By John Happs
This report originally appeared in the Skeptic 19(2), 63-64, Winter 1999. WA Skeptics meet 5-6 times a year. Dr Happs is president of WA Skeptics. The difference between believers and scientists presented here is not limited to WA but is worldwide. For example in his The Skeptic's Dictionary (Wiley 2003:2), the US philosopher Robert Carroll notes that "if one's antagonists are true believers, it is probably a waste of time to provide evidence and arguments in response".
Our last two meetings were memorable for illustrating the huge divide between the approaches of believers and scientists. Believers see their beliefs as non-negotiable. Scientists take the opposite view. First the meeting featuring a believer.
In February 1999 we had a visit from Dave, a water diviner who had heard about the Skeptic's $100,000 Challenge and felt confident of winning. He had jumped at the opportunity to talk to us. Dave duly arrived with two friends and a collection of divining rods. He moved around the room showing how the rods turned downwards at particular locations although, when a skeptic tried, nothing happened. According to Dave, skeptics generate negative energy that suppresses the divining response. One of us then described how, at a course in the UK run by a leading diviner, he had been found to have excellent divining skills. This made no difference to Dave's opinion.
Dave then showed how a pendulum moved in a circular path when brought near "the watery spot". When we pointed out that Dave's hand was moving in a circle, this only bolstered his opinion that we were beyond hope, even though our group was friendly, tolerant, and polite. When we asked if he could demonstrate his ability to divine water in containers hidden under piles of clothing, he said his friends could testify to his 100% success rate, so further demonstration would be pointless. We then had a coffee break and Dave and his friends departed. Subsequent phone calls revealed that Dave would not take part in any tests since the negative energy generated by skeptics would interfere with his divining.
The next meeting in April could hardly be more different. Dr Ray Johnstone's talk on the use and abuse of statistics was informative, entertaining, and enough to make anyone skeptical. Ray focussed on the different ways in which data about drink-driving accidents have been presented. By gently massaging the data it was easy for a person to support any particular belief. On the other hand, truth may be hard to find without the proper use of statistics. We had more than a full house for this meeting and couldn't seat all those who attended.