The Radford Files
How I Became a Skeptic
I was not always a skeptic. For much of my childhood, in fact, I was a strong believer in most things paranormal and New Age.
Like many youngsters, much of my misspent childhood was eaten by comic books and television. My skepticism was first tweaked by Superman. Aside from the juvenile, voyeuristic possibilities of X-ray vision, I was most interested in Superman’s ability to fly. Just how does he do that? I asked myself. How does he actually make himself fly? Does the act of putting his fist forward make him fly? Or does he just think about it and he lifts off the ground? Does he have some localized mental control over gravity? I wanted to know.
My skepticism then turned to my favorite comic, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” After Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains the ability to stick to walls, a “spider sense” that alerts him to danger and a few other powers. Once I had questioned the Man of Steel, the Daily Bugle photographer was no real challenge. My first question was how he sticks to walls. OK, I can buy that he can jump onto a wall and stick to it. But how does he actually make that happen? Does he stick to anything at all? Why don’t paper, pencils, dollar bills and everything else stick to his hands, too?
As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I’d walk to the used bookstore across from Corrales Elementary School and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the '50s. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I’d pick up some “true mystery” books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page. These weren’t ghost stories or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic—all absolutely true!” I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice From The Dead?” A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a “fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!”
“Perhaps we could have had true love, if only my birthdate were a few days earlier …”
Yet the assertion that the stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since Edwards’ stories smacked of fiction and none cited sources, references or in fact any documentation whatsoever. (The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular and also appeared on many other similar books. I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn’t explain.)
I’d gather more and more of these books, and between the library and the bookstore, for a few summers I was a voracious reader. I had books on fortune-telling, astrology and the Bermuda Triangle. I had books on demonic possession and exorcism and palmistry and dowsing. I had books on sea monsters, psychic powers, ghosts, flying saucers and Cthuluesque monsters in dark corners of the world.
I assumed it was all (or mostly) true—the authors seemed quite sure and authoritative. They were learned men and women who had studied that sort of thing, written other similar books and were apparently well-qualified to report the facts of these amazing stories. Lots of bold claims and assertions, but precious little actual investigation. There was a disconnect between what I was reading and my experiences. I was just a kid in the small, semi-rural village of Corrales, and I’d never seen ghosts or encountered anyone who could bend spoons with their brains—or even knew anybody who knew anybody who could.
It wasn’t for lack of imagination; as a teen I spent years playing Dungeons and Dragons, and was therefore steeped in the wonders and delights of a rich fantasy world. I spent many hours imagining vile monsters and horny elf maidens, huge dragons and wizened wizards as they battled for treasure and fame. Fantastic creatures, magical spells, potions and powers were routinely in my mind and imagination. But for me, there was always a clear distinction between real and not real. And these mysteries, for all their vivid details and astounding claims, didn’t seem real to me.
Still, I dabbled in the occult, if you can call it that. One summer, I think it must have been around 1985 or so, I became interested in runes. I had picked up a book on fortune-telling and was amazed at the wide variety of ways people had devised of telling the future. There were the obvious ones, such as astrology and palm reading, but there were also people reading meaning into everything: from patterns in spilled salt to water reflections to tea leaves. There’s even haruspication, which is fortune-telling by examining the intestines of recently butchered animals. I wondered, If any of the methods really worked, why would there be so many? Why not stick with a proven, reliable method instead of devising literally hundreds of other fortune-telling tools?
I made my own runes and used them for a few weeks to make small, insignificant decisions—and avoided them for decisions of consequence. I realized I wasn’t completely comfortable with the validity of what I was doing, and what if I was wrong? What if people decided who to marry, what job to take or what career to pursue on the basis of some fortune-teller? What if he or she was mistaken or lying? Or misinterpreted the mystical signs? I knew women who consulted their horoscopes; what if I asked one of them out and she decided not to date me because I’m a Libra and she read that our sun signs are not compatible? Perhaps we could have had true love, if only my birthdate were a few days earlier …
From there my interest in seeking out the scientific, skeptical side of these mysterious occurrences and strange phenomena grew. All extraordinary claims, from psychic powers to the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, deserve close analysis before we believe and accept them. Only Superman and Spider-Man get a free pass.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: www.RadfordBooks.com.