Pathological Skepticism

A Leading Psychiatrist on Why Some Minds Never Open

In my previous books, The Secret Tao, and 2012 & The Mayan Prophecy of Doom, I have been criticized by skeptics that the theories and evidence I cite have not yet been accepted by mainstream science. So, I think it’s worth examining the question of what constitutes good science. Evidence is neither true nor false; it is the conclusions you draw from the evidence that are either true of false. Of course, that depends on whom you talk to. Sometimes there is a consensus but sometimes scientists are split. And sometimes the majority of scientists turn out to be wrong. Therein lies the difference between fact and truth. To understand this, let’s go back and look at how we define errors in the scientific method.

First of all, there are two types of errors in science. There is a type-one error and a type-two error. A type-one error is the kind of error most people think of when they think of scientific errors. That is, a type-one error is being too gullible, believing in crazy theories without sufficient proof. By this, you would think that the more skeptical you are, the less likely you are to be in error. But that is not always true.

A type-two error can be just as bad as a type-one error. A type-two error is when you disbelieve something that is actually true. Remember Galileo and the Catholic Church. Well, his crazy theory turned out to be right, and they were wrong, but they refused to see that. They committed a huge type-two error. Or how about that intelligence officer who warned his superiors that terrorists were planning on using airplanes as bombs to crash them into buildings? There was no great response to this threat. None of the security measures that were enacted after 9/11 were put into place at that time. Why? It was simply a type-two error. And it was probably one of the worst in history.



In real science, type-two errors are every bit as dangerous as type-one errors. In fact, in the field of foods and drugs, type-two errors are much worse than type-one errors. Think about it. Suppose they create a new drug to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women. If the scientists are wrong, and the drug doesn’t prevent morning sickness, then the only harm done is to the company’s profits. But, let’s say that there is a theory that this drug might create birth defects, but there is no evidence to prove that it would create birth defects. So let’s say that the hard-core skeptics won out, and they went ahead and released the drug, which had been proven to prevent morning sickness, but which had not proven to create birth defects. Well, this did happen. The drug was Thalidomide, and guess what? This turned out to be a type-two error. Many thousands of children were born horribly deformed because the drug company did not take seriously the unproven, doctor pharmacy online theoretical risk of birth defects. This has been called one of the biggest medical tragedies in modern times.

There are many other examples. There is the risk of nuclear reactors melting down, the risk of hexavalent chromium contaminating the ground water (the case that Erin Brockovich made famous), the risk of using mercury as a preservative in inoculations (still debated even though the drug companies have taken it off the market), etc. All of these have been hotly debated, and some are still being debated. But every time a catastrophe happens, such as the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, we always find that hindsight is 20/20, and it was a type-two error that was to blame. This goes for the Challenger disaster as well. Anytime someone is warned of a potential problem and they fail to heed the warning because of a lack of proof, they are running the risk of a costly type-two error.

So how does this happen? How can an otherwise rational, hard-nosed, tough-minded, skeptical scientist be so foolish that they do not take into account a possible worst-case scenario, and plan for it accordingly? Good question. That is where the idea of pathological skepticism comes in. This is a concept that I came up with years ago to try to understand why some scientists are so skeptical that they frequently make type-two errors, and often use wild leaps of illogic to support their erroneous conclusions. Since then, the term pathological skepticism has become something of a household word. Like so many psychological disorders, this one consists not of a conscious act but, rather, an unconscious thought process.


The Meditation Study

Skeptics often use straw-man arguments. What’s funny about this is that they usually don’t even know that they are doing it. Whenever I think of pathological skepticism, I always think of a psychological study done years ago at my Alma Mater, Long Beach State University. A researcher there, who shall remain nameless, wanted to study the effects of Eastern meditation, so he came up with a pretty clever study. He came up with three options: A) One group practiced traditional meditation, as it is practiced in Eastern religions; B) One group practiced a secularized Western form of meditation (essentially duplicating the meditation technique, without any religious references); and, C) one group did nothing at all; this was the control group. He randomly assigned students to one of these three groups. He then monitored the subjects to look for positive outcomes of daily mediation, which might occur over time.

After the study was over, he looked at all the data. It clearly showed that both the Eastern religion meditation group and the secular meditation group enjoyed positive benefits, and the control group did not. Both of the meditation groups were more relaxed, less stressed, and happier than the group that did not meditate. So, most people would say that he scientifically proved the effectiveness of meditation.

The funny thing was that he concluded that meditation did not work! You see, he did not see the secular form of meditation as a form of meditation at all. He thought of it as a placebo; that is, like a sugar pill, an inert exercise. Even though he had duplicated many of the psychological features of Eastern meditation, and perfectly distilled them into an effective meditation practice, he saw it as nothing, just a placebo.

When he compared Eastern meditation to his “placebo” meditation group and found no difference between the two groups, he concluded buying viagra in mexico that meditation on the whole was apparently not effective. Ironically, this researcher had actually proven the opposite. He demonstrated the effectiveness of Eastern meditation, and even came up with his own secularized version easily practiced by millions of Americans, with all the same benefits of Eastern meditation. And, he didn’t even realize what he had done! Years later Jon Kabat-Zinn would do essentially the same thing with his secular, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practice (similar to the above “placebo”), and he would become famous for it.

This researcher’s mistake was completely unconscious and based on the tenacity of his beliefs. He believed that Eastern meditation was fake and that there were no positive results that came from practicing cialis generic it. That is what he believed before he collected the evidence. Therefore, once he had the evidence, he interpreted it in the only way that made sense to him. In the end, he saw precisely what he wanted to see. His bias had eclipsed his insight, and he failed to see what he had actually discovered, which is that meditation does produce definite benefits and that it is a psychological process, independent of religion. You see, when the facts conflicted with truth, he reinterpreted the facts to fit the truth. But, whose truth? Obviously, his truth is different from the truth of the Dalai Lama or Jon Kabat-Zinn or millions of people who meditate.

When I first read this study, I thought the researcher was purposely creating a straw-man argument. People do this in politics all the time. You mischaracterize your opponent’s position and make it sound ridiculous, then you can easily argue against it. I thought this researcher was intentionally mischaracterizing Eastern meditation as some kind of religious miracle that only benefits you if you are a devout Buddhist or something. In this way he could easily discredit Eastern meditation by showing that it was no miracle of religion. Eventually I realized that this was indeed like a straw-man argument, but I don’t think it was intentional.

Here the researcher really did believe that meditation was some kind of mystical religious experience that could only occur with divine intervention. He never even considered that it might simply be a scientific phenomenon. He thought he was striking a blow against superstition and ignorance, but he was only fighting shadows in his own mind. This is a classic case of what I call pathological skepticism.

I see this all the time with skeptics, such as Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. Once, in a televised interview, I saw him comment on the Baghdad battery, an ancient artifact found in an archaeological dig near Baghdad. The object was a terra cotta jar that had a copper cylinder inside of the jar, and an iron post that fit inside the copper cylinder without touching it. The metal was held in place in the jar with bitumen. It is believed that the jar had been filled with lemon juice or some other liquid high in citric acid. Well, that sounds like a battery to anyone who knows about electricity. Shermer claimed that this artifact was not evidence that the ancients knew about electricity. He thinks that the device was merely used for electroplating, since we have found evidence of gold plated jewelry from that period. So, they did not know about electrical technology, they only knew about electroplating technology? I know what he means, but I don’t think he realizes how obtuse that sounds. He just conceded that they did in fact know about the technology of electroplating, and actually knew how to build devices to implement it, including a battery cell sufficient to generate the necessary charge.

What he meant to say was that they did not have electrical wires suspended from electrical poles, with giant generators, producing massive energy to power light bulbs and run various appliances. But, he forgets that neither did Benjamin Franklin, Georg Ohm, or James Clerk Maxwell; neither did Thomas Edison in the beginning. But surely he would not deny that these men knew of electricity. Shermer, in his defense, might say that even if they somehow knew about electroplating, then it still does not prove that they had any modern understanding of electricity. That’s fair enough. I have no idea how they explained or thought about batteries or electricity. They may have attributed it to the gods, for all I know. But if you define a battery as any device that holds an electrical charge, and you define electricity as that energy which is stored in a battery, then he is clearly wrong. They had obviously discovered the phenomenon that we call electricity. And if they did use it for electroplating, then that proves that they had discovered the relevant principles and materials involved in that process.

You see, he’s actually using a straw-man argument, and I don’t think he’s doing it intentionally. He thinks that when a crypto-archaeologist says that ancient civilizations “knew about electricity” or were “experimenting with it” that they’re claiming that the ancients might have had electric lights and appliances, or that they lived just as we do today. But that’s actually a straw-man argument. If he did this consciously, he would probably be doing it because he can’t refute the actual facts, so he misrepresents it as something crazy and then argues against that instead. The thing is, I don’t think he even knows he’s doing it. The crazy scenario he is arguing against is all in his head. Most people who are fascinated with the Baghdad battery don’t necessarily believe that the ancients who created it had electric toasters or vacuum cleaners.

This process of unconsciously creating straw-man arguments is really an example of a neurotic behavior, in that it is an unconscious process that skews a person’s thinking and behavior, often in illogical ways. So what would cause someone to do this? Unconsciously, this kind of person probably has a fear of being gullible himself and doesn’t want to be made a fool of by believing in a practical joke, or a con. So he dismisses, downplays, or distorts facts because they are in conflict with the truth as he knows it. I call this pathological skepticism, because it is basically a neurosis, a disorder that causes people to make errors in judgment due to an unconscious fear of being humiliated or being overly gullible.

I’ve heard many such statements by various skeptics over the years. A good example of pathological skepticism is when someone says “there’s no proof that was a UFO; it was probably just some flying object that just hasn’t been identified yet.” Or, how about this one, “faith healing is nothing more than a placebo effect.” And when you ask them what a placebo effect is, they respond, “a placebo is when the person is healed because they believed that they’d be healed.” But isn’t that another way of saying that they were healed because they had faith they’d be healed? These statements kind of remind me of the famous quote by Leo Durocher that, “anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.” Just like the above skeptics, you know what he means, but what he says is so obtuse that it’s actually comical.

In a line from the movie, The Last Crusade, the intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones says, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Professor Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

We claim to be a society that values science, but we actually value truth more than facts. But truth, alas, is whatever you believe it is. It is time that we as a society learned the difference between fact and truth. We as a people, and especially those of us in the scientific community, need to get back to the basics and start dealing with some inconvenient facts.

I call on all scientists to give up such shortsighted bias and begin to study potentially important, however unlikely, theories with the same zeal that they apply towards making minor contributions to an existing body of knowledge. In the words of F. N. Earll, regarding Hapgood’s theory, “If it is an unworthy thing let it be properly destroyed; if not, let it receive the nourishment that it deserves.”


The author is a psychologist, an expert on the occult, and a researcher in the fields of psychology, archaeology, and ancient mysticism. He is the author of several books. His latest book, The Einstein Connection, from which this article is excerpted, investigates ancient myths and scientific theories of a potentially reoccurring global cataclysm.

By D.W. Kreger