Skeptics look beyond belief

JEREMY OLDS
Last updated 05:00 01/06/2014
Skeptic Gold
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ

SKEPTICS AT A PUB" 'Gold', who started the social side of skepticism in New Zealand.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles
NATURAL SKEPTIC: Dr Siouxsie Wiles's job is to figure out how things work.

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It's the things we can't see that need the most proof, reckons Doctor Siouxsie Wiles.

The magenta-haired University of Auckland microbiologist grew up attending a Methodist church, but when her questions about its teachings went unanswered, she became suspicious.

"I just couldn't reconcile this all-loving, all-powerful God with all the horrible stuff that happens in the world," she says.

"The more I asked, the more the minister said, 'If you don't believe, I can't help you.' I lost my faith because I couldn't understand. It didn't make any sense to me."

As a scientist, Wiles is naturally sceptical - her job is to find out how things work. She tries to instil the same critical thinking in her seven-year-old daughter Eve, who is beginning to grapple with the universe's big questions herself: like, should we take leaps of faith when evidence is nowhere to be found?

Wiles is one of a small group of dedicated New Zealanders who believe the answer is a categorical 'no' - and spend significant time and energy getting that message heard. Its members are part of an organised worldwide movement, committed to investigating dubious claims and believing only that which can be proven.

They call themselves 'skeptics' - preferring the US spelling - and see themselves as watchdogs at the crossroads between science and consumer protection.

While the label might conjure notions of cynicism and rigidity, insiders insist this is wrong. They say they're open to new ideas - they just don't take things at face value.

They think carefully and logically about a subject, and use the best evidence available to reach a judgment.

When someone makes an extraordinary claim, they demand it's backed up with extraordinary evidence. Faith doesn't cut it.

"It sort of feels like 'skeptics' is the wrong name for us," says Wiles. "We're not skeptics, we're critical thinkers. When we see a piece of information, we ask, maybe even unintentionally?'"

The New Zealand skeptics movement began one February afternoon in 1986, when seven academics from around the country decided to form a club.

One of those academics, the late Bernard Howard, recalled in an 1999 editorial: "We were worried about a name for our new baby - a snappy 'New Zealand Skeptics' or a lengthy dignified 'New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal', on the US model."

They went for the latter, but brevity soon won out.

The group now has 600 paying members, including scientists, teachers, magicians and IT workers. Bad science and unfounded claims became their targets, and some early mysteries it debunked involved UFO sightings and people claiming to bend spoons with their minds.

However, the Skeptics have since shifted their attention to those they believe exploit and manipulate the vulnerable, such as alternative medicine practitioners and psychics.

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They recently popped up in the media when two Stratford psychics, Alex and Donna Fairclough, were credited with using their psychic powers to help locate a missing man, Stephen Murphy.

A family member contacted the Faircloughs when they realised Murphy - a heavy drinker prone to seizures - hadn't been seen in more than a week. Donna told them where to search and said he hadn't committed suicide; he'd been in an accident. Murphy was found that night in the area Donna pinpointed, drowned in the Patea River.

"The part played by the psychic mediums Alex and Donna Fairclough in assisting family and friends to locate Stephen provides an interesting twist to an otherwise sad event," said the coroner's report.

The statement enraged the Skeptics, and spokesperson Vicki Hyde told a local paper the comments were irresponsible, because the psychic industry exploits the vulnerable.

"It gave [psychics] a legitimacy they don't deserve," recalls Hyde.

It's not the first time psychics have been scrutinised by the group. In fact, skeptic groups around the world offer cash prizes to psychics who can demonstrate their abilities.

When NZ Skeptics began, its members put up $10,000 to anyone who could demonstrate their paranormal powers in a controlled situation.

"As expected, psychics disdained performing for filthy lucre, and the thought of personal bankruptcy does not keep any of us awake at night," wrote Howardin 1999.

One Kiwi skeptic, Stuart Landsborough (who owns the walk-through maze Puzzling World in Wanaka), has a long-standing offer of $100,000 dollars to any psychic who can identify where he has hidden a prize voucher.

He started the challenge in 1994. It remains unsolved.

SKEPTICS IN THE PUB

Being a skeptic isn't all serious science. Once a month members meet up for a drink and a yarn; they listen to speakers, debate topics and have a laugh at the latest pseudoscience.

Held in bars all over the world, the meetings are titled 'Skeptics in the Pub'. In Auckland, they happen on a Monday or Tuesday night at Parnell's dimly lit Juice Bar, with black floors, black furniture and Dr Dre playing softly in the background.

An animated young woman, Rayna, dominates one group's small talk - there are too many books and not enough time to read them all, she laments. A man with a worn leather jacket and black bandana says he has read 1000 books, and it would take him 30 years to get through the rest of his reading list.

Sitting alone at a table near the back, sipping an Emerson's beer and checking his Twitter feed, is Thomas Lumley, a biostatistics professor at the University of Auckland and the evening's guest speaker. Later, all eyes are transfixed as Lumley explains how journalists use and abuse statistics.

Eyebrows furrow, chins rest in hands and arms are firmly crossed - heads nod slightly but nobody makes a sound. Of the 30 guests, there are five women, including Wiles.

But most at the meeting are middle-aged, balding, Caucasian men.

'Skeptics at the Pub' also happens in Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. This social side of scepticism got startedin New Zealand by a man known simply as 'Gold', who became interested in the skeptic movement while living in Australia.

"I was living in the Blue Mountains in a small town called Blackheath and commuting to central Sydney," he says. "I had three or four hours a day on a train. I listened to podcasts a lot and I was looking for sciency-based podcasts when I discovered Skeptics Guide to the Universe. It was sort of an eye-opener.

"I never really took much at face value; I always liked to see the evidence that supports things. It wasn't until I discovered that podcast that I realised, oh my god, there are more people out there that think the way I do. It was really refreshing to find."

After moving to New Zealand in 2009 and joining the New Zealand Skeptics, Gold set up the first pub night at Christchurch's Twisted Hop bar, which attracted about 60 people. Now living in Wellington, he says there is a steady group of regulars at each get-together.

Wiles, who first attended Skeptics in the Pub in 2009, says the meetings are a chance to debate some hefty topics with people open to a challenge.

"I think it's a place where you can come and have quite a heated discussion, maybe with someone who you don't agree with on some aspects, but you're in a safe place where you can talk about things," she says.

"I think in some circles where people are quite religious, there are things you can't really talk about. Especially with religion, people get quite, 'You can't question my beliefs.' It becomes, 'You just have to believe this,' and it sort of throws critical thinking out the window."

Even though some, like Wiles, were drawn to skepticism through their rejection of religious faith, religion is largely sidestepped at group meetings, as skeptics tend to focus on claims that can be proven or disproven.

"Unless things are testable, it's typically considered outside the realm of things a skeptic will look at," says Gold.

With all the high-brow discussions and existential musings, skeptics can - at times - come across as elitist kill-joys.

As American science writer Michael Shermer once wrote: "It is easy, even fun, to challenge others' beliefs when we are smug in the certainty of our own."

Stratford psychic Donna Fairclough, who has felt the wrath of the skeptics, believes things like the spirit world are beyond the group's comprehension. 

"Why would you go and ask a skeptic for their knowledge about something they've never experienced?" she says.

"I don't really care what they have to say. We know the truth and that's the way it is. It takes more than five minutes to learn what we know and how we go about it and I don't need their opinion because they know nothing about it."

Fairclough can't divulge exactly how she was able to tell the Murphy family where to look for Stephen Murphy, however, as she has signed an exclusive deal with That's Life! magazine.

Jeers like hers don't faze the skeptics, though, who believe criticism leveraged against them is mostly based on misperception.

"Usually we get defined by the stereotype that we're all balding, bearded, elderly, dogmatic, authoritarian males," says Hyde.

"They say, 'skeptics? Oh, they pooh-pooh everything and they're nasty to people and they refuse to believe anything.' And we say, there's a difference between belief based on faith and belief based on evidence."

Gold agrees: "The term can have negative-sounding connotations attached to it. People tend to hear 'skeptic' and think, 'Cynics - you guys don't believe in anything - you're just there to debunk knowledge,' when it's kind of the complete opposite.

"The scientific consensus is the best tool we have at the moment for finding out what is true." 

- Sunday Magazine

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