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A LETTER FROM AN EX-SKEPTIC.

On 17 December 2002 I attended the taping of a Kilroy show on “Psychics and New Age Gurus”.  At the show I met Nathan Howland.  Mr Howland told me that he had been skeptical, “even more skeptical than [myself and the other skeptics on the show]”, but that he had had a life changing experience with a psychic and was now “on the fence” as far as belief in psychic phenomena was concerned.  The following day, 18 December 2002, I received this letter by email.

My comments are indented and in red.

Please note:  Several paragraphs and sections from the original letter have been excised because they contain ad hominem abuse.  All such deletions are marked with a red ellipsis (…).  Nothing has been removed that affects Mr Howland’s argument.  All spelling and grammatical errors are as in the original letter.

Nick Pullar

20 December 2002

Hello again Nick,

Hello Nathan,

I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you and your two colleagues for putting some fire in the belly of the Kilroy show that took place yesterday. It made for good filming!

Thank you.

Treating everything that I come across on this crazy ball of dirt with a healthy bucket-full of scepticism, I still stand firm in my assertion that there are many wonderful and glorious things out there that just cannot be blindly swept aside .

I am all for people having there own opinions, based on their own experiences, no matter how wacky or far-fetched they may seem.  Its what makes the rich tapestry of our diminutive existence here just that little more interesting for everybody, no matter what your background.

I agree with you.  People are entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, and skeptics do not necessarily seek to challenge anyone’s own personal beliefs.  Skeptics are interested in those who seek to convince others that their beliefs are true, or who use their beliefs to make money.  Surely you agree with me that there is a difference between someone simply holding a belief and someone who trades on that belief.  We expect a much higher standard of justification from the latter.  If it happens that there is no evidence that a belief is true, that the belief contradicts already known and understood physical regularities, and the practitioners of that belief tend to gain their clients from people who are in a vulnerable position (the unhappy, the recently bereaved, the poor or the lonely) shouldn’t someone do something to ensure that those consumers are really getting what they are promised for their money rather than merely some entertainment and attention, that they might get elsewhere for less or for free?  And even more importantly, for one particularly vulnerable group, the sick, shouldn’t someone ensure that the crystals, potions, enemas, massage, weeds, ointments, needles or oils that are purveyed endlessly to them are efficacious or at the very least non-harmful, so as to ensure that that their health or even life is protected?

You will be happy to note that off the back of the energy you guys managed to stoke, the old sceptic in me was reinvigorated.  I felt the old pangs of blinkered rationalisation stampeding back to me like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  It was quite motivating!  So, in my journey home back to a cold, foggy, almost spooky (but I can't prove that..!) Chatham, I resolved to go back in time and visit the point at which you guys 'lost' me (in part) from your ranks, and retread my steps as to the reasons why.  To do so was even more eye opening than I had remembered.

Immediately upon arrival home, I pissed my lady off by refusing a labour intensive dinner, and opted to go rummaging around in the cellar for an old box of tapes, and finally found the 'offending article' and sat through the whole psychic reading again.

My partner had never heard of the reading before. She was amazed that I had ever ventured to participate in such a reading in the first place, knowing my (as she calls it) very 'Black & White' outlook on life.  This served me well, as I then held her hostage as a neutral third party to assess (without any possible clouded prejudice on my part) the limitations I imposed upon the reading from the outset, the depth of the information exposed, and any possible 'feeding' I was likely to have involuntarily offered the psychic that could possibly have been regurgitate back at me.

The result seemed pretty conclusive :

At the beginning of this 54 min tape, I was asked "What can I do for you Nathan?" I make the following statement, "I have come here to hopefully shed some light on a relationship with a family member, my current job, and my current state of health." On listening to this I was reminded of my previous cold, defensive, and purely sceptical philosophy back then. I was uncomfortable to be there, and was only there because I been badgered into it by a close friend who I considered an old psychic 'air-head'. In this way I wanted the psychic to fail miserably to justify, and thereby become allie to, this outlook on life. I resolved then to give her as little as possible to go on to achieve this aim. Apart from an occasional "Yes" to her perfectly reasonable requests of "Do you understand this?", I gave her NOTHING to go on!

She on the other hand gave me a very detailed, descriptive, and 'scenario-specific' biography of my life as it was then, the exact nature of the family relationship that had been tormenting me for years, and the period of time in which it had been manifesting itself in that way.  She accurately exposed the entire dynamic of my working conditions then, including the specific role of Corporate Lawyer. And in the final category of 'health', she immediately pin-pointed the ulcer I had been getting treatment for in the previous 4 months, and also made reference to previous injuries, and a couple of posture related stresses that were prevalent at the time. More importantly she made a suggestion that I make arrangements to test my sugar levels as she felt, "I think there is something there, looming' that needs attention." .....On the back of this advise, given the 'frightening' nature of the entire reading, I was able to have it realised in the following 3 weeks, through my GP, that I was Hyperglycaemic. All of which this remarkable woman did with her eyes shut!

Not bad for £35. Which I must add DID NOT go into the pocket of the psychic, but into the coffers of The Institute of Psychic Studies for the maintenance the building!

Having sat listening to this in front of the open fire, sipping my warmed Brandy, I then relaxed into my armchair in the comforting knowledge that I had not been hood-winked.  It had not been a dream, or a figment of my imagination, or a deception, and that the richer and more diverse nature of my current existence owed much to this gifted woman pulling me ( in part) out of what was, ultimately, a blinkered, self-absorbed bigotry.

Ultimately, as with all walks of life, there will always be the bands of fakers, the shakers, fraudsters, the con-men, and the predatory money-grabbers to fuel the sceptical fires in people such as yourself. But on reflection, and in reference to the latter, I truly believe that those that are doing the very best psychic and healing work are not motivated by the simple greedy confines of monetary gain. Therefore, despite its near impossible restrictions, you may find that anyone capable of completing your 'Test' may not be interested in the money alone!

Nathan, the “near impossible restrictions” are designed to stop the claimant using an alternate, non-psychic method to complete the task.  Skeptics merely ask the claimant to do what they claim they can do!  So, if a person presents with the claim that there is a “human energy field” which she can detect using her hands (one of the claims of “Therapeutic Touch”) then that claim is tested, as was done by 11-year old Emily Rosa in 1996, by having the claimant use her ability to detect Emily’s “energy”, but where Emily is behind a screen.  There is no point in testing the claim where the claimant can see the tester, since everyone agrees that vision is good for detecting someone’s presence!

....What about the implications of the possibility of someone being successful?....What will you do with this 'proof' once you have it, apart from (hopefully) ceasing your loud and constant barracking??  You appear to be offering a considerable sum of money, just to be shut up and silenced!?

Yes, exactly!  If these people really can do what they say they can do, and they are not consciously or unconsciously fooling themselves and their clients then it’s very easy to make us shut up and win a pile of money (for themselves or the charity of their choice): they just have to ACTUALLY DO what they say they can do, nothing more!

Ultimately, what use is the test to anyone if not in the name of progress? It appears to serve no purpose. I do not understand the reasoning and would appreciate you shedding any light on this matter

As I say above, as skeptics we do not believe that there are such things as paranormal powers.  Personally speaking, I think that the world would look a very different place if even a small number of the claims made by the various psychics and so on are true.  For example, if people really could see the future, why are there casinos?  If people really could find missing people by dowsing over maps, why are there any missing people?  If people really do survive death and can talk to the living, why don’t they do that rather than talking to folk like Van Pragh or Stokes?  If crystals or the laying on of hands could heal, or even help healing, why are there hospitals?  Why did the need to develop modern, evidence-based medicine arise at all?

So, I don’t think that there are any paranormal powers.  However, lots of people claim these powers.  What is the best way to respond?  I think that a “put up or shut up” method (the one we adopt) is best.  We don’t believe they can do it, and we lay down some of our own money that they can’t, and then we invite them to try.

Surely the right attitude to an open minded, and mature approach to this would be to offer assurances that, with the same tenacity in which you throw yourselves into your 'demonstrations' of debunking,  you will then fully resolve to promote, applaud, and openly acknowledge any such success with same vigour and energy(?)

Yes indeed, I agree.  That is the right attitude.  And if anyone ever passed a test, then I’m sure that the skeptical movement would begin to champion the new discovery.  However, more than one test would be required if psychic phenomena were to be taken seriously on a scientific level.  One successful test could be the result of luck, or poor experimental design.  What would need to happen is that many tests would be required, by different researchers using different techniques.  If a pattern of success started to show through, then I think that scientific interest would be shown.  And this requirement is no different to that required of any other new discovery in science.  Remember the “cold fusion” claims of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in 1989?  Those claims were dismissed in part because no-one could replicate Pons and Fleischmann’s one-off result.

But also note that very rarely is there “debunking”.  What we do is test the actual claim that has been made.  If the person fails the test, that is, if under controlled conditions (where the controls prevent the subject using mundane means to achieve their results) the claimed ability disappears, we do not need to then go and take the extra step of showing how the ability failed, it is enough that it did fail.

A good analogy is with a profession.  I am a computer professional, so I claim to know a lot about computers.  Let’s say that you disbelieved in my computer-using ability.  You ask me what I can do, and I tell you that I can create a new Microsoft Word document.  You laugh as if such a thing is impossible, and then bet me a million dollars I couldn’t.  How is this challenge to be evaluated?  Easy!  All I would have to do is to actually create a new Microsoft Word document.  If I sat down at the computer you provide me (because you would want to make sure I hadn’t fiddled with the equipment beforehand) and I hum and haw for ten minutes, and fiddle with the brightness and contrast controls on the monitor, but never actually touch the mouse or keyboard, what would you conclude about my claim?  You wouldn’t need to go the extra step of finding out how bad my computer powers were you’d have sufficient evidence that I can’t do what I claim I can do.  Note, this doesn’t prove that super-computer powers don’t exist, just that I can’t do what I claim I can do.

If you could offer some assurances and guarantees that prominent people from mainstream medicine and science will embrace this result, and show a willingness to 'unlearn' some of its long-held doctrines to accomodate it; will then look to integrate such alternative practices in this mainstream, then you might find that this open palm, open mind approach, might result in a deluge of individuals willing to undergo your thorough examination for reasons of the better good, and not the thought of a Beverley Hills lifestyle!?

Why is it necessary to do the re-write of science first?  Almost all paranormal powers rely on the violation of some well-understood and confirmed laws of physics.  Surely the burden of proof is on the people who claim that these abilities exist!  If you show us that some people have real abilities not predicted by physics, then you would be in a powerful position to work with the physicists to discover how the “powers” work.

Of all the millions of people that have been to a psychic, and the equal amounts that have been to a healer and said that either had been of great benefit, it still leaves the inevitable realisation that the odds on so many people getting what they needed, (in whatever form it took) are astronomical...... Especially if I am to adhere to your tenet that it is all a 'crock'. The fact is that if just one of all those millions of 'coincidental' events was exactly as it was reported to be, then the implications are terrifying (or wondrous...depending on your viewpoint) and could severely undermine ones belief structure. Dangerous indeed!........So I understand your fear, and I sympathise with what must be a monumental battle to do whatever you feel you need to, to enforce your dogma.

Be assured that I do not feel “fear” about the possibility that I am wrong.  It would be an amazing discovery to find out that paranormal powers were real!  However, based on all the evidence to date, there is no reason to believe that I am wrong, hence my willingness to part with cold hard cash!

Furthermore, skepticism is not a “dogma”.  I have repeatedly stated that we are willing to test these people’s claims.  That is hardly “enforcing my dogma”.  Science has shown that it is open to new ideas, even from outsiders.  The only criterion is that those new ideas must be backed up with evidence.  You must be able to show that there is a problem that science as it is now cannot address.  Paranormalism has had one hundred years or more to do that, and has not generated more than a few apparent anomalies that can be explained by poor experimental design.

Really, I repeat the question.  If paranormal powers are so common Kilroy can fill a studio with all sorts of people who can perform all kinds of amazing feats, where is the effect in the world that we’d expect to see?

My favourite part of the show was when the woman proudly showed us all her crystals, and told us how fantastic they were at healing, but then later in the show complained that she had had a headache in the car while being driven to the show… isn’t this a paradigm case of “psychic, heal thyself!”?

If I am to stand by this assertion in the same way you stand by your own, I offer you and your group my test. That is :

Explain to me, with the evidence that I offer here about my experience, and that I would swear legal oath upon and provide as evidence for in a court of law, that this women did fake, conjure, fabricate, or somehow lie her way into exposing/uncovering some of the most accurate, intimate, and specific descriptions in the life of a total stranger ?

If you can't, than I suggest that you cease your more self-indulgent and over exuberant patronising behaviour. As you will be trying to enforce what will then be a floored assertion, when you and your colleagues (by implication) were basically trying to call me a liar on national T.V.

If you want people to do your test, you take mine! Prove to me, in the knowledge that I will sign a sworn legal statement that what is offered here is a true account of the nature, without specific reference to exact content, of my psychic reading, and show me that my reading was a fake!

If not, then might I suggest that you and your friends (as intelligent as you appear) close your mouths a little more, and open your minds on occasion.

I have no doubt that your meeting with the “psychic” was very important to you, and if you feel you took something positive away from the meeting in exchange for your £35, then that’s fine.  It’s not up to me to tell you how you should, or should not spend your own money.  But why should your subjective experience of what happened by itself cause me to decide that the laws of physics are wrong?  Have you never been to see a magician live?  Have you not watched David Copperfield or Penn and Teller on the TV and been amazed with “how did they do that?”  Magicians do “impossible” things all the time… and if you’ve been to see a mentalist, you would be amazed at how they “know” all sorts of facts about people from the audience.  It is as difficult for me to say at this remote juncture how your psychic told you what was important to you as it is for you to deduce how a magician’s trick I describe to you was performed.

So, this is a ridiculous “test”, one that is impossible to succeed at.  First, your test requires “judging”.  You alone are the judge who will decide whether a sufficient explanation has been provided.  While I have no reason to doubt your honesty, would you participate in a test in which I alone was to be the sole judge of success or failure?  Second, skeptics would never offer a challenge without discussing with the claimant exactly what is being tested, and what would constitute a success and a failure.  I am not clear from your challenge exactly what I would be required to do to succeed, or what would constitute a failure.  Third, I don’t have all the information required to complete the challenge, even if the first two problems are dispensed with: you won’t let me listen to the tape, and I know nothing about the psychic, what her alleged abilities are, or about any conversations that might have occurred between the psychic and your admittedly pro-psychic friend who encouraged you so strongly to go! 

You see, the difference between believers and skeptics is that skeptics have genuinely open minds.  We really are willing to be shown the error of our ways.  If you think the psychic who performed your reading really did it by a psychic power, and not by (conscious or unconscious) cold reading or some other non-psychic skill, then she should be able to perform her feats of amazing insight under test conditions.  If she wins the money, she can give it to her favourite charity if she’s not into material possessions!

We skeptics have nothing to prove.  We make no claims, other than that the world is as it is described by science.  The experiments to confirm (or disprove) that world view are reported in countless scientific journals in every country in the world.  Many of us skeptics are amazed by the world around us, and we take wonder from new discoveries: and the discovery that paranormal phenomena are true would be no different:  but after one hundred years of trying, no-one has performed the repeatable experiments showing us that they are true!  Until that has happened, I think we are right to regard psychics with caution, and at times derision.

Very Kindest Regards, and all the best for the festive season!

Thank you, and the same to you and yours.

Nathan Howland

(Serial Sceptic)

Mr Howland sent me the following postscript later in the day on 18 December 2002:

By the way.  In most English dictionaries, the word 'Skeptic' is spelt with a 'C' not 'K'.

“Skeptic” is the way “sceptic” is spelled in the United States, where the modern skeptical movement was born.  However, what we mean by “skeptic” is different from what is meant by “sceptic” in ordinary English.  “Sceptic” is a very negative word, where saying that one is “sceptical” of something is to say that one doesn’t believe in it.  To be “skeptical”, on the other hand, is to want evidence that a claim is true.

Just as a postscript,  Phil McKerracher, the nice chap who looks after the website for Skeptics in the Pub for me, informed me that the real reason “Skeptic” is spelled with a “k” is that the original formers of the group didn’t want the name confused with “septic”!  Thanks Phil!

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