Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

ESP Expert: Be a Skeptic

By · Friday, January 7th, 2011

I was in a conversation yesterday with a couple of people who are in their 80s when one of them asked me about Twitter. He wanted to know what it’s all about and whether he should “look into it” as a user.

My answer: “It lets you know what’s going on before it happens.”

Silence.

Laughter.

Even Twitter is not that good.

The conversation reminded me of a story in the news right now about ESP. Cornell University professor Daryl Bem has conducted experiments having to do with people’s ability to anticipate the future. His controversial work will be published next year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

There are plenty of skeptics.

In today’s Syracuse Post-Standard, reporter Hart Seely talks with professor Bem in a brief question-answer format. What I found interesting about their conversation is that Bem encourages people to be skeptics — even while acknowledging that skeptics are questioning his work.

“I want people to be open-minded skeptics. When you have an unusual experience, you should be willing to say, ‘I think that’s ESP,’ and you should not allow your family and friends to scoff at you — because it could be.”

As a journalist, I promote that on two levels:

  1. Be skeptical of anything that seems too good to be true, too unusual, too unlikely. Trained journalists are good skeptics. This trait allows them to uncover stories and also to save themselves from reporting stories that are not accurate or believable. That includes publishing on Twitter, too.
  2. Be skeptical “when you have an unusual experience,” as Bem says. Listen to your inner self. It’s trying to tell you something. Be aware of your intuition that something about a story is off. Be open to checking it out further.

Being a skeptic is not easy. It’s likely that you’ll be called negative, difficult to work with, or accused of holding up progress on a “great” story. Don’t be swayed if your gut instinct is telling you otherwise.

Professor Bem has the right idea. Be a skeptic.

Emilie Davis

Read more in Strategy 18 of our book. Skeptical Editing: Ask Key Questions Graph by Graph — Ensure a Complete, Honest and Insightful Story.

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