Well-known skeptic Sharon Hill (famous enough to have her own Wikipedia page), of Doubtful News (go check it out later), has written a nice article in the Huffington Post about how individuals upon hearing that she is a skeptic will soon start telling her tales of amazing paranormal things and then promptly polish it off with “So how do you explain that?“.
So how should any skeptic respond to such claims, pull it apart, or rush out to the location in question and promptly proceed to debunk? Nope, none of those, instead as Sharon correctly explains …
Unless it’s a well researched case which has published documentation, I can’t say anything about it. It’s just a story. If I accepted every story I heard at face value every day, I’d be broke and in a mess of trouble. I am not accusing people of lying. I’m saying “I wasn’t there. It was not my experience,” so I’m not going to speculate about what you saw or what may have happened.
There is nothing to go on when cornered with these stories. I can’t fact check or confirm. I can’t pull an explanation out of a hat. I have no place to go with them except to say, “Hmm, interesting.”
Exactly right, that is all you can do. People deserve not only respect but also honesty, and if “Well that’s interesting” and “I can’t explain that” is all you have, then be honest about it.
In the end such stories are just that … stories. If you should proceed to construct a pile of such stories as high as a mountain, it does indeed indicate something interesting is going on, but that interesting something need not be the paranormal claims themselves, but instead may be all about the human psychology of why so many are willing to just “believe”, or perhaps pondering about why so many have a paranormal experience that they are totally convinced is real.
There are individuals who do indeed just make stuff up, but most truly do believe in the reality of what they have been told by a friend or a relative, or have perhaps personally experienced themselves. So why is it like this, why do we do love to tell each other such stories? Perhaps because such stories draw the attention was all crave. Specific stories that survive and thrive to circulate have been naturally selected due to the nature of the tale being told – it tickles our brain in some way by being a surprise, funny, shocking, scary, or very mysterious, and the potency of such an effect is magnified if both the teller and also the receiver truly believe it to be real. In contrast boring yarns quickly wither and do not get repeated.
Let me give you a simple example, in this instance not a supernatural tale, but rather one with a bit of a punch at the end.
I well remember being told the following by a friend about something shocking that happened to the wife of a friend of his.
It starts with her parking in the multi-story car park of a nearby well-known shopping centre. After a long day pottering about the stores she returned to her car and discovered an elderly lady sitting in her car. Sure that she had locked the car, she gruffly demanded to know who she was and what the heck she was doing in “her” car. The response was a plea for help, the old lady had been feeling cold and faint, and finding the car unlocked had climbed in to keep warm. Something was weird about all this, but unable to finger anything specific she did not give voice to her thoughts, but instead asked the old lady to help direct her out of the tight parking space. Agreeing to this she clambered out to help direct the car, and as soon as our suspicious shopper was by herself, she locked all the car doors and just drove off, but with feelings of deep guilt she called the police to go sort it all out. They contacted her later to explain that a couple of officers had soon been dispatched, and upon arrival had found no old lady, so searched the car park with the thought that she might have fainted and fallen. They did not find any old lady, but they did find a case containing a grey wig, some rope, and a very long knife.
True story … I swear, it must be true, it happened to the wife of a friend of my friend. At least at the time I was sure it was true, after all would my friend lie to me, no he was quite sincere and was equally sure it was true. I believed it all and perhaps also repeated it to others. Ah but wait (you knew this was coming … right?), some time later when on business trip to an company in a far and distant land, I was astonished to be told the exact same story. The location was different, the people involved were different, it was still something that happened to a “friend of a friend”, and yet it was exactly the same story. I was later to learn that this was what we now call an “urban legend”, a story told and believed to be true by those telling the story and believed by those listening, but is in fact not actually true at all and never really happened.
It all says a great deal about human psychology, but very little about the things that are actually true.
So back to our paranormal stories that we tell each other, how do we get to the truth, what happens when we are told a story about some amazing, shocking, or paranormal event? Do we wade in and start to diagnose such tales, perhaps by attempting to wean out the fragments of objective evidence? No, not at all, Ms Hill nails it in one when she writes specifically about paranormal claims, …
You had the experience. It’s up to you to provide evidence to support it, not for me to disprove your claim.
Indeed yes, the burden of proof has always rested with those asserting a claim, and can never ever be shifted to others. When faced with a sincerely told paranormal claim or similar type of story that is essentially just a story and for which there is no actual evidence at all, the best response is indeed just, “Hmm, interesting.”, and perhaps also the wisdom and politeness to leave it at that.