Do Statues Weep? The Importance of Scepticism Bristol Festival of Ideas May 14th 2010 by Jack Hunter
The conference room at the Watershed in Bristol was packed, all tickets had been sold and every seat was filled. It is clear that there is a popular interest in the issue of modern scepticism. The speakers this evening included: Dr. Christine Mohr, a neuroscientist from the University of Bristol who has conducted research on the neurophysiological correlates of out of body experiences and on the psychology of magical belief; Wendy Grossman, journalist, editor of The Skeptic magazine and advocate of the sceptical viewpoint; and Simon Hoggart, a journalist for the Guardian newspaper, broadcaster and author of a book on "Bizarre Beliefs". The talk was chaired by the philosopher Dr. Julian Baggini, who has a particular interest in modern atheism. The event, in addition to being a part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, was to mark the release of a new book ("Why Statues Weep") that celebrates 21 years of the UK Skeptic magazine.
The main bulk of the discussion was concerned with elaborating on exactly what the sceptical position entails. Sceptics are often depicted as cynics and killjoys, but this is by no means the image they wish to present of themselves. The overall consensus among the speakers was that the role of the sceptic is to find evidence, or otherwise, to either back up claims or prove them wrong. Scepticism in this context is seen as essentially homologous with the scientific method. To my mind, however, this issue is made more complex by the fact that it is possible to find a lot of seemingly very good scientific evidence, from some very reputable scientists and academics, which appear to support the existence of many so-called paranormal phenomena. As an outsider observing this milieu of competing arguments, how is one to know which apparent evidence to consider and which to ignore?
Emphasis was placed on the importance of replication in ascertaining the reality or otherwise of paranormal phenomena. One thing that has struck me, though, in my own reading about these issues is the fact that paranormal phenomena are most frequently reported as spontaneous, usually unexpected, occurrences. Indeed the number of recorded spontaneous demonstrations of paranormal phenomena in all their varied forms far outweighs the successes in laboratory replication of these phenomena (although lab successes are not unheard of). If we consider this evidence we are led ultimately to a view of the so-called paranormal as something wild, free and above all unpredictable. Should we really expect to be able to fit every phenomenon in this infinite universe comfortably into a neat schema?
Christine Mohr commented that finding neurophysiological correlates for extraordinary experiences somehow makes them "less mystical". I find this a difficult idea to swallow. For instance, we are well aware that the consumption of psychedelic drugs triggers extraordinary experiences, and yet when we have these experiences we have a profound sense of their importance both in terms of our appreciation of reality and in our own personal development. Knowing the source of the experience (if that is what the neurophysiology actually indicates) does not make it any less mystical, as I am sure many of those who have had a paranormal, or indeed mystical, experience will testify to.
I was interested to hear that the focus of The Skeptic has changed in recent years, where once the main function of the magazine was simply debunking paranormal claims, today much greater emphasis is placed on assessing scientific claims, for instance for climate change, medicinal claims and so on. An interesting distinction was made between scepticism and denial, particularly in the context of the climate change debate.
Some interesting issues were raised with regard to education, for example Wendy Grossman suggested that children be taught about statistics from an early age. In this way, she suggests, irrational beliefs, such as supposing the existence of ESP when we think of a friend or relative moments before the phone rings, will disappear. She argues that with a greater understanding of statistics such experiences will be demystified in the mind of the experient because such coincidences are not as statistically improbable as they might initially seem.
When it was noted by a member of the audience that the talk so far had not covered the issue of religion, Wendy Grossman stated that The Skeptic was not concerned with issues of faith, but rather with facts. She suggested that the notion of God, by its very conception, is impossible to verify or disprove.
A lot of the discussion was concerned with the necessity to improve the way in which scientific research is disseminated and explained to the general public via science writers and journalism. Undoubtedly this would be an exceedingly positive move, but what of the fascinating research that is currently being carried out by investigators of psi? Does this research not deserve the same dissemination? I was shocked to some extent by the overwhelming sense of negativity, from some of the speakers, aimed towards the idea of mind over matter, a subject which, as far as I am aware, is still very much in the early stages of exploration. Similarly, I noted a distinct aversion to Spiritualism with phrases such as “objectively silly” being uttered. I was quite disappointed with the lack of discussion of the paranormal, but as Wendy Grossman stated, “there’s only so much that can be [said] about the old things”.
On the whole the talk was very interesting, but I was disappointed at the lack of discussion of the paranormal, and I would have liked very much to hear a bit more about Christine Mohr's research, though I see that within the sceptical field the paranormal is now an old issue. I think we would all agree that a degree of scepticism is necessary in all of our dealings with the world, from the paranormal to the political. To be entirely unquestioning would most certainly be overly naïve. When asked whether 21 years of The Skeptic had made any difference to the beliefs and opinions of the populace, Simon Hoggart replied "No - not any". What does this tell us about the state of paranormal beliefs today?