Dealing with the Irrational, or
How I Tried Everything Else First, Then Learned to Get Real and Love Skepticism
by Wendy Hughes
Many Skeptics have found their way to the skeptical approach via experiments in irrational thinking. Ed Tabash, CFI's debater and Chairman of CFI West, lectures about spending a night in the desert among scorpions, trying to have a spiritual experience .
One of my scariest experiences with the irrational was having a Tarot reader tell me that I was going to be married several times. This was when I was much younger and looking forward to growing old with my husband!
I tried very hard to make ESP work. My best girlfriend and I both married young and had our children when we were in our early twenties. To try to defeat the tedium of being housebound we'd stay on the phone for hours exchanging insights on everything that young people were thinking about in the '60s: ESP, metaphysics, science fiction, astrology, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.
Many of the science fiction books we read had themes of telepathy. Our experiments consisted of trying to transmit and receive telepathic messages. We were so close we figured that if it would work for anyone it would work for us. But it never did.
Many of my friends identified themselves by their astrological signs and explained their daily lives by the interactions of their signs and the signs of others. So, in addition to learning to tie-dye and batik, I tried learning how to cast the charts. When I looked at the little booklets that provide astrologers with information about the various heavenly bodies, however, I knew the information was wrong. I grew up near a famous planetarium, and I had seen exhibits that were not consistent with astrological information.
The introduction to astronomy helped me to assess astrology. The failure to receive and transmit telepathic messages helped me to evaluate ESP. I found both areas lacking in credibility.
In my family, we have ghost stories. There is a story about my grandmother who had been very sick during the last years of her life. She had experienced a series of strokes, and required full time homecare. One day the nurse who was staying with my grandmother was dozing in a chair next to the bed. She recounted a dream wherein she saw a small woman dressed in black, tapping at the window, motioning to my grandmother to get up and follow her. The next day my grandmother died. The nurse was describing the dream to the family after my grandmother had died. Someone thought the description of the woman in black sounded like my great grandmother whose picture was hanging in the hallway near the bedroom door.
When I was little my parents had a housekeeper named Opal. Opal loved me. I loved Opal too, and missed her when she became ill and had to retire. Later, I was hospitalized with appendicitis and in addition to the nurses and other visitors, my mother noticed a woman dressed in the uniform of the hospital custodian. This woman would come and hold my hand in the night. The woman was short, had curly red hair and freckles, just like Opal. My mother later told me that during the time I was hospitalized she heard from Opal's daughter that Opal had died. This one I can't explain, except that a lot of women are short, with curly red hair and freckles and that it's probably not unusual for a small thin girl who is very sick to attract the affection and attention of people who work in hospitals.
There is something wonderful about having even one of these previous beliefs effectively debunked. It causes skepticism. It has caused doubt to become a part of the thought process.
Facing the World with Doubt
After years of reading science fiction novels and learning the popular themes, I began to read magazines that would occasionally feature a paranormal phenomenon from a skeptical perspective. This helped to prepare me for exploring alternative explanations.
Take astral projection, for instance; sometimes called Out of Body Experience, OBE. Can a person meditate and separate their spiritual self from their physical body? Can a person leave their body and fly around, able to see what's going on in other rooms or peeking over the shoulder of someone down the street? Can a person have several parallel lives and choose different versions for different days?  One article I found described a test by Susan Blackmore, a parapsychologist. Susan had devised an effortless but persuasive experiment for OBEs.  She used to leave pieces of paper on the tops of high cabinets in her office, with certain phrases and a series of numbers printed on them. She reasoned that a person who can do astral projection, floating at ceiling level, would be able to see, read and report what is written on those notes. If anyone could do that it would be big news in the skepticism community. Skeptics are not cynics. Skeptics are very curious about alleged mystical experiences -- we just want proof. If you want to convince me you have a dragon in your garage, I'd better be able to see footprints in the flour. I'd be thrilled if there was one but I'd expect to see some evidence.
The sense of what is real and what isn't carries over into everyday, practical concerns. Doubts about alternative medicine have crept up on me. I didn't think there was anything strange about homeopathic remedies until someone told me not to touch the pills because it will destroy the potency. Then I read the literature on the packaging about the dilutions!  I have a girlfriend who is a chiropractor. She's still a good friend we just don't talk about her practice. She learned to do the insurance billing when the coverage for a large local industry started paying for chiropractic treatments -- she is the principle earner in her family. Every time I visited her for treatment I enjoyed the visit but I still had headaches. She'd put hot packs on my shoulders, tell me some gossip, and then wrench my head around. The wry neck would still be there for a week, gradually easing up no faster than it had in the past without treatment. When I confessed this experience to a mutual friend he confirmed that he, too, had received no actual healing, and although he had insurance that would pay for the treatments, he didn't want to have to lie to our friend.
One question arises; when people have as little success as I do with these pseudosciences, alternative medicines, and health practices, why do they persist in consulting in supporting them? Why do they continue to consult the astrologer or the psychic? Why do they continue to purchase homeopathic remedies? What relief are they getting from the chiropractor?
I can only speculate that it's the BELIEF that they may work that drives people to use these products and services. Belief and the placebo effect are a strong combination. My anthropology instructor put it succinctly when discussing shaman healers in traditional cultures: We have an immune system that works pretty well. The body can combat about 85% of infectious disease, given enough time. The other 15 percent, the shaman will have waved his arms and chanted over the same as the recovering patients, but is prepared with a really good explanation about the spirit of the sufferer being needed on "the other side," or words to that effect. So, maybe those of us in the camp of "we want medicine " when the fever gets a little high, are skeptics -- although what I've heard is that the fever is the body's way of trying to cook out the germs causing disease. Give me medicine!
Skepticism in Personal Relationships
I had been eagerly absorbing the "real" scoop on astronomy vs. astrology. I memorized the arguments against the likelihood that aliens have visited the planet in flying saucers. I attended classes in college and learned the concept that evolution by natural selection is the organizing explanation for biological science. I was ready to accept the notion that I just didn't see the world the way my friends did. For years I was frustrated over our differences. Many of them use homeopathic remedies and consider the Sun sign of a new acquaintance before becoming friendly. This is not an insignificant difference. People decorate themselves with insignia of their religious faith, their astrological sign. Their belief in the paranormal is part of the identity that they display to the world. One of the few skeptic parallels is my Darwin fish. I enthusiastically explained to my friends my discovery that there is no God, that we actually did evolve from common ancestors with chimpanzees. I discussed the many gods of various cultures that have existed through history and on different continents. As much as I love the images of aliens with big, almond-shaped eyes, I explained, there is no evidence that any have actually landed on the planet. My friends frowned. I found out later that I was identifying myself as a ... gasp ... atheist.
There were only two friends who seemed relieved. One is a retired educator who can go on for hours about how the biblical ideas about the world came from a time and a place when there were no telescopes and they thought the earth was flat. My other friend brought me atheist buttons, one of which says "Doing my part to piss off the religious right," and I wear them fearlessly in public.
It seems to me that before two people get close enough to consider themselves a couple they would have discovered something about each other's identity; whether they are believers, or skeptics, or post-modernists, or Druids, or Republicans, and so on.
Here is a belief I have had to abandon:
I have heard about soul mates. I WANTED a soulmate. The trouble is, soulmates exist only in the realm of the supernatural.  For a short time, I was associating with a couple who were highly respected within their religious congregation. They were lovable and kind and could talk volumes about biblical history and religious ritual. They would also talk about their relationship. They said they were soulmates and they believed that they had lived before and would live again and that they would know each other in their respective past and future lives. I wanted that! But, I would have to believe a whole lot of other stuff in order to have the "soulmate experience".
Another couple, whose relationship has since dissolved, once considered themselves "soulmates." I was very envious because, although I have been married twice and have been in a long-term relationship, none of those fellows was someone I would call a soulmate. At best I have found someone I agree with about religious issues, most political issues, and most socioeconomic problems. I found it somewhat romantic that the couple I envied believe that they have been partners through time, in other lives. They also observe many religious traditions and rituals in their home and I thought would likely provide an effective bonding mechanism for their family. I was upset, and disagreed with them, when they were about to deny their children immunizations because they believed the shots had a causal relationship with autism. It was consistent, though, with their mindset. They were living out a mystical perspective on how the universe functions.
Finally, however, they separated. I confronted the wife, "I thought you guys were soulmates," I said, and she told me, "soulmate, schmoll mate -- he wouldn't get a job."
I understand now that I can't have it both ways. I don't have a soulmate because I don't believe in the supernatural. I evaluate my options in personal and practical matters insofar as the evidence allows; on what I can discover is real and subject to the tests of empiricism. Mysticism has it's allure but I have seen love so strong that it was described in mythic proportions, dissolve when exposed to the slings and arrows of phone bills and mortgage payments.
Perhaps before committing, a couple should reach some sort of agreement. Knowing that a person is a fellow skeptic would save a lot of arguments and misunderstanding. A good, skeptical friend once told me that his doubt acts as a filter in the world. He said that if he met someone he wanted to date he would explain his interest in skepticism and the Centers for Inquiry and it would help cut through a lot of uncertainty and nonsense.
I submit that if you are attracted to someone there are a few questions to ask before developing a relationship. By no means am I suggesting that it is inappropriate for a skeptic to marry anyone they want; that would sound like the kind of clannishness with which religious marriage exclusivity is associated. It feels good though to be able to tell my partner when I think our dear friend is risking his health because he is taking vitamin supplements instead of seeing a specialist for his diabetes, to understand one another when we agree to firmly refuse to engage with door-to-door evangelists, and concur in our discomfort with a particular acquaintance by pointing out that the turkey has no sense of humor, and not because he is a Scorpio.
I love being a skeptic. I may not have a soulmate but I have good friends with whom I have trusting relationships, in the here and now. How can we address belief in a world beyond? This life has its share of trials and misery; that's a good excuse for wishing to believe there is pie in the sky. I contend that it's an optimistic outlook to think that this is IT. I think that there is consciousness of our surroundings until we die and there is no way to prove that there is anything on the other side of that divide. It creates a need to make the most of this lifetime. I want to enjoy every day, love my family and my friends, try to make good choices about how to spend my time, and if my choices are not as good as I expected, change my mind and try something else. I feel empowered, motivated to do good for my fellows and my environment; it must be, therefore, that skepticism is a positive, creative and life-affirming approach to living. Not bad at all.
- See Confessions of a Former Mystic by Edward Tabash: http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=91
- See Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Out-of-body_experience
- See: http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/si91nde.html
- See: http://www.whatreallyworks.co.uk/start/articles.asp?article_ID=802
- See Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soulmate
About the Author
Wendy Hughes is an out-of-the-closet skeptic and an enthusiastic volunteer at the Center for Inquiry - West in Los Angeles, California.