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Considering a Complaint About Skeptical Tactics

Feb. 20, 2015 by | Comments (18)

Few skeptical tactics are as hard-hitting or as ethically fraught as undercover investigation and “sting”-type traps designed to expose the roots of too-good-to-be-true claims—or even to catch tricksters red-handed. A recurring controversy over those tactics has flared up again over the last few days, following some sharp remarks about skeptics from former Ghost Hunters cast member Amy Bruni. Bruni took to her Facebook Page to express her frustration with skeptics who engage in such tactics, presumably in reaction to two recent sting attempts (dubbed “Operation Bumblebee” and “Operation Ice Cream Cone” by organizer Susan Gerbic). Bruni wrote:

Weird…I don’t see people who believe in paranormal and psychic phenomena accosting “skeptics” at their conventions and gatherings—or posting constant blogs and forums about how skepticism is terrible. Strangely enough, we really don’t care what their belief system is—because it is their right. And personally, I don’t care or have to justify what I believe to someone else.

So, why do they feel the need to constantly bash what we do? Arrange “guerrilla stings” on psychics and paranormal conventions? I mean—puh-lease, you must have something better to do.

Truly—there’s a whole lot of bad in this world. And if your “cause” is to take on people whose thoughts on life and existence are different from yours, (but causing YOU no harm), I think it’s time you take a little look at yourself.

Make a real difference with the time you have. Volunteer at an animal shelter, join Big Brothers/Big Sisters, serve food at your local soup kitchen…the list goes on.

Because I have news for you—none of us kooky paranormal folks need saving.

It’s normal and human to want to defend oneself or one’s community from what one perceives as unfair criticism. For this same reason, not surprisingly, some skeptics expressed annoyance at this latest hostile characterization of work we consider worthwhile and helpful. At a blog called “Skeptic’s Boot,” blogger Robert Lea argued that Bruni was repeating “many misconceptions and misunderstandings ‘believers’ tend to have about ‘skeptics'” such as “the confusion between a ‘skeptic’ and a ‘cynic.'” On her personal Twitter feed, Doubtful News editor Sharon Hill described Bruni as “clueless about inquiry and skepticism.” (There are misapprehensions baked into Bruni’s post, in my opinion. For a trivial example, it actually is quite common for paranormal proponents to devote time, ink, attention and emotion to complaining about and “going after the skeptics”—sometimes using deception in pursuit of gotcha moments of their own.)

Not all skeptics were unsympathetic toward Bruni’s point of view. “Amy Bruni Has A Point…” argued UK blogger and skeptical paranormal investigator Hayley Stevens. An equal opportunity critic, Stevens feels grave ethical and pragmatic concerns about undercover stings, overzealous language, or what she views as lack of transparency in skeptical activism. Although she acknowledged that “Psychics in general routinely refuse to have their abilities tested in controlled conditions,” she feels that effective investigation can still be conducted without resorting to deception. She declared,

 I’d stand with Amy Bruni and [“Operation Bumblebee” target] Chip Coffey any day rather than associate myself with “skeptic activists” who don’t seem able to see past their own noses. It isn’t always about being right and it isn’t always about point scoring.

In the wake of these reactions, Bruni clarified and softened her views in an update, here:

I welcome skepticism. I love and think we need skeptics to bring up logical arguments to what we experience. … Critical thinking IS severely lacking in this field and it makes us easy targets. Which brings me back to my original post. Again, I have nothing against skeptics in general—but I do have everything against the methods some are employing and the fact they are attacking people who I love and trust intensely. Furthermore, I am a free thinker and everyone should have that right. It is not anyone else’s job to make those decisions for you. Their argument is they’re saving you from yourself. I say—stop worrying about people who don’t need your advice or sympathy.

Sharon Hill then issued a measured followup of her own, extending something of an olive branch. “There is common ground,” Hill said. “We rarely meet upon it.” Robert Lea also returned to the topic,  with an update taking Bruni to task for her association with psychic performer Chip Coffey. For completeness’ sake I’ll mention that Bruni’s travel company, Strange Escapes, does business with Coffey and “other paranormal notables,” but I’ll take Bruni’s reaction at face value: she’s unhappy to see critics “attacking people who I love and trust intensely.” Well, fair enough. No one likes that.

Bigger Questions

Now, I don’t know Bruni’s work, so it’s not my purpose at this point to critique her positions (insofar as I understand them). However, her complaints about skeptics raise two wider conceptual questions which seem very interesting to me:

1. Do undercover work and “gotcha” sting operations have a place in skeptical investigation or activism?

and, more broadly still,

2. Why are skeptics interested in the paranormal at all? What are we to make of all-too-common complaints, like Bruni’s, that we “must have something better to do”?

I will dig into the issue of undercover investigation and sting operations in skeptical activism in my next post. The second question is one I’ve addressed many times in my work (notably in 2007 and 2013 essays available in PDF format, here and here). I will come back to that question again with some further thoughts in another upcoming post.

Note to Commenters: INSIGHT invites and encourages civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread, in keeping with our Comment Policy.
Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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