The crowd at the Smoky Hill library was probably expecting ghost stories; after all, the talk was titled: Paranormal Ghost Hunting. Instead, they received an introduction to critical thinking and the scientific method. Better yet, this outreach was to a room full of kids, teenagers and their parents.
The talk was given by Bryan Bonner and Matthew Baxter, who presented “Investigating the Investigators” at TAM 9, a talk about their hoax of a paranormal group. (You may have seen the duo in the halls of the South Point casino, wearing black suits and alien-green fluorescent ties.)
Bryan and Baxter are currently giving lectures about science and the paranormal to groups at libraries in the greater Denver area. This is a series of talks aimed at teenagers, teaching them the basics of skepticism, in a fun, approachable and interactive way. Kids and youths are the future of skepticism, so 17-year-old Logan Baxter was also involved in the talk.
The audience underwent a suggestibility test and viewed some classic optical illusions to demonstrate that we can’t always trust our senses, and everyone can be fooled. They learned about an archaeological dig and a geological survey. They heard about the results of hands-on investigations, and how there are natural explanations for paranormal phenomena.
They also saw the results of investigations conducted by unskeptical groups. But it was encouraging to hear the skepticism in the audience’s questions and comments. When they were presented with examples of Electronic Voice Phenomena (supposed voices of the dead), one young boy exclaimed, “That sounds like nothing!” They showed excellent critical thinking skills when it came to analyzing examples of pareidolia and images of alleged ghosts.
Their questions also revealed the topics that we skeptics should be concerned about: Have you ever seen a ghost? How do you explain my psychic experiences? What ghost hunting tools do you use? Is Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files a good TV show to watch?
Bryan and Baxter shared their experiences with Fact or Faked, and how a producer of the show offered them $1500 to fake a video. I chronicled the story in my Naked Skeptic column. As the main source of education about paranormal claims for many people, these shows teach kids to think uncritically and encourage TV-trained paranormal investigators.
After being told that Ghost Hunters is also bad television, one young girl asked, “Is Ghost Adventures a good show to watch instead?” After being told, “No, it’s another unscientific show”, she replied to Baxter, “Well, you look like Zak Bagans!”
The talk probably won’t stop these people from watching these shows, but it will hopefully make them think critically about the claims and findings in the future.
But one young girl spent most of the talk in fear of every “ghost” photo and claim, until it was explained as natural, not supernatural. She ran to the door when the words “Demon Panda” flashed up on the presentation. Peering through her fingers, she saw that the ‘Demon Panda’ was just pareidolia, an office chair that looked like a face. She walked back to her chair saying to herself, “Oh, that’s cute! It’s not so scary!”
That’s the important take-away message from the talk and from skepticism in general. When we use critical thinking, rationale and science, we can better understand the way the world works. With skepticism, the world isn’t so scary.
Karen Stollznow is research fellow for the James Randi Educational Foundation.