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Skeptic's Journey

A Collection of Personal Stories from the Skeptic Community

As adults we often look back upon our childhood wishing we had the resources we do now for our mind's adventures and explorations. Or we remember fondly the few outlets we did find and the influential people and experiences that played a role in the development of our skeptical lives. It may be a series of unconnected events or a continuous journey of discovery, but each of us has a story that is worth passing on; a book that opened the doors to learning and wonder; a teacher that excited the imagination and ignited the fires of the mind; a great discovery or event that stimulated a passion for science; or the simple exposure to a humanity dominated by nonsensical beliefs. Experiences that derailed our intellectual pursuits are also worth recording -- there is no end to the stimuli and pressures that a person may be subjected to while growing up that can work to extinguish the curiosity, wonder and imagination that, if nurtured, can lead to a love of learning and a fascination with reality - rather than a commitment to fantasy and difficulties in navigating through the world.

As parents, teachers, mentors, or other young skeptics along for the ride, there is an untapped resource of life experiences that needs to be recorded for the skeptics of tomorrow. If given the opportunity what would you pass along? CSICOP's Young Skeptic Program would like to offer interested skeptics the opportunity to submit their stories for inclusion here. We are looking for stories that recount the Skeptic's Journey - sprinkled with experiences, books you read, movies you watched, quotes that inspired you, people you met and resources you found that resulted in a skeptic firmly grounded in reality but not afraid to jump up and reach for the stars.

If you would like to submit your story, please send it via e-mail.

INDEX:


Life Preservers
by Layne Bastille

Every child is bound to find one or two extraordinary claims appealing, if not the whole lot. The paranormal and supernatural realms have much more in common with the worlds where fantastical adventures take place than does reality, and so, as a child's imagination soars beyond the boundary of the known universe, it hovers for a time in the land of make-believe. It is during this time, perhaps, that a seed begins to take root. It may lead to a life of skepticism or, more commonplace, to one filled with impossible and unlikely things.

At twenty I found myself drowning in credulity. I had, at one time or another, advocated all the latest new age crazes, bought into the novel ways of finding out what the future holds (and many of the resurrected ancient ones), and spent any extra money I had on herbal supplements that promised beauty, wealth, happiness and all things wonderful. I wore amulets, avoided ladders and black cats, and prayed each night to whoever might be listening. The Celestine Prophecy was at the top of my reading list for even longer than it was on the New York Times'.

Actually, I didn't find myself drowning at all, my dad found me. When I arrived home one day, there was a parcel waiting for me. Inside were at least twenty issues of Skeptical Inquirer, along with a card from dad that told me I was now a subscriber. I laughed, put them aside and got ready for a night in front of the television where James van Praagh would talk to dead people and pets.

I had never heard of Skeptical Inquirer before but with just a glance, I suspected I knew what it was about and with the usual mixture of frustration and defensive anger, I sighed. My dad had been chiding me for years about my beliefs and ideas and this wasn't the first time he had sent me what he called a "life preserver." Usually, though, they were just newspaper clippings, a few at a time. An entire box of materials made me wonder if I had been acting any different lately - perhaps more unusual than normal. I did wear my rather large crystal pendant on my last visit home and I may have even stayed to watch the X-Files with my younger brother. If I had, I most surely would have indoctrinated my brother with some supportive comment of the subject matter of the show - if only to counter my father's own, skeptical comments as he peered in the room at regular intervals for the sole purpose of "keeping an eye on his wayward children". But, as I considered the care package my dad had sent, I thought to myself that if he took the time to send this I should at least take a look at the magazine and attempt to understand his concerns. If anything, perhaps I would be able to counter some of the arguments given on those topics I was interested in and then, instead of my dad making a skeptic out of me, I would make a believer out of him.

By just opening the box and having to acknowledge that some people were skeptical about my beliefs I think I may have unconsciously planted the seed of skepticism within me. (Or, perhaps my dad is part of a skeptic conspiracy that has managed to create a fairy dust of sorts that, upon opening the package, escaped into the air that I breath!) Whatever happened, as I watched the Praagh special I thought for a moment about what it would mean if his claims were false. For many hours, I sat in complete and utter horror. If Praagh's claim that he can communicate with the dead is untrue then he is a criminal of the highest degree. How dare he take advantage of people's weaknesses? How dare he be allowed to peddle his lies across the globe - playing on people's hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares? In this new light, I felt vulnerable and violated. I was angry.

Shortly thereafter, I began reading Skeptical Inquirer and learning about other explanations and viewpoints for the variety of paranormal claims I had immersed myself in, for so long. I remain fascinated with the subject matter explored within its pages but through CSICOP and several other resources I have found, I no longer buy into all of it but instead, am a skeptic. It wasn't through persuasion or another questionable mode of change but instead I began to inquire and learn by using the process of science. I feel much more grounded now and less susceptible to being taken advantage of by the people and claims that together make the paranormal and supernatural realms a multi-billion dollar industry.

Perhaps an idea for CSICOP in the future will be to use my father's idea and put together life preservers for others who, like me once, are drowning in the nonsense.


Isaac Asimov Leads The Way
by George Bormes

Read anything and everything by Isaac Asimov!

Although I never met the man, Isaac Asimov came to be my favorite mentor and teacher through the hundreds of books he's left us with. His gentle and wise manner, along with his wonderful sense of humor and humility, beautifully complemented the absolute brilliance and breathtaking scope he had as a teacher.

His whole mindset served as a powerful example to me on how a skeptic could live a fulfilled and interesting life.


Unclean Thoughts
by Nathalie Bugeaud

When I was eleven years old, I was ill with religion. The priest told me to write down every "unclean" thought I had and I was going crazy trying to do it. I dropped religion soon after and never was ill since.

I also liked the books of Carl Sagan.


How I Became A Skeptic
by Eric Carlson

I wasn't always a skeptic. I was born at home, at a time when home births were extremely unusual, because my parents were Christian Scientists. Christian Science is a religion that teaches, among other things, that all the evidence of the senses is false, that true reality is spiritual and perfect. Any apparent deviation from perfection is the result of our misunderstanding. If we truly realize that we are all made in the (perfect) image of God, then any seeming difficulties or illnesses will disappear. Since any potential problems, like a difficult birth, are really just illusions, why bother with a hospital?

Such a religion can have positive effects. Because it reassures you that, in fact, whatever you are dealing with is merely a lie, Christian Science can allow you to look even the most daunting troubles in the eye without fear. Why would you be afraid of an illusion? As is well documented, a positive attitude can speed healing, so as a Christian Scientist, you have a natural placebo-type advantage over those who do not believe in the power of spiritual healing.

When I was five, my mother became ill. Because disease exists only in the mind, my mother attempted to pray by realizing the falseness of her illness ("know the truth"). Visiting a doctor would only have made the illness more real in her mind. Like most Christian Scientists, she chose not to seek medical attention. Her illness was never diagnosed, and she died from it. As a young child, it never occurred to me to question my faith, or to ask why no ambulance was called in time. All I understood was that my mother was gone.

Years passed, and as I got older I became interested in all sorts of claims. Were there really people who could walk on fire; read other people's minds; move objects through thought alone? I had always been fascinated by tales of the supernatural (I still am), but I was intrigued by reports of people with real, extraordinary talent. As a budding scientist, I was interested in science and science fiction as well.

One day while reading Omni, I came across an interview with James Randi (known as "The Amazing Randi," he is a magician of the first caliber and founder of the skeptical James Randi Educational Foundation.) Randi opened my eyes to skepticism. He explained how time and again, people could fool themselves, or would callously fool others, to promote belief in the supernatural. From then on, I was skeptical whenever I read reports of someone flying, or predicting the future, or much of anything else. At the time, it never occurred to me to apply that skepticism to my own religious beliefs.

When I was in junior high, my older sister became ill. She was thirsty all the time, she needed to go to the bathroom all the time - eventually she began to get delirious. In desperation, my parents (my father had remarried) took her to a hospital. She was diagnosed with type I diabetes. Diabetes is not curable, only treatable. She began taking insulin shots every day, and she had to be extremely careful with her diet. Over a period of years, a large array of side effects came into play. She had foot infections, she was in and out of the hospital because of low or high blood sugar levels, and ultimately, she lost her sight. More than once she went into the hospital and I thought she wouldn't make it out. As you can imagine, I had a lot of anxiety about my sister. As is natural, I asked, "why her?" The answer, according to Christian Science, is easy. All illness is due to incorrect thinking. Therefore, the reason she had diabetes, and not someone else, is that she had more incorrect thinking than someone else. Her disease was her own fault! Ultimately, I could not accept this conclusion. Given the choice between agreeing that my sister was the cause of her own illness, and rejecting my religion, I chose the latter.

You may have the impression that I sat down one weekend, reasoned it out, and changed the direction of my life. That is not how it happened at all.

Christian Science had been a part of me my whole life, and no amount of reasoning or logic, no matter how clear and unambiguous, can change something so ingrained in us. When I first read Randi's interview, I immediately accepted and endorsed his skeptical views towards extraordinary claims. But turning that same skeptical eye towards the extraordinary claims of my own religion took more than a decade of further questioning. And my change in attitude was brought more by the force of my sister's pain than it was by the force of logic. It might well be that, without my sister's illness, I would still be a Christian Scientist.


A Moment of Clarity
by Glenn Crawford

Many people who reject widely held beliefs are held up to ridicule by their peers, especially if you are the only one who does not prescribe to nonsense (like astrology). I tried to debate someone who said "science is a belief system, like every other religion" but was unable to keep my composure due to frustration. No matter how well put my argument, no matter how much evidence, I could not win. He was not listening.

As a skeptic you will have to accept that.

There was a time when I believed in UFOs, in psi, in everything new age. Or rather, like Mulder, I wanted to. I wanted to believe in a magic world. But, like Scully, I found I could not believe because all the inconsistencies were like grit in my teeth. One day, not long after the above argument took place, I decided I would not believe, would not have faith. Instead, I would learn and I would know.

What made the difference? Mark Twain:

 

"There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow.
Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
- Following the Equator, Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar


You Can Never Know Too Much
by Mario DI Maggio

As a young person, during my 16 years as a member of a fundamentalist religion I was always made to feel awkward for knowing too much about secular and scientific matters. As if knowing too much took something precious away from "the mystery of God and His ways."

I also detected underlying currents of envy in others - as if they, too, would love to learn and know more. Instead, though, they were faithfully holding back from thinking too much - from questioning the morsels of information they received. I was rushing headlong into uncharted territory, breaking all the unspoken and unwritten rules and refusing to be satisfied with a commitment to faith and blissful ignorance.

Fortunately I did not hold back from asking questions (thanks to the down-to-earth perspective I had acquired some years earlier through Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series and book.) Eventually I had accumulated enough evidence for myself to make the painful break, and drop out of religion altogether.

For more details on my experience, together with correspondence to and from the religious headquarters referred to above, please visit: http://real.dimaggio.org . I describe how I have always put my sense of curiosity first in life.


La Joie-de-Vivre
by Neil L. Inglis

Let me quickly mention two examples -- and I speak as someone whose father was a parapsychologist.

The great eye-opening book for me as a young skeptic was Randi's "The Magic of Uri Geller." Nothing else compares with its impact. Perhaps Uri's insolence, brazen cheek, and all-around offensiveness would mean far less to the younger generation, and the book's significance would fade accordingly. But that would be a shame, for the principles of skepticism are magnificently embodied in Randi's words."Magic" is a great starting point for an intellectual odyssey, a handbook that repays careful rereading, and unlike other skeptical books, it is brimming with fun and joie-de-vivre.

On a completely different note...

We at the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) like to say that "science is cool." I think the following news item perfectly captures why science--the real thing--is so much more exciting than the trumpery of con artists. And there is more excitement where this comes from! Can Uri do this?

 

NEAR Spacecraft Lands on Asteroid
By Paul Recer AP Science Writer
Monday, Feb. 12, 2001; 3:35 p.m. EST

COLUMBIA, Md. -- The NEAR spacecraft touched down on the barren, rocky surface of Eros, successfully completing history's first landing on an asteroid.

NEAR's landing at about 3:05 p.m. EST Monday was confirmed when Mission Control received a beacon signal from the craft resting on the surface of Eros, some 196 million miles from Earth.

"I am happy to report that the NEAR has touched down," said Robert Farquhar, mission director. "We are still getting signals. It is still transmitting from the surface."

Engineers watching from monitors from Mission Control broke into applause at confirmation of history's first landing of a manmade object on an asteroid. The mission, controlled by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, also was the first into deep space operated by a non-NASA center.

NEAR flawless performed five rocket firings, starting Monday morning, to drop it out of a 15-mile orbit of Eros and slow it toward the surface. Early indications are that Mission control completed its plan to guide NEAR to a feather-like touchdown by slowing its velocity, relative to the surface of the asteroid, to about the speed of a fast walk, 3 to 5 miles an hour.

The landing completes a five-year, 2-billion-mile mission for the robot craft and boosts the technical experience in putting spacecraft on objects with extremely light gravity.

"This gives us a lot of practice," said Ed Weiler, NASA's chief scientist. "We'll eventually want to land on comets because they hold the clues to beginnings."

Weiler said the experience gained in the NEAR landing attempt on Eros can be applied in about a decade when NASA may launch a landing mission to a comet.

NEAR became the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid when it arrived at Eros, an object named for the Greek god of love, on Valentine's Day last year. The mission had been scheduled to end on Wednesday, anniversary of achieving orbit.

Farquhar said it was decided to attempt the landing to squeeze a final bit of science out of the $223 million mission.

No matter how the landing attempt ended, Weiler said, earlier, NEAR was "a total success. It returned 10 times more data than expected."

Officials targeted NEAR to land on Eros at the edge of a deep depression called Himeros. Scientists picked this spot because it is thought to be on the edge of two different geologic formations.

During the final hours of its descent, NEAR furiously took pictures of Eros' surface as it drew closer and closer. Scientists hoped the final shots before impact would clearly show rocks as small as a fist, an unprecedented close-up view of an asteroid.

"In those final images, we'll be seeing objects that are just a few inches in resolution," said Andrew Cheng, chief project scientist of NEAR.

Farquhar had warned in advance that landing NEAR on Eros is exquisitely "tricky."

NEAR was not designed to land anywhere. Shaped like tin can attached to four solar panels, the craft was not equipped with wheels or braces to absorb the landing force.

Weiler commented, "This is not a landing. It is a controlled crash."

Eros has very light gravity, about one-thousandth that of Earth, which means that an object, such as NEAR, weighing 1,100 pounds on Earth, would weigh only slightly over a pound in the gravity field of Eros. A quarter, dropped from head-high on Eros, would take five seconds to fall to the surface.

Weiler said the final descent of NEAR was actually slower than the asteroid's rotation and there was risk that the spinning space rock could actually swat the craft back into orbit.

NEAR traveled more than 2 billion miles during its five-year mission. It was launched Feb. 17, 1996, into an independent solar orbit. NEAR swung by the Earth once to pick up speed and then streaked outward toward Eros, an asteroid in an elongated orbit that nears Mars and approaches Earth's orbit.

In December 1998, a rocket firing designed to put the craft into orbit of Eros failed and NEAR sped past the asteroid. A second rocket firing series was successful and the spacecraft eventually returned to Eros and slipped into history's first orbit of an asteroid.

The craft spent the last year snapping photos of Eros, second- largest of the asteroids that approach the Earth's orbit. The NEAR instruments also gathered information about the asteroid's composition, structure, size and shape.

NEAR was built and operated under a faster-better-cheaper space exploration philosophy developed at NASA. Under the direction and control of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft was designed, built and launched in just 26 months. Some deep space explorations have taken a decade or more to mount. NEAR is also the first deep-space mission to be operated by a non-NASA space center.

On the Net:   Mission site: http://near.jhuapl.edu/media/index.html
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press


Skeptics-in-Training
by Alberto Lentati

I want to provide a suggestion regarding the collection of material that can wake up skeptical thinking in young people:

Skeptical books are very important, but perhaps junk books are even more useful. My skeptical attitude started growing when I found in my father's library, Peter Kolosimo's books, supporting the authenticity of Turin's Shroud, and so on. These kind of readings are a necessary support to critical thinking: they're the "training field" for the skeptics of tomorrow.


The Ascent of Man
by Andrew Lutes

I grew up in the '60s and '70s in a typical suburban middle class Midwestern household. I was taken to church and Sunday school, and also had a public school education, with reference books around the house and visits to the public library. Miracles and supernatural events were things I heard about, but did not see. I could see and experience what science and technology produced, but "otherworldly" things were simply heard about.

Prayer was something said at meals, bible stories were just that; stories. So coming from an unenforced religious background, I met through school, church, and other social occasions kids and adults whose religious views were considerably more hard-line than what I was used to. When I tried to engage in reasonable discussions with them to try and find natural explanations for supernatural events, they took it as a personally offense, became angry or stone-cold, and refused further dialog. I didn't want to become like these people and I their behavior influenced me away from hard religion.

When I witnessed people having ecstatic religious experiences, I observed that when they were over they were just as silly and bad as they had been before, so the religious experience was meaningless. I did meet some reasonable religious people, particularly a liberal Methodist youth minister, who used ordinary explanations for miracles and didn't press an individual hard about their belief. My internal reaction was to think why bother keeping the rest of religion; we don't need it. Also, the more I read of the bible, the less I liked it. The Old Testament was filled with atrocities, and the New Testament, as hard religion people reported it, hellfire.

I remember a particular teen-age science magazine that explained the chemical origins of life on earth, which impressed upon me that the process of life's formation didn't require a supernatural explanation. Later, a "Nova" program on PBS entitled "The Search for Life" which included Carl Sagan, explained how the initial origin of life could occur without the supernatural. From that, I became a nonbeliever. When "The Ascent of Man" with Jacob Bronowski was shown on PBS, I bought the accompanying book, and was very impressed, with the naturalistic, optimistic outlook it conveyed. Bronowski helped to convince me that a non-religious approach and outlook could succeed. The very last line in the book was great:

"The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and
the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man."

- Jacob Bronowski

My Path to Skepticism
by Tim Ruppert

My path to skepticism included a lot of interesting turns, two of which I'd like to relate now.

The first was when I was learning U.S. history in 6th grade. The lesson that day was about the westward expansion of America. There was a map which showed several western states and their years of admission to the union. I noticed that Texas, New Mexico and part of Arizona had become United States territories by "annexation". I asked my teacher what this meant. She explained that we had claimed them because we had the right to expand our land for the good of our people. Her answer was, to say the least, befuddling.

We had previously discussed the Louisiana purchase, and we had learned some about the war with Mexico and the battle of the Alamo. So this explanation didn't make sense to me.

I asked more questions and I recall my teacher becoming upset with me. I wasn't trying to be difficult or unruly, but the fact is that I could not understand what this annexation thing was all about. It seemed clear to me that property is either inherited, purchased, or conquered. What was the difference between annexation and conquest?

I don't think it was the same day, but perhaps a few days later that I realized what annexation meant. I realized that there was no actual difference between annexation and conquest, except that the authors of US history were themselves Americans who wanted to put a positive spin on our history. The lightbulb suddenly went on. History was subject to propagandization.

The next event that helped me find the path to skepticism was about two years later. As an 8th grader being raised Roman Catholic, I was being prepared for confirmation. According to catholic tradition, babies enter the church when their parents have them baptized. But later, teenage catholics are supposed to make the decision to continue to follow the teachings of the church on their own, and to make the pledge publicly with the sacrament of confirmation. I took this responsibility very seriously.

As I prepared to make the decision for myself, it occurred to me that the only religion I really knew anything about was Catholicism. How could I make an informed choice without knowing about other faiths? I told my mother that I was going to the library to research some other religions so that I could be sure that I was making the right decision.

She went ballistic!

I remember her screaming at me that religion was not something you went shopping for like a shirt or shoes. Religion, she said, was inherited, nonnegotiable and that I should accept it unquestioned. I tried to explain my reasoning, and that I could not make an informed decision without doing some research. She informed me that I would be confirmed catholic and that was the end of it.

What I saw in my mother that day was fear. Not just fear that I might decide to change religions, but fear that I might find a reason to change my religion. I saw fear in the rational search for truth and reason. And while I agreed to be confirmed catholic (and remained so until my mid-20s) I knew that I did not want to inherit my mother's fear of the rational.

Today, I am a civil engineer living and working in New Orleans. I am married with one child. My wife teaches early childhood education at a community college. I joined the Unitarian Universalist church some years ago, and I am an atheist. I am politically libertarian, socially liberal, and I voted for Ralph Nader in the recent election. I despise the money and power games currently employed by the two major parties and hope that the Green Party will rise to challenge their duopoly of our government.

By way of advice to young skeptics, I have found one simple rule helps me keep the chaff separate from the wheat:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.


Spooked Into Skepticism
by Anne Sharp

When I was a kid I loved ghost stories and scary stuff, and so I was very intrigued when I found an article in the Sunday newspaper written by someone who lived a couple of doors down from the Amityville Horror house. Amityville was the most famous haunted house in the world. Some murders had taken place there, and afterwards a family who tried to live in the house claimed they were chased out by evil ghosts. They'd written a best-selling book about it which was made into a rather stupid but very popular movie, both of which had been advertised as being absolutely true.

The neighbor who was writing the article didn't believe a word about the ghosts; he did have some very interesting stories about what it was like living down the street from the "Amityville Horror House," though. Since his house was the same style of Cape Cod design as the Horror house, people kept mistaking it for the "real" one and annoying him by running around his house at all hours, peeking in the windows and screaming. More seriously, some people who had actually bought and tried to live in the Horror house itself were forced to move out--not by ghosts, but by nosy reporters and stupid tourists who wouldn't give them a moment's privacy but treated their home like their own personal spookhouse to play with as they pleased. It was one of the funniest and saddest stories I ever read.

The fact that ordinary people could act so goofily about a "haunted house" fascinated me. I think it was then that I started listening to ghost stories and "urban legends" about murderers with hook hands and people whose hair turns white overnight, not just because they're good creepy stories, but with the thought, "Why do people like these stories? Why do they love to pretend they're true? And what IS the truth?"

I've found that 99.9% of the time, the truth behind the spook story is far more entertaining than the story itself.


Trials & Errors
by Pierre Taschereau

The call for Skeptics' Journeys brought back so many early childhood images to me: some fun, and some not so fun. Memories of exploring, trying out, learning, deception, belief, and disenchantment. These experiences and many others played a role in the formation of my present views of, what were at that time, taken as given truths.

There was also the "Turtle Lady", and the "Living Headless Man" at the fair, and later on, experiments with Dianetics, finding water with a stick, trying ESP with my mother, and so on. At one point in my late teens, I became a somewhat skilled hypnotist by using my fellow classmates for practice.(This was much to the chagrin of the priests who taught us and who looked upon the whole hypnotism thing as something occultish.)

The earliest and most enlightening book I read during this period was Martin Gardner's "Foil's and Fables in the Name of Science"

There must be many young people who, like me, often feel isolated because they doubt one or another of the marvels taken for granted by their schoolmates (and too often by their parents and teachers). Perhaps these "doubters" or "unbelievers" ask spoilsport questions such as: "Is this likely?" They may wonder more actively than those around them about "bigfoot", "Yeti" and other such "often seen" monsters. Maybe they are puzzled about the "true story" of a man who can bend spoons with his mind (a great university physicist saw him do it and it must be true because he wouldn't lie!)

My way as a youngster, seems on reflection, to have been "learning the hard way": I had to try out for myself many of the paranormal and pseudoscientific claims popular in the 1950's in central Canada, where I grew up. Now, I'm a 61 year old professor, who teaches botany at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. At the moment, I'm preparing a course called, "Botany of Herbal and Medicinal Plants". One of my main aims is to help counteract some of the nonsense sold as science in local Health-food Stores, and elsewhere. Also, I must provide some useful information about the plants, themselves. You can imagine the difficulty of selecting and organizing material for a short 4-month program of lectures and labs when there is so much of interest on the subject and an unfortunately large quantity of nonsense to be found. Critical thinking is a goal, but my personal experience is that critical thinking can't really be "taught", at least not like other subjects.

Somewhere along the road of life I picked up a "skeptic attitude", but it wasn't through learning about electricity, studying how oxygen is formed, or by dissecting a rat. Mentors and associates along the way,of course, were important. Yet, there is something else. Engaging good stories, I believe, could serve as a way of encouraging young people to value an attitude of wonder, wanting to know, questioning, trying things out to see if they work, and learning to sort out what works from what doesn't. Maybe, later on when they hear "true" stories about someone who can do extraordinary things that surpass anything ever known in the world, or about "real" haunted houses, they may ask themselves the question: "Is that likely?"


Rural Rebellions
by Roy Truax

I suppose my adventures in skeptic thought started at an early age while growing up in the small farming town of Clinton, North Carolina. As you probably know, the rural south of the late 60's and early 70's was a fairly religious area, that had only recently become racially integrated. Also, because of the school's restructuring at that time, a huge mix of economic backgrounds started attending school together. It was around then that I couldn't help but notice the more arbitrary aspects of the Christian belief system, especially at Christmas.

Each day before lunch, our teachers would have us all hold hands and recite the familiar "God is great" rhyme. At Christmas, this would often turn into a full-fledged sermon by the teacher on the awesome "gift" to this world that Jesus' birth was. Occasionally it would take the naughty or nice Santa route as well and that's when I got to thinking.

Because of the influx of a variety of social economic levels, I saw firsthand that jolly old St. Nick's generosity seemed to have a lot more to do with a given families income level, than with any notion of good behavior.. This wasn't a particularly grand discovery but I was only 7 or 8 at the time and it got me started in asking the so-called hard hitting questions (much to the chagrin of my southern Baptist teachers). If the whole Santa thing is a sham, what reason do I have to believe the whole Christian thing... the whole God thing...and so on.

This was just the first realization in a life time chalked full of them. As many kids will discover in life, it often only takes one well placed question to really get the thought-ball rolling, and not surprisingly - really piss off the establishment around you. Some may find it a lonely endeavor, (I never had that awe inspiring teacher, and my parents were usually more concerned with how my behavior reflected upon them) but not to worry. The odd few who actually use their gray matter are needed as well. We'd still be in the dark ages otherwise.

In the years since then, I've grown up, moved away (far away) and found a wonderful wife who thinks a lot as well but I still remember the town that I grew up in as a wretched, extremely flawed little place who's only good point to me is that it actually got me to thinking.


Advice to a Young Skeptic
by David Vaughan

As a young skeptic you have an advantage on me. My name is Dave and I am 41 years old. I found my way to skepticism in my teens, but I didn't consider myself a skeptic until I was in my thirties. The skeptical thoughts I remember came after I watched the movie "Star Wars" with some friends. They were enthusiastically talking about The Force as if it was real, and I realized if it was we would all surely know about it. Other instances throughout my young adulthood led me to believe many paranormal claims were probably false.

Since the letter that inspired me to write this asked for advice for young skeptics like, presumably, yourselves, I will try and give you some I have discovered.

First and foremost, you must get an education. Nothing limits understanding like ignorance, and many claims skeptics question arise from basic misunderstanding. My education centered around English, mostly literature. It's a good subject but if I could go back and start again I'd spend more time studying the math and sciences. I would say, however, that you can be a skeptic in addition to whatever you want to be, but you have to have a complete education. If you want to be a writer, study that, but don't neglect the math and sciences.

Secondly, and almost as important, read. Don't just read books by other skeptics and books about science. Fiction is fun and hones your reading skills. Also, try and borrow from the library books written supporting claims you don't necessarily agree with. If you want to be a skeptic, as unfortunate as it may seem, you have to know what you're skeptical of, but you don't have to buy the books. It's one thing to want to understand, it's another thing to financially support authors who promote wild ideas.

Speaking of borrowing and buying books, here's something I've learned. Informative books are almost always referred to later. So try and buy books other skeptics recommend. You'll want to refer to them over and over.

Admit your ignorance when you should! Don't present yourself as knowledgeable about subjects you don't really understand. If you don't know about the subject, admit it. You can always study it and talk about it later. It is important to always remember you aren't just talking about someone's opinion when you confront superstition and belief. You are confronting faith, and if you don't know what you're talking about it'll show and you won't be trusted.

Be patient and don't think you're going to change anyone's mind. You probably won't. But remember you are entitled to your thoughts and opinions and you have the right to express them. Often strange and unusual claims go unchallenged and so get repeated by people who don't know any better. You might not be able to reach the person making the claim, but you might help someone listening to it understand that there may be more to it.

Now I want to tell you something I think is very important, but other skeptics may not. I urge you to make up your own mind about this. Many paranormal subjects are the basis for movies, stories, and TV shows of fiction. To enjoy these movies you need to "suspend disbelief". By doing this you are not saying you believe in what you see but that you know it isn't real but you are willing to accept it for the moment, for the sake of the story. We all imagine things that are unreal and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we remember they are not real. Have fun with your imagination and with your skeptical minds.

Finally, I would advise you to believe in your individuality. Part of skepticism is questioning what others tell you that you may not agree with. You might even find other skeptics who think you should be or do or think a certain way. If you don't think you should remember you can still be a skeptic and feel as you do. Many skeptics have questions about religion and its place of authority in our lives and how we see the world. I understand this. But I also see some (not many) skeptics who think all skeptics should be like all other skeptics. This, I think, is not the way skeptics should behave. So, be yourself.

The world is a wonderful place. You can imagine a lot of things in your minds. But you can't imagine anything as beautiful and as magical as what science has found out during mankind's quest for truth. To me, the world is more wonderful, more miraculous the more I understand it, and I firmly believe that understanding is most likely to come from the scientific method. I hope you all can feel the great joy and freedom in your lives I feel that science and skepticism have given me.

Good luck.


A Cartoon To Remember
by Gregory Vogel

I first remember seeing a particular Peanuts cartoon when I was in grade school or middle school. I searched for it in again in college, found it, copied it, and it has been hanging above my desk ever since. I first read it long before I considered myself a "skeptic" (before I even knew what the term meant, in fact). It made an impression on me, though, and I still consider it a perfect illustration of what skepticism is all about.

It is part of a Peanuts cartoon strip that depicts a summer when most of the characters have gone to a bible camp. A preacher there essentially tells them "the world will end tomorrow". One of the characters, Marcie, takes this at face value. Linus, of course, questions the prophecy. He courageously asks, "What if you are wrong?"

To me it encapsulates three lessons for skeptics:

  1. At face value, it is a wonderful illustration of questioning authority and asking for direct evidence.
  2. It serves as a reminder to me that I may sometimes be wrong: in this sense, I am not projecting myself through Linus asking the question, but he is asking it of me. We must never take our own ideas for granted.
  3. Skepticism is sometimes a lonely business.

Charlie Brown and another character in the cartoon abandon Linus when they realize what he is asking.

I have read that Charles Schultz was a very religious man, but this cartoon (and others he wrote) seem to advocate a sincere, gentle, humanistic rationalism. I consider myself as probably more skeptical than Mr. Schultz, but I can only hope that I am as kind as he appeared to be.

It is easy to dismiss a cartoon as a bagatelle, but this one, I think, deserves more serious consideration. It certainly had a positive influence on me.

 

 
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Copyright 2000, 2001 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal