A Skeptic is Born

If this blog has anything like a unifying theme, it is evidence-based investigation.

In fact, my original stated purpose was to use a careful presentation of data to answer what I felt were interesting—if not always momentous—questions. Sometimes that took the form of challenging conventional wisdom, and at other times it took the form of thinking critically about arguments I had encountered online. Elsewhere, I engaged in speculative history backed by the best evidence I could gather.

I have even critiqued my own data analyses.

An unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, outcome of that original purpose is the notion of “interrogating memory.” I am even writing a book with that title.

In other words, I strive to examine every assertion, every question, every story with the same critical-thinking eye. I may not always succeed (confirmation bias, for example, is powerful—and admittedly one reason I prefer MSNBC to other cable news networks), but that is always the goal.

This was not always the case, however.

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One of my favorite phrases as a child was “howcum?” Inherently curious—and with otherwise-solid report cards often featuring a variant of “does not like to follow directions,” I questioned everything.

Fairly early, that need to know why led me straight to detective fiction and, a bit later, classic mystery films.

But at other times my innate curiosity failed me, and I allowed the allure of “unknowably mysterious” to blind me to the non-existence of actual “mystery.” This transpired even as Scooby Doo and this underrated movie told me that “supernatural” events have prosaic explanations.

Just bear with me while I outline a pre-adult life spent immersed in pseudo-mysteries.

Fact-checking what I wrote here, I was probably closer to seven years old when I first encountered my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, the first astrology book I ever read. My mother was particularly taken with the section on the Libra child, because it seemed to describe my (at times) indecisiveness; the example in the book is how the Libra child cannot decide which breakfast item placed in front of her/him—orange juice, toast, cereal, etc.—to select first. For the record, my wife Nell also ascribes my “on one hand…on the other hand…but on the one hand again” mode of analysis to my being a Libra (just as she ascribes some of her own personality traits to being a Scorpio).

Goodman’s broad overview launched a deeper immersion in astrology, whose ostensible quantitative precision—all those beautiful charts and numbers!—appealed to my mathematical mind. This was followed in short order by numerology, the prophecies of Nostradamus (and other alleged clairvoyants), card reading and many other forms of divination.

Decades later, this is all that remains of my “occult” book collection. You can see how battered and well-thumbed these books are.

Occult books.JPG

Using the red hardback book, I spent much of high school (1980-84) doing “card readings” for my mother and her friends (and, on occasion, my own friends); in retrospect, I was really doing a kind of layperson therapy: having the cards “reveal” (with a healthy dollop of intuition and psychology) what the person being analyzed wanted (or needed) to hear. Between the rush I got for being the “expert” and the attention my “clients” received, it was benign fun for all concerned.

The numerology text picture here is the successor to my first text from the late 1970s; I am not sure what happened to it. And the World Almanac volume is taped together because I practically memorized it in the summer of 1980, when my job co-running the canteen at Camp Kweebec allowed me ample time to read. (It was also when I had perhaps the greatest steak sandwiches of my life—man, those chefs were friendly and talented; hold that thought).

Meanwhile, even as I was absorbing all of this, I was being introduced in Hebrew school to the Gematria. The teacher who taught us this Jewish version of numerology was a Chasidic man named Mr. Devor, who also taught high school science: a juxtaposition which fascinated me). He was also a brilliant and gentle man who I completely adored. In essence, what Mr. Devor taught us was that a proper decoding of the arrangement of Hebrew letters in the Bible would reveal mystical truths (or something). To be fair, I still have the copy of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books only) I bought for further numerological investigation.

Hebrew Torah closed.JPG

Hebrew Torah open.JPG

Looking back, the thing about these divination methods that captured my imagination was the sheer audacious confidence of the assertions presented. To these authors, it was simply an established fact (sometimes couched in the language of “ancient wisdom”) that the relative positions of celestial objects influenced our lives, or that certain combinations of numbers or letters or cards were better or worse (according to Cheiro, they “vibrated” better—whatever that means).

But it was not only divination methods which called to me. For my sixth grade “gifted program” final project, I chose to put together a compendium of the most interesting “unsolved mysteries”—or enigmas—I could find[1]; I even appropriated the word “enigmatologist” to describe what I thought I wanted to be. From Sasquatch (or Yeti or Murphysboro Mud Monster), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Loch Ness Monster, to Atlantis, to reincarnation, to UFOs and so on—I fervently read what I could find. That is not to say I was not smitten with less “fanciful” unsolved mysteries: I was equally enamored with the Oak Island “money pit,” the statues of Easter Island, the possibility that Anastasia Romanov survived the 1917 execution of her and her family, etc[2].

The thing is, the appeal lay not in the potential to “solve” these “mysteries,” but in the very idea there was any mystery at all. Despite my “howcum?” refrain, I broadly accepted the truth of divination methods; the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, dangerous vortices, Atlantis and ancient aliens (heck, I even wrote a book report in sixth grade about one source[3]); that the lovely Anastasia[4] had somehow survived; and so forth. I suspect some of this was resulted from intellectual malaise; quotidian reality was not exciting enough for me. It may also have been a way to assert some control over my life as my parents’ marriage ended, which began when I was nine years old—or, rather, to cede control to unseen cosmic forces. There was nothing I could do to fix my parents’ marriage—or prevent a series of moves—but if all of this was preordained in some way…

Ancient Mysteries book report.JPG

Or I simply had a child’s combination of imaginative awe and undeveloped critical thinking skills.

And yet…and yet…

Tarot deck.JPG

What strikes me now is how much I kept searching (without quite acknowledging it) for some sort of proof—or at least for some underlying reason for how these things could be true. While it was not until high school (at the earliest) that I first heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation,” what began to nag at the back of my mind was the question WHY would the location of distant constellations or specific numbers or the random ordering of playing/Tarot cards (I still have my pack, as you can see) have ANY measurable impact on, well, anything? What was the causal mechanism at work in these instances? Or, as I would later frame the question as a data analyst and practitioner of epidemiologic methods (itself a form of epistemology):

What is the most direct and logically-coherent story I can tell to account for the association I have measured between variables X and Y?

Here is where Occam’s razor comes into play: the least complicated explanation for any unexplained phenomenon is usually the correct one.

**********

Not that I necessarily wanted to be dissuaded from my beliefs, mind you.

I do not remember when I first heard of Alan Landsburg, but it was probably around the time my parents separated (March 1977). The book I reported upon in elementary school—In Search of Ancient Mysteries—was first published in 1974 (co-written with his wife Sally Landsburg), launching the “In Search of…” series; I devoured these books. The television series of the same name debuted in 1976, quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

However, when (probably in 1978) I started to read about Atlantis in Landsburg’s 1976 book In Search of Lost Civilizations, I found myself reading instead about Minoan civilization and volcanic eruptions on the island of Santorini. What did any of this have to do, I asked myself in annoyance, with a sunken continent somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean that was once home to the ancient world’s most advanced civilization and maybe had something to do with the Bermuda Triangle—or the Bimini Road?

Pushing through my annoyance, I slowly realized that Landsburg was providing one possible rational explanation for what had inspired Plato’s original story of Atlantis—the conflation of a highly advanced civilization (long since vanished) with an epic natural disaster.

Oh, I thought, that is really cool—and far more intellectually satisfying than the other possibilities. It was the first time I began to shift from “mysterious, just because” to “what mystery?”

Still, I was not quite ready to shift completely from being Ryan Bergara to being Shane Madej (for fans of the Buzzfeed Unsolved channel on YouTube, in which conspiracy-theorist true believer Bergara and extreme skeptic Madej jointly investigate unsolved crimes and supposedly haunted locations)[5].

The real turning point would not come for another six years.

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I have written about the nighttime drives I took in the summer of 1984, during the joyful limbo between graduating from high school and enrolling at Yale. In that post, I described how I found the 24-hour Vale Rio Diner—which I would frequent on and off until it suddenly closed in early 2008 (I was horrified to drive there that May, only to find a Walgreen’s instead!),

This diner stood opposite where Route 113 north veers off from Route 23 (to the right if you are driving west, with the Vale Rio on your left). If you follow Route 113 north for 0.3 miles, it makes a sharp left turn towards downtown Phoenixville.

In the summer of 1984, at 450 Bridge Street, directly in front of you before you made that left turn[6], was a pizzeria called Nardi’s that made a pretty fair cheesesteak[7]. That was the same summer I worked at Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA and, while fiddling around on the grill one day, created my specialty sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Given that I was not quite old enough to take truly late-night drives (I wanted to be home by 11 pm to watch Star Trek, after all), I would generally seek out a place to have such a sandwich supper—and maybe some pie and decaffeinated coffee for desert.

I always had a book with me on these drives. One of those books—which I avidly read in Nardi’s on at least one occasion—was a black paperback with blue lettering and an angry-looking SOLVED written in shiny red letters on its cover; it had first been published in 1975. I had started to read it once before, but like In Search of Lost Civilizations six years earlier, it had annoyed me.

Bermuda Triangle book (original)

Why did it annoy me?

Because rather than proposing something, you know, interesting like energy vortices or force fields from Atlantis or alien abductions as the solution to all those unexplained disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, Lawrence David Kusche—amateur pilot and former research librarian at Arizona State University—was proposing something far more radical.

He proposed that the solution to the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is that there never was a Bermuda Triangle Mystery!

As Kusche puts it:

“My research, which began as an attempt to find as much information as possible about the Bermuda Triangle, had an unexpected result. After examining all the evidence [including contemporaneous newspaper accounts, ships logs, etc.] I have reached the following conclusion: There is no [single] theory that solves the mystery. It is no more logical to try to find a common cause for all the disappearances in the Triangle than, for example, to try to find one cause for all automobile accidents in Arizona. By abandoning the search for an overall theory and investigating each incident independently, the mystery began to unravel.”[8]

Indeed, after a 16-page opening chapter titled “The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle As It Is Usually Told,” Kusche devotes 52 relatively short chapters to a detailed investigation of 50+ supposedly mysterious events, from the first voyage led by Christopher Columbus through the Triangle in 1492 through the Linda in October 1973, nearly always finding a rational (even mundane) explanation that fits Occam’s razor.

And when Kusche could not provide such an explanation?

“With only a few exceptions, the mishaps that remain unsolved are those for which no information can be found. In several cases important details of the incident, and in other cases, entire incidents, are fictional.”[9]

More to the point (and more damning to purveyors of the Bermuda Triangle “mystery” canard):

“Many incidents were not considered mysterious when they occurred, but became so many years later when writers, seeking reports of additional incidents in the Bermuda Triangle, found references to them. It is often difficult to find complete information (even when one wants it) on an event that occurred many years before. […] .Many of the writers who published the events did no original research but merely rephrased the articles of previous writers, thereby perpetuating the errors and embellishments in earlier accounts. […] In a number of incidents writers withheld information that provided an obvious solution to the disappearance.”[10]

Finally, here is Kusche’s lament from the “Update” to the 1995 reissue I recently purchased (I do not know what became of the copy I had in 1984):

“These examples are typical of what has happened in the Bermuda Triangle in the past ten years. Nothing has changed. Incidents of various types, some big, some small, continue to happen. They can be hyped into “great unsolved mysteries” by almost anyone. It is very easy to do. Just don’t bother to check the facts thoroughly, do some imaginative speculating, toss out a few unanswered questions, and use a few exclamation points. Personally, I find it more interesting to dig deeper and look for logical explanations.”[11]

I was on my second attempt to read Kusche’s clear-eyed, well-structured accounts (which should be required reading for any serious student of epistemology) as I contentedly munched on my mushroom provolone pizza steak that night at Nardi’s in the summer of 1984. This time, for whatever reason[12], I was willing, in the author’s words, “to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what”[13] goes into my mind.

Once I made that mental leap, though, I was riveted—and each chapter was more satisfying than the last.

And a skeptic was born.

OK, it would still be another two decades or so—during which I learned advanced quantitative methods which forced me to frame every research question with care, precision and the most accurate data available—before I became a full-fledged SKEPTIC with the purchase of this essential volume. But once I finished Kusche’s landmark book, there was no going back.

Until next time…

[1] A combination of over-ambition and laziness resulted in my never finishing the project.

[2] My fascination with unsolved murders would not come until later.

[3] I think it was sixth grade—I neglected to write a date on it. At any rate, my grade on this hand-written, five-page gem was a 98.

[4] I freely admit that I developed a crush on the late Grand Duchess—and, yes, genetic testing finally confirmed her death—the first time I saw a photograph of her.

[5] I recommend watching some episodes, typically around 20 minutes long, if only for the friendly—and often-profane—banter between the two hosts. Despite not accepting the existence of ghosts, I seriously want a spirit box.

[7] I did not actually remember the name of the place, but I found it an advertisement on page 118 of the April 18, 1985 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com.

[8] Kusche, Lawrence David. 1995. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pg. 275.

[9] Ibid., pg. 275.

[10] Ibid., pg. 276-77.

[11] Ibid., pg. xiii.

[12] I would say my impending enrollment in Yale College triggered an upgrade in my intellectual maturity (or something equally pompous), but that is probably just a coincidence.

[13] Kusche, pg. xiii.

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