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European Skeptics Congress, day 3

by Bruno Van de Casteele

August 25, 2013

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This is my last day here at the European Skeptics Congress in Stockholm. I've written about day 1 and day 2 earlier.

The morning program was kicked off by Chris French from the UK. He presented his speciality, anomalistic psychology, which at the same time was also an introduction to his upcoming book. Difficult to summarise an entire book in 30 minutes, so this was more of an overview that showed the breadth and depth of his work.

There are maybe a couple of points that I canquickly touch upon. For instance, Chris discussedwhich factors might be related to paranormal belief. There are correlations with personality or having experienced child abuse, but there is no relation with more marginalised groups (who might need a sense of security). On the other hand, people experiencing paranormal phenomena are not crazy, unless, as Chris pointed out, we are almost all to be considered crazy. Everyone experiences hallucinations and makes mistakes when remembering things.

Chris referred in that context also to false memories of certain key events (like the attack on the Twin Towers), but oddly enough his research showed that people can also remember seeing videos of those kind of "flash" events that never existed (like CCTV footage of the first Bali bombings). Memory is indeeda tricky phenomenon.
Another thing that we almost all experience, is sleep paralysis. I know I never had, but a show of hands made clear that a lot of people in the audience had at least once experienced this. However, some experience it as fearful or even painful, and then an explanation like alien visitation and abduction makes it "real" and not something crazy. But as mentioned earlier, it is not something crazy, but a thing that a lot of people experience and that is perfectly explainable.

I cannot do justice to all the other topics that were mentioned by Chris, but in all this was a very entertaining talk.

Next up was Haley Stevens, also from the UK. She presented a funny and bright talk about a skeptics guide to ghost hunting. She is herself a former believer in the paranormal, and considers herself still a ghost geek (see her website She did several years of ghost hunting. However, her point is that even though ghost hunters tell themselves they are doing modern science, the gizmo's they use are no better than table tipping and Ouiaboards, and ghost hunters have a very low thresholdfor evidence. There is still no objective approach to ghosts, let alone an explanation on their existence or interaction with matter.

She explained several cases in whichshe was involvedas a skeptic, pointing out that some ghost hunters really can make people afraid of "evil ghosts". There is sometimes great harm done, and Haley sees it as a mission for skeptics to put people's mind at rest using rational and objective arguments. She showed also some cases where through simple research she was able to disprove certain ghost photos, using the Internet and some phone calls. She ended with seven interesting tips for skeptical ghost hunting, which I'm going to copy here as they are very interesting.
  1. Keep a good relationship with local journalists (reminiscent of the remarks formulated on day 1)

  2. Engage (respectfully) those who believe, as they too want to weed out the frauds and hoaxes

  3. Make rational information easily available (she attributed her leaving the ghost believers camp to the information available on the Internet)

  4. Never stop talking (to journalists and other people)

  5. Stay ahead of the fakersby trying to fake photos and film yourself

  6. Teach others (especially kids) how to fake

  7. And finally: have fun!

The finalspeaker of the congress was Ken Frazier from the US, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer. Using his decades of experience, he gave a historicalapproach to how pseudoscience has evolved, and still is everywhere. For instance, he pointed out that with the rise of the Internet and cable programming, pseudoscience has become less visible (no "bestsellers") and fragmented, but it is as big and as dangerous as before. He also pointed out that some new themes appeared, like so-called Complementary and Alternative medicine (leading to an influx of doctors into the skeptical community), conspiracy theories and the deniers of climate change. The last one is very new, and even some in the skeptical community are arguing that the denialistarguments are valid. As Ken pointed out, he is most concerned about the scientific facts, and that science should not be distorted by ideologies or religions imposing their view of the world on everyone else (including scientists).

Ken concluded by saying that our work has meaning, even if we sometimes feel tired or discouraged. Education and books (and he should have added blogs and tools like RbutR or GSOW) are powerful means that are fearedby extremists. In the end, we need to overcome, he said, the continuum of differences in our community (which exist) and focus on tackling those threats to science. Challenging claims does have an impact.

And that is a fitting end of the official congress, the afternoon was filledwith skeptical and other activities around Sweden (anecdotally involving ice cream and a pub). I want to thank the Swedish Skeptics for organising such a fine congress. It is not a "celebrity" event, but it is focussed on learning and sharing, and getting to know the European skeptical community better through networking. Thanks for this great experience, and I'm looking forward to the next European Skeptics Congress in september 2015, this time in London. Watch the website more information on that.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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