How to Become a Media Skeptic

by Guy Lyon Playfair

Need a second income? Then why not become a Media Skeptic, one of those who pop up on our screens almost daily to assure us that “the paranormal” (or psi, as it is known in the trade) doesn’t exist? You don’t need any qualifications, though it helps if you have a degree in psychology, Just stick to these guidelines:

1.  Make it clear that psi (which includes telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and precognition) doesn’t exist, because it is impossible. It is “bad science” to claim that it does. You can quote such respectable authorities as the following:

– Professor Peter Atkins: “Serious scientists have got real things to think about – we don’t have time to waste on claims which we know both in our hearts and heads must be nonsense.” (“Counterblast”, BBC2, 23 April 1998).

– Dr. Susan Blackmore: “I think we have strange experiences we can’t explain and jump to the conclusion they’re paranormal.” (“Desert Island Discs”, BBC Radio 4, 3 May 1998).

– Professor Richard Dawkins: “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans.” (Sunday Mirror, 8 February 1998).

– Professor David Deutsch: “The evidence for the existence of telepathy is appalling…Telepathy simply does not exist.” (The Observer, 30 September 2001).

– Professor Nicholas Humphrey: “The idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there’s nothing to explain… We haven’t got any evidence.” (“Today”, BBC Radio 4, 2 October 2001).

– James Randi (a conjuror): “There is no firm evidence for the existence of telepathy, ESP or whatever we want to call it.” (ibid.)

2.  Explain, as patronisingly as you can, that although there is a lot of what might be mistaken for evidence for telepathy and other psi phenomena, it isn’t “real” evidence. Point out that “more careful researchers” have challenged it. Never mind who, where, on what grounds, or how convincingly. In skeptic-speak, challenging or questioning the evidence equals disproving it conclusively.

(In fact, as has been shown on numerous occasions, “more careful” psi researchers have questioned the sayings or writings of skeptical debunkers and torn them to pieces. Examples will be given on this website in due course.)

Avoid any actual discussion of the evidence for psi if you possibly can, but if you can’t avoid it, concentrate on the weakest or the craziest you can find, such as the latest alien abduction, crop circle, Californian channeller, pop astrologer or Bigfoot sighting.

3.  There are some researchers, such as J. B. Rhine, whose work is not so easy to dismiss. Neither Rhine’s personal integrity nor the reliability of his statistical methods have ever been seriously challenged, So what should you do? Simple. Explain that he “might have been hoodwinked” by all those clever magicians who were disguised as his laboratory subjects. There’s no evidence that he was, but it sounds good to suggest that he might have been, and of course nobody can disprove this. Read the classic of skeptical revisionist non-explanation, C.E.M. Hansel’s error-riddled book ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Reevaluation (New York: Prometheus, 1980) to see just how bizarre criticisms can be – Hansel even has one of Rhine’s card-guessers clambering up to the attic and peering through a non-existent trap door at the card! You can learn a lot from Hansel, a master of the mud-slinging school. Never mind if there is no evidence at all that such-and-such an individual misbehaved in any way. If you need some damning evidence and there isn’t any, just make some up.

4.  If you’re a magician, as many hard-line skeptics are, state that psi experiments are worthless unless they are supervised by a magician. You should give the impression that magicians are too smart to be fooled, which of course is not true. If it was, why would they pay each other such large sums of money for the secrets of their tricks?

If somebody mentions Uri Geller, claim that magicians can duplicate his entire repertoire. This is not true, but it sounds good. At least twenty professional magicians have stated that they cannot explain what they saw Uri do. One has even issued a public challenge (BBC Radio 5, 14 December 1993) to any of his colleagues who can repeat what he witnessed. No takers as yet.

Keep your fingers crossed and hope that nobody points out that Geller has pulled off one feat that few magicians, if any, have ever duplicated. He has become a millionaire.

5.  If somebody mentions all those distinguished scientists and academics from Crookes, Lodge, Richet, the Curies, Bergson, Jung, McDougall, William James and Lord Rayleigh to contemporaries like Brian Josephson, Bernard Carr and Donald West, point out as patronisingly as you can that an expert in one field is not necessarily an expert in another field, such as psi research.

Skeptics, on the other hand are by implication experts on everything.

6.  Don’t forget that old “desperate will to believe” argument, which applies to anybody who has ever reported positive results of a psi experiment. The implication should be that they have fiddled the data to make the results look positive, whereas “more careful” skeptics (more often than not Dr. Susan Blackmore or Dr. Richard Wiseman) have shown that in fact they are negative.

Avoid any suggestion that skeptics have a desperate will not to believe, as is clearly the case with some. In an exchange of letters with Henry Bauer, editor of the excellent Journal of Scientific Exploration, Kendrick Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, has candidly admitted that (in Bauer’s words), “the magazine’s purpose is not to consider what the best evidence for anomalous claims might be but to argue against them”. (JSE, vol. 3, no. 1, 1989).

7.  Adopt the combine-harvester approach to reports of any kind of psi phenomenon, or indeed to any kind of inexplicable or anomalous one, and keep it simple, as in this pronouncement by authors Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson, from their book Bizarre Beliefs:

“The terrible truth is that there are no ghosts, no poltergeists, and no hauntings. They are all mistaken, imaginary, or fakes.”

8.  You can get away with the most massive whoppers, especially on TV, if you manage to sound as if you know what you’re talking about when you don’t. A perfect example was provided by the narrator of Channel 4’s “Secrets of the Psychics” (24 August 1997), which included examples of all the guidelines listed here:

“With one exception, all practising mediums were exposed as frauds or confessed.”

The narrator forgot to mention who the one exception was. Among mediums who never confessed to anything and were not exposed as frauds were D. D. Home, Lenora Piper, Mrs Willett, Eileen Garrett, Rudi Schneider, Franek Kluski, the half-dozen members of the Cross Correspondence team, Stefan Ossowiecki, Pamela Curran and Chico Xavier.

9.  It is a good idea to pretend that you are an honest, open-minded seeker after the truth but be careful not to go too far, as Professor Richard Dawkins did in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture (BBC1, 12 November 1996):

“The popularity of the paranormal, oddly enough, might even be grounds for encouragement. I think that the appetite for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we don’t understand, are healthy and to be fostered. It’s the same appetite which drives the best of true science.”

There could not be a clearer summary of what drives the great majority of parapsychologists.

10.  Finally, you can always win some popular sympathy with the good old “dangers of dabbling in the occult” ploy. Suggest that actually doing any research into psi phenomena or other anomalies can only lead to another Jonestown massacre, Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, or Third Reich.

Put all this sound advice into practice, and you’ll be media superstars, my son and daughter.