Sheldrake and Dawkins
Jonny Wilkinson's Search for Truth

Sceptic Balloons (by Phil Brisk)

[Thanks to Phil Brisk for this therapeutic technique to help cope with sceptics.]

I've been thinking lately about storylines - or 'narratives', if you prefer a posher word - and how they shape our understanding of the world.

For example, take just two of the storylines that emerged recently in attempts to shape opinion on the UK's public sector pensions strike.

There's the narrative of the Daily Mail, presenting that action as an insult to hard-working private sector workers who can only gaze with envy at the privileges enjoyed by molly-coddled public sector staff. Then there's the contrasting version of the same events wheeled out by the other side - a version that portrays the strikers as brave champions of the right of all citizens to a well-funded, secure retirement.

These are only two examples, but they illustrate how narratives work. They take real life and package it in a particular way. They simplify, stripping out nuance and complexity. They boil things down to just a few key ideas - the ideas the inventor of the narrative wants us to focus on.

When you stop and consider, it's not hard to see why storylines are so seductive. After all, who's got time to do their own independent thinking and research these days? Much easier to grab a quick, convenient narrative - a pre-processed, off-the-shelf version of reality whisked up by somebody else. By a politician, say, or an ad man, or a tabloid editor - or any one of a thousand others with an axe to grind and position to push.

Of course, there's only one problem. Narratives aren't reality. As I said, they're only someone's selective and simplified version of it. The narrative might seem to be anchored in fact. But that connection will almost certainly only be a loose one. And storylines, in my experience, are a bit like balloons. The moment they get a bit of wind behind them, they want to take flight. They want to slip their anchors and soar. That's fine when you're talking about balloons. But with narratives, it's different. If you're not careful the narrative soon floats free, with no one to notice it no longer has any kind of connection with fact.

What's this got to do with the concerns of Paranormalia? Actually, quite a lot. Because the closer I study the work of the self-appointed "de-bunkers" of psychic phenomena - James Randi, Chris French, Susan Blackmore, et al - the less I see these people as sober scrutinisers of hard evidence and the more I see them as sellers of balloons. The balloons they're selling are all versions of the narrative of scientific materialism - a highly selective, oversimplified version of the world that, increasingly, is losing connection with the available facts.

In my imagination, that's not a scientist's clipboard I see in their hands, it's a big red balloon. Personally, I find this image rather useful. It encourages me to smile when I think of them, rather than snarl. And that's good. Because, as Robert reminded us in his recent post on Chopra and Dawkins, "spirituality in action" has got to mean remaining non-snarly and kind-hearted in response to the dogmatic scientific materialists - no matter how provocative they may sometimes be.

Here's a case in point. Last night I was listening to something quite irritating by Susan Blackmore - a rather muddled attempt to pour cold water on the fascinating and well-attested phenomenon of NDEs. For a moment I wanted to hit her. Then I closed my eyes ... and just pictured her holding her big balloon. (It was a lovely yellow and pink one, if you must know.) Then, I just wanted to give her a hug.

It's a visualising technique that works for me. Maybe it will work for you.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Well Robert, if you ever want to get absolutely ecstatic - try imagining 99 Susan Blackmore's!

Sorry - I couldn't resist. :-)

lol - it's an interesting thought. Perhaps the problem is that anyone who has done even a little research into the subject of survival knows that simplistic monochromatic answers are unhelpful. Whether it is a cynic artfully picking examples to support their position and ignoring the vast reservoir of research that has been undertaken and the evidence to support survival, or some crystal-hugging 'believer' who refuses to consider the perspective of those who will not join them in their comfortable hot-tub.

It is very difficult for many to remain objective when we see an injustice and misrepresentation being an injustice of sorts, it's no surprise that some of us get annoyed. The question is perhaps: what purpose is served by allowing ourselves to engage in such combat or to be stirred up?

Better to respond calmly and with facts. Even on a forum like this, presenting the evidence and alternative view to cynics may not convince them, however I suspect it is invaluable to the countless number interested in survival who read such replies and are moved to think more deeply about the subject but who may never post on such forums.

Getting into arguments with such folk is pointless other than for the education of observers. 'A soft answer turneth away wrath, but a grievous word stirreth up anger', apparently.

I like the balloon idea because it gives pause for thought before reacting.

I'm over at the Skeptico forum and made the error of discussing a topic with skeptics. I just happened to mention chiropractic care in the course of this discussion and this seemed to set them off. Up went the big red balloon with a crazy narrative about how it's somehow not real medicine.

I couldn't argue. The absurdity of their position overwhelmed me. In the end I decided to leave the discussion. It was a point that just didn't need defending.

What a great technique! As I've been thinking about getting online with my book on distressing NDEs (coming soon!), I've been wondering how to gear up for the skeptics and other assorted nay-sayers. And here's the approach! Wonderful. Yes, Susan B. just floated out of attachment range.

The comments to this entry are closed.