A Tribute to The Skeptic’s Dictionary
If you go to any internet search engine and type in “paranormal” or “supernatural”, you will be provided, within a fraction of a second, with more pro-paranormal/supernatural material than you could possibly consume in a lifetime. Everything from ghosts to graphology, from Kabalah to karma, from Nostradamus to the Loch Ness Monster. Website after website, page after page after page of weird and wonderful beliefs, how they are all real and why you should adopt them. More to the point, why you should buy into them, because most of these websites will want your money sooner rather than later.
In stark contrast, there is very little sceptical material on the internet. In terms of comparable volume, you will find very few web pages on the net offering doubt about these beliefs, flaws in their reasoning, why maybe, just maybe they might be wrong in their assertions.
Fortunately, one of the websites that is available is The Skeptic’s Dictionary. This website, founded and authored entirely by Professor Robert Todd Carroll, is a shining beacon of light on the internet, cutting through the gloom and darkness of paranormal nonsense.
It is, as you would expect, an online encyclopaedia of “strange beliefs, amusing deceptions and dangerous delusions”. Almost any belief you can think of that would fit into one of those categories has an article, meticulously researched, outlining the main points of the belief, background and history, and a wealth of carefully constructed arguments and counter-arguments against it. There are no personal attacks (I only wish I could say the same for the opposition) or ranting; just reason, logic and evidence. You can literally lose hours (and believe me, I have!) browsing different articles, reading about beliefs you are familiar with, or maybe even once held and cherished, or learning about things you had never heard of.
The website also has another section called The Skeptic’s Refuge, which is described as “a gateway to sceptical and critical thinking about the paranormal, the supernatural and the pseudoscientific”. Here you will find a plethora of essays and articles, reviews, workshops, link and other resources. My first visit was something akin to wondering into Aladin’s Cave. I particularly recommend the Mass Media Funk, which Carroll captions as “mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows”, and the Mass Media Bunk, described as “a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.” The media, in all its forms, is certainly rife with material that falls into these categories, and Carroll’s work in exposing them is invaluable to those of us who treasure the truth.
But who wouldn’t want the truth? Wanting the truth, and knowing how to find it are two very different things, no matter how easily they may be confused. This is where critical thinking skills come in. Everyone is a rationalist and a critical thinker up to a point. Unfortunately, most people are only critical thinkers when it suits them and never scrutinise the beliefs they hold dear. A large part of the reason for this is that they lack the refined critical thinking skills required to ensure that any belief they hold meets only the strictest standards of evidence. The skills to which I’m referring include, for example, the structure of inductive and deductive arguments and the ability to spot common (and sometimes not so common) logical fallacies. Once one has these skills, it isn’t so easy to just ‘switch them off’. Spurious beliefs begin to stick out like sore thumbs, and you can’t help but begin to analyse them. If they don’t hold up against the evidence, their days are numbered, whether you like it or not. Wishful thinking is a very dangerous and powerful thing, and critical thinking skills are the most effective way to combat it.
I was first shown the Skeptic’s Dictionary by an atheist friend, who told me that it had helped him a great deal in his deconversion from Christianity. As it turned out, it was to be my first step towards atheism. The Critical Thinking section was one of the first things I visited. It was like being given the tools to think properly for the first time. I seriously couldn’t work out how I’d managed to reach the age of 23 without them! I would recommend any visitors who hold strong paranormal beliefs to visit this section and read it with an open mind. Then see if your beliefs are so convincing. Try and find a loose thread and tug at it – if the whole thing unravels then you’re better off without it. Find the articles on the beliefs you hold and see whose side is more convincing. When I first visited the site I held beliefs in Transcendental Meditation and Chi. Reading the articles on the Skeptic’s Dictionary was not an easy pill to swallow, I don’t mind saying, but it was like catching a glimpse of the hidden compartment in the conjurer’s hat. Having seen it, I couldn’t keep telling myself it was real magic.
It isn’t easy to let go of beliefs that you treasure. You may have invested many years of your time, a lot of money and, most importantly of all (although not quantifiable), emotional investment in your beliefs. But if you’re truly honest with yourself, that’s all the more reason for you to find out if they’re really true. If they’re not, you shouldn’t want to waste another second or penny on them. To quote the writer of Daylightatheism, “the happiness of knowledge is always greater and more profound than the happiness of delusion”.
Please take the time to visit The Skeptic’s Dictionary. It was a wonderful, life changing experience for me, and who knows? It may be for you as well.