skepticism & psuedo-skepticism

A certain extent of skepticism is quite healthy. The difficulty comes when the skeptics believe they are ipso facto correct. And/or when the skeptical inquiry does not come from a rational basis. Parapsychologist and noted skeptic Susan Blackmore said, “there are some members of the skeptics groups who clearly believe they have the right answer prior to inquiry and appear not to be interested in weighing alternatives, investigating strange claims, or trying out psychic experiences or altered states themselves. But only in promoting their own particular belief structure in cohesion.”[i]

(This topic is covered from a different angle in Buddha is an Atheist, my book’s, epistemology sections – Popper, Kuhn, and Fleck especially – and in the Buddhist science section.)

These days, most of what is proclaimed as skepticism is psuedo-skepticism. The term was coined by Marcello Truzzi. The problem is a bias toward negation rather than an open skeptical position. The true skeptic has the liberty of not stating a position and thereby avoiding the burden of proof. These skeptics claim they have no burden of proof, but they do state a position. They state that something is not possible. A negative claim is also a claim, requiring proof as well. These negative claims frequently amount to strange alternate hypotheses which are unbacked. For instance, “a UFO is actually a giant plasma, or someone in a psychic experiment was cued by a high pitch others with normal ears would fail to notice…the result is that many critics feel that it is only necessary to present a case for their counterclaims based upon plausibility rather than empirical evidence.”[ii] This tactic is so common on skeptic blogs as to be universal. They seem not to even realize they are doing it. My hypothesis is that it is a form of acculturation, wherein if everyone operates a certain way, it becomes invisible to the group. Unfortunately, it is so rigorously ingrained that it cannot be successfully revealed to the members.

This community claims that singular incidents are inappropriate for analysis because they are anecdotal. As if our lives are inappropriate for study. As if individual events were without portent. Every experiment performed is an anecdote. (I pointed the electron gun at the double slit then set the detector. An overlapping wave pattern emerged). The reason anecdotal evidence needs to be considered is precisely because it operates where traditional science fails – outside the laboratory. Empirical investigation demands statistical verification – it must be repeatable. But this implicitly assumes that reality has a replicable nature, an unverifiable hypothesis.

Anecdotes are perfectly acceptable as evidence if they meet two conditions. The events must be verifiable. Video cameras have already changed the scientific field. Second, the conclusions must be a logical consequent of the evidence. With these criteria fulfilled, an anecdote is valid for study. Otherwise, the collapse of the three buildings on 9/11 would be invalid for study. It was no more than a sum of different pieces of anecdotal eyewitness testimony, not repeatable by experiment. Or at least, not repeated.

If one makes it past that hurdle by verification of the incident, then obviously, they cry, it can only be a coincidence. One has to be skeptical.

Maybe so, but we have a right to our own skepticism. This belief in coincidence is a hypothesis. A genuine skeptic must question it as well. My own hypothesis: we cannot prove anything about the scientific anamolies. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t have a personal stake in whether God did it, or the Fates, or the Coincidences. But one thing is clear – We do not know.

It is not empirically valid to claim certainty where only possibility exists. An example – a psychic is being tested. If the experiment allowed the possibility for the psychic to falsify results, the skeptics automatically assume that they did. Another example is when someone scores well on psychic tests, if the test was poorly randomized then the modern skeptic typically assumes this created flawed results. While it is certainly possible, it is not proven. It may, and should, cause questions about the experiment’s validity, but it does not disprove the phenomenon under investigation. Unfortunately, these skeptics do not understand the scientific method well enough to realize that a new experiment with tighter controls is called for, as so frequently happens in empirical methods. The claimant who points to such factors in research as the cause of anomalous phenomena has the burden of proof. The modern skeptics are too willing to accept this claim without substantiation. They problematically cut off proper areas of research. It is not scientific. It is not based on a genuine analysis of the data, following a hypothesis and proper experimentation.

The same holds true of the believer side. If one argues too vociferously for a position and cherry picks evidence, then the claims become unscientific. One can argue anything one wants. But to ignore certain data and validate other data makes it unscientific.[iii] However, that does not make it untrue. Science claims to be the only path to truth. It is not so.

“We must leave room for doubt,” said the creator of quantum electrodynamics, “Where there is no progress, there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. A question requires doubt. People search for certainty, but there is no certainty. You only think you know. Most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about or what the purpose of the world is. Or a great deal of other things. Freedom to doubt is absolutely essential for the development of the sciences.”[iv]

This modern skeptical position has great force and certainty. It claims tremendous authority, so those who go along with it for a time, even a long time, may succumb to this theology of logic. A good skeptic walks a path toward greater, more honest, more open inquiry. He questions the ground beneath his feet. One hopes that the vast majority of these students will study their roots. Their sincerity in finding the truth will emerge and they will bring this once noble movement back on track. It will require attacking the assumptions of correctness in so many areas.

[i] The Journal of Parapsychology, Volume 67, p.64 note 1.

[ii] Truzzi, Marcello, Psuedo-skepticism

[iii] Truzzi, Psuedo-skepticism.

[iv] Feynman, Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p. 111


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