The Many Faces of ‘Skepticism’

Taking a Closer Look at Where All the Noise Is Coming From

Many words have been subject to changes in meaning, embellishment, twisting, or distortion for political, promotional, or propaganda reasons. One such word is skeptic (sceptic for the British). Webster and other dictionaries focus on the “uncertainty” of knowing aspect of the word, which comes from the Latin scepticus and the Greek skeptikos, meaning “thoughtful” or “inquiring.” One can easily infer from the similar definitions of the word that anyone who is not absolutely certain about the truth or falsity, existence or nonexistence, of something is a skeptic to some degree. Thus, there are various shades of gray in skepticism, ranging from slightly skeptical to highly skeptical.

Our justice system recognizes that absolute certainty is rare, if not impossible. The truth emerging from the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of our criminal courts does not quite extend to absolute certainty, while the “preponderance of evidence” standard of our civil courts falls well short of it. It simply means that the evidence for outweighs the evidence against, even if just slightly outweighing it. If absolute certainty means a 100 percent conviction, believing with a preponderance of evidence can translate to just a 51-percent certainty. In effect, the truth of a situation can be based on 51-percent certainty and 49-percent uncertainty.

Even DNA testing falls short of the absolute as evidenced by popular ancestry tests frequently showing a percentage or two of difference in national origin among siblings. And, in criminal cases, there is always the possibility of DNA evidence having been planted by the actual criminal in an attempt to shift the blame to another person.

However, a skeptic these days, at least when it comes to paranormal phenomena, is someone who is absolutely certain that such phenomena do not exist. They are debunkers, pseudo-skeptics, or pretend skeptics. They smugly smirk, snicker, sneer, scoff, snarl, and snort in self-righteous indignation at anything beyond strict scientific validation. They are closed-minded cynics. Perhaps the term applied to this mindset by Irish journalist Brian Inglis in his 1977 classic Natural and Supernatural best describes it. Inglis called it “savage antipathy.”

Today’s skeptic explains anything paranormal as being the result of fraud, deception, hallucination, a will-to-believe, or some psychological disorder. There are no ands, ifs or buts about it. These skeptics are the fundamentalists of science, at the other extreme from religious fundamentalists. Their ism is called scientism.

Inglis traces the roots of skepticism back to Aristotle, who began questioning the supernatural stories of his teacher, Plato, and Plato’s teacher, Socrates. Skepticism’s first manifesto was authored three centuries later by Cicero, who made it clear that he did not accept the reality of sacrificial divination in any form, though open-minded to the more inspirational aspects of divination. Jumping ahead to the late fourteenth century, Inglis cites the Catholic Church’s policy of appointing a Promotor Fedei (Promoter of the Faith), also called the Advocatus Diaboli, or Devil’s Advocate. It was the job of the Devil’s Advocate to take the skeptical view of the various miracles credited to the person nominated for sainthood and argue against his or her canonization.

The origins of more modern skepticism are usually traced to eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, although indications are that his aim was more polemical than scientific. Exactly when true skepticism turned to cynicism and then to savage antipathy is difficult to pinpoint, but it seems to have manifested for the most part during the late nineteenth century in the Age of Darwinism—a time when true skeptics became total disbelievers in anything spiritual because spirituality and religion were, to them, synonymous, and thus they were unable to reconcile biological evolution with the “myths” and “fables” of the Bible, especially the creation story. Falsus in uno, falso in omnibus—false in one, then false in all—seems to have been the logical conclusion. After all, if the Bible had been inspired by God, as religious leaders proclaimed, how could an all-knowing God be so wrong? Therefore, God must not exist, and if there is no God, then there must not be an afterlife, either, was the “rational” assumption.

It was during the late 1800s that the field of psychical research was born, the objective being to scientifically investigate paranormal phenomena. The early researchers, including a number of world-renowned scientists, found strong evidence for a spirit world and, concomitantly, for an afterlife. But mainstream science wanted nothing to do with anything that resembled religious superstition. It was going in reverse from the enlightenment that science had brought the world. No matter that it resulted in a nihilistic worldview, meaning that everyone was madly marching into an abyss of nothingness. We should all “live for today” and not concern ourselves with such nothingness, was the mindset of the materialistic rationalist.

The pioneers of psychical research realized that no single case would be convincing in itself, as the skeptic could always find some reason to question it; thus, they believed they could make their case by combining many cases that would give all the single cases “the strength of a faggot”—an analogy that holds that while a single twig can be easily snapped, a faggot, composed of many twigs bound together, is not so easily broken. But the skeptics countered with the analogy of the “leaking buckets.” No matter how many buckets you have, if each one has a hole in it, water will not be conserved.

Sir Oliver Lodge, a world-renowned physicist and pioneer in electricity and radio, was mocked by his scientific colleagues when he reported on his research into psychic phenomena and what he saw as the reality of it, expressing a belief, even a conviction, in life after death. “It is not easy to unsettle minds thus fortified against the intrusion of unwelcome facts; and their strong faith is probably a salutary safeguard against that unbalanced and comparatively dangerous condition called ‘open-mindedness,’ which is ready to learn and investigate anything not manifestly self-contradictory and absurd,” Lodge reacted to the criticism.

More recently, in his 2012 book, Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake, a world-renowned British biologist and a clear exception to the mainstream mindset, wrote that many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption and only think of it as science. He further stated that certain beliefs are taken for granted without any thought being given to them. “In no other field of scientific endeavor do otherwise intelligent people feel free to make public claims based on prejudice and ignorance,” Sheldrake offered, “Yet in relation to psychic phenomena, committed materialists feel free to disregard the evidence and behave irrationally and unscientifically while claiming to speak in the name of science and reason. They abuse the authority of science and bring rationalism into disrepute.”


Classifying the Skeptical Disorders

In his 1986 book, The Hidden Power, Brian Inglis sets forth a number of syndromes or afflictions affecting skeptics. Before him, psychical researcher Walter Franklin Prince, in his 1930 book, The Enchanted Boundary, gave names to several other skeptical maladies. To offer a more complete list, the author of the accompanying article has drawn from the historical records and taken the liberty of assigning names to other disorders of skepticism.

Doubting Thomas Disorder: Just as the Apostle Thomas refused to believe in the resurrected Christ until he could touch him and feel his wounds, there are many skeptics who say they will not believe anything that exceeds their boggle threshold until they see it for themselves. This is the most basic type of skepticism and is often a disorder of the common man—the one who has no scientific dogma to cling to and is still subconsciously smarting over being duped by his parents about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Saul of Tarsus Complex: Although Saul knew nothing about Christian beliefs, he reasoned out of emotion that Christians were a bad lot and should be persecuted. Likewise, the mainstream scientist or academician, unable to accept facts that conflict with his long-standing materialistic worldview, adheres to his own dogma and condemns anything that threatens it, even if he knows nothing about it, claiming that psychic or supernormal facts are “impossible” and opposed to accepted scientific laws and are nothing more than superstition. This is also referred to as Reductionistic Recidivism.

Medawar’s Syndrome: Sir Peter Medawar held that scientists tend not to take anything seriously until they can at least see the rudiments of an answer. Medawar’s Syndrome may just be another name for the Saul of Tarsus Complex; however, those afflicted with Medawar’s Syndrome do not necessarily say various phenomena are impossible; they simply say that it is beyond scientific inquiry.

Frozen Dualism Syndrome (also called God Betrayal Syndrome): Most victims of this condition begin by viewing God as an anthropomorphic (humanlike) being; and after suffering a serious loss, conclude that “He” must not exist, as no loving God would permit such bad things to happen to people or for such evil to exist in the world. They assume that a humanlike God is necessary for a spirit world. They lose their faith and become skeptics or nonbelievers.

Festinger’s Syndrome: This affliction has to do with the psychological distress (cognitive dissonance) experienced by people who struggle to reconcile conflicting facts or viewpoints. Social psychologist Leon Festinger is credited with much research in this area. As it relates to psychical research and parapsychology, Festinger’s Syndrome kicks in when skeptics or debunkers witness something that defies natural law as defined by orthodox science. They begin questioning what they observed and come up with various ways that they “could have” or “might have” been tricked or duped. They “might have” even been victims of a mass hypnotism or something was put into the drink they had that night to make them hallucinate. If that doesn’t work completely, they offer ad hominem arguments, finding fault with the person rather than the research. The researcher must have had an affair with the medium. Or the researcher must have had a “will to believe” and unconsciously distorted the results.

The Faraday Flout: Michael Faraday, one of the leading chemists of the nineteenth century, was asked to investigate the mediumship of D. D. Home, but he asked what the point of it all would be since the purported spirits who had communicated and acted through Home were so “utterly contemptible.” Like Faraday, many skeptics seem to assume that if spirits were to exist, no matter how ridiculous that seems to them, they are all enlightened spirits and further that all mediums must be saints of some kind. Moreover, if they are “of God” they should be able to communicate with much more clarity and wisdom. Indications are, however, that there are many levels of spirits and that the lower-level spirits are better able to communicate with the earth plane, because they are at a lower vibration or frequency than the more advanced spirits.

Browning Brashness: This form of skepticism clearly arises out of emotion and not reason. The best example is that of famous poet Robert Browning, who witnessed some amazing spirit phenomena with medium D. D. Home and initially attested to it. However, he apparently became upset because his wife, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was so enamored of Home, that he, seemingly out of jealousy, called Home a cheat and impostor, writing a disparaging poem about a Home-like medium called “Mr. Sludge, the Medium,” in which he portrayed the medium as a psychopath and fraud.

Huxley Hubris: Like Michael Faraday, Thomas Huxley was one of the leading scientists of the nineteenth century. When asked by the Council of the Dialectical Society to cooperate with a committee for the investigation of mediums, he declined, commenting that he had no time for such nonsense and that it did not interest him. “If anybody would endow me with the faculty of listening to the chatter of old women and curates in the nearest cathedral town, I should decline the privilege, having better things to do,” was part of his written reply. Even though the question of immortality far exceeds anything mainstream science has dealt with, most scientists seem incapable of thinking that deeply.

Brewster Bravado: As bravado is a form of false courage, it seems more kind to label the form of skepticism displayed by Sir David Brewster, still another renowned British physicist, as ‘Brewster Bravado’ rather than ‘Brewster Backbonelessness.’ After praising medium D. D. Home, Brewster was criticized by his scientific colleagues and quickly retracted his testimony, calling Home a fraud, and saying that he must have hidden something under the table, and that nobody was allowed to look under the table. “Spirit is the last thing I will give in to!” Brewster snarled. After Brewster’s death, however, his daughter published his memoirs, inadvertently including a letter in which Brewster disclosed that he had been invited to make an inspection under the table and in which he implied that it was all beyond trickery.

Houdini Hoaxery: Researchers have been known to plant evidence or otherwise cheat in order to be certain that nothing would be produced to conflict with known science or their own beliefs. With the great Houdini, however, it seems to have been more a matter of someone not producing greater magic than he could. Houdini was part of a team investigating the mediumship of Boston medium Mina Crandon, aka “Margery,” during the mid-1920s. “All fraud—every bit of it,” was Houdini’s verdict, without hesitation, further calling it the “slickest ruse” he had ever uncovered. However, when asked to explain, Houdini couldn’t really explain it and reasoned that she “must have had” an accomplice. On one occasion, a fold-up, six-inch ruler was found in a cabinet built by Houdini to restrain Margery. It was later revealed by Jim Collins, an assistant to Houdini, to be a plant by Houdini to show she was a cheat.

Polanyi’s Syndrome: As Michael Polanyi, a chemist and philosopher of science, reasoned, there is a ready reserve of possible scientific hypotheses available to explain any conceivable event. Perhaps the best example of this had to do with the mediumship of Leonora Piper. When information came through her that was said to be from spirits of the dead, it was reasoned that a “secondary personality” in her subconscious was telepathically picking up information from the sitter. When information came through that the sitter did not know, it was reasoned that the secondary personality could search the minds of people anywhere in the world for such information or tap into some “cosmic reservoir” for the information. Even that explanation was rejected by the more fundamentalist scientists, since telepathy itself defies natural law as certainly a cosmic reservoir does. Thus, the fundamentalists stuck with fraud as the only explanation, while the more open-minded scientists were able to reason that the subconscious had powers as yet unexplored and unexplained and went on to hypothesize Super ESP, sort of an amalgamation of telepathy, telepathy at a distance, and the cosmic reservoir. The tendency for scientists to accept the reality of certain phenomena but to twist the evidence to fit their preconceptions or to make it sound more scientific is also referred to as The Gregory/Mayo Syndrome.

Terrestrial Tethering Complex: There is an assumption by skeptics that celestial matters, if they exist, are restricted to terrestrial methods and measurement. However, those who have studied psychic phenomena understand that such is not the case. Time, space, and methods of communication apparently take on different forms in the “greater reality” and do not easily lend themselves to terrestrial study. The skeptic who refuses to grasp this is no doubt suffering from this complex.


CAPTION: Second-century Greek and Roman theater masks (bas relief, Vatican Museum, Rome)

By Michael E. Tymn