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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Creation of a skeptic

No intro today, figured I'd just jump right into my little rant/opinion piece, but as a warning, it is fairly link heavy.  What I want to talk about today is the creation of a skeptic. This one basically comes from my appearance on the BlueBalls Skeptics, hosted by Damion and Chas. I'm just going to lightly touch on some of the topics as I've either already written about them, or I'm in the process of writing a stand alone article on them.   And yes, this entire article is anecdotal and from personal experience.

I grew up in a fairly religious family.  My parents are a mix of  Methodist and Baptist, which are possibly the 2 most popular sects of christianity in Oklahoma.  The small town in Arizona I spent the first 10 years of my life was evenly divided between Catholic and Mormon beliefs.  We prayed in school before first hour began and we prayed before lunch. It was officially called a minute of silence, but the teacher normally led the class in a prayer.  Keep in mind this was a public school in the early 80's, so it wasn't actually that unusual.  I went to summer bible school every year, when I wasn't spending the remainder of the summer with grandparents in another state.  I went along with everything I was told, like most kids that age.  Santa Claus was the deal breaker.  I remember looking at a globe in the school library wondering how big the planet was.  I've always wanted to know everything, and have been intensely curious about how things worked.  I asked the librarian how big Earth was.  She very kindly told me it was huge. (Lot of help there, but then again, I was 5 or 6)  I looked at the globe and realized there was no way 1 man could get around the whole thing and give a gift to every kid.  I realized my parents had lied to me about him, and probably the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Christopher Columbus.(Ok, they got one partially right)  I quickly became the most hated kid in class because I had to tell everyone what I'd figured out.  Needless to say. it was safer to stay in class at recess than go out to the playground for a while.

When I was a bit older, I began reading encyclopedias from beginning to end. (This is before the internet, in the early to mid 80's) I really don't know why I did it, except I wanted to learn everything I could about everything, and as I said, it was safer for me to stay in the classroom during recess.  I would tell my classmates about what I'd read, and they'd walk off talking about whatever sport was being played at the time.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed sports.  I played football, baseball, soccer, basketball, and I was on the wrestling team.  I was just more interested in knowledge, which is why I probably sucked at sports.  It is also around this time I began paying attention to the things that adults said.  When we studied the moon landing, and I told my parents about it, my dad said it was a hoax, and he could prove it.  He showed me pictures of Armstrong on the moon and asked me "If he's the first man on the moon, who took the picture?" (Never mind that there were other people on the mission) He also showed me how the shadows were wrong, the lighting was strange, and some oddities in the pictures that he said were from them actually being done on a movie set.  He was an amateur photographer, so I thought his explanation was reasonable.  He also said that the astronauts couldn't survive the radiation out in space.  When we learned about the Kennedy assassination, he simply said there was more than 1 shooter.  I have an idea of what he did during his deployment to  Vietnam during the war, so I thought he must know what he's talking about.  Again, as I got older, his ideas got stranger.  He talked for a while about the New World Order, the Knights Templar, and the Free Masons. Once I went to college, and had access to better research material, as well as that new fangled internet, I looked into his claims.  That is when I went down the dark path for a while.  I began to find a lot of information that normally began with "What they don't want you to know!" in an enormous font with flashy lettering.   I believed it all.  Then, somehow, I was able to drag myself out when I realized all these conflicting ideas couldn't all be true.  I began to actually look into the details.  I learned that the astronauts had placed reflectors on the surface of the moon, and you can shine a laser at them and the light will bounce back.  They also brought back samples from the moon. Neither are things that can be done on a soundstage.  I've seen reconstructions and forensic analysis of the Kennedy assassination that show a single shooter could have done it.  I decided that if I want to know something, or find out the truth, I either need to do the research myself, or find an expert in the field and talk to them about it.

As a child, I was also exposed to water dowsing, cryptids, faith healing,and wearing either magnetic or copper bracelets for pain relief,  as well as herbal, all natural, or native treatments.  My mother, who always took great pride in stating that her grandmother was "a half-breed" (1/2 caucasian, 1/2 native american), would try anything she heard that native peoples used for medicine.  If it worked, she would say it was because natural cures work better than modern medicine. If it didn't, the patient must have done something wrong. Looking back now, when the "cure" would work, it was more than likely either due to the placebo effect, or the natural course of an illness.  I was a rather rough and tumble kid, so I had my share of broken bones (left arm twice, right arm once, right leg once, right collar bone once, various fingers and toes, fractured skull once, the nose and ribs too many times to count), and she would actually try to heal them by the laying of hands.  Sometimes she claimed the spirit of god would help her heal me, other times she would also claim she could do it because she was Native American.  Of course, we'd end up driving to the nearest doctor to get the bones reset and either splinted or put in a cast. She would also try this when I got a severe sunburn, which happens a lot when you haul hay for a summer job.  She would claim to be drawing the pain out of me into herself.  After a few minutes of being very uncomfortable, I would look at her smile, and lie my head off, telling her I felt great.  As soon as I could get away, I would slather on the aloe vera gel to ease my misery, as well as raid the liquor cabinet and for the next couple of weeks, no one in the family would see me without a shirt on.  Both of my parents wore copper bracelets to help with their various aches and pains, and as much as I hate to admit it, I did too.  I never personally noticed any kind of improvement, but I thought it looked nice.  In the late 90's, they'd moved on to magnetic bracelets to help with circulation and other problems.  By this time, I'd already looking into things in a more proper, scientific manner, so I've never worn one, though I have been given several of the things. They don't look as nice as the old copper bracelets, though.

My grandfather was the one that initially exposed me to dowsing. For those that don't know, this is an old practice where you take either brass or wooden rods and use them to locate metals, oil, or water.  Grandpa would take me out when he was hired by his neighbors to help them locate water so they could put in a new well.  He would walk around with a forked willow stick, and when the tip would suddenly drop down, that's where he would tell them to dig.  In high school, I learned that much of Oklahoma sits on top of a major aquifer, and if you dig down about 65-70 feet, you're more than likely to hit water)  I later learned about the idiomotor effect, which is basically an uncontrolled muscle movement.  I will admit that I have witched water wells for people, mostly to help earn some money to pay the bills. After college, and learning about the idiomotor effect, I have quit doing it, even though on rare occasion, I still have people ask me if I would come out and dowse for water. At $200 a pop, it can be pretty tempting. He's also the one that initially told me about Bigfoot and other local monster stories, which I initially took as the truth.  Later, as I looked more into these, I realized the improbability of creatures like this existing.

As I've talked about previously, my wife is the one that introduced me to the larger skeptical community.  It started with podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Skeptoid, and later on the Geologic Podcast, Herd Mentality, and a lot of history and science podcasts.  I also began reading skeptical and science blogs and articles.  I then began this blog, and began looking for skeptical groups in Oklahoma.

In 39 years, I've gone from a gullible child, to a full blown conspiracy theory believer, to carefully walking the very fine line between being a cynic and being a critical thinker.  It hasn't been an easy journey, and I'm no where near the end (I hope), but it has definitely been worth it.

Until next time, just take it easy, and have fun, but always be skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie.


  1. Thanks for telling your personal story, which I find very hopeful. If an individual can go "down the dark path" (as you say) and then free themselves by their own effort, so can the whole of our society.

    Best wishes,