And then her husband had committed suicide. She went to a psychic. She was obviously extremely distressed. She went to a psychic for help. The psychic, as they do, keep the wound. For two years, by constantly talking about it, not allowing time to heal. She finally met somebody new. She went to kiss him for the first time and felt her husband’s presence and couldn’t go ahead. She was unable to establish any new relationships. In the end, she went to a traditional psychologist and worked that through and is now in a new relationship. But she really was very distressed at once. She realized how that wound had been held open and exploited by a psychic. 

So psychics and people who claim that they can help you connect with deceased loved ones and all of this stuff. It actually stunts recovery. It keeps you from getting over these tragedies. And there’s a natural process. There are stages to grief. And you’re saying this stuff gets in the way of that. 

That’s what I believe. And I think that’s why we’ve got people going to the psychics more so maybe than in America in that they’re not going to their churches. Mm hmm. 

So maybe there’s a good well, I’m not be arguing for religion here. This is a worry. 

Yeah. Especially to the listener’s point of inquiry, who I think would self-described as rather skeptical of both the paranormal and religion. 

And so would I. Right. But there is that community aspect, because most of that churchgoing is really very low key and it tends to be more social thing than anything else. And I think the lack of that society, which is breaking down, is probably turning some people who need that emotional support to psychics. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Lynn Kelly, this book, it covers the whole gamut of paranormal beliefs. There’s no way we could really talk about all the topics because it’s comprehensive. Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, Nostradamus numerology, aliens, alien abduction, really everything paranormal. Let’s touch on just a couple. Let’s talk about crop circles. 

Something we have not addressed on point of inquiry in our 115 or so episodes. 

These are these complex geometrical formations that happen unexplainably in crops all over the world. In your book, in your chapter on it, you list eight or nine competing theories people have come up with to explain them like magnetic channels in the Earth’s crust, UFOs, naturally occurring windstorms and the Upside-Down Helicopter. 

Don’t forget that one. 

Right. Right. And then you dismiss all of these theories with your own theory that all of these crop circles are just hoaxes, past hoaxes. 

I think that’s how they started. And certainly the story of Doug and Dave, the ones that were most famous for them in England. I think the great story that older people have a sense of humor and a still capable of mischief. 

But I think what they’ve become now is artwork’s and beautiful works of art, but not just these amazing and creative endeavors of mischievous, artsy type people, but believed in you know, a lot of people still believe that these are paranormal occurrences, despite evidence to the contrary. 

Absolutely. And the evidence is produced that way partly makes me interesting. But also it’s really a really good example, all the ones I do in the book. A great example is the entry level skepticism, the book not heavy or deep. The idea was for me to get to write to people who are not in the skeptical movement. 

And one thing they kept coming up with is this story of the magnetic reading in crop circles that there isn’t elsewhere. And that one worried me that there’s a higher magnetic field inside the crop circles once I investigate that thoroughly. It turned out that the machines they were using to measure them were not designed for that level of field because they were going to their local high school and getting magnetic field reading meters. It’s like measuring speed in your car when you’re running at five miles per hour. Now, no one believes that this pedometer is accurate there. And so these sort of details that amuse my students, senior physics teacher. And that’s what I went for in the book. What questions was I getting over the dinner table from non skeptics and from teenagers? And that was really good fun with crop circles. So the points I addressed there were what I was being asked by people outside the skeptic movement. Hmm. 

You kind of touched on this earlier, but what’s the big deal with someone believing in crop circles, of all things? Even though there’s no good evidence, does it really matter? Are you this kind of skeptic who’s such a stickler for the truth that you want to go around telling everyone how incorrect they are about such insignificant beliefs? 

No, I’m a believer, not an unbeliever. I believe in science and reality. The real world is awesome. We don’t know a fraction of it. I do not want the real world. My science got in the way of this set asides. We just don’t need it. I’m in schools trying to inspire kids about what an incredible world we live in and why we need to look after it. And I think the real stories are much more interesting. If I’m going to teach something boring like heat and temperature, which is a dull topic to teach. If I walk into a room and start talking about trotting across bits of coal and why it’s physics, I’ve just taken a topic which kids go ho hum about, suddenly made it exciting and suddenly made what’s happening on the news and what they hear and people traveling to the Philippines or whatever. Really interesting. Physics is awesome. We don’t need Pseudo-Science. 

I want to take this approach and say you’ve never had to appeal to a cold explanation’s to make your educating these youngsters easier. I remember a psychology professor I had in undergrad who oh, it was a. Of education psychology course. And he and he was kind of offhandedly given giving us advice if we were ever going to be teachers ourselves. The one way you can really get a class focused on what you’re saying is to talk about demons or UFOs or ghosts. Right. Why that would come up in a psychology class. Who knows? But he made this offhand remark. Have you found that you can use the paranormal or at least investigation of the paranormal to teach science in this way? 

Absolutely. It gets the kids in and then it gets them thinking. And it’s interesting that I never use it, leaving them with any belief in those things, because there’s a lot of kids out there with fears that they will not tell you about. 

Spontaneous human combustion, which is why I opened the book with that one. When I asked groups of students, I do every time I speak in schools or back when I was teaching all the time, I would say to 60 to 70 per cent of students worry that there is a chance they will spontaneously burst into flame. While some that it really worries and they tell me they’ve never told anyone that because they’re scared they’d be laughed at. So the fact that I address these issues gives them the chance to talk about fears I’ve got because they haven’t been given the explanation. 

Yeah, I remember as a teenager, I was actually, you know, not just intrigued, but a little scared of UEFA has a little scare ghosts. 

I don’t want scared teenagers. There’s enough reality to be scared of. Let’s not add to us. Mm hmm. 

Len, switching gears a bit. As someone who performs on stage occasionally as a mentalist or mind reader, I got a kick out of your chapter on psychics. Psychics on the stage in Australia. Are there people who are really claiming to have psychic powers, who also perform in theaters in front of live audiences? That kind of undermines the whole vibe of being legit. If there are ticket sales and, you know, stage lights and all that stuff, we’re not getting the Uri Geller type performance as much. 

Mostly that’s magicians, which is fantastic. But we are getting the talking to the dead brigade. Picking up on John Edwards style. And that’s why that’s an area I try to perform, particularly in psychic readings. And we are getting that growing. We’ve got one in Queensland called Dave Weber who’s picking up that. And that’s quite a few trying to make their way on that style of speaking to the dead. It’s still popular. Mm hmm. 

Other magicians are gonna be peeved that I say this, but I liked how in the book you get into some of these methods that the fake psychics, the mind readers use. You reveal how some of these people seem to make their heart stop different ways. They bend spoons, stuff like that. So here’s the question. Do you think that teaching your readers those methods, those magician methods, does it make people more skeptical or does it give unscrupulous people the know how to go out and dupe an unwary audience? I guess what I’m really asking is, isn’t there a way to push your skepticism without giving away tricks of the trade? You know, magicians tricks. 

Absolutely. And I am a member of the mischance side of magicians. I hope you haven’t just lost me my membership. The ones that I do reveal in the book, which are exactly the ones you talk about, are the few that have been revealed a lot are used by the Indian skeptics that the heart stopping one is used by gurus too often to not be exposed and the spoon bending. But when I perform, I do not expose other methods I replicate and I say if I can do it and I’m not psychic. That’s all I need to do. But with the actual cold reading methods that, yes, I do reveal them and I’ve gone to a lot of work on that. I started by doing tarot and astrology readings and found that even when I explained my methods, I was still convincing people I was psychic, which was really scary. So I created my own system entirely from scratch called Torah Mansi. It’s an ancient Chinese system with a Latin name that means Bulle magic, but never gets picked up. And Tara Mansi is my own divination system, built entirely on psychology, called reading. And those are the readings I do in public. I do have people convinced that I’m psychic desire to believe so strongly. 

Wow. Right. That raises a lot of questions. But you do these performances, these readings in order to expose people’s credulity. Show them how easy it is to believe, even though you yourself are saying, you know, this is based on psychology, on called reading we’ve talked about called reading before. Why don’t you explain for our listeners again what that is called? 

Reading is basically telling people all about themselves as if you really know something, when in fact you don’t. So what you do is you would common things. Like one I will use all the time is I’m getting the impression that within your work, communication’s important, isn’t it? Yes. I’m going to get a yes everyone and then I start building on it. So I have those sort of things built in. So what you do is make things sound specific when in fact, they’re not. And then you start picking up the vibes from the person you’re reading. So you give the impression of psychic. I can give you an example of one that works for me all the time, which sounds fantastic. My best it is. I’ve got a woman between the age of about 20 and 35. I will go to my one of my mask’s, which is to do with the future long term hope. And I say something about children and see what sort of reaction I get. And then often I’ll go to the one with ill health. And also why am I getting in Dimitri Osis? And almost invariably I will get a reaction if the reaction is immediate. And it’s the woman herself. I will then twist that, say, with your intimate. So when she recalls the whole conversation, I have said that she’s got intimate choices. Now, let me explain to your listeners who have never heard of endometriosis why it’s such a great disease to play around with, is it? It’s a common disease with women in that age group. It’s to do with heavy periods and troubles at conception. It’s a woman’s disease and we don’t talk about it. It’s not fatal. So I’m playing nice and safe there. And so I’m getting to the audience a hit with this really unusual disease. If for some reason she doesn’t react the tool of Alaska, I’ll say if someone in your circle, because most women in that age group will have been checked for it if I’m still not getting a hit. I will lean forward and nod and say, I think you better check with your doctor on this one and I’ll nod and she’ll nod. Said the audience will still see an agreement on this unusual, weird sounding disease. 

So you have your bases covered no matter what? Absolutely. That raises some ethical questions, though. Have. Have you ever had an experience where someone’s belief has been so invigorated by your successful cold readings that despite what you say, you’ve actually won a convert for the opposition? 

Unfortunately, yes. And this really worries me, even though I explain in advance what I’m doing. Once I go into the performance, they still lose track of the fact I’ve told them in advance that it’s a fake. Then I have to say brace at the end. Yes, I have had in the public rating I did for the skeptics in the science museums where I had a woman absolutely convinced and offer me a lot of money to do a private rating. She desperately needed my help. I was very upset by the whole event. I. Obviously, stop the reading didn’t keep going. But I tried to explain and I could not get across to it that I wasn’t real. I didn’t read a game for about a year. Wow. But then I was convinced by these giant skeptics and by my own experiences that I had to wear that for all the people that I was making weary. Mm hmm. And that was more important. 

Have you ever done a reading for someone, one of these fake psychic readings, even telling them that it’s fake, where someone gets really emotional and is moved by the power of the reading? I think of examples of American skeptics who do these fake cold readings, kind of gotcha psychic experiences where they seem like they’re real. There are torrents of emotions among the sitters. And then at the end, they say, oh, guess what? All this is fake. See how easy it is to be fooled. That doesn’t sit right with me. 

It doesn’t sit right with me. If you do readings, you will find that the readings become very emotional very quickly. Now, firstly, I’ve got a rule that if there’s any hint of tears, I stop the reading instantly and just say this is not real. But mostly what I say is what a psychic reading really is, is two people talking about the most fundamental emotions you have. If I’ve got somebody who’s got emotional. I said, let’s skip the reading and just talk, because I have been trained in counseling. I’ve done a lot in my teacher, have done a lot of counseling. And so I just tell them that the reading was just a way to allow you to talk about these things because your basic emotional needs are building to cold reading. We’re going to talk about affection, about insecurity, about the future and so on. I would never, ever say how your food. One thing I like to point out is that it is much easier to read a very intelligent person than it is to read somebody who’s whatever the politically correct term for less intelligent is. And the reason is that when I come up with something like I’m getting the experience of a plane flight, a intelligent person will search a larger database in the memory much, much faster and get me hit much, much faster. I can use terms like your ego and alter ego or coming into alignment. I can use that sort of expression and play with it with a bright person. I will always get a better reading with a more intelligent person. And I point that out. It’s not a I’ve got to. It’s a you have a letting yourself be involved with this. And I thank them for being so genuine. 

I feel like I could talk with you just about questions regarding called reading, you know, forever. There are so many other things I want to address, like the fact that I’m just really amazed by magicians who know that they are doing cold reading. You know, they know that they’re using these psychological methods. And yet you talk to them long enough and they start saying, well, yes, I use these methods, but I also am intuitive. And they talk themselves into feeling very all right with getting people to part with their money for private readings after their show. And I don’t know if the same is true in the magic circles in Australia, but it seems like that’s a growing phenomenon here and here in the States. And so that’s one thing. I would like that. 

You better talk. No, it’s not happening here. I don’t know any other magician in Australia who does cold readings. I have never been paid for reading other than as part of the skeptical performance, and I certainly would never do it in that format. 

Now, Lynn, you devote a chapter to reincarnation and past lives in the book. How is that any different than someone believing in heaven? Which I notice is a skeptic. You’ve avoided treating in your book. 

I’m glad you’ve raised that point. You’ll see the whole book. I have avoided treating religion other than the Shroud of Turin very carefully. And even reincarnation I’ve been very careful about. And that’s because that book is designed to be given safely to kids in schools and people with believers. Now, if you think of the role of a teacher, we are in a joint arrangement with the parents to the best interests of the child. For me to go in, say what your parent believes in his crap is really, really bad. I am undermining that child’s relationship with their parents. I can’t do that. It’s immoral. So as a teacher for what I do is I talk about things that I believe that I can give solid scientific evidence for and then hope that those critical thinking processes will then go on to other forms of their life. 

So it does sound like you’re saying that if you are skeptical of the paranormal, you’re hoping it will eventually lead to skepticism of some of these religious worldviews. But at this stage, you don’t want to get into that with the publics that you address. 

No, because I’m immediately going to get everybody’s backs up. A lot of the schools that I do presentations for church schools and I have no problem whatsoever. They have no problem with what I’m saying. And they don’t have a problem with the reincarnation one, even though some come from folks that have that belief. Because I start the chapter by saying that of all the police, this is the one I want most. I find the injustice of the world unacceptable. 

And this is the argument that I’ll always put up to religious people that it take me as it please. Once you can explain why there is so much suffering and why God would allow that, then I’ll listen to you about your God. And so with reincarnation, it’s one possible justification for the suffering. And then I go in and investigate all the research that’s been done, including past lives and Bridey Murphy and so on, and come to the conclusion that much as I would like to believe in it, there is no evidence whatsoever that can help me with a belief I would want. And I think that that’s important to point out, that wanting to believe is a very easy way of believing, without question. 

Mm hmm. And so I get your rationale why you don’t touch religion in your skepticism or at least in this book. But why do you think skeptics, many of them in general, and the movement, you know, movement skeptics shy away from being skeptical about religious beliefs? 

It seems like there’s been kind of a division of labor over the last 30 years where skeptics, self-described skeptics worry about all the things that go bump in the night. And humanists are atheists or rationalists care most about religion and and fundamentalism and stuff like that. 

In my case, it’s a knowledge base. I feel very confident in my science. I’ve got strong science, academic background. I do not have a good background in theology. And you end up in debates on belief that for me, up too difficult because they’re immediately going to start quoting things I don’t know about and I don’t feel confident about arguing. So that’s my personal skill base. But outside my professional performances and speak talks, I consider religion to be the basis of a label in a lot of ways. And I will, as a person, as an individual, certainly attack it. But I don’t think I have the credentials to do so publicly and therefore I can get wrapped up in something that will undermine the stuff that I can do. 

Do you think that’s the same kind of argument that a lot of skeptics have historically made, why they don’t have the bull’s eye on religion, but instead on UFOs and ghosts and Loch Ness monsters? Or I mean, you’re a veteran of the skeptics movement. I’m just wondering what other skeptics excuse for not being an equal opportunity skeptic would be. 

I think a lot of them are like me finding the arguments get too esoteric or too difficult to argue well. I don’t like doing something I can’t do. Well, I am a foundation member of this Jane Skeptic’s. I’ve been involved in it awful long time. But yeah, I think it’s why a lot. In public, we’ll move away from it, yet lack of the ability to argue it very well and it takes a lot of time. Those skeptics who do argue against religion are wonderful and we support them strongly. But they want to understand the arguments is huge. 

So it’s just a different league. And that’s your answer? 

I think there’s different roles for do. I don’t think any of us can be experts on everything. I see my role in the skeptical movement as entry level. I’m getting people, you know, in nice, safe subjects, getting them into skepticism in the hope that they will then go on and read the more advanced stuff, the more literate. And then hopefully into the religious. 

Lynn, I want to finish up by talking about how much fun skepticism appears to be for you on the face of it, going around, debunking, attacking people’s untenable beliefs. Seems kind of curmudgeonly, kind of a unhappier, sourpuss thing to do, going around, you know, telling people how wrong they are about this and that. But you actually derive lots of almost playful enjoyment out of this stuff that they’re not telling them how wrong that is. 

I’m telling them how right science is, how wonderful reality is. It’s an awesome world we live in. So I’m always finding the positive in. 

So if someone wants to have the same kind of fun being a skeptic that you have, being a skeptic, what’s your advice to them when they join you? 

Local skeptic group either just turn up for the meetings. Skeptics on the whole have the best sense of humor you’re going to come across. So if you want to have fun, get involved. 

Mm hmm. Thanks very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Lynn Kelly, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks to. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And 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.