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MICHAEL HEAP

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SCEPTICISM AND HUMOUR

This paper is a slightly amended version of an after-dinner talk I gave at the 13th European Skeptics Congress in Dublin, September 7-9, 2007.

Ladies and gentlemen. Seriously - well not too seriously - Paul has asked me to give the Congress after dinner speech.

No, I don't why either.

But I thought that a good topic might be 'Scepticism and Humour'.

You see, one of the things I like about scepticism is that it can be really good fun. There are lots of laughs. And I don't mean this in a cruel way. I don't mean laughing at people out of some sense of superiority.

Our conferences are always good fun. Surely people attending conferences on subjects like modular algebra or diseases of the large intestine can't enjoy themselves as much as we do?

But, as you know, what people find funny is very much a personal matter. And of course humour does not travel very well. I am therefore going to have to be a bit parochial here. I can only speak of the British sense of humour and as you probably all know some of it is notoriously childish, at least on the face of it. All those jokes about underwear and bodily parts and so on. It's not got much to do with scepticism, but before I get onto the main theme, I'd like to give my own explanation for this.

If you see some of the traditional stand-up comedians from Britain, and I've seen Irish comedians do this too, they stand on the stage and before they tell a joke they have a habit of doing this - looking to either side of the stage in a very nervous way. Then they'll tell a joke about their mother-in-law's underwear, or something like this. And then everybody laughs. It's amazing isn't it? I mean it's amazing that people laugh.

But what is happening? What's all this about? Obviously we are back at school. We are back in the classroom. The teacher has just gone out. Up jumps the class clown. The teacher is going to come back any moment. Meanwhile, let's be a bit naughty and rude. But we have to keep a look out for the teacher.

I suspect that in other European countries this kind of classroom humour is not as popular. I once heard a famous, very traditional British comedian tell an interesting and amusing story about how he went to a certain European country to see if television producers there would be interested in putting on his comedy series. The producers asked him for an example of one of his sketches. So he said, 'Well, in one sketch I am a road sweeper sweeping the streets and I sweep everything together in a pile, look round to see that no one is looking, lift up the pavement, sweep everything underneath, then put it down again'. The producers were completely baffled. Then one of them said, 'Mr Dawson, we have no such pavements in our country'.

What about this classroom humour? Are people who laugh at jokes about underwear, sex and certainly bodily functions just being infantile? I don't think so. You see, humour often has several levels to it. Firstly there is the joke itself, which is admittedly pretty bad and most of the audience know it is. Secondly there is the re-creation of the classroom context. But I also think that the people in the audience are also laughing at themselves for taking it so seriously as to find it all so funny.

Well that's my theory anyway. They are laughing at the absurdity of it and their part in that absurdity.

Perhaps if I tell a joke - a rather rude joke -you can test this theory out for yourselves. I normally wouldn't do this, but let's consider it to be a serious scientific experiment.

A young lady once got a job working in a library and on her first day one of the women who already worked there gave her some advice. 'You'll enjoy working here', she said. 'The boss is a very nice man, but if he asks you to go up the ladder to get a book, don't. All he wants to do is look up at your knickers.'

At the end of the day, the two women get together again. 'Well, how did you get on?' the older woman asks.

'Fine' the other one replies.

'How did you get on with the boss?'

'Very well'.

'Did he ask you to go up the ladder?'

'Yes'.

'And did you go up the ladder?'

'Yes'.

'But I told you not to! All he wants to do is look at your knickers'.

'Don't worry', the young lady replies, 'I took them off first'.

There you are. You are not just laughing at the joke. You are also laughing at the absurdity of your laughing at the joke.

A big part of humour is absurdity. And this is at least one connection with humour and scepticism.

Absurdity has always been central to humour and I think it's true to say that much of modern humour makes use of absurdity, often to a surreal degree. In my country, around 1970 we had something of a revolution - maybe 'a paradigm shift' - in humour with a series called Monty Python's Flying Circus, which took absurdity to these surreal heights.

For example, you may have heard of 'The world's most dangerous joke' sketch. This takes place during the last War. The British Army is working on a joke that is so funny that anyone who hears it dies laughing. It is so lethal that the researchers have to work in teams on separate parts of the joke. At one point there is a leakage of information and several people have to be hospitalised after hearing half the joke. Meanwhile the enemy are working on a counter-joke ('My dog has no nose'. 'How does he smell?' 'Terrible'.)

I am reminded here of a lecture I attended as a student given by the great American psychologist BF Skinner. In his talk he described how he developed his ideas about superstitious behaviour. He and his colleagues would randomly administer food pellets to pigeons in his laboratory, regardless of their behaviour. After some time the pigeons began exhibiting repetitive stereotyped behaviours such as pecking at the ground, turning around, flapping their wings in a certain way, and so on. As we know, these behaviours develop because they have been reinforced by their occurring a sufficient number of times coincidentally just prior to the arrival of a food pellet. When Professor Skinner described the pigeons' behaviours he also used the word 'praying'. It was clear that some members of the audience were amused. But why was this? The pigeons' behaviour was absurd.

So what are the ingredients of the absurd situation that makes it potentially humorous? Firstly we have one person or a group of people - let's call them actors - who accept a certain premise as valid and they behave accordingly. Secondly we, the audience, are in on the secret that the premise is completely invalid. Thirdly the invalidity of the premise renders the behaviour of the actors completely meaningless and illogical in the context in which it occurs. And in a good sketch, the actors continue to take the premise seriously despite their behaviour becoming increasingly inappropriate and bizarre in relation to the real context. Finally, and very importantly, the consequences of this are benign: we do not laugh if anyone, including the actors themselves, is suffering unduly.

What draws the attention of sceptics often concerns people behaving absurdly. Let's take dowsing as an example. Incidentally, I first saw a demonstration of dowsing or water divining when I visited Ireland as a boy 44 years ago. My uncle Paddy showed our family how he dowsed for water with a forked twig. He had dug a well in his garden, and when he held the twig over the well the twig flipped over in his hands.

I wanted to believe in Uncle Paddy and I did believe him; but I also didn't believe him. As I said this morning, it's possible to believe something and not believe it. Thinking about Uncle Paddy now, finding water in Ireland is perhaps not a particular impressive feat.

Studies of dowsing have confirmed to my satisfaction that dowsers have no special ability to detect the presence of underground water. Does that mean that the phenomenon is no longer interesting and we move on to something else? No. It's still fascinating that for hundreds of years so many intelligent, honest and well-adjusted people have spent their time wandering around the countryside with forked twigs, metal rods, pendulums and so on, sincerely believing that the movements of these objects indicates the presence of water when they do nothing of the kind. It's fascinating but also funny. It's OK to laugh at dowsers. People sometimes laugh at me because I'm a psychologist. I don't mind at all.

I laughed when I saw Professor Chris French on television testing the ability of several dowsers to identify from amongst several containers the one filled with water. One gentleman, when asked where he got his gift from, replied, 'God'. The dowsers' rods, twigs and pendulums all signalled the presence of the water to an accuracy of 100 per cent. But that was when they already knew which container had the water in it. When they didn't, they did no better than you or I would by throwing a dice. When asked what happened to God, the aforementioned gentleman, totally unfazed, replied, 'He was having a joke with me'.

Crop circles. Take one wooden pole, one plank and some pieces of rope. Find a field of corn and flatten some of it in the shape of a circle. Retreat behind a tree and wait for people to arrive. You will now witness an extraordinary and fascinating range of human behaviour. People will stand in the circle chanting, meditating, praying or performing healing ceremonies. Dowsing rods and pendulums will be spinning and swaying all over the place. People will be on their hands and knees carefully inspecting the corn. Maybe a television camera crew will arrive and interview someone called 'an expert' who will declare with absolute conviction 'This is a 'genuine' crop circle' and in his opinion is the work of a supernatural or extra-terrestrial being. Then jump out from behind the tree and say, 'Oh no it isn't. I made it!'

This more or less happened on British television some years ago. Lot's of people thought it was funny and laughed. Why shouldn't they? We've all had practical jokes played on us and we can take them in good humour and laugh along with everyone else.

Now let me tell you a true story. About 25 years ago I attended a training course in something called 'biodynamic massage'. This was based on Wilhelm Reich's theories about a form of energy that can congregate at various points in the body causing the person all sorts of problems but which can be cathartically released during therapy. In the case of 'biodynamic massage' it is a fluid not energy. Blocked fluid in different parts of the body can be cleared by massaging the area. A sign that this is happening is the restoration of the smooth peristaltic action of the intestines, as revealed by the sound this makes. So the procedure is to massage the client's body while listening through a stethoscope for any sign of intestinal rumbling. When this is heard, the masseur concentrates on the area in question, thus dissipating all the blocked fluid. Are you now thinking of Skinner's pigeons?

Another thing we were taught to do was to massage the aura. (This and the next two paragraphs are taken from my paper 'Healing and Therapy in the Age of Mass Affluence' on this website). The aura is a non-existent energy field that emanates from the bodies of all living things, including humans. This form of massage involved passing the hands up and down the client's reclining body without touching it, thus supposedly clearing congested areas of 'negative energy'. Various hand movements were employed; and now and again one was instructed to shake one's hands away from the person's body in the manner one does when dispelling droplets of water. When massaging around the head one used twirling movements as though gathering the energy up, and then one slowly drew it backwards away from the head in the manner of pulling on the reins of a horse. This was especially recommended if the patient needed to resolve a past trauma; the more distant in time the trauma, the further one pulled back the 'energy', so that in a small consulting room this might necessitate making a gradual backward exit out of the door or drawing the 'energy out' out through the open window and throwing it outside.

Apart from these behaviours I found interesting the reactions of the teacher and group when one person started to question what evidence there was for the existence of the aura and what kind of energy it was. I shall not say who it was who was asking the questions but it didn't go down at all well with the rest of the group and the teacher.

Think what is happening here. We have the invention of a mysterious, invisible 'entity', which becomes invested with magical powers by a set of believers, notably around healing. Such a hypothetical entity has the power to evoke an extraordinary and often bizarre range of behaviour and beliefs. The penalty however is that because this powerful entity is invisible and intangible and therefore a matter of faith, there is only limited tolerance of any questioning or divergent opinion amongst the participants.

Some of you may have attended the last European Skeptics Congress in Brussels. (This and the next paragraph are taken from my account of the Congress on this website). I wonder of any of you recall a film presented by Dr. James Alcock? This was taken in China during a visit by some eminent persons from CSICOP who were interested in traditional Chinese healing methods. The film showed a Qi Gong master and a female patient whom he had cured of chronic disabling back pain. The patient, a rather stout woman, is lying on her stomach on an examination couch, with the Qi Gong Master standing behind and at some distance. Following the introduction and preliminaries, the Qi Gong Master begins frantically waving his arms up and down, sideways, round in circles, and in all directions. Impressively, though somewhat comically, the woman's arms and legs behave likewise (within the limits of what would be physically possible). We are led to believe that the Qi Gong Master is controlling his patient by some form of energy that connects his arms to the woman's body. However, the enquiring mind cannot help but intervene. Dr. Alcock disclosed that when the film is slowed down, it is apparent that the Master's movements are not leading those of the patient but are lagging just behind them. In other words, it is the woman's movements who are controlling the man's! (Isn't that always the way?) In fact, Dr. Alcock informed us that when the Master removed himself to an adjacent room, there was no synchrony at all in the duet; indeed, solo performances appeared on the programme.

Savour the absurdity of it all! A group of highly qualified individuals travel thousands of miles to sit in a room and watch a man and a woman flinging their limbs around in unison and then in random fashion. There is neither art nor science in it! Isn't there something in this little drama that is profoundly emblematic of the absurdity of life? It has all the makings of a joke or a sketch and we are entitled to laugh. But consider this. How long has the joke been in the making? How many years of history have been required to create this little sketch? Three thousand, four thousand years maybe?

Some of the major contributions to scepticism have been made by entertainers, namely magicians. Let us also encourage comedians to join us. I recall an hilarious sketch by two of Britain's top comedians in which the lampooned the country's then leading 'medium', a woman by the name of Doris Stokes. More recently I heard on the radio a comedian entertaining his audience by ridiculing homeopathy. We need more comedians in our societies.

Of course scepticism is a serious business and some of it is about people being cheated and abused and hurt. But we should be careful only to take it as seriously as needs be. If there are times when we are seen to take things too seriously, to fret and worry unduly about the irrationality of humankind, then people will think that it is we who are absurd and they will laugh at us. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. We should all be allowed, within reason, to laugh at one another. And we should give ourselves permission to laugh at ourselves. If we also study and strive to understand and not simply judge, then we shall find that much about human life is revealed in its absurdities.

So if you have been, thanks for listening.