On Practicing Healthy Skepticism and Being a Skeptic
A Brief Note About the Name: A number of friends have urged me to us “pseudoskeptics” (“false skeptic”) as a name for the people I describe here; however, the people causing all of the trouble are found with Internet searches for “skeptic,” and for the most part, remain invisible if searched for with “pseudoskeptics.”
Because my intention is to inform our community about the problems skeptics are causing, I feel it is necessary to call them what they call themselves. Real skeptics, people who open-mindedly question to learn and understand or to assure the speaker knows what he or she is talking about, will need to find a better term for themselves. Perhaps “discerning.”
Perhaps the most important trait for anyone involved in the study of frontier subjects is the ability to maintain an open mind while practicing discernment. This attitude is sometimes referred to as skepticism; however, when a person is skeptical of something without reason, that person is known as a skeptic. Skepticism in itself is a healthy attitude so long as it is accompanied by open-minded investigation.
Rather than practicing discernment, skeptics actively campaign to teach the public to see such new thought as a hazard to society. As is already occurring in some governments, including the USA, this vilification of frontier subjects has the potential to cause social and governmental reaction that could at the least prevent further study and possibly provoke action harmful to people studying these subjects. Because of this, it is no longer realistic to ignore skeptics or their efforts.
The word “skeptic” is based on a Greek term meaning thoughtful. According to TheFreeDictionary.com, a skeptic is 1. One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions. 2. One inclined to skepticism in religious matters. From the Etheric Studies perspective people who describe themselves as skeptics have the common interest of suppressing any idea or concept they believe is not supported by mainstream science. Here, “skeptic” is intended in the strong sense as defined in The Free Dictionary by Farlex.
It seems that virtually every parapsychologist and psychical researcher has written articles complaining about skeptics. It is common even in the “rank and file” of the paranormal community to see people chafe against those aggressive skeptics who belittle them for believing what the skeptics consider “nonsense.” Skeptics are an issue for those of us who study transcommunication and trans-survival, as well.
The motto for this website is: “Believe what you wish but know what you believe.” To “know what you believe,” it is important to examine how you develop your assumptions about the world around you. The essay, Point of View, examines the relationship between what you come into this lifetime with, how you approach new learning situations and how you develop your point of view. In this essay, I have addressed what skepticism is and what skeptics are from the point of view of the Implicit Cosmology.
Skepticism and Scientism
Skeptics have adopted an ideology which effectively condemns the exploration of new ideas. Because it is important to be skeptical in the sense described below in Healthy skepticism, alternative terms have been tried. Pseudoskeptic, as in “false skeptic,” is commonly used, but the term fails to shine a light on where skeptics can be found.
It is important to recognize that the kind of skepticism skeptics practice is a form of Scientism which means the ideological belief that science—mainstream science—is the only authority on the nature of reality. This is where the idea comes from that “If it is impossible according to science, then it cannot be.” The rest of this ideology is that anything not accepted by mainstream science must be pseudoscience.
Tells of a Skeptic
Skeptics attempt to show the unacceptability of an idea by belittling it and associating it with obviously silly ideas, rather than with facts, evidence and sound logic. They describe the idea and people associated with it in terms that would usually cause a fight if spoken face-to-face. They seem to assume “believers” are seen as second-class citizens by the mainstream public and thus do not enjoy the protection of social norms afforded mainstream citizens. So if you read something that calls someone a whacko or fraud, or describes a practice as fraudulent or woo-woo, then you know that the material was written by a skeptic.
Name-calling is especially true of skeptics who focus on alternative or complementary health practices. They commonly refer to these with the derogatory term of “quackery” and practitioners as “quacks.” Of course any such practice that is not specifically approved by the government is considered pseudoscience, and even some that are approved such as chiropractic feel the wrath of those who think “complementary” is just another word for “fraud.”
Without research to support their accusations, pseudoskeptics seldom add knowledge to the subjects they attack, but are only able to destroy knowledge. Here, the Latin term, “a priori” has special meaning. They routinely make statements about subjects for which they have no knowledge other than that their peer group is against it. In this context, the term means without prior knowledge and is used to say that the person is judging without having become informed about the subject. The practical result of this book burning mentality is that new ideas are suppressed and examination of new ideas by academically trained researchers has become probable professional suicide.
Wikipedia editor Ludwigs2 expressed one of the better descriptions of the skeptic view:
“Science and skepticism are entirely different projects; they share the word skepticism, but it has different meanings for each group. For a scientist, skepticism means (roughly) ‘I choose not to have any beliefs about a subject in the absence of evidence.‘ It’s a philosophically conservative position designed to keep people from making a priori assertions about the world (except those dictated by logic or math). For skeptics, by contrast, skepticism means (roughly) ‘I choose to believe that non-conventional ideas are wrong until they have met some burden of evidence.‘ This is an ideological position designed to advocate against certain kinds of viewpoints. See how these differ on (for example) acupuncture:
“Looking at something like acupuncture scientifically one would be forced to admit that there really isn’t much evidence either way—there is no scientific reason to recommend its use, but no obvious reason to say that it’s wrong, either. That is, acupuncture is morally neutral, like drinking tea with honey and lemon when you have a cold.
“Looking at something like acupuncture as a skeptic one would find oneself saying that acupuncture hasn’t met the needed burden of evidence, and so acupuncture is wrong—and this will lead to ideological claims that people who take acupuncture are stupid, that people who do acupuncture are charlatans, and etc. That is acupuncture is morally bereft, like selling sugar pills as cure for cancer.
“Scientists and skeptics overlap in the assertion that one should use practices that have been borne out by systematic experience. But that’s where the similarity ends: skeptics go on to make moral judgments about practices that science can never make, and to engage in advocacy with respect to those moral claims. Consider the vast range of skeptical literature, almost none of which contains any actual research (aside from literature reviews of other people’s published work), and which is almost entirely dedicated to critical declamations against one or another questionable activity. Skepticism is (frankly) scientific punditry, and while I won’t deny its value in that consumer advocate sort of way, one needs to be cautious with it as an intellectual enterprise.”
Organized Harm to Society
Paranormalists represent a small and mostly unorganized community. The skeptical community, on the other hand, is relatively well organized and fast growing. In Skepticism: The New Religion, Roy Stemman notes that Spiritualism’s public outreach is contracting while the skeptical community is becoming more organized and much more effective in influencing the media. A search of the Internet for “skeptic” will produce dozens of pages full of skeptical websites. The Association TransCommunication website (atransc.org) and this website, which contains my personal writing, are clearly homegrown. By comparison, many of these skeptical websites are slick, professionally designed and maintained, and I am sure, well funded. It is clear that paranormalists are losing the fight to gain public respect and support. That should be a concern if you enjoy the right to publicly study these subjects.
Some governments, including the US Government, have adopted the viewpoints espoused by organized skeptical groups and routinely label the study of paranormal phenomena as pseudoscience and cite harm to the best interest of the public caused by belief in pseudoscience. In many such claims, supporting references are skeptical sources, which in turn cite these government reports for support of their viewpoint. This is in actuality a form of circular citation in which truth is invented as a means of vilifying ideas that do not agree with the prevailing scientific ideologies.
I am not well informed about how governments have acted against people who have been accused of activity deemed by skeptics as pseudoscience. Please be sure to examine this for yourself. The first point I would make is that the study of frontier subjects is not protected by the law. Once it is socially okay to say that what we study contradicts science and may be harmful to the public, it becomes possible for governments and organizations to make examples of individuals. We have seen this reenacted many times in our history with everything from witch hunts to internment during the Second World War.
Wilhelm Reich is a more recent example. The short story about Wilhelm Reich is that he was put in jail for making claims about this subtle energy which were deemed to be unsupportable by the pseudoskeptics. He also developed devices that might put the energy to work and claimed he could heal people of some diseases with the energy. In fact, the actual jail time was because he ignored the charges, and apparently his partner transported some of their material across state lines, which became criminal contempt of court. From the Wilhelm Reich Museum website: “While Reich appealed his sentence, the government carried out the destruction of orgone accumulators and literature. In Maine, several boxes of literature were burned, and accumulators and accumulator materials either destroyed or dismantled. In New York City, on August 23, 1956, the FDA supervised the burning of several tons of Reich’s publications in one of the city’s garbage incinerators,…. This destruction of literature constitutes one of the most heinous examples of censorship in United States history.” Reich died of heart failure while in prison and I understand his research partner committed suicide shortly thereafter.
Reviewing What is Orgone Energy? by Charles R. Kelley, Ph.D. will give you a sense of the nature of this subtle energy which Reich called Orgone. You will also see that Reich’s discovery is really just one of many rediscoveries of the same energy. Today, it is being studied as psi or biofield. Because of its apparent effect on living tissue, the influence intentionality has on this energy to heal a person is a primary means of studying the energy (see An Unusual Form of Radiation has a Reproducible Effect in the Laboratory by Robert A. Charman). It also appears that meditation and group intention can cause changes in the randomness of random event generators. This effect may be the result of a change in the biofield and may also help explain how EVP are formed.
A Case Study: Skeptical Control of the Media
It is obvious from a simple search of the Internet that the skeptics dominate the media when it comes to public outreach about frontier subjects. Yes, there are thousands of ghost hunter websites and websites promoting the many forms of complementary medicine, but if you look for substantive support for the concepts, you run into a wall of skeptical websites supported by “skeptic” clubs, universities and mainstream science organizations. One of the most dominant of the skeptic’s media is Wikipedia. In nearly every search subject Wikipedia is the first website to come up.
If you are surprised to hear that Wikipedia is counted at the top of the skeptic’s media, I recommend that you take some time to read the talk page associated with your favorite frontier subject. There is usually an ongoing discussion about the struggle to balance the point of view of the article–a cardinal rule of Wikipedia. The problem is that the rules favor the majority group of editors, which are skeptics and nearly all of the editors who seek a true balance have been permanently blocked from editing or simply run off. Subject-matter specialists are not allowed to edit subjects in which they may have a conflict of interest.
I invite you to spend a little time examining the Talk pages of Wikipedia articles about the paranormal. The Talk page is where editors talk amongst themselves to seek consensus for what will be in the elated article. In fact, it is usually a battleground in which naive new editors are attacked and eventually driven off by the dominating skeptical editors. Especially look at the archived pages (upper-right corner), as the skeptics, being sensitive to prying eyes of the public, quickly archive embarrassing exchanges.
An example is the biography of a living person for Rupert Sheldrake, and article I am banned from editing for life. The Talk page is a good place to learn about skeptic tactics. Just read some of the discussion or use the search tool under the archive list.
The essay, Concerns with Wikipedia explains some of the issue. In a nutshell, a group of determined people hiding behind screen names have managed to gain control of what is thought by the public to be a respected online encyclopedia. Rather than writing the articles as “This is what is the subject is about, and here are the various viewpoints about the subject,” articles about what they call “fringe” subjects are written in a tone that subtly gives the sense that the subject is nonsense and a danger to society. The articles may have a lot of information, but it is always couched in terms of “believers,” “proponents” and how it is pseudoscience or quackery.
One of the ways you can see the extent to which the skeptics are using Wikipedia to attack frontier subjects can be seen in the many articles that are pretty much the same. Here is one list:
List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
|Cargo cult science
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly CSICOP
James Randi Educational Foundation
List of cryptids
Philosophy of science
Superseded scientific theories
The Internet has given skeptics considerably more access to the public so that anyone with a strong opinion and too much time on his or her hands can substantially influence the opinions of many people. A little time spend reviewing the James Randi website discussion board might shock you as to the strong opinions against frontier subjects spoken by ill-informed people hiding behind screen names.
There is a balance between a priori skepticism and open-minded gullibility. Some claims are not even reasonable for frontier subjects. Many reported experiences are clearly delusion or the ordinary mistaken as unusual. Every bump in the night is not a ghost and not every instance of improved health is because of healing intention. On the other hand, some of these reported experiences are not explained by current principles of science and may point to new understanding of nature. It is not reasonable to accept some of the extreme explanations without substantiating research but it is also not reasonable to discount the reports because they are not currently part of known science.
“Know what you believe” is based on the idea that you should practice critical thinking leading to discernment. That means you take the time to examine the evidence before adopting a conditional opinion. I say “conditional opinion” because the rest of the story is that whatever is decided should be routinely reexamined to see if it still makes sense. If possible, the opinion should be tested. If the opinion cannot be reasonably based on evidence, then you should remain undecided. If there is not sufficient information to arrive at an informed opinion, then no opinion is the only answer. To do otherwise is to base the opinion on faith derived from popular wisdom, superstition and/or the opinion of others who may be acting on an undisclosed agenda.
A fair portion of academia believes all major principles in nature have been discovered and that all we are doing now is filling in the details. Basically that is to say that there is only the physical universe … period! Anything outside of that such as a psi field, etheric personality and survival of personality after bodily death is not included in these major principles of nature and therefore cannot be. This a priori assumption has manifest as Scientism at its worst.
Each of us has a responsibility to practice discernment about what we believe. At the same time, anyone who makes a claim about these phenomena has the responsibility to clearly distinguish between what can be experimentally proven and what is believed as a matter of faith. The essay Pseudoscience is a discussion about what these terms mean. In essence, if study is not based on ideas developed from a clearly stated hypothesis (theory about the subject) following a predefined protocol (methodology of how to conduct the study) with the intention of publishing a report that will be vetted by subject-matter specialists, then resulting opinions cannot be claimed as “experimentally proven.” Fruits of the study can be described as “ongoing study,” but be careful not to claim science unless reasonably well-considered methodologies have been applied.
A second, equally important consideration when claiming science is the qualifications of the people who conducted the research. Evan a person with a doctorate in parapsychology must establish credibility to study the particular subject. An example is when a person trained as a psychologist conducts research concerning transcommunication. If it is about how a person experiences the phenomena, then the researcher should be considered qualified. If it is about how the phenomena are formed, then there is no reason to assume the person is any more qualified than an experienced paranormal field investigator who is able to put together and report on a sound protocol based on a well-conceived research question. Our field is especially vulnerable to skeptical attacks based on qualifications of our “experts.”
What you say need not be based on your research alone. This website and atransc.org are efforts to provide a growing body of material you can refer to. There are other association journals and judicious use of Internet material can help you develop a supportable statement about your understanding of these phenomena. Be careful of the “Trojan Horse effect,” however. skeptics are sometimes members of organizations that are involved in paranormal research. In some cases, these organizations effectively function as debunkers for some concepts, especially etheric studies. There is a hierarchy of approval for concepts, so that while the mainstream objects to things paranormal, many paranormal organizations (or at least members of these organizations) regard the idea of survived personality as pure nonsense. Use discernment.
Association for Skeptical Investigation
On the other side of the debate are people who are genuinely open-minded skeptics. For instance, Skeptical Investigations which is organized by the Association for Skeptical Investigation. From the website:
“This website is dedicated to countering the dogmatic and frequently ill-informed attacks leveled by self-styled skeptics on parapsychology and pioneering researchers in general.
“We take the view that ‘my mind is made up – don’t confuse me with facts’ is not a useful premise from which to conduct a reasoned debate.
“As well as investigating skeptics, we look at ways in which scientific objectivity is compromised by vested interests, fraud, experimenter effects and merchants of doubt, who use skepticism as a weapon to further corporate interests.
“We also explore current controversies and look at open-minded investigations, which use the scientific method to investigate the unknown.”
Each of us is a representative of our field. The skeptics have influence because they are zealous, not because they are right but mostly because we do not represent ourselves in a defensible way. Yes, there is still the problem that things paranormal are outside of known and therefore acceptable science, but that can never be addressed so long as the skeptics are able to make their ridicule of us so believable by using our own words and actions. It is for us to show the world they are wrong.