Monday, July 17, 2017

Skeptical Giggles

People often use humor to cover up a weakness. Laugh it off. Make the issue seem less significant than it actually is. Make yourself look more confident than you actually are. Shame your opponents with ridicule. We often see this kind of thing with critics of Christianity who refer to a "talking snake" in Genesis 3, "zombies" in Matthew 27, God as a "sky daddy", etc. You can use humor to make your position look stronger and your opponent's position look weaker than they actually are.

One of the most effective ways to abuse humor is to use it to poison the well, to prevent people from making much of an effort to look into something in the first place. Make a political, scientific, or theological view seem so disreputable from the outset that people won't give it much consideration.

In our trivial culture, humor sways a lot of people a lot more than it should. I doubt there have been many cultures in the history of the world that have overdone humor as much as we have.

This issue came to mind when I listened to a recent RedHanded podcast about the Enfield Poltergeist. The hosts spend more than half an hour discussing the Enfield case, at least one of them has read Guy Playfair's book on the subject, they refer to some other material they've read, and they suggest that they've watched some Enfield documentaries. But they're frequently wrong about the facts involved in the case, and they don't show much awareness of the arguments for its authenticity. They try to lay the groundwork for their skepticism with some inaccurate and self-defeating dismissals of the reliability of memory and eyewitness testimony. There's also a lot of laughing along the way. They laugh and laugh about the testimony of Hazel Short, for example, one of the eyewitnesses to the events of December 15, 1977, but they never provide any rational foundation for that laughter. For all their alleged concern about the unreliability of memory, they have little to say about the notes taken by the researchers at the time of the original investigation, the more than 180 hours of audio recordings, etc. I addressed memory issues and a lot of other topics in my previous posts on Enfield. You can read the first two posts as an introduction to the case and an overview of the evidence for it, then listen to the RedHanded podcast and do a comparison.

I've listened to several skeptical podcasts and have read a lot of skeptical material on Enfield. Humor is a common theme. (So is evasiveness about the large majority of the evidence relevant to the case.)

To get some idea of how common it is for skeptics to approach Enfield the way the RedHanded podcast does, spend some time reading the comments sections of the YouTube threads accompanying Enfield videos. See here, for example. In addition to the vulgarity, poor spelling, bad grammar, and bad reasoning, notice the inordinate use of humor in the comments made by skeptics. They don't even attempt to explain the vast majority of the evidence for the authenticity of the case. I suspect that almost all of the skeptics there, if not all of them, know little about that evidence. But they're so dismissive and act as if they're so confident in their conclusions, and they often use humor to do it. (Here's a post I wrote that responds to some of the objections you commonly find on YouTube. Read the comments section of the thread as well, since there's some relevant material there.)

Even higher-level skeptics often abuse humor in an effort to pad their case against Enfield. See the comments section of my post here responding to Joe Nickell, for example. He was on a podcast about Enfield earlier this year and kept laughing while making comments that are demonstrably false.

One of the reasons why the Enfield case is important in this context is that it has some elements that often bait skeptics into walking into a trap. And so many of the skeptics, like the ones who post on YouTube, don't realize what's going on. Maybe they've watched The Conjuring 2. They want to find out more about Enfield, but don't want to do much research, so they go to YouTube and watch some videos. They come across something like Stewart Lamont's report featuring an interview with the Hodgson girls. They watch it, notice the girls smiling and laughing a lot, hear Janet Hodgson's "it's not haunted" line, notice some suspicious characteristics of the voice Janet is producing, and conclude that they have all the evidence they need that the whole case is fake. So, they come up with one or two sentences of mockery and dismissiveness, post those comments in the YouTube thread, and walk away.

Apparently, it never occurs to them to give much thought to other explanations for why the girls are smiling and laughing in the video. It doesn't occur to them to do further research into the background to the video (e.g., read Lamont's chapter discussing his interview with the Hodgson girls in a book he later wrote; read Playfair's book on Enfield). It doesn't occur to them to think much about what "it's not haunted" means. (She's addressing the nature of the poltergeist and its activity, not whether there is a poltergeist.) It never occurs to them that the notion that Janet would want to confess to fraud in that sort of context doesn't make sense. It doesn't occur to them that their interpretation of the girls' behavior is highly inconsistent with the surrounding context (e.g., the girls explicitly and repeatedly affirm the authenticity of the case both before and after the portions of the video in which they're allegedly admitting that the case is a fraud). It never occurs to them that there's evidence for the authenticity of the voice phenomena outside what's presented in this video and that they need to take that evidence into account. It never occurs to them that the knocking phenomenon that can be heard in another part of the house later in the video, while the girls are being filmed sitting on the couch, is a major problem for the hypothesis that the girls faked all of the phenomena. It doesn't occur to them that hundreds of other phenomena in the case can't plausibly be explained by fraud on the part of the Hodgson girls, including many events that happened when neither girl was anywhere nearby. It doesn't occur to them that the testimony of the police officers Lamont interviews, the other witnesses Lamont refers to, etc. are major problems for a fraud hypothesis. It never occurs to them that they need to take the whole video into account rather than just singling out the portions they find easiest to criticize. Or maybe considerations like these occurred to these skeptics, but that didn't prevent them from posting their inaccurate comments.

Another reason why Enfield is significant in this context is that it's supported by so much evidence. It involves a quadruple-digit number of purported paranormal incidents. There were dozens of witnesses, including police officers, reporters, and other people who didn't have much of a connection to the family. Some of the witnesses were skeptical of the case prior to the events they witnessed. The chief investigators took extensive notes, recorded more than 180 hours of audio, got signed statements from witnesses, maintained a regular practice of trying to reproduce the phenomena by normal means, etc. Many of the events, including some of the most substantial ones, were witnessed by multiple individuals. And so on. My earlier posts on Enfield go into a lot of detail about the nature of the evidence. You can't wash all that away with some chuckles, guffaws, and zingers. If skeptics are going to be so derisive of a case supported by so much evidence, that gives you an indication of how little weight should be assigned to their derisiveness.

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