Believe it (or not) but there is a lot to learn at a skeptic-con

Mlodinow presenting at NECSS
Courtesy Bruce F. Press Photography
[Editor's note: Sharon Hill is a writer who focuses on the topic of skepticism and "sciencey" sounding claims. She has a B.S. in Geosciences and a Masters degree in education focusing on science and writes for HuffingtonPostI Doubt It and Doubtful News. Hill joins us to report her experiences from the Northeastern Convention on Science and Skepticism event, held in New York City early April]


Hello, it's your friendly neighborhood skeptic here to give you an insider's view on what went on at a recent "science and skepticism" conference in NYC.

This might seem like a very odd beast to those of you who frequent paranormal, horror, comic and sci-fi conventions. It's all quite serious stuff, no fan Q&As, no autograph sessions (other than book signings). A substantive talk or panel is expected from the presenters and all content is open for debate.

Head to the NECSS (the Northeastern Convention on Science and Skepticism) site to view a list of the science luminaries, great communicators and brilliant minds who attended.

Among the several memorable highlights, I especially loved the panel on psychopaths with author Jon Ronson, clinical neurologist and podcaster Dr. Steven Novella, and cognitive neuroscientist and commentator Dr. Heather Berlin.

Dr. Debbie Berebichez, physicist, author and media personality, told us how difficult it is for her not to question everything. She was exasperated that well-meaning people tried to push spiritual guidance on her after her father's death. Or, when she just wanted to relax and stretch in her yoga class, she was instructed to channel the "positive energy" to avert the 2012 apocalypse. She was told not to return to class.

My talk was on how ghost hunters, Bigfoot chasers and paranormal investigators, in general, attempt to "sound sciencey" because they think that's what they are supposed to do from what they see on TV, and in literature, movies and comics.

The keynote speaker completely mesmerized me. Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of the new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior gave a fascinating talk that shone a brilliant spotlight on an issue about which I constantly butt heads with paranormal enthusiasts -- how we mess up our interpretations.

To illustrate, Mlodinow showed a picture of a roadside sign the way in which your eye actually receives it -- blurry around the edges with a gap from the optic nerve. Our brain fills in the rest and we come up with what we perceive as a reliable interpretation of this situation -- a full picture. The context and the observer's expectation, belief and desire influence what the brain fills in. Our memories are not recorded in our brains like a video recorder. (Some people do have extraordinary memory ability but that is rare, not usual.) We have many documented cases of egregious errors in eyewitness testimony. The wrong person is accused of a crime just by looks, false details later appear in stories that were never mentioned at the beginning, false memories about entire events be created.

As I was listening to him describe all these ways we can be fooled into thinking we know what we saw, I thought about paranormal investigators and people who report strange experiences.

Imagine you are walking home in the dark and you encounter what you perceive is some living thing. Maybe it’s a person-like thing or animal-type thing, but because of the dark and the breathtaking anxiety you feel in this fearful position, you fail to notice the details. When you later relate the story (after you have immediately removed yourself from the situation), your unconscious brain draws from context and memory and fills in the details you missed. You have reconstructed the event with that added filler. And, you don't even realize you do this!
Hill presenting on paranormal reality shows. Courtesy
Bruce F. Press Photography

Sneaky brain, making stuff up without us noticing!

Because we can not be certain of several facts, we end up relating a more complete picture than is warranted by our sensory reception. We are only certain of what our brain is telling us it constructed.

I don't mean to sound disparaging but this is almost always downplayed or outright rejected by those who interpret their experience as a ghost, Bigfoot, UFO, etc. Paranormal researchers often get on my case because we practicing skeptics don't trust anecdotes. Unreliability is why. When anecdotes make up the majority of evidence put forth for paranormal claims, this is an important problem that deserves consideration.

I am fully aware at how often I mess up on remembering or relating an observation. I can't trust a witness reporting their experience, and it gets demonstrably less trustworthy as time goes on and the story gets reconstructed over and over in the telling. There is no disputing this, our memories are functional but really unreliable.

Mlodenow gave the audience another example of how we fool ourselves, one also used by Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. This one kills EVPs for me.

Play Stairway to Heaven backwards (with your eyes closed) and you will first hear gibberish.

When you are motivated to hear something in English, you might pick up a few words. If you are told what to listen for and there is a vague resemblance, then you totally hear it. It can't be unheard.

(Unfortunately for Led Zeppelin, this interpretation fed the fears of religious detractors who looked for something awful.)

The same principle applies to EVPs -- it's audio pareidolia.

Both these responses are examples of what Mlodinow calls "motivated reasoning." The tendency to remember, interpret or relate a story in a certain way is a powerful human ability. It suits us well. Most of the time. But when it comes to unusual or frightening circumstances, it fails us because your brain is otherwise engaged in figuring out how to keep you alive instead of remembering details.

Different people can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions. I can look at a "blobsquatch" picture and conclude it is a shadow or tree stump, yet the person posting the picture or who believes Sasquatch exists sees a living thing. The photographer may even retroactively remember that it seemed to move! (It is really a tree stump so it didn’t actually move). But, too late, the story is constructed based on the pieces we observed and colored and shaped by our influences at the time.

We know that people can easily be primed to see, hear, smell, feel and taste things -- there is a huge volume of research that shows how easily we are influenced. It's worth knowing these human fallibilities only if you want to get past the false conclusions and get to the best answer.

Skeptics conferences are always an education whereas paranormal conferences -- while enlightening regarding sociology -- seem primarily designed to entertain. There's nothing wrong with that but it's a significant difference. I often come away knowing what I don't know and being better off for it.