There is a website calling itself “skeptical about skeptics“. It is… odd. It appears to be the brainchild of Craig Weiler, described by RationalWiki as “an American parapsychology activist, known for posting anti-skeptic rants on the internet”. It features screeds by Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, Dean Radin and others.
In other words, if you believe in the lizard overlords and the skeptics say the lizard overlord theory is bunk, then motivated reasoning would lead to you deciding that skeptics are all in the pay of the lizard overlords.
Weiler has this to say about skeptics:
Why should we be skeptical about skeptics? Isn’t skepticism about approaching new ideas rationally and examine evidence objectively before jumping to conclusions? Shouldn’t we avoid believing anything and everything that comes our way.
Of course we should; that is the foundation of science after all.
Yes, this is perfectly correct. The opinion of skeptics is just opinion, albeit usually backed by a mass of fact. This is why attacking Randi or some other prominent skeptic is a sterile and pointless exercise: even if James Randi turned out to be the operator of a Satanic temple, that would not undermine in the least his exposure of crooks and charlatans, because in doing this he published the evidence in full.
But it is also possible to go completely overboard on skepticism to the point where it’s just overwhelming bias against new ideas. They are rejected out of hand and evidence is disregarded before it is even seen. This is actually quite common. You can pick pretty much any controversial topic and there will be a wide range of opinions ranging from true believers to dogmatic deniers, whether we’re talking about climate change or UFOs or bigfoot, it doesn’t matter. There will be people of all types.
So here the agenda emerges. Yes, there is a spectrum form true believers to dogmatic deniers. Dogmatic deniers of things like UFOs and bigfoot are not skeptics, and they are vanishingly rare. The skeptics who look at UFOs and bigfoot and similar fields tend to be very nice people, who are capable of listening patiently and respectfully even to people who are quite obviously insane. They review the evidence, they conclude that a more parsimonious explanation exists. Skeptical Inquirer is full of articles by folks like this.
Climate change, though is a different kettle of fish. The dogmatic deniers here call themselves skeptics but they are not. Neither are holocaust skeptics, evolution skeptics and the like.
The essential difference is this: science as a body of thought encompasses all valid opinions and weighs them according to merit. Science says that psychic phenomena are implausible, violate known laws of nature, and are not supported by credible evidence. Psi advocates portray this as denialism, but it’s not: it’s a reasoned conclusion form the available facts. Dogmatic denialism would refuse to even look at the experiments of proponents, but this is not what happens. What science actually does is infinitely worse for the psi proponents: it provides a simpler explanation without reference to empirically unverifiable phenomena.
This site focuses on the people who fall in the dogmatic denier category because they present themselves as being the most truthful and objective, which they are not. They call themselves skeptics and they would be harmless save for the fact that they have a lot of influence in academia and the mainstream media and are invested in making sure that mainstream sources, such as Wikipedia reflect their point of view. (And only their point of view.)
This is the part I find most interesting because I know a lot about how Wikipedia works. Wikipedia follows an unashamedly rationalist view. In any subject which is rightly the province of scientific inquiry, the scientific consensus view will prevail, and as the consensus changes, so will Wikipedia. There are issues at the margins, but by and large that is how it goes.
Wikipedians tend to be vested in Wikipedia and the commitment to make it factually accurate and informative. Active research scientists do not usually form part of the Wikipedia community, they are too busy publishing, but occasionally they do appear and it’s very often because they have a view they are advocating in the literature, which is not widely accepted, and which they want Wikipedia to present as fact. So yes, there are a number of people who are deeply invested in making Wikipedia reflect their point of view.
Let me list a few in no particular order:
- Dana Ullman (contribs, commentary on Wikipedia)
- Deepak Chopra (media representative’s contributions)
- Rupert Sheldrake (contributions of an apologist, commentary on Wikipedia)
- Russell Targ (contributions)
- Proponents of Emotional Freedom Techniques (proponent, commentary on Wikipedia)
I should state up front that I feel quite bad about this. It must be very hurtful to be so vested in something, and to have one of the world’s most prominent sources of information state that you are wrong. It is extremely important that Wikipedia should be scrupulously fair in these matters, and what you find in the content is that, by and large, we are.
If you believe in homeopathy, quantum flapdoodle, morphic resonance, parapsychology or subtle energy, you’re not going to enjoy Wikipedia. The same applies to Truthers, Birthers, Ufologists, Cerealogists, Wikipedia unashamedly follows the mainstream view, and this is by design.
The Wikipedia approach to fringe theories is to describe them accurately, but to defer to the scientific consensus as to their validity. Believers can’t accept this because they think that their belief is correct and science is not. Proponents seem keen to do absolutely anything to get their point of view represented as fact – anything, that is, short of the only thing that will work: getting it accepted by the scientific community.
Nearly any controversial subject you care to name has another side to the debate that you probably haven’t heard. It is the goal of Skeptical About Skeptics to show you the reasons why you’re only getting one side of the story.
No, this is the fallacy of false equivalence. Climate change deniers and vaccine denialists insist that there are two sides to the debate, but ignore the fact that the scientific consensus, supported virtually unanimously in both cases, not only shows the deniers to be simply wrong, it also includes all the disconfirming evidence they prefer. Their arguments are fallacious, cherry-picked, misrepresented or outright invented, and they seem valid only because they are presented outside the context of the mass of studies showing them to be incorrect or misleading. And the denialism is dangerous. It has held back decisive action on climate change, it has resulted in outbreaks of serious vaccine-preventable diseases, which have in turn led to serious harm including death.
In science, any compromise between a correct statement and a false statement, is a false statement.
The challenge for any believer is to provide evidence in a way that distinguishes your claims from pseudoscience, pathological science and plain nonsense. If the arguments you use would apply equally to blatantly fraudulent claims like those of homeopaths, then you need to go away and work on your evidence, not shout at the nasty reality-based community for refusing to accept your claims.
So proponents of extraordinary claims, must provide extraordinary evidence. They also need to understand that skepticism is not a bias, it is the bedrock of the scientific method. Proponents of remote viewing discount the evidence that they were duped by Uri Geller, on the basis that it comes from skeptics. Project Alpha may be the best known example of skeptics showing that believers in paranormal claims failed to apply critical thinking skills.
Cranks belittle some skeptics as being stage conjurers, not scientists. Reflect on this: if a scientist accepts your proof of a claim at odds with the known laws of physics, but a stage conjurer shows it to be attributable to sleight of hand, who’s more likely to be right? The cranks will say: the scientist. But everybody else will be familiar with the image of the honest scientist, not worldly wise, and will readily understand that the stage conjurer, a trickster through and through, is much more likely to be able to spot fraud.
Homeopathists, for example, criticise John Maddox’s debunking of Jacques Benveniste’s “memory of water” experiments because Randi was involved, therefore it’s pathological skepticism. The criticism is invalid, what the skeptics did was to identify a failure of blinding, this is perfectly legitimate. Randi spotted what a scientist, not accustomed to misdirection and cognitive bias, could not. If a conjurer can spot the flaw in your experiment then the experiment is flawed, not the conjurer.
Independent replication and crank magnetism
In order to be persuasive, you have to provide evidence that is unambiguous and can be independently replicated without prior belief – your methodology has to test the premise, not seek to confirm it. Pseudoscientists and pathological scientists conduct tests designed to demonstrate their premise, while scientists test it and try to prove it wrong.
If the validity of a finding requires you to acknowledge that by the same reasoning some other questionable thing, say homeopathy, might also be valid despite the scientific consensus, then you are doing it wrong.
Remember crank magnetism: the tendency of people who believe one set of crank ideas, to believe other, often increasingly ridiculous, crank ideas.
Your claims must stand or fall on their own merits, in isolation, and if you rely on other ideas as validation for your own then those other ideas must be well-founded. Otherwise you look like a crank – and a credulous one at that.
Personalising the dispute
One way of showing the world that you are wrong is to personalise the dispute. Very few scientists and skeptics do this in respect of anything important (arguably Richard Dawkins, who can be a titanic cock at times, does fall into this trap). I personally find it amusing to mock Dana Ullman, but my criticism of his writing is based on what he writes, not on the fact that he is dishonest.
Skeptical About Skeptics seems to comprise predominantly of personal attacks on people it holds responsible for the nasty reality that refuses to accept fringe ideas. Susan Blackmore, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, Edzard Ernst, Chris French, Martin Gardner, [P. Z. Myers], James Randi, Michael Shermer, Richard Wiseman and others.
It’s a living embodiment of Ernst’s Law: if you’re a scientist investigating alternative medicine and the quacks don’t hate you, then you’re probably not doing your job right.
Much of the criticism is based on the difference between formal scientific language and the language one might use in informal discussions.
For example: scientifically, the correct statement in respect of telekinesis is that it is incompatible with current understanding of the nature of matter, there is no remotely plausible mechanism by which it might work and all experiments purporting to demonstrate telekinesis turn out to be seriously methodologically flawed; properly controlled experiments uniformly fail to demonstrate its existence.
Informally, one might say that there is no such thing as telekinesis.
Technically, that’s incorrect: it’s not formally possible to prove a negative in this sense, at least until we have total knowledge of every facet of human consciousness. As far as everyday reality is concerned, it’s close enough.
The difference is only important if you are an advocate of telekinesis. And if you are, then you will squeeze every last drop of potential doubt out of that scientifically correct statement.
Science doesn’t know everything? Sure. Therefore we can fill in the gaps with any old bollocks? Not so much.
Sheldrake is a specimen of pathological belief. He absolutely believes in morphic resonance, and he will apparently do anything to have it accepted as valid short of properly controlled scientific experiments. He’s howled about Wikipedia presenting it as nonsense, on the basis that the world of science tends to ignore it (or point and laugh) rather than actively refuting it.
The site has an extended rant against Randi by Sheldrake, based on Randi’s refusal to accept that dogs can sense the return of their master using morphic resonance or psychic powers or whateverthefuck.
Sheldrake could, of course, submit to a properly controlled test. If he’s right, he stands to win a million dollars. The problem is – and I am pretty sure he understands this – the JREF judges were not born yesterday. They have decades of experience of people who, consciously or unconsciously, practice sleight of hand, misdirection and the various other techniques of stage conjuring in order to produce the appearance of psychic power.
As far as Sheldrake is concerned, rejecting morphic resonance automatically makes you wrong, and all he needs to do is find a hook on which to hang your wrongness. That’s not science. In science, you have to prove your claims, and you have to do it in a way that can be independently (read: by a neutral observer) replicated. Sheldrake has not done this, so his claims are regarded as unfounded and – because they violate many of the established principles on which everyday science bases its work – pseudoscientific.
There is only one way to fix that, and it’s by proper experiments. However, in terms of public discourse, you might persuade a decent sized following by reversing the burden of evidence and then noisily attacking your critics for using informal or rhetorical language instead of the formal language of science. That’s what Sheldrake does. Meanwhile, science moves on, because in the end you can deny reality as loudly as you like, reality has a long history of not caring.
Sheldrake appears to believe that he can make his claims, and it’s up to others to disprove them. He is this: wrong.
Disagreeing with Sheldrake appears to be one of the litmus tests for validity, according to this site. It rambles on endlessly about Lewis Wolpert and how he refuses to accept the evidence of psi. How evil. It’s almost as if there is no good empirical evidence for it, once sleight of hand and bias are carefully eliminated.
In the end…
In the end, “skeptical about skeptics” is a mish-mash of special pleading, nit-picking, begging the question and reversal of the burden of evidence. It exists solely because its authors have failed to establish their claims by the only route that matters: properly controlled, independently repeatable experiments.
It boils down to a bunch of pseudoscientists bleating about the fact that their pseudoscience is not taken seriously.
It’s not even interesting criticism, because the agenda is so transparent.