You Don't Have to Cheat to Get it Wrong!

by Bob Steiner

When we skeptics speak, especially from a stage or the front of a crowded room, we find that our skeptical views are frequently challenged.

How do we reply to those challenges and inquiries?

Step One: When we started out, we stumbled with our replies. Our thinking was skeptical and logical, but we lacked specific information for quick replies. Being bright students, we quickly learned that we had better do our homework.

Step Two: Armed with information, our replies became detailed and specific. We learned to cite pertinent scientific studies, as well as examples from the history of science. We learned to think on our feet. We did rather well with this approach.

Step Three: Somewhere along the line we concluded that a response that is brief, and is also snappy, pithy, humorous, and/or challenging beats hands down the elaborate, tedious, detailed reply we had used in Step Two.

Three examples should suffice to make the point.

Example One:

I addressed a group that had a large proportion of believers in the paranormal. My presentation was titled "ESP-A Demonstration." I posed as a psychic, and convinced the overwhelming majority of the audience that I am indeed psychic. Then I told them that I am a professional magician, and that everything they had seen had been done by normal means.

In the question and answer period that followed, someone asked about my background. I inquired: "Are you asking about my credentials?" The person responded that he was.

I quickly assessed the situation. Do I answer his question in the expected manner? Hmmmm. I'm a Fellow of CSICOP, was National President of The Society of American Magicians, am on the Board of Advisors of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, am on the Board of Directors of the National Council Against Health Fraud, and more. Hmmmm.

Nope. I decided on a different approach. I replied: "A significant credential is that I was able to convince many in this audience that I am indeed psychic. But to specifically address your question: There are no credentials in a field that studies something that does not exist!"

That succeeded. They did not know how to argue with or refute that statement.

Example Two:

I was fascinated by astrology. When challenged, I could cite studies that had failed to validate the existence of astrology. I could explain that the gravitational pull of the hospital itself at the time of birth is greater on the baby than the sum of the gravitational pull of all stars and all planets, save only the Sun and Moon. I had an estimate of the number of stars in the universe, provided to me by a brilliant astronomer (thank you, Andy Fraknoi). That enabled me to point out the absurdity of presuming that a handful of stars governed one's entire life, throughout life.

I was frequently a guest on The Jim Eason Show, in San Francisco. Jim is an alert radio talk show host. He was familiar with my views, and had heard some statements I had made about astrology.

On one appearance on his show, Jim's very first question to me, at the top of the program, was: "Bob, you have defined astrology in just three words. What are those three words?"

I replied: "Astrology is bigotry!" And all the phone lines lit up. A lively interview followed. There was never a lag in callers wanting to get in on the action.

That was a defining moment in my education. Jim's keen knowledge of what plays well with an audience was passed on to me during that program. I realized that those three words brought more response and raised more passion in the listeners than did my previous offerings along the lines of: "Astrology has been frequently tested in the scientific laboratory, and has consistently failed to demonstrate its validity." Jim had picked up on an offhand comment that I had made, recognized its significance, and moved it to center stage, where it belonged. Thank you, Jim Eason.

Example Three:

A self-proclaimed clairvoyant addressed a group in San Francisco. I was invited to attend, not as a presenter, but as an audience member.

The clairvoyant had people write questions on slips of paper. The folded papers were passed up to the front of the room. I watched carefully but did not detect any trickery. Other than using accomplices, which certainly had to be considered, I could not think of any way the presenter could have learned what was on the papers.

Then came her demonstration. She postured as though she were answering the questions that she had picked up "clairvoyantly" from the papers that she had-apparently-never touched and to which she never had access.

Then she decided to challenge me. She requested, nay, dared me to come up to explain to the audience how she had cheated, and how she had gotten access to the information on the folded slips of paper.

I declined her invitation. But she insisted. That sequence repeated twice more.

Finally I said: "This is your show. I am an audience member. I do not want to come up and take over the stage."

At that, her dare turned into a demand and a challenge. She told the audience that I was Chair of Bay Area Skeptics, that I was a professional magician, and that I "always tell people" that clairvoyants use trickery to learn what is on the folded slips of paper.

As I came to the front of the room, I reminded her that I did not want to come up, and that I was coming up at her insistence.

I pointed out that she had "divined" that someone in the back left corner of the room had misplaced or lost some jewelry. No one responded affirmatively to her statement. I pointed out that she had then expanded it to "someone in the audience." I explained to the audience how broad and general her statement was: In a room of 100 people, it was highly probable that someone had misplaced a piece of jewelry within the past month. However, of the 100 people in this audience, not one of them had lost any jewelry. Then someone in the right front corner of the room piped up: "Last week I lost my car keys." I then evaluated her "reading": "That was a miss!"

I referred to a woman in the audience on whom the performer had done a reading. The reading was that the woman was having trouble with a younger woman in her life: perhaps her younger sister, or perhaps her daughter. I called attention to the fact that that too was a very broad and very general statement -- a statement that would apply to a large number of people in virtually any audience. I then stated, as the woman had stated, that her written message was asking about her future employment: "Would she get a raise? Would she get a promotion?"

I evaluated that "reading": "That also was a miss!"

I summed up: "No, you did not cheat. No, you did not gain access to the questions on the folded slips of paper. But you missed! You did not answer the questions on the sheets. There is nothing for me to explain."

Then, returning to my tried-and-true method of preferring a pithy summary, I explained to the audience: "Before you even begin to try to explain how something happened, you must first determine whether it happened. In this case, it simply did not happen. She did not respond to what was on the slips of paper. There is nothing for me to explain."

That carried the day.

The third example happened several years ago. Recently I told the story to Paul D. Johnston, Executive Director of the International Society for General Semantics, Concord, California.

Paul, who with undue modesty describes himself as a "humorist novitiate," came up with a better final conclusion than I had summoned up at the time of the event. His statement forced in me a "Gee, I wish I had said that" reaction.

I should have definitely summed up with my statement and explanation that:

Before you even begin to try to explain how something happened, you must first determine whether it happened. And then I should have added the icing on the cake, concluding with the splendid words of Paul D. Johnston: You don't have to cheat to get it wrong!

Reprinted from Skeptical Briefs. Bob Steiner is a CSICOP Fellow and founder of the Bay Area Skeptics.

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