A Sighing Debunker

April 14, 2014

A TV producer, visiting me to shoot segments for a new series, told me of his experience with another skeptic, unnamed, whom he had talked with by phone.

He said that as he would bring up a new topic, the skeptic would sigh loudly and then launch into a diatribe about why the subject was too silly for words. In fact, he said, the skeptic did not seem to have much to offer on the various topics and cases. Consequently, of course, the person was not being invited to appear on any of the shows.

It seems to me that the skeptic’s behavior was symptomatic of several things. First, the sigh of exasperation was obviously meant to say, ‘there you go again,’ meaning that the producer had brought up a topic the skeptic felt should long ago have been laid to rest.

But seasoned skeptics know that paranormal subjects—ghosts, Bigfoot, weeping statues, and the like—are here to stay. The number of cable TV shows devoted to such is living proof of that. Actually it appears the skeptic has tired of certain subjects (if ever interested in them in the first place)—i.e., is suffering from skeptical burnout. This eventually happens to debunkers—not real investigators, who are willing endlessly to seek explanations for mysteries and use them to teach science and the scientific method.

This brings me to the other issue, that the skeptic seemed to have little to offer about the topics the producer posed. Again, it is the investigator rather than the debunker who is apt to know something. Debunkers are quick to be dismissive, or to suggest (antecedent to inquiry) that a claim is a hoax or to offer one or more off-the-shelf explanations (usually based on some investigator’s work—certainly not the debunker’s).

Yet such dismissive, corner-cutting people are often the ones most anxious to appear on television. One told me, “I have as much right to be famous as you!”

(Sigh. . . .)


#1 Lucretius on Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 9:50am

Joe, with all due respect…that’s easy for you to say. Most of us simply don’t have the means to become professional detectives and personally investigate each and every alleged paranormal phenomenon. What else can those of us who aren’t actual detectives be but “armchair skeptics”? And does not having professional bona fides automatically preclude someone from being a good skeptic and coming to a reasonable conclusion?

#2 Mark L (Guest) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 10:47am

Agree with Lucretius. Sorry we can’t all be professional debunkers, and don’t to waste our (more precious than yours) non-work time with arguing the same old garbage over and over again. Unless you think there’s a magic word or fact that will turn the true believers (and their faith-based system) around, I’m not sure why you’d think that either.

We ought to be fighting to make education more rigorous from a young age, not spending all our effort on trying to alter the already set minds of adults. If kids were taught how to evaluate evidence correctly, and about logic, there’d be many fewer conspiracy-lovers out there.

#3 Taylor (Guest) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 1:43pm

I view Investigators and Debunkers to be two parts of the same machine, like a computer, if you will. The inner workings of the tower do the computations, much like the investigator does the investigating and research. Without a monitor to display the computations, however, the information remains largely unnoticed. So it is with the debunker. They find the information gathered by the investigators, and then distribute it to those that need to see it.

So yes, the CPU and other guts of the computer should get the credit for doing the heavy lifting, but a good monitor can display that information clearly. Get a bad monitor, though, and regardless of how powerful the computer is, everything will come out fuzzy and unclear.

#4 Jesse Glass on Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 10:06pm

Good to hear this Mr. Nickell, and happy to work with you in my small way on the poltergeist project.
Every best wish, Jesse Glass

#5 Jesse Glass on Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 10:15pm

Research—to do it right—especially historical research—takes a long time sifting through what documents are available concerning the subject in question. To debunk is to dismiss and to dismiss too quickly—especially in historical cases—is to miss uncovering the real historical/sociological events that may be at work behind the scenes.  A perfect example of this was the uncovering and correlation of land records with the families of the “witches” of Salem and their accusers. This, I think, is a perfect model for what skeptics could do. Jesse

#6 Randy (Guest) on Thursday April 17, 2014 at 10:38pm

“Asked and answered” is a valid response.

#7 ZJSimon on Tuesday April 22, 2014 at 6:55am

I’m still surprised by supposedly science-minded people who ignore all the evidence against rudeness.

It’s fun to ridicule the ridiculous, in the right time and place, but trolling is trolling whether you’re being belligerent with one book or pretentious with your bookshelf.

#8 Jesse Glass on Friday April 25, 2014 at 6:08pm

Daniel Dennett gives us some great rules to follow in his book Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking.  I like particularly Rapoport’s Rules for composing critical commentary.  1.  Re-express your target’s position. 2. List any points of agreement.  3.  Mentioned what you’ve learned from the target.  4.  Then present your case.  (My quick summary.)  Pgs. 33-35.  Do no harm is also a pretty good rule.

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