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You Can Lead Believers to Knowledge, but You Can’t Make Them Think

Barbara Mervine

Skeptical Briefs Volume 25.1, Spring 2015

I blame Tim Farley, the skeptic who runs the website whatstheharm.net. We were both on a skeptic-themed cruise when he gave a talk about finding a direction for your skepticism. He pointed out there were numerous blogs about skepticism in general, but that it could be even more helpful
 to specialize. My history of skeptic activism had been simply answering UFO questions for a few years via several online “answer” sites. Before Tim’s talk, I had never considered an approach that would be more akin to outreach.

What followed was increased interaction between myself and the “UFOs are aliens” community. I started the infamously poorly designed website, badalien.org, which has proven highly popular with those who feel they might have been abducted by aliens. I found myself in the position of often being the only skeptic among many believers at UFO conferences, the Lone Ranger of rational thinking in a wild west of irrationality.

My first impression was “I like these people.” The result of this unexpected likability of the UFO and alien believer crowd inspired me to assemble a team of volunteer experts, including therapists, a psychiatrist, several medical doctors, and other volunteers to help me better educate these believers in critical thinking skills. The skeptics who volunteer their time to help me help others are the real force behind the alien abduction work I enjoy. I found there are many UFO and alien believers that are tortured by the belief that they have been abducted by aliens, or those who feel UFOs are zipping about the skies where they live with evil intentions. Others find they enjoy believing they have been abducted and only want assurance that they are not being “irradiated” or otherwise harmed as they travel planet to planet. It’s a blessing or a curse, but either way, these people want and need someone to share their experiences with. If the only people listening are non-skeptics, then they never have a chance to learn some valuable critical thinking skills.

I do not like the unlicensed therapists touting hypnosis at a high fee to help people “remember” their abduction experience. There are far too many people willing to take advantage of believers in the paranormal. I know anyone can call herself a “therapist” and charge whatever she likes to treat almost anything; trust me, it’s probably not going to be covered by insurance. Real therapists, since the landmark case in which Nadean Cool sued her psychiatrist for implanting false memories in 1997, are far more careful about their use of hypnosis to “recover memories.” Among UFO therapists that have just hung out their shingle, hypnotism remains an important “tool.” How else can you convince someone that has had some disturbing dreams, or perhaps vague memories that he or she has been abducted? Then these therapists, who are the real “tools” here, can start charging money. I have to admit, the dislike goes both ways. Skeptics are seen as a danger to their ability to scam money from the credulous. The farther these scam artists can keep skeptics from believers, the better for their bottom line. This is probably one of the most important reasons skeptics need to interact with believers. It pisses these people off to be challenged, and the only people truly challenging them are skeptics.

I often wonder if Betty and Barney Hill would ever have sued Dr. Benjamin Simon, the doctor who, through the use of hypnosis, brought out the details of their supposed UFO abduction. The problem was Simon believed their recollections were a fantasy, while the Hills held firm that their recovered memories of abduction were real.

I truly enjoy being part of a team helping people suffering from a belief that they have been abducted by aliens find the help they need to live better quality of lives. Please note, I don’t say “Drop their false belief they have been abducted by aliens.” Many people, often surprisingly quickly, lose their belief. In fact, sometimes people who contact me write “I think I’ve been abducted by aliens, and that can’t be true. Help me prove it!” The skeptic team I rely on joke that I am “triage.” I simply point people in the right direction. I admit for the most part I just read a lot of long emails and reply with respect, sympathy, and most importantly hope. The satisfaction I have gained from this work made me open to more experiences working with other people, perhaps best described as lacking in critical thinking skills.

I recently started helping in a small way with the local Bigfoot group. These groups are popping up all over the United States, inspired by reality TV shows of people calling themselves “experts” tromping around the woods and making a lot of noise. The formation of our very small local group was simply based on a group of local hunters saying, “Well I can do what those people on TV are doing.” They did decide they needed a “skeptic,” for which I thank reality TV. The token skeptic on most reality shows has made it fashionable to have a skeptic on board. I would like to point out that I did use the word fashionable, not in any way to describe how the average Bigfoot hunter dresses. I include myself; Bigfoot hunting is about being outdoors, not about looking pretty.

There are two problems with a Bigfoot group having me as the token skeptic. For one thing, I’m not able to keep up with the local group made up of very strong outdoor hunters. Still, I offered to do my part via our chat meetings (we are indeed “high tech”) and helping look for Bigfoot in my own backyard. I live in rural New Hampshire, where there have been Bigfoot sightings locally, so this wasn’t a problem. I believe Bigfoot has now been sighted not only in the forty-eight continental states but also is starring in an off Broadway production of Rent.

The second problem is I am a real skeptic. I should modify that to say I am not a TV reality show skeptic. This consists of me saying more than “Well, I’m still not convinced.” The group is made up of wonderful young men who perhaps are more respectful of me challenging them because I remind them of their mothers. I do honestly appreciate their careful consideration of my suggestions. The ideal skeptic for the group to have would be a trained biologist with critical thinking skills. The problem is most biologists are busy making a living being biologists. The commitment of even the small amount of time a Bigfoot group takes is too much for most biologists to commit to. The group gets my critical thinking skills, and my connections to many good-natured scientists willing to answer questions like “Why are there so few bipedal large mammals?” and “How would you expect a large ape-like mammal to smell?”

There is an old skeptic saying “You can lead believers to knowledge, but you can’t make them think.” However, as with my UFO believers, what I find works best is not my leading them to knowledge but my suggesting a path for them to find the answer themselves. No one wants to be just told they are wrong. It’s always easier if they find out through critical thinking skills you have helped them learn that perhaps they were mistaken, or should investigate some more before petitioning to have Bigfoot listed as an “endangered species.” If someone finds out they were wrong on their own, it gives them a chance to put a “spin” on it. They weren’t “wrong”; in fact they usually are happy to show off their newfound knowledge to the skeptic know-it-all. I was pleased when a UFO believer showed me recently how that “face on Mars” is just a “funny rock with some shadows.”

Teaching critical thinking skills requires a two-way street of respect to be established. Sometimes you have to play by their rules. My Bigfoot group came up with a very clever plan to find Bigfoot prints. They decided that since the Bigfoot is related to the Yeti, Bigfoot must leave footprints in the snow in winter. Thus, Bigfoot snow scanning was born! I did have a little skeptical talk with the group about how it is stretching things to find a relationship between two creatures that only exist in the dreams of cryptozoologists. The group at least listened to my explaining why you can’t compare two unproven creatures. I pointed out it would be like saying “Unicorns are related to Pegasus!” They took this well, as I had agreed to participate in their exciting plan to prove Bigfoot, snow scanning.

Snow scanning was their inventive plan that simply means that each of us would look at a given area of land every single day in winter, with no exceptions. When I was ill, I would make sure my plot was covered, and I also took part in a bigger weekly scanning of local Pisgah State Park. We were vigilant. I had simply to look out over my backyard, which covers several acres. If you live in Florida, you may be confused by the logic of this. Those who live in Northern climates know their snow cover lasts for months. The snow cover doesn’t melt until spring, which results in not only spring flooding but also a whole lot of months for Bigfoot to leave tracks in the snow.

I was careful, despite my lack of belief in Bigfoot, to do my required scanning. I was the only member to find still unidentified tracks in the snow. This was slightly shocking to the group, that the skeptic found the only unknown tracks. It proved I was “on board” and also made them more open to my suggestions. They finally understood I wasn’t there to “cover up” Bigfoot evidence and was playing “by the rules.”

I have to admit, the results of my suggestions aren’t always quite what I expect. I sometimes give the group “homework.” I asked them to consider the mystery of just why Bigfoot isn’t sighted more on trail cameras and why the photographs are so bad.

As a skeptic, I find it mysterious also that a video or photograph that is close up and in focus is almost always labeled a “hoax” even by believers. It’s as if we’ve come to expect photographs of the paranormal to be of poor quality. I put the problem to them, hoping they might begin to edge toward the suspicion that there just might not be a Bigfoot, at least here in rural New Hampshire. I do not have proof there is no Bigfoot. There will always be another tree to look behind. I just want the group to be open to the possibility that their vague sightings (and personal experience is a bitch to break, I’ve found) might just have another explanation. 
The results of my “homework” were good in that some real thought had gone into the answers given. The problem was that their answers were less than the skeptical answers I was hoping for. The group felt that Bigfoot could sense batteries. What do trail cameras, regular cameras, cell phones, and Jim’s new pacemaker have in common? A battery. Their hope was that if we went into the woods with no electronics—and Jim stays home with his new pacemaker and Tim leaves his hearing aide at home—we might see Bigfoot. Alrighty then. I rolled my eyes, but they were willing to accept my eye rolling. Many of them have teenagers at home, so they are used to it.

The problem, I pointed out, is that we would be left with only personal testimony yet again. Then one member came up with the idea we should take “old fashioned cameras.” This means that soon, a group of men will be tromping through the woods of New Hampshire, holding Brownie style Kodak cameras, wondering why Bigfoot doesn’t show up. I agreed to go along with the photography plan, but several members of the group are also investigating just how Bigfoot might sense a battery. It’s baby steps, but I have to admit that going around the forest with a vintage camera and old-school film is going to be rather fun.

Another question the group often debates is whether Bigfoot should be shot or not. Not being a believer, I said “It would be definitive scientific proof, go ahead.” This has since been changed to “Idiots will pretend to be Bigfoot, please don’t shoot a stupid human even if their death might enrich our gene pool.” If nothing else, my belonging to this group may save the life of an idiot in a Gillie suit.

The principal quality required of any Lone Skeptic is patience. When the cameras fail, and I am ever hopeful and would be happiest if we did indeed photograph a Bigfoot, the group will revisit the topic. This group is thankfully one that does not believe Bigfoot has any great paranormal abilities, and that Bigfoot hunting should not be thrown in with ghost hunting or alien abduction. This small group truly believes Bigfoot is a real creature whose existence can be proven with the same methods used to prove the existence of the Mountain Gorilla.

I have pointed out that while the Mountain Gorilla was discovered in the West only in 1902, I’m willing to bet the locals knew all about it for much longer. We are in this case the locals. It’s up to us neither to prove nor disprove. I hope I can continue to raise doubt, and at least some of the group will come away with new critical thinking skills. If the group reaches the conclusion that here in our corner of New Hampshire, despite some scary personal encounters, there is not a large bipedal ape-like creature living in the forest, I will feel truly successful. That’s about as good as skepticism gets. Right now I feel the answer to the question of whether Bigfoot lives in New Hampshire is “no.” I assure the group, bring me a dead body of a Bigfoot, and I’ll make that a “yes.” However, that also goes for unicorns and fairies. Science demands proof. Of course the most important thing isn’t whether there is a Bigfoot or not; it’s the critical thinking skills the group is learning. TV skeptics just shake their heads and wait to be convinced. I jump right in and try to provide evidence to the group that there isn’t a Bigfoot nearby. It’s a two way street, a respectful exchange of ideas and learning. If nothing else, I learned what poison ivy looks like, and the group was kind enough to keep me from sitting down in a patch of it.

I am often asked, when dealing with believers in alien abduction and Bigfoot, just why people believe in these unproven entities. Most of the believers aren’t crazy, though my own work suggests many of them, while not meeting the medical diagnosis for insane, often are what most of us might consider a little quirky. Remember, I’ve been to a couple of Comic Cons, so I know quirky.

One thing many paranormal hardcore believers have in common I can best describe as “trust issues.” It seems at first as though they simply mistrust science and the government. Science and the government are helping hide the truth, whatever they might believe to be truth, from the rest of us. Believers often don’t personally know many people who work for the government or who are scientists. Despite the likes of Stanton Friedman, a physicist with degrees from the University of Chicago and a self-described UFO “expert,” the fields of paranormal research are sadly lacking in scientists. That’s why it’s often up to a non-scientist such as myself to step up and try to work with paranormal groups. Personally, I’d rather scientists keep doing science. I truly respect science professionals who take time out of their busy lives to help the skeptic community battle misinformation. My own daughter has a PhD from MIT, but she’s too busy doing real science to have much time left over for battling pseudoscience.

Along with science, the government is not to be trusted. This is especially true for the UFO community. It’s hard to accuse the government of covering up Bigfoot, when they are supposedly walking around in our backyards. Still, government distrust rarely takes into account that even the most top-secret facility hiding aliens and UFOs has to have someone empty the waste baskets and clean the floor.

The point is that secrets are hard to keep. It was especially fun when, via a skeptic website, I met someone who worked at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. I asked him if he was the one who made sure the freezers where the aliens were stored were kept running. He thought it was hilarious when I sent him some of my business cards that ask “Do you think you have been abducted by aliens?” to leave around the base. He actually did place them around the base, and since he was a civilian worker not a member of the Air Force he said he “got away with it.” It seems even the government will tolerate a joke every now and again.

So who do these people trust? They are the Libertarians of science. “I know what I’ve seen and I trust myself.” The words “I know . . .” come up over and over. “I don’t care what those scientists say, I know what I’ve seen.” Personal experience trumps all. They also trust other people who support their paranormal beliefs.

Sometimes there is also a feeling of “I don’t trust medicine,” meaning mainstream science-based medicine. There are tales of “She went in for an operation, and the hospital killed her.” I have found over the years this can mean anything from death of natural causes to a resistant infection picked up while recovering from surgery. Sadly, medicine will always fail in the end, and only alternative medicine promises “Trust me, I promise 100 percent to cure you.”

This lack of trust often comes from a lifetime of learning not to trust others. Many have belonged, or belong to, churches with a strong emphasis on “You can’t trust anyone but your pastor.” Early emphasis on “you can only trust me,” whether it be a pastor, parent, or group, enables the believer to be open to conspiracy theories. Distrust of science and government is learned early, often at the foot of a parent or pastor. I know many skeptics who claim “I don’t trust anyone; I like to investigate and come to my own conclusions.” If simple distrust of everyone were taught, most children would grow up to become skeptics. Instead, at some point, a mentor or important figure in their lives taught the believers I’ve met to put their trust in the wrong people. It is never, “Don’t trust anyone.” It is instead, “Just trust me.”

I feel that this teaching of distrust of others is a way to exercise power and control. A religious leader who teaches “You can trust only me” is enabled to control his congregants. A parent who teaches his child to not trust others has more control. Alternative medicine providers need to instill distrust of mainstream medicine before they can sell their products. If a cult wants you to join, the first step is often teaching that others not in the cult cannot be “trusted” and often those not to be trusted include close family and friends.

This doesn’t make the believer bad or stupid; it simply means skeptics have to help them learn to trust the right people. There are degrees of course. One member of the Bigfoot group I belong to is a nurse. He trusts science but doesn’t have enough critical thinking skills yet for him to admit Bigfoot is probably not a real creature. His science education makes him more open to my skeptical suggestions, despite his own purported sighting of a Bigfoot as a child.

Meanwhile, I enjoy participating and working with these believers because they are interesting and often open to learning. I’m a teacher in my heart, and I find the possibility of teaching even one person a few new skeptic skills reason enough to interact with believers. I also find, like any good teacher, that I learn much from those I am attempting to teach. A good teacher is also always a student. The more I interact with believers in Bigfoot and aliens, the more I learn how to understand and perhaps help change their beliefs. If nothing else, I learned long ago that most paranormal believers have a good sense of humor about what they believe, as well as being far more open minded than most skeptics believe.

I try to remember when I believed in the Loch Ness monster because of the wonderful flipper photograph taken at the loch in 1972. My biology teacher in Middle School did not just laugh at me when I told him “Nessie is real!” Instead, he assigned me homework to study just how big a breeding population would need to be for the monsters, and what kind of diet was available for them in Loch Ness. I sadly reported to him days later that obviously there was “Something wrong with that photograph.” He changed my mind not by laughing at me but by pointing me in the direction needed to discover the answer for myself. It was a lesson also in how to be respectful of the perhaps wrong beliefs, while also teaching critical thinking skills.

I sometimes think of the old saying “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” I like to update it to “Give a person an answer, they will know Bigfoot isn’t real. Teach a person skepticism, and they’ll think Bigfoot isn’t real, aliens aren’t visiting from Venus, and they’ll vaccinate their children.” It’s not just what you believe about the paranormal that changes when you learn Bigfoot probably isn’t real, it’s how you live your entire life that changes for the better.

Barbara Mervine

Barbara Mervine runs the Yankeeskeptic.com blog and is author of skeptic children’s books for pre­schoolers, including Fairy Tales, Fairly Told (available at Amazon.com). She also lectures on the fun and challenges of working with everyone from alien abductees to Bigfoot hunters.