Saturday, September 27, 2014

Weird Things Happen to Skeptics, Too

Michael Shermer is well-known skeptic who has written extensively on debunking all manner of alleged paranormal phenomena, from bigfoot to UFO's to psychic abilities. But as he explains in this article from Scientific American, he recently witnessed an event that appeared to be of paranormal origin - or at least something he could not explain away.

The event in question happened on the day of Shermer's wedding, this last June. Growing up in Germany, his wife Jennifer had been close to her grandfather but he passed away when she was sixteen. One of the items of his still in her possession was an old transistor radio that did not seem to work, despite Shermer's best efforts to repair it. He finally gave up and put the radio away in a desk drawer.

Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don't have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven't seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can't be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather's transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I'm not alone.”

Shortly thereafter we returned to our guests with the radio playing as I recounted the backstory. My daughter, Devin, who came out of her bedroom just before the ceremony began, added, “I heard the music coming from your room just as you were about to start.” The odd thing is that we were there getting ready just minutes before that time, sans music. Later that night we fell asleep to the sound of classical music emanating from Walter's radio. Fittingly, it stopped working the next day and has remained silent ever since.

Regarding the title of the Scientific American article, I think it's rather telling that Shermer describes this event as "shaking his skepticism to the core." Skepticism, properly practiced, is not a belief but rather a method, based on the common-sense premise that one should rule out likely explanations for phenomena before moving on to exploring unlikely ones. The statement that "paranormal events never happen" is not truly skeptical at all - rather, it is a fairly specific belief.

A number of commenters on the article suggested checking out the radio for electrical anomalies and so forth, but that entirely misses the point. As I've mentioned in the past, I don't believe that magick is "supernatural," but rather based on the ability of consciousness to alter probabilities through some mechanism that orthodox science has yet to fully explain. Paranormal events usually have mundane causes, but the point is that the radio turning on (A) was unlikely to start with and (B) happened at that exact moment.

I'm sure that if an electrical engineer were to take the radio apart, what he or she would find is some sort of circuit capable of making an occasional intermittent connection. It likely could be repaired and the radio would work just fine from that point on. But none of that explains why it turned on when it did. It may in fact not have been Jennifer's dead grandfather - her own conscious longing for his presence might have triggered the connection, along the lines of certain effects on machines explored by the PEAR group at Princeton.

The radio also could have been triggered by Shermer's conscious desire to make it work, since he was the last person in contact with the device and had tried to repair it, and that could open up a whole other can of worms. A number of psychics have claimed that being in the presence of skeptics like Shermer undermines their abilities, and if he is indeed talented enough to influence a radio this way there's no telling the effect his skeptical beliefs might have on others with similar abilities.

But I don't want to speculate too much there; my point is just that even if you're a hardcore skeptic, the world still can be a pretty weird place. Many of the psychics taken on by the skeptic movement have turned out to be frauds of one sort or another, and I certainly don't want to suggest that every skeptic investigator is psychic enough to block abilities that conveniently work just fine whenever no strict experimental protocols are in place and no critical voices are present.

As I recall, Shermer has dismissed the PEAR results as statistical anomalies in at least one interview, including their findings that human consciousness seemed to be able to exert a small influence on the behavior of electronic devices. But my guess is that this phenomenon is in fact precisely what he and his wife experienced, as it's the most parsimonious and scientifically verified paranormal explanation out there.

Hopefully, after experiencing this he will at the very least reconsider his stance regarding what I have always considered be one of the best series of paranormal experiments ever performed. The PEAR group used solid research protocols, and their findings on consciousness and probability are a strong influence on my model of magical manifestation.

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Mask of Destiny said...

"I don't believe that magick is "supernatural," "
smh, give me a break with this stuff already.

Scott Stenwick said...

Why, exactly? I am not trying to be deliberately obtuse, but rather am curious about your objection. Is it that:

(1) You think that I'm trying to push a wholly psychological model of magick that denies it can affect the physical world (I'm not).
(2) You think magick is bullshit that doesn't do anything, so I shouldn't bother wasting my time with it (I disagree).
(3) You think that magick does work, but by definition it will always be beyond the reach of any scientific experimentation of which we can conceive (again, I disagree).
(4) Something else entirely.