How I Became a Skeptic

-- by DeeAnne Wymer, Associate Professor of Archaeology, Bloomsburg University

When I was a youngster I had a lively and active imagination and loved to read. Thus, when I was a young teenager, my mother took me and my three sisters on weekly visits to our Ohio town's library to "re-load" our supply of reading materials. It was in the quiet, dusty library stacks, smelling of old leather and new ink, that I discovered a wondrous, magical, and mysterious world of the paranormal.

The books I found covered topics from UFOs, ghosts, ESP, to the Loch Ness monster (I now realize that I had read some of the "classics" - including information on the Project Blue Book (UFOs) and Edgar Cayce's work on his supposed psychic readings). The subjects fit perfectly into my young interest in mysteries and science fiction (I believe that I actually read nearly every science fiction book the library had).

My favorite writings were those of Von Daniken's "Ancient Astronauts." I had always loved stories about archaeology above all else, and when I "grew up" I wanted to be an archaeologist. Von Daniken's stories about space aliens visiting the past and the tales he wove of deciphering their presence in obscure archaeological traces tugged at my very heartstrings. I discovered a marvelous world in all those books and later on, films, describing the supernatural - grand and glorious stories revealing the special nature of humans and the world about us.

I eventually went on to become an undergraduate student at the Ohio State University specializing in my first true love - archaeology. It was in the first set of classes that I discovered that Von Daniken's books had very little basis in reality. The more I learned the more I discovered how Von Daniken had twisted facts to suit his proposed theories, didn't even get basic information down correctly, and, in fact, often created "facts" (later skeptically-oriented books pointed out the whoppers invented by Von Daniken).

It was at this stage that I asked the fundamental question - "If the 'Ancient Astronauts' idea is so terribly incorrect, what about all those other fantastical ideas?" Additionally, I learned a more important elemental "truth" - that the universe about us, revealed through the process of science, is much more fascinating and intriguing than all of the paranormal claims I had once found so exciting.

As I completed my undergraduate education and made my way through the perils of graduate school my interest in pseudoscience was put on low priority. As I look back upon this time I can see, however, that not only was I learning the "tools of my trade" but that my ability to think critically was being further enhanced and developed. Mastering the discipline of archaeology, one of the subfields of anthropology, requires an individual who is able to pull together information from diverse fields, sift through data for relevant patterns, and devise creative ways to scientifically test ideas and theories. Furthermore, the larger topic of anthropology focuses upon how humans have evolved as thinking individuals and the role that belief systems play within societies. Consequently, I became interested in exactly how people think (cognition studies) and how myths are generated and maintained within communities (a background that has worked to my advantage in the study of phenomena such as Satanic cult rumor panics).

As a senior graduate student in the early and mid-1980s I was assigned my own courses to teach at Ohio State University in introductory archaeology and physical anthropology (specializing in evolutionary theory and human origins). As many of you may recall, it was in the early 1980s that the "Moral Majority" and certain Christian fundamentalist groups began to push the teaching of creation science in classrooms. I was astonished, as a young naive instructor, to be literally confronted in several of my classes by younger students telling me in no uncertain terms that I was an instrument of Satan teaching such unholy ideas about human evolution. I became painfully aware that I couldn't adequately respond to their emotional distress nor to really answer their questions about the nature of science (like many scientists I had never truly confronted what exactly science is for myself).

I thus began my self-taught education into the philosophy of science, the bizarre arguments of the creation scientists, and how to adapt adequate responses about the topic to the general public. In addition, to help in my understanding of the issues, a dear friend of mine, Dr. Brad Lepper (Archaeology Curator at the Ohio Historical Society) introduced me to the world of CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer. From there I discovered other skeptical organizations and journals, books and conferences. The material and information from the skeptically-inclined authors also helped prepare me when as a professional archaeologist I encountered many individuals who had rather unique ideas about my specialization.

I conduct research on Hopewell archaeology---the grand Moundbuilders of the mid-Ohio valley who created earthworks some 2,000 years ago. This type of impressive archaeology acts as a magnet for a number of outrageous claims; ranging from Mormons who believe they were not built by Native Americans to individuals who staunchly hold forth that the Lost Tribe of Israel created the earthworks.

I eventually received my doctorate and became a professor at a lovely Pennsylvanian university. Over the past several years I have designed and taught a course specifically about pseudoscience ("Pseudoscience: Science and Nonsense"). The course focuses on teaching students about science, including the philosophy of science and how "everyday" scientists go about their work. It contrasts science as a method and knowledge base against various pseudoscientific claims. It is a fun way to get students to learn critical thinking skills and an appreciation of how easy it is to be fooled by others and by oneself.

Above all else I have discovered that I am having just as much fun today, with the same sense of mystery and excitement, as I did as a young teenager reading paranormal books. In this case, I am channeling my need for mystery by trying to figure out how various pseudoscientific scams are conducted and how to go about exposing those who feed upon the needs of so many. Along the way I am creating a rather interesting reputation on campus...

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