I Want to Believe: Cautious Skepticism and Possibility

I Want to Believe: Cautious Skepticism and Possibility

I want to believe. Whenever I see that poster on Fox Mulder’s wall in The X-Files, I think – “Hey, that should be on my wall.” Sooner or later I’ll get around to buying one and putting it up.

Because that’s precisely how I feel these days. I want to believe.

As paranormal researchers, we don’t have the luxury of swallowing every story hook, line and sinker. We need to apply a certain amount of skepticism and critical thinking, otherwise we run the (very real) risk of looking silly and losing credibility. And most of us have to struggle with credibility just because of what we’re researching.

But I can’t help feeling that in the process of applying those critical thinking skills and skepticism, I may have lost something, too. Am I being a skeptic, or a cynic?


When I was a child, the world was a magical place. I believed every story I read about ghosts and boogeymen with all my heart. I was positive that all of these things were real, lurking in the darkness just past my line of sight. Of course there was a monster living under my bed, and another in the closet. That was simply a fact of life. Ghosts were things that people saw every day, the spiritual leaders of various religions battled the forces of darkness in a literal way, and somewhere people were learning to kill using nothing but their minds. Dragons, unicorns, gryphons and every manner of fantastic creature were all real.

But as I grew up, reality began to set in. There were no monsters under the bed or in the closet, ghosts – if they existed at all – were not a common thing, the battle against the ‘forces of darkness’ was not waged every day on visible battlefields, and psychic abilities were less X-Men and more suspect than supernatural.

Some of that, to be sure, was simply growing awareness of the world around me. Some of it was what I was learning in school and the insistence of elementary and high school science teachers that such things simply weren’t real, they were just stories. Critical thinking and skepticism were more important than being willing to believe.

The magic faded, but I clung to it. Surely it was still out there, waiting to be found by people interested enough and tenacious enough to seek it out.

As I’ve gotten older, skepticism has slowly faded into cynicism. The paranormal field is positively overflowing with phony psychics, bogus reports of ghosts and demons, and faked photos and videos claiming to be real evidence. Where once my first instinct was to say “Yes, that must be real!”, I now have a tendency to immediately discredit and even laugh at most of the ‘evidence’ that crosses my desktop.

For example, I just finished reading one of Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson’s collections of ghost hunting stories. When I was little, I would have accepted every story without question. Even a few years ago I would have been prepared to believe most of the stories. Today, I find it hard to take even the most believeable of them at face value.

On one hand, I’m pleased that I no longer swallow every tall tale whole. But underneath that pleasure and satisfaction, there’s something a little bit bitter: a fear that I’ve irrevocably lost something special. That the magic is gone.

But the magic isn’t quite gone yet. I refuse to let myself stop believing entirely, because without a little magic, the world would be a much greyer and less exciting place for me. I’ve had personal experiences that I can’t explain away, and that keep their foot in the proverbial door to make sure it doesn’t close all the way.

Because I still want to believe.

They’re important words, “I want to believe.” They have the right balance between open-minded willingness to see what’s still hiding in the darkness, and cautious skepticism.  That balance is a vital thing for anyone who does research into any part of the paranormal field. Keep your eyes open, apply those critical thinking skills, and question everything. But be open to the possibilities  and never completely rule out even the most wild of theories.

After all, that shadow on the other side of the bedroom at night is certainly just a t-shirt hanging over the arm of the treadmill and being moved by the fan.

But maybe… just maybe…


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  1. Kirsty

    08/06/2012 at 5:02 PM

    That’s kind of how I feel. I’m not a believer, I’m a hopeful.

  2. Vinegar Tom

    08/07/2012 at 2:41 PM

    I commiserate. I used to feel the same way when I was very young, and I took pretty much everything at least halfway on trust. You know what burst the bubble for me? John Keel’s Ultraterrestrials. Basically, that’s shorthand for “Everything anyone ever said, however totally implausible it sounds, was literally true for some reason I’ve just thought of, and actually I’m probably making this up in order to sell books.”

    You can go so far, but no further. And in my mature years, I met enough internationally famous paranormal investigators to understand how little many of them care about whether the people they obtain “evidence” from are obviously mentally ill. It’s a farce. And no, I no longer “want to believe” – which world is more wondrous – the one we live in, or the one invented by idiots who want to be famous in which space pixies can suddenly dismantle reality and kill us all in nasty ways because they can do anything on the say-so of some guy who interviewed another guy in a trailer park without bothering to ask if he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia?

    There’s a difference between a sense of wonder and stupidity. Rather a big one.

    • terry the censor

      09/03/2012 at 9:09 PM

      I thoughtful, direct comment, Vinegar.

      Reading recent books by Randle, Coleman and Cornuke, I got the picture of true believers whose sense of wonder had been crushed by con men and cranks they had once trusted.

      In such a situation, one can face facts and become a believer-skeptic (true of Randle and Coleman), fall silent and pretend it’s gentlemanly neutrality (Jerome Clark), ignore the facts to keep selling product (Friedman and Cornuke), or become a conspiracy theorist (the list is too long).

  3. alanborky

    08/07/2012 at 3:23 PM

    Josh you say you want to believe.

    My advice to you’s a great and mighty cosmic secret to neither believe nor disbelieve as both positions’re not only a complete waste of time they also unnecessarily haemorrhage massive amounts of precisely the sort of energy you can’t afford to lose (this I suggest’s one of the meanings behind Jesus’ “Thou shalt not judge”).

    Here’s another great and mighty cosmic secret probably the greatest you’ll ever learn.

    No matter what circumstances you find yourself in no matter what anybody’s telling you learn to relax.

    Even now as you read this some part of you’ll be sufficiently intrigued to cause various body parts to assume stressful enclenched positons (eg squinted eyes curled up toes white knuckles) in case you miss some vital point but another part of you’ll go into here-we-go mode and clench itself up in readiness to pounce on the slightest slip I make (and even though this part of you’ll also result in squinted eyes curled up toes white knuckles it’ll do so in a differently motivated way so straight off you’re not only tensing up but you’re also unleashing different forms of the same type of tension on the very same body parts resulting in the mental civil war going on in your head wreaking a subtly fatiguing civil war on your physiology).

    And here’s another great and mighty cosmic secret (but one exponentially reduced in its efficacy unless you learn to heed the first two secrets) whenever you can simply pay complete attention to whatever’s presenting itself to you.

    No matter how absurd insane or hilarious it seems try not to put anything between you and it (and even if you can’t just be relaxed about that).

    Think of it this way whenever scientists undertake expensive experiments that don’t work out (such as the recent abandonment of the recent Bapineuzumab Alzheimers trials) they always trot out the line about learning from their mistakes etc.

    If you base everything on it’s-simply-unbelievable basis you risk abandoning all the useful data that might be there.

    You also kill the relaxation inducing fun aspect of this sort of stuff whenever you stop allowing for the possibility no matter how absurd this story it’s always possible there’s something to it.

    Because there may be something to it.

    It’s like I’m reading elsewhere about various people claiming to be reincarnations of Marilyn Monroe and my rationalist reflexes start to click in and write off the ‘absurdity’ of what they’re saying even as my blood begins to boil at them for exploiting Marilyn.

    But then I remember to relax and unclench and suddenly I’m remembering all this stuff from traditions like the Tibetan Buddhist one and the Bonpo one preceding it which clearly state powerful magical figures (and if anyone was ever a human dakini then that person was Marilyn Monroe) can reincarnate different aspects or even multiple versions of the same aspect in two or more members of the same generation.

    Even Elisha when he’s parting company with him asks Elijah for a DOUBLE portion of his spirit just before he’s finally whisked away by a divine whirlwind and even though Elijah admits such an undertakings exceedingly difficult it is nevertheless possible.

  4. Sharon Hill

    08/10/2012 at 10:15 AM

    I also can relate.

    It’s not fun to put away “childish things” but we grow up and learn realities about the world. I think that my disillusionment with paranormal subjects opened up another door – I became interested in the people who believe these things and why. There still is plenty of mystery in paranormal reports. What REALLY happened? What COULD be the best explanation? Maybe the truth instead of an elaborate myth could be comforting to many people who don’t understand what happened to them.

  5. terry the censor

    09/03/2012 at 9:21 PM

    There’s nothing wrong with being a believer-skeptic, except you don’t get invited to many conferences (ask Kevin Randle or Chris Rutkowski).

    Believers should use a stronger hand in taking out the bunk — and there is plenty of bunk. But many believers think explaining or exposing cases gives aid and comfort to the enemy, and so is inherently wrong. This is terribly ironic behaviour for people who want their subject to be taken seriously by science.

    Testing evidence is science, whining about your enemies is not.

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