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The true skeptic vs. the pseudo-skeptic
According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, a skeptic is:
"One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; an inquirer after facts or reasons."
That definition of a skeptic fits me and other critical thinkers who analyze both sides in the pursuit of truth or a broader perspective. Of course, there are many ways of being a skeptic, and many issues to be â€œskepticalâ€ of. Some are skeptics of the paranormal, others are skeptics of anything conventional â€“ established thought, government, etc. so not all skeptics are the same or on the same side.
However, the pseudo-skeptics like CSICOP members and Randi are definitely not open minded truth seekers, but rather their words and behavior are that of automatic dismissing and denying that which doesnâ€™t fit into their paradigm. They are cynics who have closed their mind to anything that doesn't fit into their world view, dismissing all else as misperception, delusion, or fraud. But donâ€™t take my word for it, for if you read their own writing and hear what they say, itâ€™s obvious from their narrow tunnel-view of reality, and their righteous indignation of whatâ€™s real and whatâ€™s â€œquackeryâ€ (a word they love to use). They do not seek to understand, but instead seek to discredit and invalidate. Their skepticism is what I and others like to call â€œpseudo-skepticismâ€. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the term â€œpseudoâ€ means â€œFalse or counterfeit; fake.â€ Therefore, these debunkers exhibit a false mask of skepticism. In actuality, they are cynics, debunkers, and deniers. They deny and dismiss all evidence, scientific or anecdotal, no matter how credible or plentiful, and look for an excuse to justify it. They are not about seeking the truth or open-minded investigations at all, only in discrediting what doesnâ€™t fit into their view.
Of course, every skeptic is going to say that they are open-minded true skeptics (just like every thief says theyâ€™re not a thief, every liar says they are not a liar, every high pressure salesman says they are not high pressure, etc.), but the proof of the pudding is in their actions, how they reason, and the system of philosophy they use, which you can recognize from the arguments I outline in this article. In fact, here are typical traits of true skeptics vs. pseudo-skeptics.
Â· True skeptics / open-minded skeptics
Typical traits: honest doubt, inquiry and investigation of both sides, considers evidence on all sides and seeing their good/bad points, asking exploratory questions, acceptance of evidence, good common sense, nonjudgmental, seeks the truth
Â· Pseudo-skeptics / closed-minded skeptics (also known as pseudo-skeptics, debunkers, hard core materialists, scoffers, atheists)
Typical traits: automatic dismissal of all paranormal claims, predisposed to discredit all testimonials of a paranormal nature, denial of any and all evidence, scoffing, giving off an air of superior rationality, judgmental about things they know little or nothing about, quick to draw conclusions without evidence, using philosophical semantics to win arguments and invalidate paranormal or spiritual experiences
The late Marcello Truzzi, former member of CSICOP and considered an open-minded skeptic who always sat on the fence, wrote an article about pseudo-skeptics which you can read about here: http://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
One of the tell-tale signs of pseudo-skeptical mentality is in the words they use when describing believers. If they describe them as: â€œdelusional, irrational, gullible, charlatans, superstitious, wishful-thinking, primitive and child-like thinkingâ€, etc. then itâ€™s a strong indication of their a priori mentality.
Skepticism should be a tool and method of inquiry to help one learn things and find truth, not as a cover to defend one's own paradigms and cynicism. Doubting things and looking for answers will help one learn things, but trying to debunk everything outside your world view does not lead to learning. Therefore, the arguments I critique here refer to the arguments of pseudo-skeptics, not true skeptics.
These kinds of skeptics have an extreme belief system that is closed-minded and on the opposite extreme end of Christian fundamentalism in terms of their black and white thinking. Here is an example that demonstrates this. A popular book among skeptics is Carl Saganâ€™s The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark. The mere title of the book and its cover (which you can see by clicking the link to it) demonstrates this analogy. The world is seen as â€œdemon hauntedâ€ just as in Christianity, with the majority of people living in the â€œdarkâ€, believing in superstition and religion, but ignorant of science. While, on the other hand, those who rely on science and are skeptics are the â€œcandle in the darkâ€ or the â€œlight of the worldâ€ in Christian Gospel terms. This is the same kind of black and white thinking that puts everyone into two categories, in the light and in the dark, that Christian fundamentalists use as well. In my opinion, itâ€™s unhealthy thinking to have belief systems like that.
It is interesting to note that while Carl Sagan is a great teacher of astronomy and science, he has a very inadequate knowledge of paranormal phenomena. This is demonstrated by the fact that in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark Sagan devotes a big chapter to debunking the Alien Abduction phenomenon, however, not once does he even personally investigate or interview any abductees at all, like an honest open-minded investigator or truth seeker would. On the other hand, researchers like Harvard Professor John Mack (author of Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens ) and Budd Hopkins (author of Missing Time) have done extensive interviews and investigations with abductees for their book, which led them to the conclusion that there was more to the phenomenon than just â€œall in the brainâ€ or sleep paralysis. In fact, Mack has personally investigated 76 abductee cases during the course of four years. But how many did Sagan investigate? Zero. Therefore, one ought to give those researchers more credence than skeptics like Carl Sagan who just dismiss the subject off-hand without any deep investigation for truth.
Recently, my long-time close friend Michael Goodspeed, a writer and paranormal radio show host, has done a lot of research into paranormal claims vs. pseudo-skeptical arguments. He wrote a series of excellent articles examining both sides and posing challenging questions and arguments to the closed-minded skeptics. Here are the links to his articles on paranormal claims and pseudo-skepticism:
Michael Goodspeed (writer and experienced paranormal talk show host)
On Randiâ€™s hypocrisy: http://www.rense.com/general50/james.htm
On psychic claims and skeptical explanations: http://www.rense.com/general51/ebramce.htm
On UFO phenomenon: http://www.rense.com/general51/embr.htm , http://www.rense.com/general51/seek3.htm
On alien abduction claims and skeptical explanations: http://www.rense.com/general51/ppr.htm
On monsters, creatures, and Bigfoot: http://www.rense.com/general52/seek.htm
Michael Prescott, a successful published author of crime and mystery novels, makes similar analyses of pseudo-skeptics and their claims in Why Iâ€™m Not A Skeptic. And, one of the most passionate researchers on life after death, retired lawyer Dr. Victor Zammit ( www.victorzammit.com ) of Australia, has created a section of his site dedicated to exposing the tactics of debunkers. This article is also hosted on that site. http://www.victorzammit.com/skeptics/index.html
Perhaps Robert Anton Wilson described these closed-minded skeptics best in an interview where he termed them â€œirrational rationalistsâ€ and â€œfundamentalist materialistsâ€. He writes:
DAB: One of your recent books is The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about this book.
RAW: I coined the term irrational rationalism because those people claim to be rationalists, but they're governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They're so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic. I thought it was a fascinating paradox: irrational rationalists. Later on I found out I didn't invent that. Somebody else who wrote an article on CSICOP, that's the group they all belong to: Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Somebody else who wrote about them also used the term irrational rationalism. It's a hard term to resist when you think about those people.
I wrote this book because I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity, I had done enough of that in my other books. I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical. All fundamentalism is comical, unless you believe in it, in which case you'd become a fanatic yourself, and want everybody else to share your fundamentalism. But if you're not a fundamentalist yourself, fundamentalists are the funniest people on the planet. The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they're rational!
DAB: They call themselves skeptical.
RAW: Yes, but they're not skeptical! They're never skeptical about anything except the things they have a prejudice against. None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma. They're only skeptical about new ideas that frighten them. They're actually dogmatically committed to what they were taught when they were in college, which was about 1948-53, somewhere in that period. If you go back and study what was being taught in college in those days as the latest scientific theories, you find out that's what these people still believe. They haven't had a new idea in 30 years, that's all that happened to them. They just rigidified, they crystallized around 1960.
Common tactics of pseudo-skeptics
In debating skeptics, Iâ€™ve noticed some common flawed tactics that they use. These include:
1) Ignoring facts and evidence that donâ€™t fit into their preconceived world view, rather than updating their beliefs to conform to the facts, which is more logical. (e.g. â€œIt canâ€™t be, therefore it isnâ€™t!â€) This is known as the process of rationalization through cognitive dissonance.
2) Trying to force false explanations to explain a paranormal event regardless of whether they fit the facts. In essence, cynical skeptics tend to prefer inventing false explanations rather than accepting any paranormal ones. For example, using â€œcold readingâ€ to explain the amazing accuracy of a psychic reading when no known cold reading technique could account for the facts and circumstances. (see Argument # 16)
3) Moving the goal posts or raising the bar whenever their criteria for evidence is met. For example, a skeptic wants evidence for psi in the form of controlled experiments rather than anecdotal evidence. When this evidence is presented, he will then raise the bar and demand that the experiments be repeatable by other researchers. When this is done, then he will either attack the researchers integrity and character, attack their methods, or demand a report of every detail and minute of the experiment or else he will contend that some unmentioned lack of controls must have been the culprit to explain the positive psi results, etc. He will always find some excuse due to his already made-up mindset. Patrick Huyghe has written an article about this at Extraordinary Claim? Move the Goal Posts!
4) Using double standards in what they will accept as evidence. They will not accept anecdotal evidence for the paranormal because they consider it to be unreliable, but not surprisingly they will accept anecdotal evidence when it supports their position. Also, they donâ€™t accept anecdotal evidence for the paranormal, but when itâ€™s against a paranormal claim, then they accept it as evidence against. (an unequivocal sign of bias) (e.g. â€œOthers never reported any paranormal activity in the areaâ€, â€œHe/she saw something differentâ€). For instance, when a psi experiment shows well above chance results, they will not accept it as evidence against psi. But when a psi experiment only shows chance results, they will accept that as evidence against psi.
5) Attacking the character of witnesses and undermining their credibility their evidence or testimonies canâ€™t be explained away. As we all know, when politicians canâ€™t win on the issues, they resort to character assassinations. Unfortunately, this is also what skeptics and debunkers tend to do as well. When evidence or testimony from key people canâ€™t be explained away or are irrefutable, skeptics will find ways to discredit them such as character assassinations or grossly exaggerating and distorting trivial mistakes. This has especially been done with the direct eyewitnesses of the 1947 Roswell Incident, as Stanton Friedman, author of the famous Crash at Corona: The U.S. Military Retrieval and Cover-Up of a Ufo often points out in an online article you can read at www.v-j-enterprises.com/sfhome.html .
6) Dismissing all evidence for the paranormal by classifying it either as anecdotal, untestable, unreplicable, or uncontrolled. Skeptics who wish to close their minds to any evidence, even after asking for it ironically, tend to do so by classifying it into one of the categories above. If the evidence is anecdotal, they will say that anecdotal evidence is worthless scientifically and untestable. If the evidence is in the form of scientific experiments, they will then say that it is unreplicable or uncontrolled.
(For more on skeptical tactics such as these, see Zen and the Art of Debunkery and Stupid Skeptic Tricks.)
These illogical ways of thinking are strange coming from people who pride themselves on their logic and rationality! Of course, flawed thinking such as the above can come from both believers and skeptics. That is why it is good to point them out to keep both sides in check.
The wikipedia online encyclopedia lists similar attributes for pseudoskeptics in its entry on pathological skepticism:
The difference between pseudoskepticism and skepticism appear in the conduct of an individual's actions. Among the indications of pseudoskeptical actions are:
1. Resorting to various logical fallacies (usually in an attack against those disputing a theory).
2. The assumption of facts (such as, stating theories determine phenomena).
3. The obfuscation of facts.
4. The use of attractive or neutral euphemisms to disguise unpleasant facts concerning their own positions.
5. Insisting that fundamental framework and theory of science hardly change.
6. Unwavering belief that science is a consensus and run on majority rule.
7. Maintaining a stance of hostility and intolerance.
8. Instituting hurdles against new theories by "moving the goalposts".
9. Ignoring intellectual suppression of unorthodox theories.
10. Judging a theory or phenomena without investigation and insisting on ignoring the details thereafter.
Pseudoskeptics have been blamed for cases where a scientific theory met a great deal of criticism before eventually being accepted. Commonly cited are Galileo's heliocentric theory; the myth that Christopher Columbus' contemporaries thought the Earth was flat; Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, and pseudoskepticism towards rocks falling down to Earth. Thomas Jefferson himself commented: "I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven."
A common fallacy these skeptics make is to assert that those who claim to have paranormal experiences do not consider other mundane explanations for their experience, and instead jump to paranormal conclusions. Well that simply isn't true at all. In almost every story you read or hear about of a paranormal experience, the claimant almost always describes the possible mundane explanations that he/she considered, and how they were ruled out before coming to their unconventional conclusion. It's there in simple plain language, yet somehow skeptics never seem to see this. What skeptics don't understand is, if the possible mundane explanations don't fit the facts or are too improbable to be believed, then they can and should be ruled out.
Let me clarify something now. It is NOT my position to argue that all paranormal claims are true. It is not my intention to be a defender for all general paranormal phenomena and claims. In fact, I happen to be skeptical of many claims myself. Instead, I am for open minded inquiry, taking anecdotal evidence into account rather than just dismissing it. I argue that the evidence for any paranormal phenomenon should be CONSIDERED and INVESTIGATED rather than rejected automatically just because it doesnâ€™t fit in with prevailing beliefs and world views. I do not claim to have the answers to all the paranormal mysteries. However, based on my experience and research, I will argue that the overwhelming evidence as a whole points to the existence of some sort of metaphysical reality that exists, and that at least some paranormal claims have a basis in reality. My position is that SOME types of paranormal phenomena (ESP, ghosts, astrology, feng shui, etc.) have something to them other than mere superstition, chance or delusion. I go by the simple mantra that â€œif it works, then it worksâ€ and one should keep at it unless otherwise, regardless of how accepted it is in the scientific community.
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