The Skeptic’s Guide To Attending A Paranormal / Pseudoscientific Lecture

Update - check out Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con by Sharon Hill.

It’s late,  I’m awake and I haven’t been blogging recently (unless you count YouTube video links, which I don’t – unless I’m actually involved in the creation of them) – so, here’s a little something that’s been on my mind.

In fact, there’s a few things that have been on my mind about attending paranormal and / or pseudoscientific lectures, conferences, what-have-you. Essentially, this is my brief guide to benefiting from experiencing an event with content that will challenge a skeptical view. I hope that there’ll be other bloggers who’ll follow suit with their experiences and suggestions.

Firstly (and most importantly) - if you want the best overall guide I’ve ever found, head to Proper Criticism by Ray Hyman on the CSI website.

What follows here are my own personal experiences with investigations and a response to two questions that I’ve received – but it’s always an excellent idea to check out established skeptical authors like Prof. Hyman to remind ourselves that we’re not the first to explore these issues and certainly not the last!

Recently Daniel Loxton has been doing some research into classics like M. Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia (someone typed out the whole text and popped it online, but I strongly recommend doing the right thing and buying the book; it’s a great addition to a skeptical-library in addition to being a ripping read). He then posed a question via Twitter:

This question as to whether there’s any parapsychological literature which denounces the “psychic industry” neatly dovetailed with another skeptical group on Twitter pondering if they should attend a psychic / paranormal / pseudoscience lecture… and what to do, how to behave, what to expect and so on.

I can answer both of those inquiries – the one by Daniel and the one by the skeptic group – in one hit. Because one of the things I like to do on occasion is live-blog… and I like to see lectures by a wide range of people on paranormal and pseudoscientific topics. I don’t believe in perpetuating an echo-chamber, and besides, everyone can use a little face-to-face contact with other people and their beliefs, rather than painting them as “the unseen other”.

Live-blogging is something I apparently have a talent for; being one of the few girls who paid attention to the Olivetti rather than the Oliver in typing classes eventually paid off with a word-per-minute of around 70-90. Combine that with a dozen science and skepticism conferences with free wi-fi… and you get a nice little collection of posts under your belt over the years, with useful references and notes for not only yourself but others. I should look into turning some of them into another publication one day, perhaps. At any rate, live-blogging my experiences with events of all kinds is something I’ve done often and highly recommend.

In that light, some of my top tips can be combined with the experience of attending a lecture called “Talking to the Dead: Reconstructing the Sacred Space of Mediumship”, a few years back.

Firstly, I got to meet the presenter a few days previously, by my then-boss. My then-boss somehow thought it’d be amusing to jokingly introduce me along the lines of “she’s one of those skeptics; so she’s against you lot“. NOT the best introduction to have and I felt very sorry for the presenter who was indeed a believer in the paranormal.

When they later spotted me in the audience for their lecture, they looked like they were very sad to see me (not angry, more like that expression you get when spot your high-school Principal in the audience and you’re about to do a belly-dance)… and even more depressed when I raised my hand to ask a question at the conclusion of their talk.

But it all went really well. Why?

1. Go to the lecture, presentation, conference, gathering, or what have you – legitimately.

Don’t want to pay? Don’t go. Don’t want to behave like every other polite attendee? Don’t go. Don’t intend to respect the requirements of recording, photography, etc? Stay home and work on achieving those Portal 2 trophies instead.

If you honestly have an issue with spending your own money (hey, why not fundraise for help  if it’s an issue?) or want to turn up to make trouble – you’re essentially being a jerk. Not only do you risk being thrown out (and at the very worst, tossed by security and maybe charged by police) – you’re ruining the experience for everyone else who may very well be a mixture of believers and wanting-to-make-their-own-minds-up or even fellow investigators.

Besides, having someone who plays neatly into the hands of “those skeptics / atheists / protestors are just rude, law-breaking gits” really doesn’t do anyone any good (except for the occasional egoist, in my opinion).

Seriously. Do you honestly want to go? Then go with your eyes open, a pen in hand, a phone for Tweets and a healthy respect for any signs that say “no recording” or “no photography”. Turn your darned phone off if they don’t want it going off in the middle of the “meditation and kiwi-flavoured chocolate tasting session” and just Tweet another time.

If you’re protesting, that’s a different story and I suggest the Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual as a good starter guide.

But if you’re going to be there as an observer, a note-taker and to experience what it’s like for an audience member (in order to digest, reflect and perhaps report on what you heard and saw)? Then act the way you’d wish people would for your own lecture. Respect the rules of the house, even if your mental pitchfork is being waved around in horror.

For example – my equipment when attending the lecture on “Talking to the Dead” involved a note-pad and a mp3 recorder, with every intention of destroying the audio after re-listening to it after the event.

When I attended a “Mind, Body, Spirit” festival, they said no photographs, no filming… so I didn’t take any. I did, however, Tweet about my experience and wrote up my views for a blogpost afterwards.

The same regard for a science lecture is the same regard I should give for a lecture for the (notorious!) AVN, where I took my laptop and took about 8 pages of notes. There were no problems, no issues and I felt safe and comfortable knowing that if I honestly felt challenged or threatened, I could go to security and plead that I was a paying member of the public like anyone else…and I followed the rules.

And if the conveners had issues anyway? Well, I’d add that to the notes and feel free to report to authorities if needed. At least my conscious was clear.

2. Pay attention. This may be a one-time experience.

Sure, I’ve gone to lectures with friends. Occasionally I’ll made a whispered comment or Tweet. But my phone is always on silent (or turned off if they explicitly say) and I focus as much as I can on the presentation. I’m not perfect (who is?) but I try – because I know that other people may be interested in my experience, and it might not just be preaching to the choir when I write it up.

I’ve had the most fun attending paranormal lectures at Dragon*Con, because sitting next to a Klingon does tend to do things to your funnybone when the presentation is about the possibility of alien contact with humans… but overall, it’s best not to be sitting in a bunch of friends throwing popcorn at the stage unless it’s a pantomime.

Wouldn’t do it to James Randi? Then don’t do it to any other presenter – I remember watching with utter horror and mortification the time someone threw a water bottle at the stage during a skeptics vs believers panel at Dragon*Con in 2008 and I sincerely hope that is never repeated anywhere.

3. Ask questions – politely and with consideration, as it’ll help your research.

This was actually a really fascinating part of the talk I attended on “Talking to the Dead” – because the presentation implied that spiritualist churches REALLY don’t seem to like professional psychics.

I then asked for clarification, along the lines of: “It appears that professional psychics are taking advantage of the ethos and beliefs of your church and essentially disrespecting your beliefs for monetary gain. Has there ever been an official statement against such commercial psychic practices by your religion?”

That’s not a controversial, snarky or rude question – it was honestly meant and the look of quasi-relief on the presenters face showed that she understood that I was genuinely interested.

Her response was something along the lines that there were issues but no over-arching church delegation (as such) that could send out a statement of protest or anything similar. I then politely suggested that it might be something to look into…

 

…Okay, maybe that’s too much to hope for, but I did get thinking about commonalities and shared views. Nothing wrong with seeking allies where you can.

Also – talk to fellow attendees. Ask if you’re allowed to quote them, if it’s okay to record their responses. You’re doing research after all, perhaps they’d like to know more about the presentation themselves and will check out your writing to find out about alternative arguments as to what they experienced.

I know that Hayley Stevens and Sharon Hill are also keen bloggers in regards to investigations, so perhaps they’ll post something on this topic too – I’ll post links here if they do.

Print Friendly

  • ESC_key

    This post is very interesting to me, especially since I seem to attract a lot of liberally religious/mystic friends who-while I love hearing about them and what they do in their free time-seem to take on that extra air of caution when they’re talking about “paranormal experiences” and the like, knowing that I’m an atheist and a skeptic.

    One event I remember happening recently was a friend of mine who wanted to tell me about what she believed was a ghost experience, but she prefaced it with “what’s your view on the paranormal?” I quickly explained (perhaps too thoroughly) my personal standpoint: that it cannot be explained/examined scientifically, the senses are easily fooled, the simpler answer is usually correct, etc. I swear I could feel the change in her attitude the moment I finished, and she pretty much told me the condensed, cliffNote version, getting it over with quickly, probably worried I was judging her the whole time.

    Now, I certainly don’t believe in ghosts, but I have always loved a good ghost story, and I feel like in that particular case, my lack of tact robbed me of getting to hear one, because I wanted to immediately share my personal philosophy without considering its immediate impact on my friend’s. It’s important for my friends to know and be comfortable with who I am, sure, and vice-versa.I just can’t help but imagine how good that story would have been if I had just waited to hear it first!

    Anyways, tl;dr version: I liked reading this, and felt like some of your advice can help skeptics in their personal relationships as well. Thanks for writing it!

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Hey, thank you! It’s odd, but I have a few close friends who are silent on such matters and it’s only after a long period of time that they’ll discuss them, probably due to bad experiences in the past. It’s not easy (of course) to avoid being judgmental, but you never know what you might get from the experience if you take a step back and be willing to listen.

  • robmcdermott

    Thanks for this, Kylie! I hope it will prove useful to our intrepid investigator!

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Glad it’ll be of use! I highly recommend Sharon Hill’s experiences and the Ray Hyman article for a read too!