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Considering a Complaint About Skeptical Tactics

Posted on 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.

18 Comments

  1. Sharon Hill says:

    I purposely left out discussion of the “sting” in my personal post. I would not participate in one and am not typically an advocate, but I understand that various methods work on different audiences so I would not say DON’T EVER. As Skeptic’s Boot noted, there is nothing redeemable or sympathetic about the actions of Chip Coffey.

    • Daniel Loxton says:

      I have a reputation as a something of a skeptical softy, so my own feelings about skeptical “stings” may surprise some readers. I’ll dig into the history of such tactics in my next post.

  2. Blake Smith says:

    The Internet gives voice to just about anyone who can get access to a terminal.

    Most people are not well educated on the history of their “movements.”

    Therefore, many of the critics on any side of a longstanding issue speak from historical ignorance.

    I mention this because any argument that starts with “why do you even bother disagreeing with me?” seems designed not to respond to criticism but to silence it and I’ve seen such statements from all “sides” of this particular topic. I have a romantic notion that people of all kinds of belief backgrounds ought to be able to put aside their differences and research the paranormal in harmony. Kum bay ya.

    But you get these groups around a fire and we’re less likely to have s’mores and more likely to have flame wars. :( Alas. Just having wrapped up a bunch of reading on the history of ghost photography (and I can’t recommend Daniel’s 2-part spirit photography coverage in Junior Skeptic enough!) the history of this topic is just chock full of hoaxing, nonsense and trickery. Sure there are genuine “mysterious and unexplained” things out there – but somehow our entire culture has become convinced that “unexplained” = “paranormal” and it simply doesn’t. This may be a reflexive response, but “unexplained” = “unexplained” and that’s all it equals.

  3. Barbara Drescher says:

    It’s possible to disagree both with Bruni and with the idea that this particular project is “worthwhile and helpful”. My own views are a bit more nuanced than being for or against “sting” types of approaches.

    I won’t get into specific criticisms of the ‘operation’ here, but I will say this: I am finding the way that some self-identified skeptics simply dismiss valid criticism (dismiss without addressing it) and discussion about the ethical and moral implications of their methods abhorrent. The hypocrisy alone is mind-boggling. How can we (if there is such a thing as ‘we’) maintain such blatant double-standards and still say that what we do we do for the greater good?

  4. BillG says:

    “Make a real difference with the time you have.” Perhaps Ms. Bruni could employ her own advice.
    Years ago Charles Barkley had a commercial claiming “I not a role model.” Incorrect sir Charles – to a degree, good, bad or ugly, we are all role models and have a effect on our surroundings. Is it proper to peddle pseudoscience (or poor entertainment) as being harmless? Concerned and educated parents may disagree.

  5. Travis Roy says:

    I don’t have a problem with the sting, as much as a problem with the lying that was used to do the sting. There could have been ways to go to the event and not lie and still get the desired results and I wish that was looked into more.

  6. BobM says:

    I can’t comment on those particular stings, because I don’t know anything about them. But I think a sting is certainly worthwhile if someone is actually defrauding the public. It was Randi’s stings on faith healers that pretty much got me into scepticism in the first place. And some people just deserve to be stung.

  7. Max says:

    I didn’t follow all of this, but generally speaking, if the sting doesn’t break any laws and is effective, then fine. But it sounds like Susan’s stings failed to catch the psychics doing hot readings, and instead only made anti-psychic activists look deceitful.
    Effective sting operations include exposing “junk journals” by getting them to publish ridiculous papers.
    http://www.skeptic.com/insight/scam-science-journals-and-the-simpsons/
    Or exposing degree mills by buying a diploma for a dead cat.

  8. TJAllen says:

    I would want to measure the harm of not doing the sting – are people simply being deceived? Or are children failing to receive health care? Is someone making boatloads of money off gullible people who would instead spend their money… doing what? Buying lottery tickets? Helping the homeless? I don’t mind if people want to believe what I consider fairy tales. I’m not too concerned about self-harm of a minor sort. But what about convincing someone they can fly from a rooftop, if they believe in x enough? Or that they can pray their children well from a disease? I’ve been deceived into paying money for a product that didn’t meet my expectations – is this my fault, or should a consumer advocate uncover the fraud that I fell for? People have a wide ranging right to believe and do as they want, and sometimes people will deliberately deceive others. Should I care if the headless woman at the circus is a trick with mirrors?

    • Sean B says:

      I’m quite certain the woman who died believing in breatharianism would have preferred it to be exposed before hand. She exercised her right to believe in it to the ultimate (and fatal) extent. The woman she followed had no remorse or sympathy.

      Believing in the wrong thing can be costly. Check out http://whatstheharm.net/

  9. CantiSempai says:

    What bothers me most is her statement here:

    “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.”

    This has never been about two groups of people who have two different sets of beliefs. This is about the reality that we share and the fact that we need to figure out how to interact within it. You have the right to believe that blowing yourself up in a mall is a moral necessity but if you start acting on those beliefs then it damn well is everyone’s business what you believe. This example is deliberately extreme. Those who choose to form their beliefs based on methods which have been shown to produce beliefs that do not agree with reality must be corrected by our society. When you live among us and vote in our democratic society then yes, you need to justify your beliefs to all of us. Starting with yourself.

  10. Max says:

    BobM alluded to Randi’s sting on faith healer Peter Popoff, which put him out of business for a while. Then there was Project Alpha. I assume Loxton is saving it for his future post.

    A sting to catch psychics committing fraud isn’t that much different from investigative journalists posing as customers to catch car mechanics who rip off customers.

    Sometimes, it’s not the sting but the overreaction to it that makes the target implode.
    For example, Jon Ronson wrote about interviewing Sylvia Browne.
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/27/usa.jonronson

    “What was I thinking? That she would admit to being a fraud?”

    Obviously, she didn’t admit to being a fraud, but here’s what happened after the interview:

    “You have no idea what that woman said about you yesterday!” Cassie says. “She got up on stage and said to the audience, ‘Are you guys enjoying the trip?’ And everyone yelled, ‘Yeah! Whooh!’ And then she said, ‘Because I heard that some of you aren’t enjoying the trip.’ And she launched into this huge attack on you! She said, ‘I had an interview with this pale little man and he said I was rude to some of you in the shopping arcade. You must have seen him around. He’s a creepy little worm …’ She said you were a worm and a creep and a dark soul entity. She just went on and on about you. It lasted for about 20 minutes!”
    “How did the audience respond?” I ask.
    “People didn’t know where the hell this was coming from,” Cassie says. “A few of them said to me afterwards, ‘I didn’t pay 4,000 euros to listen to someone go on like that.'”

  11. Pete Attkins says:

    If what Amy Bruni is doing is both lawful and benign then she has a fair point: there is nothing wrong with vending fiction for the purposes of entertainment. The general public is fascinated by the paranormal, which is why the television channels that started out delivering only science-based content have been forced to succumb to also delivering documentaries pandering to pseudoscientific and anti-scientific belief systems.

    What I find morally reprehensible is the widespread masquerading of fiction as epistemologically-sound facts. Our global education systems have still not incorporated critical thinking skills into their national curricula therefore the general public does not yet possess the necessary skills to delineate well-crafted fiction-based evidence from science-based evidence.

    Sharon Hill performs marvellous work in revealing the abject nonsense of, and the harm caused by: fantasies; superstitions; religions; pseudoscience; and anti-science. Her work (and the works of many others) is freely available to those who genuinely desire to learn. However, in the deplorable absence of critical thinking skills being a mandatory element of primary and secondary education (even further education), perhaps it is high time that the masqueraders were properly taken to task and fully exposed for their unending ruthless exploitation of the still highly vulnerable members of the general public.

    Is it wrong to perform undercover operations to reveal the truth to the general public? It is not for me to pass judgement, but I am very grateful to many of those who’ve exposed themselves to great personal risks in order to reveal the truth.

  12. Kitty Lapin Agile says:

    I would say these people are making a living, living a lie. Even if they think what they are investigating is “real”, much as many psychics believe they have “real” power, it isn’t. Their shows also teach horribly uncritical thinking skills. They don’t want their pockets attacked. I think, going back to the N-Ray “trickery”, science also uses “stings” to disprove what people “believe”. Really nice people. Just because someone is “nice” doesn’t mean they don’t have to back up their belief. She wants a “free pass”, yet the world of ghost hunters is filled with fraud and hoaxing. Also, ghost hunting is big money and big business. Just google for “ghost hunting gear” and also people that charge for people to come ghost hunt at their homes (castles, locations). I have heard from so many people that have had bad ghost hunting experiences, from ghost hunters stealing liquor and porn to property damage (and threatened law suits). Ghost hunting show producers often admit it is just like other “reality TV”, not very real. GOing after the paranormal, including the psychic that made my friend pay out all her savings to keep talking to the “ghost” of her son (this psychic is still used by ghost hunting groups on TV to “feel” if a place is haunted) is true skeptic work that needs doing.

  13. Sean B says:

    Short response:

    Amy is posturing and feeling picked on. So what! Why should skeptics be required to show their hand? Paranormal “investigators” aren’t required to. How much footage falls onto the editing room floor? A lot. Want to stop being picked on? Randi has $1,000,000 you can walk away with. Just prove yourself right.

    Long response:

    There won’t be any “paranormal stings” on skeptics because you won’t catch a skeptic secretly cavorting with a ghost and then denying they exist (or is that un-exist?). However there are numerous ways to catch out paranormal perpetrators. While the Penn & Teller BS style of revealing the truth is entertaining, it is the exception, not the norm. Even then, the people defending their ideology/beliefs/money-making-scams went on the show knowing full well the format of the show, and got to say what they want to say in an unscripted manner. Think a reasonable person won’t say something stupid in a bad situation? I’ve seen it happen too often. (One guy I knew proved to his gf that he wasn’t cheating, which he wasn’t. Once she was convinced he dropped the bomb, “But I was thinking about it.” Dumb ass!).

    However, plenty of paranormal trolls cruise plenty of skeptic forums to denounce and attack skeptics. Again, with posturing and misinformation. Which is Amy’s MO.

    Is a sting operation ethical? Is it unethical to dupe dupers? Is it unethical to con a con artists? Well, if you have nothing to hide, then you have no worry, but you have to be open to critical questioning and the possibility of exposure. Not to say that all stings are always ethical. If orchestrated properly, then no. Sting operations work all the time for police. When they screw up, and they do, then the criminal gets off, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    Was the Carlos Hoax unethical? Maybe, but it was certainly revealing. People wanted to believe, the media didn’t check, and even after revealing the truth, some people still believed, despite the evidence.

    Is Amy a victim? I don’t know all the details, but I am in serious doubt. Not liking being exposed is not reason enough to call it unethical. But what is unethical, is “speaking” to the dead and taking money for it and justifying it by saying, “It helps them cope.” No it doesn’t. It dupes them out of money for a lie. And any “sting” that exposes things like this is a good thing. Ghost hunting to “reveal” ghosts feeds people with false information. Even if Amy isn’t duping money out of people like “psychics” do, she is feeding people to them by perpetrating fallacies. She’s just as guilty. Believing in ghosts is one thing, touting it as fact on TV is something else. So, I lack complete and total sympathy for her.

    Hayley might not agree with some methods, but I hope she understands that some believers in flim-flam won’t hesitate to dupe people out of money, or feel sympathy for followers who die from the lies they preach. Some of them are more ruthless than any skeptic, and some of them herald the day when famous skeptics die. So I have no sympathy for the likes of Amy and her ilk when their delicate feelings get hurt.

    Do skeptics do it to convert believers? I hope not. As a friend of mine put it when he didn’t want people to question him, “Don’t question the motives of an idiot.” Everyone left him alone after that. I would never set out to convert believers. It’s a waste of time. They’re minds are made up. My motive would be to prevent others who might be swayed by the “evidence” without knowing all the facts. My wife used to watch ghost hunter shows and ask, “How do you explain that?” My response, “I can’t. I wasn’t there. I also wasn’t in the editing room creating a TV show that was designed to ‘prove’ ghosts exist. What would be the point of a ghost hunter show if it only showed nothing happen. But there are many mundane explanations that won’t make for a good TV show.” Now when those shows come on, she says, “That could be cause by anything. Where’s the remote?” I never once tried to sway her. I did however preach Occam’s razor, critical thinking, the power of bias, and seeking simple reasons rather than jumping straight to paranormal conclusions. I also credit Penn and Teller with they mordacious brand of humorous “debunking.”

    Skeptics are not without fault (they are human after all). Just as I won’t follow paranormal believers unquestioningly, I won’t follow skeptics unquestioningly either. Some skeptics do, and like to bash believers. Like everyone else, I don’t have the time to investigate every claim thoroughly. I will rely on people in the know. I give more weight to people who consistently prove things in a rational manner using evidence. Having been submersed in religion and blindly believed in ghosts, the afterlife, fortune telling and palm reading, I can safely say that I have stood up, seen the fire casting shadows on the wall, and walked out of the cave to see the sun. I will never go back. I’m just glad I didn’t lose money believing in junk.

  14. daniel gautreau says:

    I do not think the Randi-Carlos hoax was unethical.Investigative jounalists often expose hoaxes and lies by appearing to be ingenuous. They should not expect any special immunity from it; Their credulity and neglect of homework ( research) was exposed. Credulous journalism harms everyone. As for Ms. Bruni, she needs to be told that trying to find out whether someone can actually do what people are paying for, is not an attack.

  15. Sheldon W. Helms says:

    Anyone who believes that we should have “been honest” or “not lied” in order to carry out this investigation is in serious need of a Research Methods or Experimental Psychology class. It’s staggering to see that so many self-described skeptics are so lacking in basic understanding about the sorts of covert measures that we use regularly in the social sciences, and that can be very useful in catching a fraud in the act.

    It also saddens me to see the narrative be hijacked this way. Really? No discussion of how Chip Coffey might be deceiving people, and/or about the evidence that convinced us he might have had plants in the audience listening for clues he could then use on stage? No applause for Susan Gerbic in getting some actual activism back into skepticism, even if it didn’t turn out perfectly? Instead, we’re all just going to rush to our respective blogs and start arguing with each other about ethics and playing Monday Morning Quarterback? I mean, there’s a time and place for a discussion of procedures, sure. But I have yet to see anyone take even a few minutes to discuss the actual SUBJECT of the investigation.

    To borrow (and mangle) a phrase I recently heard my colleague Carol Tavris use, “This is not the skepticism I signed up for.”

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