Sharon A. Hill (born August 23, 1970) is a science writer and speaker known for her research into the interaction between science and the public, with a focus on education and media topics. Hill's research has dealt particularly with topics of the paranormal, pseudoscience, and anomalous natural phenomena, and began at the University at Buffalo, where she performed her graduate work in this area. Hill attended Pennsylvania State University, earning her B.S. degree in Geosciences, and works as a geologist in Pennsylvania.
Hill is the founder of Doubtful News, a news site that links synopses and commentary to original news sources, and provides information to critically assess claims made in the media (no longer being updated). She is also producer and host of the Doubtful News podcast called 15 Credibility Street. She has also created the Spooky Geology website.
Hill has been a contributor to The Huffington Post blog and has appeared in written and podcast media discussing related topics. She wrote the Sounds Sciencey column for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), has contributed reports and articles to Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Briefs and contributed to various skeptical, science and paranormal blogs. Hill also has been a speaker at various science-related and science-fiction-related conferences, including Balticon, The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), NECSS, and Dragon Con.
She published her first book "Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers" in 2017.
Hill has worked as a geologist with the Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in the department's mining office. As a geologist and public policy expert, Hill has been involved in the investigation and remediation efforts of sinkholes and has presented on public policies related to sinkholes as well as on mining regulatory issues.
Interested in ghosts and monsters from a young age, as Hill grew older she realized that "science was a better way of explaining the world." She credits the works of Stephen Jay Gould as her gateway into skepticism. In her 2011 Meet the Skeptics! podcast interview, she states that becoming a skeptic was a gradual process and that she realized "there was a better way to look at these subjects [ghosts] in a more critical way."
Hill partnered with former ghost-hunter turned skeptic Kenny Biddle to form and organize the Anomalies Research Society, a network of professionals that focus on ethical, evidence-based investigation of paranormal and anomalous events.
On a March 2013 episode of The Skeptic Zone, Hill was interviewed by Richard Saunders. During the interview, Hill discussed the founding of her Doubtful News web site, the process by which information is gathered, as well as using social media to improve coverage.
In March 2013, Hill launched the "Media Guide to Skepticism" document, an informational resource developed in cooperation with other skeptical thinkers about scientific skepticism "licensed through Creative Commons for reproduction." In an April 2013 episode of the Token Skeptic Podcast, Hill detailed how she assembled drafts of the guide, inspired by Wired.com's "Media Guide to Volcanoes", with the aim of assisting reporters looking to write about scientific skepticism, as well as those new to the movement. Hill's guide focuses on defining skepticism, outlining its importance, and addressing common misconceptions.
Hill was a main program speaker for the James Randi Educational Foundation's The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) 2013 in July 2013, delivering a presentation entitled "The Honest Broker of Doubtful News," where she also participated in a panel discussion on "Bigfoot Skeptics: Abominable Science!", and moderated a panel on the "Skeptical Scope and Mission." Hill led a workshop on coalition building at TAM 2012, which included panelists David Silverman and David Niose.
Hill has appeared as a panelist on Virtual Skeptics, a weekly web series featuring "news and discussion of topics of interest to skeptics."
Hill was also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post as "a researcher specializing in the interaction between science, the media and the public" and has contributed to various skeptical, science and paranormal blogs such as Skeptoid and Aaron Sagers' Paranormal Pop Culture.
In 2018, Hill publicly eschewed the "skeptic" label due to perceived negative connotations of the term and issues she has with organized skepticism. She stated "the label is limiting and is overwrought with mistaken assumptions of being elitist, arrogant, and closed-minded." She also stated "Atheism adherence and advocacy, a separate and narrower niche, continues to be conflated with skepticism." She maintains her support for the "philosophy and process of scientific skepticism". This attitude was foreshadowed in her Sounds Sciencey column in 2013 in which she stated the terms “skeptics” and “believers” are limiting, especially how both terms are perceived culturally. Neither her websites nor her podcast use the word “skeptic.”
Study of paranormal investigative groups
In 2011, Hill appeared at the Balticon Science Fiction Convention, where she delivered the presentation "Being Scientifical," which focused on amateur research groups and particularly focused on self-styled paranormal researchers.
The topic of amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs) was also the subject of Hill's Masters thesis, which examined the "community of amateur paranormal investigators and how they used science." Hill researched paranormal groups that studied ghosts, UFOs, and monsters and that were not affiliated with any institution or scientists, groups with no connection to the scientific community. She looked at how they used science, specifically the words "science" or "scientific" in their websites. She wanted to see if science was in their methods and/or goals and to see if any of these groups were scientific at all. She found that the groups "used science almost exclusively as a way to look legitimate...These people didn't have any scientific training." She told Meet the Skeptics! that the groups used science "as a stereotype: the jargon, the equipment, the attitude."
According to the Abstract, Hill's research demonstrated that while "ARIGs often used science-like language, symbols and methods to describe their groups' views or activities," the one thousand amateur paranormal investigation groups that were studied often employed "non-scientific and subjective methods...in conjunction with objective methods," and that the processes "considered scientific" by ARIGS "did not match with established methods and the ethos of the scientific research community or scientific processes of investigation."
In an interview regarding The Scope of Skepticism, Hill discussed with Kylie Sturgess her opinion, based on research findings, that most paranormal groups can cause harm to the public. According to Hill, many amateur paranormal investigation groups state they "do science... when it's absolutely not." In her podcast interview with Meet the Skeptics!, Hill states that "amateur paranormal investigation groups who that say they use the quote unquote scientific method, try to do that but they miss out on that more complicated end of it where they don't want to test their ideas, they don't want critique...they don't want to present it to the scientific community, they don't want it picked at, and therefore it's not science." Hill has criticized paranormal investigators for telling parents that demons are the cause of noises and their children's odd behavior, characterizing this practice as "mean and unethical."
After attending the Phenomenology Conference in Gettysburg, PA, Hill wrote about her observations for the Center for Inquiry (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). She described what she saw as a shifting attitude of these paranormal groups from a "sciencey-sounding" approach to a spiritual one. She refers to an example of this change, the Catholicism-influenced TV show Paranormal State, noting a lack of scholarship and noting that contemporary investigation teams seemed to be able to "do as they please". Of these paranormal groups, Hill wrote that it is critical for observers of paranormal culture to note "how important FEELING is in these experiences, rather than THINKING."
In 2011, Hill started the Doubtful News web site, which curates news sources while providing commentary and background information. Hill stated on Skepticality that Doubtful News is "a way to look at weird news in a more skeptical light." A May 2012 article in Skeptical Inquirer documented its launch, which Hill said "came about because there was no one-stop source of breaking news of interest to critical thinkers that was not primarily straight science offerings or opinions." As a private blog, the comment policy of Doubtful News is intended to limit comments to promote informative, civil discussion that adds to the topic and limit 'lame arguments and profanity' or promotion of propaganda sites.
The Doubtful News homepage states that the website will no longer be updated and some of the content has been removed. Archived content may be found at Wayback Machine or from the website editor by request. A book based on the web site content is planned.
15 Credibility Street
On October 17, 2016 Doubtful News launched a podcast named 15 Credibility Street for which Hill is both producer and host with cohosts Torkel Ødegård and Howard Lewis. (Lewis left the show in May 2017). The show notes are made available on the Doubtful News site, and the podcast can be subscribed to at iTunes as well as at other podcasting sites. At launch, the targeted release schedule was a new show "every fortnight." Theme music from musician Cherry Theresa.
The podcast is intended to "be a platform to discuss items that appear on the Doubtful News website for further reflection and comment as well as other topics of a skeptical or Fortean bent."
Hill has created the website Spooky Geology, a "science-based look at mysterious earth phenomena, geologic anomalies, and the endless weird ideas about rocks and the earth that are a bit abnormal, paranormal, or supernatural."
Hill has often written about the topic of cryptozoology, a pseudoscience. In Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers (2017), Hill surveys the field and discusses aspects of the subculture, noting internal attempts at creating more scientific approaches, the involvement of Young Earth creationists and a prevalence of hoaxes. She concludes that many cryptozoologists are "passionate and sincere in their belief that mystery animals exist. As such, they give deference to every report of a sighting, often without criticial questioning. As with the ghost seekers, cryptozoologists are convinced that they will be the ones to solve the mystery and make history. With the lure of mystery and money undermining diligent and ethical research, the field of cryptozoology has serious credibility problems."
Role of skepticism
Hill has criticized narrowing the focus of skepticism to target religious belief specifically, stating that "[c]riticism of religion really doesn't have a place in scientific framework... But when religious claims cross over into testable claims, then they are fair game for the skeptic." Although Hill works to investigate claims of the paranormal, she has stated that "'Does God exist' is not a skeptic question," and that "[s]cientific skepticism and atheism are very different things."
Hill has encouraged an increase in dialog between paranormal believers and skepticism groups, encouraging skeptics to "take time to listen to the other side, especially ... the believers, because there is something to learn from them." In April 2013, Hill reviewed a skeptic conference for Aaron Sagers' paranormal entertainment site Paranormal Pop Culture.
In a May 2013 interview for The Paranormal Podcast by Jim Harold, Hill described ways in which the efforts of both skeptical and paranormal investigators could benefit from sharing viewpoints. In dialog with Hill, Harold stated that "we as believers [...] can maybe take some useful things from [the skeptical perspective], be a little more critical when we're looking at things and still maintain our beliefs, our viewpoint."
Hill attended the Fringe NJ Spring 2016 Conference in Hamilton NJ and discussed this at length on her 15 Credibility Street podcast. She concluded with a discussion of the importance of skeptics going to non-skeptical events of this type:
People will always believe weird things. They always have. They always will [...] They don't necessarily want to know if they're true or not [...] And if we want to understand why people are like that and maybe what we can do to change those behaviors when they turn out to be something kind of harmful or dangerous to society... how can we sway the population into thinking a little bit more critically... we have to know what they're thinking and what they're experiencing. We can't just sit back here and say 'Oh, ghosts are stupid. People who believe in them are stupid.' You need to go to these events and see how emotional people get when they talk about these things... that they really, really do believe them. And that they're really, really part of their lives. And the only way you're going to do that is if you go to these events and observe.
Skepticism as consumer protection
On an April 14, 2013, interview on Strange Frequencies Radio, Hill stated that she views the role of scientific skepticism as one of "consumer protection" to help people better evaluate even everyday claims: "We really need to apply skepticism every day in life, or else we'll get scammed, taken by some product that doesn't work, or it could affect our health or checking account."
Historian Brian Regal reviews Hill's first book Scientifical Americans for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He says that this is a timely book as it comes during an era when many question science. Hill gives a historiography of the field of "modern paranormal interest: monsters, UFOs, and ghosts." She does not insult or ridicule the people she writes about, but explains their stories through case studies. Regal feels that this book will not deter believers in the paranormal, but it is an important part of a "growing literature on amateur paranormal research".
Hill discusses her book with Richard Saunders in a Skeptic Zone podcast on 27 May 2018. "It's about the culture of amateur paranormal investigators; it's about how they understand science and try to use science. It's more about the public understanding of science, but focusing in on those paranormal researchers and what they do." "In the book I talk about not only ghost hunters but also cryptozoologists and ufologists who do the same thing in a different way. Each of the fields is slightly different. And I talk about how science has looked at these fields already and discovered that there isn't really anything there to investigate.
In 2012, Hill was named as a Scientific and Technical Consultant for the Center for Inquiry.
At Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, 2010
"How to Think About Weird News" talk at CSICon Nashville, 2012
"The Honest Broker of Doubtful News" talk at TAM 2013 in Las Vegas