I find myself feeling a bit frustrated and depressed that I’ve been a poor ambassador for skepticism. I just got back from a visit with a family member, during which we had a long discussion/argument that ranged from whether or not supposedly fact-based channels like the History Channel are too credulous in their presentation of such topics as “Ancient Aliens” (the idea that aliens helped ancient peoples build the pyramids and other structures), to the appropriate explanation of the “meow ghost”, a phenomenon my relative experienced on three separate occasions several months ago.
My first mistake was saying, when presented with a choice of tv shows, that I didn’t think I’d be able to watch the History Channel one because it would make me too upset. While I maintain that I was justified in this presupposition (I know from previous experience as well as plenty of comments in a number of skeptical blogs and podcasts that these shows often present the paranormal explanation with very little skeptical opposition and a lot of selective editing), my relative was quite right to call me on it. I had been expounding for several minutes on how credulous I expected the show to be, when she pointed out that maybe I should watch it first. Now, there are times when it doesn’t make sense to try it first (homeopathy to cure cancer, any number of wonder drugs, etc.) but in this case I would have made my case better if I had started on a more positive note.
What I should have done was agree to watch the show, but make several predictions about the style of arguments that would be made and why they would be weak. Then as the show was playing, I could have pointed out the very arguments I had predicted as they occurred. For instance, I knew ahead of time that there would probably be a claim that the pyramids or other structures were perfectly well-aligned with various stars, compass directions, or that their proportions formed the golden ratio. I could have pointed out ahead of time that these claims often arise from pattern-finding, of the same sort that gave us the bible code. There are enough angles and lengths and proportions on these structures that if you try hard enough, you’re just about guaranteed to find something that matches with an astonishing degree of accuracy, regardless of whether these ancient peoples intended it, especially if you’re a bit lax about your expectations. Then we could watch the show and find that in fact, one of the “compelling” pieces of evidence for alien visitors is that two independently-build structures (Stonehenge and something else in South America) have concentric circles that “exactly match” the orbits of the planets about the sun. Therefore these ancient people must have known that the planets revolve around the sun, and must have been able to determine their exact distances from it.
Well. First of all, these concentric circles are circles, not ellipses as we later determined the orbits of the planets to be (and let’s not even get into the fact that each planet causes perturbations in the orbits of the others due to gravity). Secondly, I would like to know how many, and which planets, are included here. Just the ones that can be seen with the naked eye? The ones that require powerful telescopes? All eight? All nine? Is Pluto included? How about Ceres? How about the other asteroids? Various comets? Moons? When you consider that a structure of concentric circles, ellipses, or other closed curves approximately matching any of these would be considered a hit, it seems pretty likely that we’ll find diagrams of the solar system anywhere we want, even if the ancient builders didn’t mean it.
Secondly, even if we could be sure that these builders did intend to diagram the solar system with their structure, why on earth should they need aliens to help them? It’s not hard to make extremely perfect circles of quite a large size using Stone Age materials–the crop circle guys do it all the time. And many ancient cultures were obsessed with charting the movements of the planets; it would be a surprise but not entirely implausible to find that some society did come up with a heliocentric system and extrapolate some basic mathematical patterns to figure out the relative distances of each planet from the sun. Even if the more distant planets were included, they could be accounted for. I don’t know if this culture had actually discovered glassmaking, but an earlier segment of the program made a (pretty weak) case for the idea that the ancient Egyptians had lightbulbs. It’s not any more of a stretch to say that the society in question also could make glass, and therefore glass lenses. I admit I would be astonished, but the notion that an ancient culture would develop primitive technology and mathematics, for which we have little additional evidence, is a more parsimonious explanation of the phenomenon of these structures than the idea that intelligent extraterrestrials (of whose existence we have no additional evidence) would have come to Earth, helped the cultures build their structures for an unknown reason, and then left without leaving any other evidence of their technology behind.
These are the arguments I should have made, but I never got to address the claims in the program itself because I had ruined my chance by being so negative at the beginning. Nobody was very interested in listening by this point in time.
My other major mistake was in not expressing the skeptical approach clearly enough in our later conversation. My relative has told me before of the “meow ghost” she experienced several times. Several months ago, without warning, her daughter heard a human voice clearly say “Meow” from the direction of the hall closet. Startled and freaked out, she told her mother, who scoffed at first until she heard the same thing herself several weeks later. After it happened a third time, the two of them cleaned out the hall closet and searched through the attic and other areas of the house, but failed to find anything that could be making the sound. They have since taken to calling the phenomenon their “meow ghost”, and my relative brought it up tonight in the typical believer-to-skeptic challenge: “Well how do you explain this?”
I was quick to point out that, since I hadn’t heard it myself and it wasn’t likely to happen again any time soon (since it hadn’t occurred in the last several months), I would have a limited ability to actually explain the phenomenon. However, I pointed out, my relative was too quick to claim that it couldn’t have been a physical thing (and therefore must be paranormal). Just because they had searched through the house and failed to find anything (such as an old Halloween decoration that might have been malfunctioning, for instance) doesn’t rule out all possible causes in the physical world. And we ought to consider the physical world first and be very reluctant to conclude that there is something outside it, since we have no other (good) evidence for anything existing outside the physical universe. Most significantly, we know that we humans are extremely good at fooling ourselves, and we commonly interpret human voices and English words in all sorts of other sounds–that’s why people hear “Satanic messages” in music played backward. We’re also prone to imagining that we hear our own names being called when nobody is speaking, especially as we’re falling asleep. Since my relative has three cats, she’s accustomed to hearing them make all sorts of noises. It seems highly plausible to me that a creaking door or the yowl of a Siamese cat could be interpreted as a clearly human “Meow”, especially the second and third times when my relative was already preconditioned to interpret the sound this way.
Nevertheless, my relative insisted that this was not a misinterpretation of some other sound–it was a distinct human voice. (Frankly, I think the only way to convince her otherwise at this point will be to replicate the sound, or at least to produce an example of some other noise that sounds distinctly human.) I think my insistence on the possibility of human misinterpretation failed partly because, although I made it clear that was not calling anyone crazy, on some subconscious level my relative may have felt offended that I was comparing her very real phenomenon to a quirk or delusion of the mind. In the future, I think it would be a good idea to be very cautious about bringing up the fallibility of human memories and interpretations when attempting to explain a personal experience of this type, even though I think cognitive bias is one of the most compelling explanations in most cases.
The more significant problem is that I never made it clear, right at the outset, that I was not insisting that my explanation must be the right one. It became clear at the end of our conversation that my relative thought I was claiming the phenomenon must have a physical explanation, whereas I was only saying the physical had not been ruled out. It could have been physical, paranormal, or a little of both, but the fact is that we already know the physical world exists, and we already know about human foibles and biases, whereas we have no other evidence of anything paranormal, so we ought to prioritize the possibilities that require no additional assumptions. If suddenly some other irrefutable evidence of ghosts shows up, then the “meow ghost” explanation will make no new assumptions and we can accept it as the most plausible.
The thing is, over the last few years I’ve done a lot of skeptical reading, listened to many skeptical podcasts, heard and thought a lot about the process of skepticism, why it is important, and why and how it works. By thinking about and practicing skepticism on my own I’ve gained my own perspective and a deeper understanding of it. But I don’t often talk about it, either with fellow skeptics or with anyone else, and it seems my ability to represent and promote the worldview to others may be suffering for it. Despite any skill I may have at writing about these issues, I know I am not very articulate when it comes to discussing philosophical matters in person. You might think I’m being too harsh on myself, but I feel it’s important to hold myself to as high a standard as possible when speaking as an ambassador for skepticism, atheism, and so on.
Over the course of the conversation tonight, a question was asked that I’ve seen thrown at skeptics many times, but never expected to hear myself: “Where’s your sense of wonder?” Anyone who knows me knows that I have as strong a sense of wonder as anyone you’ll meet–I am continually amazed by the things we humans are figuring out about the world, the universe, and ourselves. (Heck, just listen to me wax poetic about mathematics.) And I’m intrigued and delighted by the things we don’t know and by the tantalizing fact that we will never know everything. But you wouldn’t know it from the negative and disbelieving tone I took at the beginning of the conversation, and once I got started it was pretty hard to back off and take a more positive, big picture approach. My relative was quite right to be skeptical of the existence of my sense of wonder, since she hadn’t seen any evidence so far. If I want to be an effective ambassador for skepticism, I’ll have to work on both better demonstrating the process and showing by my words and actions that skepticism can be a far better source of wonder and excitement than the science-stopper of credulous thinking.