Interviews > By P.F.I.
AN INTERVIEW WITH A SKEPTIC
An interview with Richard Saunders
Vice President for the Australian Skeptics Society
By Alison Oborn
“Can you take a Torchlight Tour?” asked the lady who works at the Old Adelaide Gaol. “It is a Sydney show that wants to podcast it.”
“Yes that’s not a problem, I would be happy to” I replied, content to be able to help the Gaol receive just a little more of the publicity that the Old Girl truly deserves.
It wasn’t until I was sitting at my computer a week or so later that the full enormity of what I had just agreed to, hit home. ‘An email from the manger?’ I pondered at how unusual that was, so I quickly opened it. I almost choked on the coffee I was drinking as the content of the email hit home. The Skeptic Zone Podcast. Cold fingers of dread spread throughout my body and the coffee mug slowly sank back down to the desk. Slumping back in my chair, I wondered whether I was the right person to do this. Here I was, not only a tour guide telling ghost stories, but also a paranormal investigator and I was supposed to go out and face a large group of skeptics and come back alive. Panic didn’t describe the feeling at that very moment! Why was I suddenly feeling like a lamb to the slaughter?
There was nothing for it, it was time to visit this website and see what it was I would be facing. And so it was that I watched some interviews with Richard Saunders. I couldn’t help but warm straight away to this person. Here was a skeptic that acknowledged there was a difference between scepticism and cynicism. Here also was a person who seemed to be happy that people have their harmless beliefs and fun as long as they were not hurting or scamming others. Here at last was somebody on the ‘other side of the fence’ who gave a strong impression of being approachable. I felt a twinge of excitement at last about the tour, I was starting to look forward to meeting these people and as the day approached, this feeling only increased.
WHO IS RICHARD SAUNDERS?
Richard Saunders was born here in NSW, Australia. Over his years, he has successfully authored 30 children’s books, worked on dvds and more recently, was the resident skeptic on the panel of The One, a Channel 7 reality show trying to find the top psychic in the country. I did briefly have to apologise to Richard on this one, as I had only been able to watch roughly 30 mins of the show before turning it off for various reasons, some of which I admitted to. I explained to him that it wasn’t his fame I was won over by, but actually the fact that he had also been the founder of the Sydney Skeptics in a Pub group…. Now that was to be admired! He is also Vice President for the Australian Skeptics Society and runs a show for schools called the Mystery Investigators. Richard also teamed up with Dr Rachael Dunlop and several others to produce the Skeptic Zone Podcast.
As can be seen, Richard is a very busy and very interesting person. It is for this reason I took the opportunity to request a short interview with him, to which he kindly agreed.
Q. Hi Richard, I would just like to thank you for the time taken to answers a few of these questions for us.
A. And I thank you. Always happy to talk to people and I think I'm a bit of a ham anyway.
Q. Now the first question that people are always going to ask is… how and why did you become so heavily involved in the skeptics.
A. I guess it comes down to me really wanting to know the truth of the matter. I have found over the years that the scientific or skeptical approach really is the best way to sort out the false claims from the
truth. We hear amazing stories all the time; the trouble is they rarely if every turn out to be true in the long run. Also, it's great fun to look for UFOs or have a so-called psychic reading. And yes, I think the best fun is looking for ghosts. Although after all these years I don't expect to find anything paranormal, I must keep an open mind in case I am wrong.
Q. What would you say the aims are of the skeptic societies you are involved in?
A. We investigate strange claims to see if they are real. We also pounce on con artists and bring them to the attention of the police or relevant authorities. A few years ago we busted people trying to sell fake vaccines for Hepatitis and Meningococcal. Sadly there are a lot of people out there putting their health at risk by falling for the lies of these villains. Apart from that we are a recourse for the media and the public.
Q. In your interviews you do acknowledge that there is a difference between skepticism and a cynicism. Would you care to elaborate on this distinction to the people who are under the impression that it is one and the same?
A. A cynic would say, “I don’t care what evidence you have, I will keep believing what I want to be true.” We get this all the time from the true believers out there. No matter how many times they fail tests of their magic powers or how clearly it’s show to them they are wrong in their thinking, they will not listen and have a closed mind. A skeptic on the other hand is open-minded and will even question his or her own point of view. A true skeptic will let the evidence form their opinions. A skeptic always remembers that they are only human and
might be wrong.
Q. By watching some of your podcasts, I couldn’t help see a different approach to what a lot of us have been used to in the past. You did mention that you are trying to bring the skeptical issue to a whole new generation and in a new way. Can you explain a bit about your approach in educating people, especially with the younger generation?
A. We want to teach kids that it’s through science the true wonder and beauty of nature can be revealed. But it’s vital they learn how we all can be fooled and tricked. That’s where a sketpical approach comes in. Teaching kids not to always believe everything they are told and teaching them how to put claims to the test. Along the way we all have great fun. Kids love hearing about monsters and magic but knowing the real story behind the myths is even more exciting.
Q. I am also interested that in one of your interviews you state that you started out with a strong interest in ghosts, ufos etc but over the years changed your thinking on this subject, especially as you became more informed. Did this interest in the beginning stem from any incident in particular that you may have experienced in your personal life, that maybe now you believe you have found a more rational explanation for?
A. I grew up in the 1970s when UFOs were very popular. I went to see ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and it blew me away. I also got hooked up into all the Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster speculation. Back then I was sure that any day now we would find it was all real and the skeptics were wrong. I am still waiting. (But I’m still hooked.)
Q. I have often heard skeptics answer a question with a dismissive “It’s all nonsense” but then with no information to back this up, which has been disappointing in the past. The onus seems to be on the ‘investigators’ to provide proof there is life after death, but would it be fair to also ask the Skeptic Societies to provide proof that it doesn’t?
A. I wonder if you can prove to me that I am not from Mars? Can you prove I am not floating in mid air via the power of my mind as I answer this question? Can you prove that pixies are not real and don’t drink peppermint tea? Or would you rather that me, the one making these amazing claims back them up with hard evidence? I cannot prove there are no ghosts just as you cannot prove I am not floating in mid air. It really is up to the one making the claims to back them up. If they cannot, then I have every right to be sceptical just as you are skepticial about my claim of floating.
Q. With the paranormal and in particular my main interest, hauntings, ghosts etc, the skeptics, ask that proof is produced before they are prepared to believe. They also seem to state that if this phenomenon is real it should be reproducible, which is what science experiments are obviously based on. I can see this is important in some areas and, if genuine, should be fairly easily achieved when we are talking about claims that are recreatable e.g. clairvoyance, remote viewing etc, but do you believe this is truly possible should the phenomena of hauntings/ghosts exist?
A. A very good question. If it is so hard to come up with evidence, I really wonder why some people cling so strongly to the belief. You would think if clairvoyance, remote viewing etc were real then it would be easy… we are still waiting. But as to ghosts, well, I guess sometimes the spirit is not willing. If a ghost comes and says hello to someone then disappears never to be seen again, it would be very hard to prove and I have no idea how one could do that.
Q. A lot of what we hear from the skeptic side is that ghosts are nothing more then delusions stemming from a strong desire to believe, lucid dreaming or outright fraud. Would these brackets not seem too simplistic? With thousands of sightings worldwide dating back through history, can you say with surety that every one of them would fit into these categories?
A. I imagine there are other things at play like stories that get told over and over. And as ghost stories and tales of the afterlife have played a part in so many cultures, it is not surprising that many people over the ages think they see spirits and such like. To say thousands of people report it so it must be true is a misconception. At the time, thousands of people felt the influence of long since dead Gods such as those from ancient Rome. It turns out they were all quite wrong. If one person can get it wrong, then thousands can too. However no one can know the details of every claim of ghosts over the years.
Q. You were actually the resident skeptic on the panel of the show ‘The One’, and I realise you can’t discuss too much about this show. You state often that The One was just a show that was entertainment and fun. However, from the skeptic viewpoint of revealing people who charge and scam, does this not go against what you stand for? For instance does this show not raise concerns that it helps to ‘validate’ whoever wins and give them the means to go out there and use this to do exactly that, charge people who believe this new title of theirs means something?
A. A very good point. The contestants will keep doing what they do and people will keep paying them regardless of any TV show. Also most people who call themselves psychic and even charge for readings are in
fact sincere and really do think they have magical powers. Their clients want/need to believe. I thought that ‘The One’ also showed how often our contestants failed in their tests. In fact they failed over 94% of the time. I never once on the show validated what they were claiming as, apart from anything else, in my view none of them did anything paranormal.
Q. At the end of the day, if people have an experience and belief that their dead Aunt or grandmother is with them, as long as nobody is being scammed, and if people can die more at ease with the belief there is something to move on to, is this truly a problem? Should we not allow them this belief if it brings comfort and makes somebody’s passing or their grieving easier? As I said, I am not talking about the vultures that prey on these people, as I think we both agree very strongly on this point.
A. Yes and no. At what time do we step in and say a lie is better than the truth? Well, I guess sometimes it is. But a lie, no matter how comforting and pleasant is still a lie. When it comes to matters of the true nature of the universe, I for one want the truth or at least a good shot at it.
Q For you personally, at the end of the day, what would constitute acceptable proof that life after death existed?
A. A ghost who didn’t mumble or give the message via a medium “I am related to that person and my name might start with an L sound.” would be a good start. Apart from that I really don’t know what I could
expect. Which one of the thousands of afterlife claims would I base my expectations on? Reincarnation, Christian Heaven, Islamic Heaven? Are the dead from those places permitted to come back to earth and do
something? One thing I would not accept is a personal ‘experience’ no matter how real it seems at the time. We hear these all the time and they are simply not regarded as good evidence.
Q. I thank you Richard for answering these few questions for us.
A. My pleasure! Now may I come down from floating in mid air?
AND NOW BACK TO THE TOUR
So it was that Richard and Rachael arrived at the Gaol and we sat down for a chat. Again I was reassured by their warmth and sense of fun and thank them both for their help in putting a very nervous tour guide at ease!
Finally the moment had come. There I stood in front of around 21 people, all of who were hardened skeptics and all of whom I was about to give a ‘Ghost’ tour to. So how did it go? Did I get out alive? Did they tear me apart? Well…actually no. My fears were totally unfounded. They were the most wonderful group of people I have ever given a tour to. They tolerated my shaking voice at the beginning, they lapped up the history, were polite with the ‘ghost’ stories being told and most of all; they had a great sense of fun. They just sat back and enjoyed the night for what it was. I have to put this down as one of my most enjoyable tours and for that I am grateful to them as, like a performance, it is not only the performer that makes a show successful, it is very much the audience too.
I am asked on most of my own interviews… “What would you like to say to the Skeptics?” On every interview I have expressed the same thoughts on this. If they are healthy skeptics and not cynics then I welcome them and their opinions. A lot of these people have a great wealth of knowledge and at the end of the day, whether you agree with their views or not, it is all about educating ourselves. Learning how equipment works properly if at all, learning about photography, learning about tricks of both people and mind. Only then can we have a better and more informed evaluation of any evidence that we think we may have captured. If we can learn what is natural and not just blindly believe everything, then who knows, maybe one day we can come up with that strong piece of evidence that can truly stand up to the hard questions.
My thanks go to Richard, for not only helping to put me at ease on the night, but also for sparing some of his time to answer these questions for us.
The Skeptic Zone Podcast can be found at: Skeptic Zone Podcast
Information on Adelaide Gaol and it's tours can be found at: Old Adelaide Gaol