The best thing 

Iíve found is 

to listen. 

Really listen, 

and try to 


where they are

coming from.



An Interview with Ray Hyman
A leading skeptic discusses skepticism and the skeptical movement
 By Jeanine DeNoma 

Dr. Ray Hyman is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon where he taught the psychology of belief and self-deception. He is a CSICOP Fellow and has been involved with CSICOP since its formation in 1976. Pro Facto editor Jeanine DeNoma discussed skepticism and the skeptical movement with Dr. Hyman in an interview conducted in 1998.

What do you think is the primary role for skeptics? Debunking? Education?

     Dr. Ray Hyman: Debunking to me is a useless task. If you have limited resources how can you best use them? The most costly thing to do is debunk; itís like cutting off the heads of Hydra. Each time you debunk one person, another one comes out.

     Jeanine DeNoma: Programs like Scientific American Frontiers debunk phenomena, not people.

     RH: Thatís good debunking. Its point is to show general principles so people learn how someone gets away with fraud and why people fall for it. Scientific American Frontiers works very hard at it and Alan Alda is a very special kind of person. Unfortunately, most programs are not trying to educate. They just want to show that someone is a fraud.

     It took CSICOP a while to realize that debunking should be used as an educational tool instead of just knocking down the little guy. The Skeptical Inquirer is getting better at teaching, going deeper into why people believe in the paranormal. I find itís getting more interesting.

     JD: Do you think people read the Skeptical Inquirer because they are looking for a way to explain a certain phenomenon?

     RH: Youíre really asking who are skeptics. A certain number are people who were once believers. When they finally ended up among skeptics, they become fascinated with skepticism. But others have always been skeptical, and being among skeptics reinforces their views. There are many skeptics who say everyone around them believes in the paranormal, so itís a relief to meet with other skeptics.

     That gets into another thing, which is, what skepticsí target should be. There are some, such as Martin Gardner, who say it is useless to try to reach the extreme believer, that we should focus on people who havenít committed themselves and who honestly want to know both sides. Others say, no, that we should be targeting skeptics. We need to immunize them against falling to the other side; basically, that we should be preaching to the converted. Although most skeptics and skepticsí groups donít articulate their goals.

     Another task is deciding what to do and how. When CSICOP first formed in 1976 it called itself a ďcommittee for the scientific investigation.Ē Some thought we should do experiments. But experiments are very costly and difficult conduct. Even getting to the public is very costly. Here is what I think should be done. It is much cheaper to get to public opinion-makers, such as journalists and teachers. If you can convince a journalist to use your story, he will multiply your efforts many times over. CSICOP does a lot of good when the press picks up one of its stories. Teachers, also, multiply your efforts. We should focus on getting to teachers in school systems and science museums. Skeptics need to think about costs and what can be done for very little money.

     JD: What are some of the problems skeptics encounter when they use the media?

     RH: When a skeptic is on television reacting to a paranormal claim he has to be effective without seeming to shut off the other party, otherwise he will be seen a being against free speech. Itís tricky business. At CSICOP conferences we have talked with reporters about how science and the paranormal should be reported. Reporters say that even if they do it our way and get all the facts, they have editors and headline writers who make their story more sensational. Also, they say newspapers divide stories into two categories: news stories, where every fact is checked, and human interest stories. The paranormal is considered human interest; itís entertainment. They are not going to check the facts. People donít know that. Newspapers should say in effect, ďdonít take this seriously, we havenít checked the facts.Ē

     Many television stations and newspapers will say youíre trying to block free speech. Another argument they use is ďwe are only giving people what they want. If they wanted to hear the skeptical side then weíd give it to them. Donít blame us, blame society.Ē

     JD: The free speech issue is a tough one.

     RH: It is one that comes up over and over again, especially in education. At many colleges anyone can offer a course on any subject if enough people sign up to take it. Theyíre profit-making classes for the college. Lane Community College used to teach noncredit classes like these and I was approached to do something about it. Sometimes the college officials were very embarrassed, but they would say, ďWell, if someone can get enough people who are willing to pay to take this class and if what they are teaching doesnít violate any laws, then we donít think we have the right to stop it. We are a public community college.Ē

     JD: But taxes arenít paying for it.

     RH: Thatís right. And if not enough people register for it the class is canceled.

     JD: There is a difference between this and credit classes that are financed by the state.

     RH: Challenging course content in curriculum classes raises the issue of academic freedom. Iíve been an academic for almost 40 years. I teach cognition. The students taking my courses are supposed to have a number of prerequisites. Students may have had courses with those particular titles, but not the content. The bane of academic freedom is that instructors cannot be ordered to teach specific content. Itís an honor system and we assume if someone teaches a basic course they will teach certain material. Fortunately, for the most part, people teach what they should.

     Another thing about how to handle situations where a course on pseudoscience is offered-one response is to take the approach Wallace Sampson used at the Stanford Medical Center. They taught a course on Alternative Healing. Wally didnít argue that they not offer the course; instead, he asked if he could teach a ďcounter courseĒ to give the other side of the story. He doesnít get as large a turnout, but he does get a good number. The problem is that those who believe your way will take your course, and those who believe otherwise will take the other course.

     JD: Do you think skepticism is controversial, especially on subjects relating to religious issues?

     RH: Skepticism, no. When I give a skeptical talk, I find many religious people come. They come because they are on our side when we talk about paranormal beliefs. As it turns out, however, it is not because they are truly skeptical, but because they believe the paranormal is satanic, so in their eyes it has a basis but it is bad.

     JD: My experience is that most skeptics are atheists or agnostics.

     RH: Thatís another problem weíve always faced, although most of the skeptics groups donít identify with CODESH [the humanist organization housed with CSICOP at the Center for Inquiry in New York]. There are a lot of skeptics who are good Christians and see no contradiction. At the very first workshop I participated in, I did a session on parapsychology. It was very controversial because a large number of the humanists believed in some paranormal phenomena and they didnít like the paranormal bashing. And on the other side, there were a lot of skeptics who were very upset about the religion bashing by the humanists. So we do get good skeptics who donít think of themselves as anti-religious and, it turns out, a lot of humanists are very superstitious. Over time many of these people have left. What we may have done is isolated both of these groups and those who remain are people who have a good overlap with both humanism and skepticism.

     JD: The Skeptical Inquirer is quiet on religion.

     RH: CSICOP decided very early that they werenít going to address religion. Originally they werenít going to address a lot of other things either. They werenít going to take on health fraud because there were other groups doing a very good job at that. At the time, however, no one was confronting paranormal beliefs, so that was going to be CSICOPís specialty.

     JD: Oregonians for Rationality has encountered pressure to expand into religious issues, but we have avoided doing so.

     RH: There is always pressure to bring in religious issues, especially from those who say religion is the biggest superstition of all. What I have always thought our position on religion should be, and I think most people seem to agree with me, is that when someone claims he can heal people or that he can levitate-anything that is physically testable and violates the laws of science-it is appropriate for skeptics to respond. On the other hand, if he says he has a belief system, but makes no claims except that it makes him feel good, I donít see where it is our business. Unless religion interferes with science, as creationism does, Iím not concerned. Most religions have made their peace with science. Most ancient religions are pretty harmless.

     JD: I believe you said once that critical thinking canít really be taught by general principles, that it needs to be taught topic by topic.

     RH: Thatís being debated now. Psychologists who study thinking processes used to look at general strategies. Then researchers became interested in experts and expert systems. When you study experts, you realize they donít use general principles. An expert in one area doesnít have any pattern of thinking which transfers directly to other areas; his patterns are specific to that subject. That explains why experts who move out of their subject area can be fooled; the thinking that made them so successful in one area isnít necessarily useful when they move to another.

     Of course there are some very general principles, like get your facts straight and make sure you know what your talking about. But there are also very specific knowledge requirements. If I, as a skeptic, am going to look at a new cure, say Therapeutic Touch, I need to know something about Therapeutic Touch, medicine, the immune system, etc. On the other hand, if Iím dealing with someone like Uri Geller whoís bending metal, I should know something about metallurgy. As it turned out, most of the people who were fooled by Geller were physicists and engineers - not psychologists. The reason for that is psychologists study behavior; physicists are experts in metals. So when Geller did very gross things, swapping items and moving things around, the physicists were looking at their dials. They werenít used to looking at people. On the other hand, Iíve always said if Geller were actually using physical principles as he claimed, the physicists wouldnít have been taken in, but psychologists would.

     Skeptics need to understand this. They need to know when they need an expertís help. Someone who is investigating weeping Virgin Marys needs to know about plasters and wood to be able to understand how the phenomenon might happen naturally. Yes, you need general principles, but in the real world you wonít get far without also having specialized knowledge.

     JD: So how can skeptics influence peopleís beliefs?

     RH: A lot of research in psychology, especially that sponsored by the government during WWII, was on how beliefs could be influenced or changed. Itís very easy to change peopleís beliefs in the laboratory, but in the real world you hardly ever do. The reason turns out to be a very important concept called ďselective exposure.Ē People choose what they hear. We join groups that think and believe like we do. We reinforce each other in our beliefs. Even in a world full of conflicting opinions, people are only listening to confirming information. People know where to go to expose themselves to the information they want to hear. But in the laboratory you can control what information you expose people to, and so you can manipulate their beliefs.

     JD: But in the laboratory you are probably not selecting beliefs that are really important to the individual.

     RH: Yes, you can use important beliefs. A Harvard researcher manipulated Catholic subjectsí beliefs about abortion. Let me tell you how he did it. He used what are called ďthree-person coalitionĒ groups. This uses the theory that normal people want to be included as part of the group. He put three people in a group, but only one was really a subject. Of course the subject didnít realize the two other people were stooges. The group was given a very controversial subject, abortion, and told to discuss it until they could agree to a resolution. One of the stooges was to identify which side of the issue the subject was on and at first join him, so they became a coalition against the other person. After 15 or 20 minutes the stooge then withdrew his support and joined the other person. Now the subject, who had been in the majority, was suddenly alone. Quite frequently these people joined the coalition.

     JD: But this wouldnít be a permanent change in belief.

     RH: Thatís an interesting question. How long will it last? We have other research showing that to maintain the change the person must be in a group that will consistently reinforce the new belief. Thatís why cults want to keep recruits isolated.

     JD: Many skeptics are looking for effective ways to approach family members who believe in paranormal phenomena. What advice do you give them?

     RH: These skeptics donít want to alienate their families, and they arenít interested in a confrontation. But they are often very disturbed because they feel these people have been misled in some way.

     Iím not sure this will be effective, but the one thing I can tell them is, first of all, donít challenge peopleís beliefs outright. The real difficulty almost any skeptic has when confronting a person about a belief that he feels is wrong, is how to avoid conveying the attitude that ďI am holier than thou.Ē The best thing Iíve found is to listen. Really listen, and try to understand where they are coming from. Honestly let them know that you donít believe as they do. Let them know why. At the same time, show respect. I find that if you listen, they feel obligated to listen to you.

     JD: How do you think the public sees skeptics and their message?

     RH: A lot of people only see the downside of being skeptical. They see skeptics as very dour, not as fun and interesting. Iíve always said that one of the biggest problems with what we call skepticism is putting a positive spin on it. One big job for skeptics is showing that skepticism is an opening up, not a shutting down. Most people see it as being unreceptive. When I gave a talk at OSU, they gave me a whole front page headline, but it read ďHe takes away Santa Claus.Ē

     I liked Andy Neherís book The Psychology of Transcendence. He gives skepticism a positive message. He talks about auras and levitation and then gives them normal explanations. Neher says how terrible it is that people are selling these explanations and then shutting down inquiry by saying these phenomena have to do with the paranormal. He makes the paranormalists into the bad guys. Most people see skeptical books as being closed-minded, and they donít like that. We need to find other ways of selling a positive approach to skepticism and making the paranormal side into the negative one.

About Ray Hyman

     Skeptical Inquirer magazine (Jan/Feb 2000) named Hyman one of the ten outstanding skeptics of the twentieth century. In this article they wrote of Hyman: 

     ďAn amateur magician, he has critiqued experiments with highly visible psychics and other psychic claimants conducted by private scientific and government organizations. Despite intensive controversies, he has managed to maintain the respect of both parapsychologists and fellow skeptics. As a well-informed outside critic, he is often credited with helping raise the quality of parapsychological research. ...In 1995, he was one of two experts the CIA contracted for an outside evaluation of the militaryís twenty-year program to see if alleged remote viewing could assist with intelligence gathering. His essentially negative evaluation was reflected in the sponsorís report. He has consistently maintained that parapsychology must refine its techniques if it is ever to persuade the scientific community that it has something significant. He has also cautioned skeptics on the need to be become better informed about the research they criticize.Ē

Return to Archive Index
© 2001 Oregonians for Rationality