Back from my holiday now – camping in Norfolk in blissful warm weather.
I was just on Skype with a journalist at Newsweek. He’s doing an article on the sceptics movement, and has apparently spent some time with James Randi, et al, soaking up their wisdom. He admits to being sceptical himself, turned off by mediums like Sylvia Browne and John Edward making big bucks from the gullible public. But he seemed interested and open-minded, and it was a good discussion.
He said that Randi insisted on being referred to as an investigator, not a debunker. I came down on that one hard. I told him what happened when CSICOP, shortly after its founding, tried to suppress news of positive results, and how since then it avoided actual investigation for fear of embarrassment. There are real investigators and for the most part they’re parapsychologists.
He commented on the somewhat authoritarian, ‘Stalinist’ flavour to sceptic websites. Yes indeed. A symptom of the ideological war that sceptics are waging. They can’t allow people to believe this stuff, it’s against their religion.
He also asked why I thought the media tends to shut out people like me who take psychic phenomena seriously. That was an intelligent question, and not something that the media asks itself very often. I suggested that the sceptics’ movement has been effective in ridiculing paranormal belief - professionals just can’t afford to expose themselves to it. Science editors particularly must never seem ‘soft’ – even if they’re secretly interested they just don’t have the confidence, or in most cases the seniority, to be open about it. Actually I think that applies to most writers and broadcasters in the serious news media. It’s just not something one admits to.
I pointed out that people like me aren’t impressed by the celebrity psychics – that’s not why we take it seriously. It’s mostly because we’re familiar with the research literature. That’s where the arguments are. If I happen to think John Edward is a genuine medium it’s because I’m convinced by a century of research that mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, not by Edward’s performance. But, I told him, sceptics aren’t interested in that – their knowledge is limited to the exposes and confessions (whether real or alleged) that help them keep the faith.
It turned out that this is going to be Newsweek’s cover story next week. So there could be more than one article. I might be quoted, but probably not at length (knowing how we journalists work). He mentioned the cover story they ran on Eben Alexander’s NDE a while back, and it occurs to me that they must have got a lot of grief from sceptics about that. So this could be a way of redressing the balance.
But thinking about it, there’s so much that journalists don’t know about this subject, and trying to get handle on it while researching a single article is hardly the way to get a balanced view. Hell, some journalists write an entire book and still seem confused.
Still, it will be interesting to see the mainstream media’s take on sceptics. Something to watch out for.