In the debate over paranormal phenomena, there is a new COP in town, but this one is challenging the fallacies of organized skepticism rather than the paranormal research community. SCEPCOP the “Scientific Committee Exposing Pseudo-Skeptical Cynicism of the Paranormal” bills itself as the “world’s first organized counter-skeptic group.” Principal organizers are Vinstonas Wu, Victor Zammit, John Benneth, and Leo MacDonald. It is, of course, directly confronting organizations such as CSICOP (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry into Claims of the Paranormal) which have, in the opinion of the new group, enjoyed a position of undeserved credibility and insufficiently challenged influence for too long. SCEPCOP intends to mount a full-scale challenge to what they call pseudo-skeptical arguments. You can visit their web site at: http://www.debunkingskeptics.com. The following is an edited excerpt of an article appearing on the site. —Editor
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 “skeptical” of. Some are skeptics of the paranormal, others are skeptics of anything conventional — established thought, govern-ment, etc.— so not all skeptics are the same or on the same side.
However, the pseudo-skeptics like CSICOP members and the “Amazing” Randi are definitely not open-minded truth seekers, but rather their words and behavior automatically dismiss and deny that which doesn’t fit their paradigm. They are cynics who have closed their mind to anything that doesn’t fit their worldview, dismissing all else as misperception, delusion, or fraud. But don’t take my word for it, for if you read their own writing and hear what they say, their narrow tunnel view of reality is obvious and so is their righteous indignation over what’s real and what’s “quackery” (a word they love to use). Not seeking to understand, they, instead, seek to discredit and invalidate. Their skepticism is what I and others like to call “pseudo-skepticism.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “pseudo” means “false or counterfeit; fake.” Thus, 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 excuses to justify their position. They are not about seeking the truth or open-minded investigations at all, only in discrediting what doesn’t fit into their view.
Of course, every skeptic is going to say he is an open-minded and true skeptic (just like every thief denies being a thief, every liar says he is not a liar, every high pressure salesman protests the high pressure charge, etc.), but the proof of the pudding is in their actions, how they reason, and in the system of philosophy used. Here are typical traits of true skeptics and pseudo-skeptics.
True Skeptic / the Open-Minded Kind
Typical traits: displays honest doubt, is open to inquiry and investigation of both sides, considers evidence on all sides and takes both good and bad points into account, asks exploratory questions, accepts real evidence, shows good commonsense, avoids pre-judgment, honestly seeks the truth.
Pseudo-Skeptic / the Closed-Minded Variety
(also known as debunkers, hard core materialists, scoffers, atheists, etc.)
Typical traits: automatically dismisses all paranormal claims, is predisposed to discredit all testimonials of a paranormal nature, denies any and all evidence, scoffs, gives off an air of superior rationality, is judgmental about things he knows little or nothing about, is quick to draw conclusions without evidence, uses philosophical semantics in his attempt to win arguments and invalidate paranormal or spiritual experiences.
The late Marcello Truzzi, a former member of CSICOP and considered an open-minded skeptic who tried to stay on the fence, wrote an article about pseudo-skeptics which you can read about here: http://www.anomalist.com/ commentaries/pseudo.html
Among the tell-tale signs of the pseudo-skeptical mentality are the words used to describe “believers.” When pejorative terms such as: “delusional, irrational, gullible, charlatans, superstitious, wishful-thinking, primitive and child-like thinking,” etc., are employed, one may infer the nature of the a priori mentality.
Skepticism, it seems, should be a tool of inquiry to help one learn the truth, not as a defense for one’s own cynicism. Doubt and the quest for answers can help one learn, but the attempt to debunk everything outside one’s world view does not lead to that end.
The belief system of this particular breed of skeptics is extreme (some would call it fanaticism) and just as closed-minded as its designated opposite, Christian fundamentalism. It practices the same kind of black and white thinking of which it accuses the other. Consider this: a favorite text among skeptics is the late Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark. The cover makes the point. The world is seen as “demon haunted”—just as with Christianity—with the majority living in the “dark,” superstitious and religious, but ignorant of science. While, on the other hand, those who rely on science and are skeptics are lighting the “candle in the dark,” and are the “light of the world.” Sounds like Christian Gospel terms. This is the same kind of simplistic absolutist thinking that puts everyone into two classes, either in the light or in the dark, a tactic widely used by Christian fundamentalists. It is interesting that while Carl Sagan was a great teacher of astronomy and science, he had a very limited knowledge of the evidence for paranormal phenomena. In his book, Sagan devotes a big chapter to debunking the Alien Abduction phenomenon, but not once did he personally investigate or interview any abductees, as it seems that an honest open-minded investigator or truthseeker 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 research, which led them to conclude that there was more to the phenomenon than is commonly believed.
Common Tactics of Pseudo-Skeptics
In debating skeptics, I’ve noticed some common flawed tactics employed. These include:
1) Ignoring facts and evidence that doesn’t fit into their preconceived world view, rather than updating their beliefs to conform to the facts, which is more logical. (e.g. “It can’t be, therefore it isn’t!”). This is known as the process of rationalization through cognitive dissonance.
2) Creating forced and false explanations for paranormal phenomena without regard to whether the facts have been explained. In other words, cynical skeptics prefer to invent false and inadequate explanations rather than to accept any paranormal ones. For example, using “cold reading” to explain the amazing accuracy of a psychic reading when no known cold reading technique could account for the facts and circumstances.
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 researcher’s integrity and character, attack the 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 predetermined mindset.
4) Using double standards in what will be accepted as evidence. Anecdotal evidence for the paranormal will not be accepted, they say, because they consider it unreliable; but not surprisingly anecdotal evidence, when it supports their position, is readily accepted (a clear sign of bias) (e.g. “Others never reported any paranormal activity in the area,” “He/she saw something different”).
5) Attacking the character of witnesses and undermining their credibility when their evidence can’t be explained away. When politicians can’t win on the issues, they resort to character assassination and skeptics and debunkers use the same tactics. When evidence or testimony from key people can’t be refuted, skeptics will find ways to discredit their character or grossly exaggerate and distort their trivial mistakes. The tactic has been frequently used with the direct eyewitnesses of the 1947 Roswell Incident.
6) Dismissing all evidence for the paranormal by classifying it either as anecdotal, untestable, unrepeatable, or uncontrolled. Skeptics who wish to close their minds to any evidence, even after asking for it, tend to do so by assigning it to one of these categories. 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 unrepeatable or uncontrolled.
Such illogical thinking seems strange, coming, as it does, from those who pride themselves on their logic and rationality! Such flawed thinking, of course, can come from both believers and skeptics. That is why it is good to hold both sides to account.
The difference between pseudo-skepticism and skepticism appear in the conduct of an individual’s actions. According to Marcello Truzzi, among the indications of pseudo-skeptical actions are:
- Resorting to various logical fallacies (usually in an attack against those disputing a theory).
- The assumption of facts (such as, stating theories determine phenomena).
- The obfuscation of facts.
- The use of attractive or neutral euphemisms to disguise unpleasant facts concerning their own positions.
- Insisting that fundamental framework and theory of science hardly change.
- Unwavering belief that science is a consensus and run on majority rule.
- Maintaining a stance of hostility and intolerance.
- Instituting hurdles against new theories by “moving the goalposts.”
- Ignoring intellectual suppression of unorthodox theories.
- Judging a theory or phenomena without investigation and insisting on ignoring the details thereafter.
Pseudo-skeptics 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 pseudo-skepticism towards rocks falling down to Earth (meteorites). 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 skeptics often 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. In almost every case of reported paranormal experience, the claimant describes the possible mundane explanations that he/she considered before ruling them out and coming to an unconventional conclusion, yet skeptics persist in claiming otherwise. Skeptics, apparently have trouble understanding that, 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.
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 doesn’t fit prevailing beliefs and worldviews. 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, taken as a whole, points to the existence of some sort of metaphysical reality, 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 mantra that “if it works, then it works” and one should keep at it unless otherwise disproven, regardless of how accepted it is in the scientific community.
For more on the efforts of Vinstonas Wu and his associates to challenge CSICOP and the skeptical attack machine visit their new web site SCEPCOP: http://www.debunking skeptics.com/index.php