My son is already identifying himself as a skeptic at the age of 9. He lost a tooth this week and has had previous conversations with his mother and me regarding the probability that a “Tooth Fairy” is exchanging his extracted teeth for hard cash. He believes the concept is extremely unrealistic, not to mention somewhat frightening. I can't help but to be proud of his critical thinking skills!
In all efforts to catch one of his parents in the act, he proceeded to place his tooth in a Ziploc bag with a blue post-it note inside which read:
Dear mommy, I’m only doing this to prove a point, but this is U reading it, not the tooth “fairy”. I wish I had a camera to record this, but I do realize I have a camera, but (A) that would waste battery and (B) Ime lazyzie LOL.
He sealed the bag and instead of placing it underneath his pillow, he decided to stuff it deep inside the pillowcase in an attempt to be roused awake when either one of his parents attempted to retrieve said tooth.
When he awoke the next morning, he found some money along with an orange post-it note with very small writing which said:
Bryan, Thanks for the tooth. I wish I had a camera so I could take a picture of you reading this note, but cameras are too big for me to carry. Take care of your teeth for me! Love, the Tooth Fairy
He approached his mother that morning and demanded an explanation, saying “how did you write such small letters with such big fingers?” His mother replied, “Exactly!”
The word “skepticism”, according to Merriam-Webster means “an attitude of doubting the truth of something (such as a claim or statement)”. One of my favorite alternate definitions as it relates to the paranormal is “the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics”. When we hear claims or even personally witness paranormal activity, it is imperative for there to be an element of skepticism.
I recently began participating in paranormal investigations with San Diego Paranormal Eye, a local paranormal investigation team here in Southern California (you might recognize them from Episode 5 on the podcast). This is an experienced group that provides investigative services free of charge for local households and businesses, and they even have group meetups that can be attended by anyone interested in learning more about the field of paranormal investigation (skeptics welcome). As I continue to venture out to locations that have reports of paranormal activity with the group, I am reminded of the importance of skepticism in this line of work.
Many tend to think of skeptics and paranormal investigators to be polar opposites, or even arch enemies, but that can’t be farther from the truth. In speaking with the members of SDPE, we agree that skepticism is what offers this field the most credibility. It is a necessary mindset to take on when it’s true that many paranormal claims can be accounted for with alternate explanations. It is the constant questioning that must continue in order to rule out alternate explanations for events, and strengthen the case for paranormal phenomena to be the end result.
I find myself on the website, Quora a lot asking and answering questions about these kinds of things, and getting into some drawn-out discussions on the topic (feel free to connect with me there). And while there are some examples of healthy and unhealthy (extreme) skepticism there, it challenged me to question some of the things I personally experience when investigating. While scientific proof of the paranormal is nearly impossible to attain due to the lack of a controlled environment, repeatable observed events, or the ability to conduct experiments in this fashion, we can ensure the quality of evidence we obtain is compelling. True skepticism adds tremendous value to any paranormal investigation, while attitudes of cynicism (beliefs that people are generally selfish and dishonest) encountered frequently on websites like Quora can be damaging to progress when collecting evidence of the paranormal. Many people often confuse the two terms, causing the misguided belief that anything which cannot be scientifically proven (with our current knowledge and understanding) can't exist. This stance is not only unhelpful, it is unscientific.
For example, the last time I investigated with members of SDPE, we were almost through for the night when I invited any spirit who was present to touch me or push me. The other team members warned me against doing that, but I was skeptical about whether or not that would happen on command, even though I had seen and heard things I couldn’t explain that very night. We had been conducting a spirit box session and within a couple of minutes of my invitation, I heard a strange noise near my right ear. Before I could even turn my head, I felt something pinch my ear lobe and pull it down. It felt like fingers. I swatted my hand as if there was a bug flying around my head and let out a couple of four-letter expletives after turning around to look behind me, and no one could be seen.
This personal experience is far from what could be deemed as scientific proof of the existence of ghosts, but it certainly was a compelling experience. But what is compelling to one person can be somewhat subjective to others. Who knows what anyone standing near me was thinking? From their perspective, I could have made this experience up and there is no way for them to determine this after the fact. There's also no way I could validate this experience. That’s why we go out with equipment to analyze and measure these phenomena. We look for layers of evidence in order to strengthen our findings. Unfortunately, no matter how real the experience was for me, and despite having everyone on our team within my field of view - knowing they didn't pull on my ear, it's considered weak evidence in all fairness, and must be discarded. It doesn't document any phenomena, and there's no tangible evidence it occurred. I will, however, remember this for the rest of my life.
Ideally, we would all be able to go out on any given night at any location and gather evidence. If we see an apparition with multiple witnesses, while capturing it on video, as well as audio, and simultaneously acquired a fluctuation in temperature and electromagnetic field readings all at the same time, that would be compelling. But it’s still merely evidence - not "proof". It would be even more compelling if it happened every time we wanted it to happen, and in a controlled environment. Only then would we find ourselves on the path toward scientific proof, testing hypotheses’ and coming up with theories about what these phenomena really are. Until then, we continue to approach investigations with healthy skepticism, being very careful to consider something paranormal. And by "paranormal", I simply mean "not explainable by science". We should be cautious to label phenomena as a "ghost" or "spirit" without being able to completely understand and explain the phenomena.
If we venture to claim every unexplained noise or visual experience was a ghost, we would never receive any credibility, and rightfully so. On the opposite end of the spectrum though, the inability to scientifically prove something does not mean it is impossible for it to exist (cynicism in full effect). A healthy skeptic lives somewhere in the middle, gathering evidence and evaluating the authenticity of what is captured, looking for realistic/plausible explanations first. Like any tool, skepticism can be misused (or not used at all), or it can be an instrument to fine-tune our work. We all land on a scale somewhere between being completely gullible and believing every story we read and hear, to being in complete denial, refusing to accept any evidence about unexplainable phenomena with fear of labeling anything "unexplained" (even though an explanation cannot be found in some cases).
I'm challenged with determining how much to help my son find an appropriate balance in his skepticism... while I'm proud to see him develop these critical thinking skills, he needs to determine some aspects of this for himself. I enjoy watching his journey, and I never want to impose my own beliefs and biases upon him. I can only help him develop his ability to ascertain. It's okay to disagree, as long as you have reason supporting your position. With the level of skepticism you have, where do you lie?