While I’m taking a break to focus on work – here’s a few transcripts from the Token Skeptic podcast. I’ll return to a regular schedule in February, but you can check out the podcast at www.tokenskeptic.org and forthcoming articles out on the JREF Swift blog and the CSICOP Curiouser and Curiouser column.
Sharon Hill is a geologist and author of the Doubtful News Blog, which focuses on science and pseudoscience aimed at the public. She explores the intersection of science and public understanding as a graduate of the Science and the Public Ed.M. graduate program at the State University of New York at Buffalo (a joint initiative with the Center For Inquiry).
More recently she has started the Doubtful Newsblog, which is rapidly becoming the must-subscribe site for all skeptics using social media. Picture is taken from the ‘I’m A Skeptic’ profile, on Skeptic.com.
Kylie: You’ve done a degree on communicating science and interacting with the public; it’s a Masters of Education degree, isn’t it?
Sharon: Correct; I found that for my graduate studies, that the perfect fit was the State University of New York at Buffalo. It was an online program dealing with science in the public. It was a two year‑program and I did a thesis and I think it gave me a fantastic, well‑rounded education in science. Things that you really didn’t learn as an undergrad.
I did some research as an undergrad in a laboratory and did some work with projects in that sense in research, but I didn’t think I really had a good background in how to do research in the correct way, or that the philosophy of science was something that was stressed in an undergraduate degree. I was ready to tackle that subject.
You get out of a Masters program what you put into it – I was so enthusiastic about it and I enjoyed probably every minute of it (except maybe statistics!) But besides that, I had a very good time learning all these new aspects. When it came to doing my thesis, I wanted to do something that I found personally interesting and not just going through the motions. I really wanted to learn something brand new that maybe hadn’t been done before.
Kylie: In fact, looking over my notes from the “Meet the Skeptics” interview, you talked about how it involved the way the public were being sold a vision of science through TV shows and the media? I could understand why Indre Viskontas was the focus of an interview you did, because this is a field that you’re fascinated by – enough to write a thesis upon!
Sharon: It was a lot of fun – it sure was work! What I did was I looked at 1,000 websites of amateur paranormal investigation groups and wondered where they got their ideas about science from. About half of them explicitly said that they used either “science” or “a scientific method” – I wanted to know what they meant by that. Did they really use science? What they were using that method for?
I assumed that many of these TV shows that were popular here in America at the time had influenced them, that they were seeing a representation of doing science on television that is probably not quite accurate! What I did was I look at their reports and the way that they talked about their methods and actually looked at clues and other places; like how they described their theories or how they were investigating, their processes and such. I realized that, oh, they were really off‑base when it comes to science. They don’t have any experience in science.
One of the keys, I think, to being a scientist is working in that scientific environment and being subjected to being careful all the time, and having other people being critical of your work, asking the right questions, and realizing mistakes that can be made. I really don’t think that these amateur paranormal groups know at all the mistakes that they’re making because they’re making them all the time.
There’s so much background on that, but this was the first time that anyone had really looked at these groups from that angle. I found that it was incredibly enlightening. I actually think it’s harmful the way that they go out to the public and call themselves experts and professionals and say, “We do science; this is scientific, ” when it’s absolutely not. I think the public is sold a raw deal in that aspect.
Kylie: What do you think is the worst that happens – or can happen?
Sharon: What I saw that was probably the most disturbing was that these groups would say that they were scientific. Then they went into a house and told the people that they had demons in their house. That if their kids were reporting problems or they were reporting events, then these groups went in and said, “Oh yes, you have a demon manifestation“. I would go on their websites and be astounded that they would say on one hand they were scientific and on the other hand they would say that they have a demonologist on staff.
They would actually go in and tell these people, “Yes, your house is haunted. There are these spirits here,” or, “You have a demon infestation“. I thought that that was so mean and unethical that it really bothered me that someone could go in there and be so confident in their judgment and be so completely ridiculous. Maybe the people were even more upset by the results that they got?
Kylie: It intrigues me how perhaps some religious groups don’t team up with some skeptics in these cases in order to say, “OK, you’re starting to cross over onto religious territory with these claims and it’s just not fair!”
Sharon: There were some groups that were explicitly religious, some of them clergy. They mostly weren’t, though.
Sharon: Yes. There was paranormal clergy that will go out and do investigations. There were some that say they do have religious staff that they will contact. Of course the popular program here, “Paranormal State,” which is now over (thank goodness) had a very strong religious overtones, with regards to Catholicism and demon manifestations and such. Yeah, there is a strong religious aspect.
I think it’s because demons are becoming very popular? They’re becoming more and more a concept that’s being introduced into these hauntings again. It may have happened back in the ’70s when “The Amityville Horror” and “The Exorcist” were popular, but I think it’s coming back again, which is disturbing.
Kylie: Fascinating that there’s not some standard religious-based statement that’s being put out there that is having an effect… I would have thought the Catholic Church at least would have said something, but clearly not?
Sharon: Right. They seemed to be rather “hands off”. I’m not as familiar with that, but they haven’t come right out and said too much about it.
Kylie: One thing that you have started recently that I have been enjoying immensely – and it even ended up featuring on the skeptic.com website – is the Doubtful News Blog.
Sharon: Well, it’s a fun site! I’ve always liked weird news. It was always my favorite part of the podcast that I listen to when they would talk about current events, having to do with the paranormal or pseudoscience. One day I was on Twitter and I was like, “I would really love a podcast that was just about the news.”
It was like “Mysterious Universe,” but upside down where we talk more of like a skeptical viewpoint and what could be wrong with the stories the way they were presented in the media. What I did was I went to various places for paranormal daily news. There wasn’t anything inclusive of skeptical content or a broad selection of topics that I was interested in. There was no site that had topical news from a skeptical perspective.
Some had lots of straight science stories, which is great but I could get them in a lot of different places. What I was interested in was just the one‑stop shop for critical thinkers and those interested in how the media portrays the news stories of sensational events. That was my purpose in coming up with that website, the Doubtful News Blog.
I go around and I pick up stories from various places and put them all together and provide a link to the original source, a quote, maybe a little commentary. I try to keep the snark to a minimum and maybe provide some extra information, links that would come to mind from skeptical sites or articles that I’ve seen before. Then I provide a place for commentary, open commentary, where people can come and provide additional information or dispute the story or agree with the story, support the story. It’s been really interesting. It’s grown really fast!
Kylie: Yes, it’s excellent! I’m looking over the page right now and I can see how there’s straight reporting, such as in remembrance of Lynn Margulis, “biological rebel”. Then there’s something that pops up like this, “Ghost Hunters Say Frankfort Distillery is Haunted, Ghost Tours Commence!”
Sharon: Some days the stories are just bizarre, really bizarre. Some days it just seems like, “Wow, it must be a slow news day,” and the media outlets are just having a field day producing really bonkers type stories. But it’s a lot of fun. Our tag line is on how people really believe this stuff because no matter how bizarre the story is, there’s going to be someone one, who wrote, or who experienced, and it’s being reported.
But I think it’s hard for people to realize that there’s a huge portion of the population that thinks these stories are interesting and that maybe they’re completely true. You know, they take them at face value instead of questioning, “What could be wrong with this story? Or what’s more of the background that I’m missing here?” That’s a critical point of what I wanted to do with the news site.
It’s firstly to serve as that one stop shop. Secondly, it would be to show the alternative view or different information for people who might Google that topic. Maybe they’d come upon our story and realize that there’s more to it that maybe they hadn’t thought of. Thirdly, it’s to show the prevalence and interest in those fringe or soft news stories. I don’t think skeptics realize how prevalent these stories are and that the media people take it seriously.