Confessions of a Skeptic
An editorial by D. Trull
I recently received the following email message from a
ParaScope reader, which pointedly sums up a concern that
many others have also expressed, in one way or another:
- "I am curious why you put
people like DTrull, or whatever his name is, in
charge of writing articles and reviews for the
Enigma section of ParaScope? And pscppol who
seems to be in charge of Nebula. Both seem to be
more skeptical about that which that they write
about, even at sometimes to the point of being
critical or poking fun at those of us who
"I would think you would want
your forum staffed by believers, or at least people
who would not appear so patronizing or close-minded.
"Are these the only contributors to this area?
And do these people actually get paid to come up with
this stuff? Find something with a little more meat to
it and a little more interesting to those of us who
visit ParaScope and who do believe.
"If I didn't believe, I wouldn't be here."
Those are heavy charges, but I have to admit, this
letter raise some perfectly valid questions about
ParaScope's editorial approach to paranormal subject
matter. I'd like to take the opportunity to explore the
quandaries and complexities of skepticism, to clarify
some common misconceptions, and to make a confession or
two about what I believe in.
Yes, it's true, I'm the editor of ParaScope's department
on paranormal phenomena, and I am a skeptic. I spend my
time researching and writing on topics whose factual
existence I find almost entirely in doubt. That's a
strange circumstance to be in, no denying it. It might
seem sort of like putting the fox in charge of the hen
house, or hiring an atheist to deliver a
fire-and-brimstone sermon. Why would a skeptic want to do
this, and why would ParaScope want to have me?
Skepticism itself is a very weird thing. To the outside
observer, skeptics may appear to be smug, elitist
curmudgeons who have made a sport out of tearing down
what others believe in. The various personal interests
and avocations that people are into, whether it's
football, mountain climbing, video games, gardening or
sex, are almost always positive in nature, revolving
around a subject that you like or enjoy. Skepticism, on
the other hand, seems to be a hobby based on a negative
-- namely, preaching that there's no such thing as
Bigfoot or flying saucers.
That perception makes skepticism something of a
suspicious activity to begin with. It's fine for there to
be organized opposition to a universally recognized evil
(for example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving), but it's
unseemly for a group to devote itself to denouncing and
discrediting that which others believe in. That
disreputable category of human expression ranges from the
Ku Klux Klan to web pages entitled "The Spice Girls
Suck." To some degree or other, people often
associate skepticism with the vile dregs of organized
hate. The hostility that I have seen directed at James
Randi and other prominent skeptics has approached levels
normally reserved for crimes against humanity.
The core of the problem is this: conventional wisdom
dictates that if you dislike or disagree with something
that other people follow and believe in, you should just
turn away and leave it alone. Live and let live. If you
can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. If
you don't believe in ghosts and healing crystals and ESP,
that's fine, but for goodness' sake, don't obsess about
how fake they are, or turn your doubts into some kind of
ongoing crusade. That seems like an unhealthy thing to be
doing. If you don't believe in these things, surely you
can find something better to spend your time on.
As that reader remarked, "If I didn't believe, I
wouldn't be here." If I don't believe, then why am I
The answer is complicated,
and it requires a detailed explanation of what skepticism
is -- or at least, what I consider it to be. To be a
skeptic does not mean that you don't believe in anything,
and skepticism is not a fixed platform or ideology, like
liberalism or conservatism. It is a tool for
understanding the world around us, and a method for
evaluating the veracity of extraordinary claims and
observations. Skepticism may at times seem to involve
nothing more than the knee-jerk debunking and gainsaying
of whatever weird phenomenon comes along, but in fact, it
is not a pursuit rooted solely on negation and tearing
down. Skepticism has very much of a positive basis, and
corny though it may sound, its objective is the search
for the truth.
That being the case, it's high time I came clean with a
true fact that I have never before admitted publicly in
the pages of ParaScope.
I am a skeptic, but there are paranormal phenomena that I
do believe in.
Throughout my life I have had personal experiences in
which I knew what someone else was thinking, or I
predicted some event just before it happened, or my wild
hunches turned out to be true. I have frequently had
déjà vu episodes that were so compelling I felt that it
had to be more than just my mind playing tricks on me.
There have been times when I was convinced that I had
some form of ESP, and sometimes I still feel that way. I
also believe without reservation that there is
intelligent life in outer space. And I believe there are
strange and undiscovered animals hiding on our planet.
And I believe there may be undetected forces at work
influencing our existence. In general, I believe there's
a whole lot of things going on around us that we don't
know or don't understand, which will make our present
conception of the universe look hopelessly primitive some
day. I wholeheartedly concur with what Hamlet had to say
on the limits of human knowledge: "There are more
things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of
in your philosophy."
So why, then, have I chosen to be a skeptic? Why not use
ParaScope as a vehicle to assert what I believe in,
instead of casting doubts and aspersions on paranormal
claims? I can offer three main points of explanation.
The first and most important reason is that I cannot
prove any of the paranormal phenomena that I believe in.
I consider these to be very personal and private beliefs,
on a level with religious beliefs, political beliefs or
sexual orientation. I may feel in my gut that I have some
glimmer of psychic ability or that extraterrestrial life
definitely exists, but I know intellectually that I
cannot prove these things, and my views are no more
"right" than anyone else's. I want for there to
be proof, one way or the other, so that my beliefs can
edge closer toward the realm of knowledge.
I see skepticism as the best approach toward this goal. I
demand proof for extraordinary claims, and when it's not
there, I feel compelled to point out the deficiency. Of
course, lack of proof doesn't mean that a claim is
necessarily false. The scientific method is imperfect, as
are the human beings who implement it. But with truth as
our objective, science is the best system for analysis
and evaluation that skeptics have.
The second reason why I am a skeptic is more of a
practical decision, a deliberate bid for widespread
credibility. The public at large is suspicious of fringe
topics like paranormal phenomena and any in-depth
discussion thereof, and it's also suspicious of the
Internet and the proliferation of wacko web sites devoted
to all manner of crackpot ideas. As an independent
start-up with a web site devoted to fringe topics, we at
ParaScope knew at the outset that we were in for a double
whammy of negative perception. In an effort to forestall
this reaction, I decided it best to make Enigma a
skeptical forum based on facts and documentation, rather
than representing paranormal phenomena as true at face
value. In this way I hoped to distinguish Enigma from the
throngs of poorly-researched and credulous web pages on
such topics, and possibly win over readers accustomed to
thinking that everything on the Internet is full of
This strategy doesn't always work out. Just as I receive
email feedback criticizing me for being skeptical, I also
get plenty of email accusing me of being a gullible
believer. "Your ghost pictures are obviously
fake," they say, or "You mean you idiots
actually believe all this crap? Get a life, you
losers!" Apparently when they surf into ParaScope
these folks jump to the conclusion that we're a bunch of
lunatics who think every alien autopsy and Nessie
sighting is absolutely real, and they must not bother to
read a word of the text that accompanies all the kewl
picturez. And whenever I tell someone I meet about this
web site I write for, I nearly always get the impression
that they think it sounds silly, no matter how readily I
explain that I don't believe in all that stuff.
The third reason for my skepticism is more of a personal
issue. As a writer I am far more interested in being a
humorist than a journalist. When we we starting up
ParaScope, I knew that I wanted to use it as a vehicle
for humorous material. But I thought it would be unfair
to do all of the Enigma section as a joke, so I created Fortean
Slips, an isolated humor column where I
could go nuts while leaving the rest of Enigma intact for
serious articles. To bolster this self-imposed dichotomy,
I initially resolved that the straight Enigma stories
would be unfailingly objective and impartial, and that I
would not allow any opinions or judgments to be
expressed, not even in the form of humor or sarcasm.
Well, I quickly learned that I was overcompensating for
the levity of Fortean Slips, and that purely objective
writing on paranormal matters is dry, lifeless and
horrible, not to mention mind-numbingly difficult to
produce. In particular, I discovered that this editorial
stance came across as weak and lobotomized, complacently
accepting the merit of any paranormal claim even in the
face of powerful evidence to the contrary. I quickly
dispensed with my misguided adherence to objectivity, and
began inserting opinions and dissent into my straight
Enigma articles, and before long I was fearlessly writing
as a full-fledged skeptic. This was a necessary move if
my writing was going to have any integrity, and any
balls. I must admit, though, that I do really get sick of
using the words "alleged," "supposed"
and "so-called," over and over again.
Despite its evolution, my straight Enigma voice still
remains distinct from my wild and wacky Fortean Slips
style, a mildly schizophrenic situation which has led
some ParaScope readers to ask if "D. Trull" is
a real person or a pseudonym used by several writers.
It's a wonderful and fitting irony that I have managed to
make my readers skeptical about my own existence.
So that's the long-winded answer
to why there's a skeptic running ParaScope's department
on paranormal phenomena, and why I think that's okay.
Being skeptical doesn't mean that you don't believe -- it
means that you're careful about what you believe, and
even more careful about what you say is true. I know that
a lot of determined believers won't be convinced by my
explanation, and will continue to think that all skeptics
are patronizing or closed-minded. But I hope that others
of you reading this will now understand that I'm one of
you, in a lot of ways. I'm not a nihilist, I'm not a
party pooper, and on the day when some paranormal
phenomenon is finally proven to be real, I'll sing and
dance and party with the best of 'em, by golly. Believe
Of course, now that I've "outed" myself as
being somewhat of a believer, there may be those who
accuse me of being a liar or a hypocrite for also being a
skeptic. I can only respond that I know the difference
between my personal feelings and verifiable fact, and
unlike some people, I think it's a good policy not to
treat those two things as if they're interchangeable.
As a human being, I want to believe. As a skeptic, all
I'm looking for is a good reason.
© Copyright 1999 ParaScope, Inc.