Illogical Tactics of Scientific Pseudo-Skeptics


 Pseudoskeptic Fallacies Inforgraphic

 When I started this website just one year ago I was optimistic that I could find common ground between my own efforts to create critical-thinking heavy analysis techniques and the efforts of skeptics. After a great deal of searching I continue to come up short. The idea of scientific skepticism is a good one: An organized group that promotes critical thinking and science literacy. For all the talk and parading of credentials I am very disappointed that this large and well-funded movement has generated very little in the way of paranormal research. Skeptical blogs, websites, books and magazines produce topical content that entertains their base but provides no value in the advancement of understanding these cases. 

What I find more shameful is that the skeptical community often chases the low-hanging fruit. They paint the field as amateurs who offer nothing in the way of hard research, but in reality this is because they either don’t know or fail to acknowledge the groups doing good work. NARCAP, Rocky Mountain Paranormal, ASSAP, Grimstone, and Loren Coleman are just a few. The hard work these people do to advance the field of the paranormal often goes unrecognized. You would imagine the skeptical community that is invested in investigation of these claims would be deeply involved in promoting and even working with these leaders of the field, but rarely if ever will you hear any of them mentioned in skeptical media. 

I want skepticism to succeed. I think it is an interesting and useful movement that deserves to be listened to, but only if skeptics hold themselves to their own standards. Skeptics need to stop kidding themselves by claiming believers and the rest of the field of paranormal investigators are ignoring their infallible logic. The field of skepticism is filled with logical fallacies, hypocrisy, sloppy research practices, ignorance of scientific methodology, and ad hominem attacks on their critics. Admitting the problem is the first step to overcoming it. The sooner the skeptical movement can point that high-powered perception at its own shortcomings, the stronger it will be. 

Poor Research

Books and articles by scientific skeptics is plagued by poor research practices, the omission of key facts, generalizations and mischaracterizations. I’ve pointed to some of these in my past criticism of articles by Ben Radford, Sharon Hill and Joe Nickell

There are many examples of this and for the sake of brevity I’ll only mention one more. This example highlights the disconnect between what skeptics and cryptozooligists consider scholarship. In 2013 Daniel Luxton and Donald Prothero released a book called Abominable Science that essentially debunks cryptid myths like the Yeti and Loch Ness Monster. Skeptics loved it, in fact Sharon Hill named it book of the year for 2013 on her blog. The book got rave reviews, except from some of the people dedicated to studying cryptozoology. Daniel Perez provided a less than flattering review along with comments from Loren Coleman. The primary criticisms were omissions of evidence and testimony. The author’s provided a rebuttal which can be read here

Regardless of whether or not you believe these omissions were important scholarly work demands a thorough and transparent accounting of the facts. Scientific studies do not leave out procedural details because they are boring or not as relevant as the rest of the study. Accounting for ALL of the evidence is part of making a reasoned argument. Without that the work is more topical than scholarly. And that is truly sad. We have a field that is supposed to exemplify science and scholarly efforts package topical commentary and label it as scholarly work in the field. This level of scholarship would never be acceptable in any reputable field of science. 

Pseudo-Skeptics Unite

Scientific skeptics, or pseudo-skeptics have a strong following. They often protect each other in the face of controversy. For example when the Daily Grail discussed the James Randi identity theft controversy, sketpic Sharon Hill was quick to respond to the author in the comments:

I understand if you don’t agree with his methods or if you dispute the claims regarding duping the media – that’s fair game. But to delve into Randi’s personal relationships and issues as a means to discredit his life’s work? That’s pretty low. I disagree that these issues have anything to do with the work of the JREF and its mission. To make such an association is not justified. This ends up being an ad hominem attack, not evidence.
I daresay you are not privledged to the skeptical conversation where we all are pretty damn critical of each other. Take for example when Randi posted a misguided view on global warming. There was an outcry, he corrected himself.
You mention that this issue is not discussed in the CT community. It certainly is. But, why in the world would people of the skeptical community, interested in doing positive things, want to drag up gossip and dirt about each other and throw it around in public? It’s not relevant. We have better things to discuss.
If there is a case of circling the wagons, it is because these are our friends and we wish to help them through a tough PERSONAL time. Would you disown your child for a drug arrest? Would you stop admiring a influential teacher because he had a drunk driving arrest?
Many of us are beyond such petty judgements of people who have made some bad choices or gotten involved in trouble.
While I understand that reputation is vulnerable to attack, stick to the facts as they apply and understand why people support the JREF and the Critical Thinking community to begin with. It’s not to pick at people but pick at their claims with reason. Seeing no value in becoming morally smug about this, I continue to support the core mission of Randi and his foundation.
If I look like an apologist, so be it. A life of work should not be discarded for one unconnected issue.

Based on Sharon’s response you would imagine that the post was pretty vile, but actually I found it to be very evenhanded. And when we compare this to how skeptics treat controversies it is pretty clear that the Author’s criticism of James Randi was tame. 

This isn’t the first controversy James Randi has been involved in. He was criticized for his radical views on social Darwinism, unfair testing with his million dollar challenge, employee harassment at JREF, his controversial comments on climate change, and his statement about his million dollar challenge:

I always have a way out. I’m right. 

And honestly I could care less about the controversy, but what I do care about is even-handed criticism. So it would be surprising if many of the controversies were omitted from a popular wiki maintained by scientific skeptics. In fact out of all of those controversies I highlighted, only the global warming controversy is mentioned.

Now that on its own isn’t exceptionally incriminating. Maybe Rational Wiki doesn’t want to commit character assassination. Fair enough. But let’s look at some other entries on this same site. Winston Woo is one of the biggest critics of skeptics and what he calls the pseudo-skeptics. His entry can be viewed here. The very first line reads:

The Scientific Committee Exposing Pseudo-Skeptical Cynicism of the Paranormal, or “SCEPCOP,” is a website created by “Vinstonas Wu” (aka Winston Wu), an admitted diagnosed schizophrenic,[1] to help champion every crazy idea which lacks any corroborative evidence whatsoever.

And there are more attempts at character assassination throughout the entry. 

Another popular controversy has to do with Loren Coleman and his use of controversial SEO (search engine optimization) tactics to boost traffic to his site. Read the criticism from Mad Skeptic here. The article is filled with numerous assumptions and the claims are questionable which Top Secret writers points out.

From my own review it seems several of the “keyword stuffing” incidents were used in correct context. Even if they were using 9/11 to promote a cryptozoology book, it is a piss-poor way to get more sales. Forget that fact that modern search algorithms are pretty darn good at spotting this kind of trickery, someone searching for 9/11 material that runs onto Loren Coleman’s site will click the back button as soon as they arrive. Not a very effective SEO strategy. 

James Randi is defended because of a tame article on his connection with identity theft yet Loren Coleman, accused of keyword stuffing received this much attention and criticism? I searched the Mad Skeptics site for any of the James Randi controversies but oddly found no mention

If you are going to air people’s dirty laundry at least be evenhanded about it! In all my articles on I have never discussed these controversies in the skeptical community. The reason is simple; I choose to judge skeptics based on the merits of their work. Unfortunately this courtesy does not appear mutual.

Strangely though, skeptics do turn on each other quite quickly, especially when it comes to the feminist movement like Richard Dawkins and the Elavatorgate scandal

Skeptics express outrage and use character assassination when it is in their interests but point to controversies among their own and the mere mention of these topics is considered outrageous. 

Ignorance of Scientific Methodology

Ockham’s Razor or the similar rule of parsimony is often used to justify how the skeptical explanation is superficially more likely than the paranormal. Joe Nickell uses this quite frequently. But use of these methods require more than the casual application to competing hypotheses. The fact of the matter is, these tools are often applied incorrectly and without careful attention to defining assumptions, classifying evidence, and developing criterion to weigh assumptions in competing hypotheses. I detail more of this on All About Occult

Another common skeptic argument is there is no proof that an EMF (insert whatever other meter) meter detects ghosts. They are right in this statement but it is a complete misunderstanding of scientific methodology. If we are talking fallacies this is a red herring. If we extend this logic, believers have not even proven ghosts exist, so in fact no instruments, cameras included, can detect ghosts. So skeptics want believers to prove ghosts exist without using any devices to accurately record the evidence? I don’t get it. Using your 5 senses produces anecdotal evidence that would be thrown out.

In reality there is no standard like this in scientific methodology. The scientific method requires that the measuring device and method generates reproducible observations. You do not need to establish a reason to use a specific measuring device. I talk more about this on All About Occult

Generalizing and Ad Hominem Attacks

Generalizing is a necessary tool. I employ generalization constantly when I refer to skeptics or believers. This is because it is unrealistic to take every believer or skeptic and refer to them specifically. Just like that infographic at the top of this post. That is an attack on skeptical fallacies in general. Not all skeptics are guilty of using those tactics, and certainly believers are guilty of using these tactics too. But when using generalizations it should always come with the caveat that this does not apply to the entire group or something to that effect. To characterize entire groups like skeptics or believers by specific traits is problematic because the fields are diverse. 

So I do not take issue with using generalizations when applied tactfully, but when abused they become a tool to stereotype a group or bury evidence. Take for example Joe Nickell’s “States of Mind” article. In it he analyzes three cases of UFO sightings and concludes:

Like UFOlogical cases generally, these examples from Anderson are telling. They illustrate how distorting the eye of the beholder can be, and how—through credulity, pro-UFO bias, illusions and misperceptions, altered states of consciousness, personality traits, and other factors, including a UFO-mythmaking culture—it can transform mundane phenomena into perceived alien encounters.

I encourage you to read the rest of the article and my analysis for context. But essentially Nickell blames altered states of consciousness and bad memory for close encounters with UFOs with little to no evidence to support this claim and a great deal of assumptions. 

And Nickell at least applies generalizations politely. Donald Prothero, co-author of Abominable Science, responded to criticisms of omission of data like this:

Even if we had not compiled the historical record of each cryptid, the rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence by a whole range of biological, geological and paleontological constraints that this critic clearly never read about. As usual, he’s doing the usual creationist tactic to avoid the confrontation of hard data against his beliefs [emphasis mine]: dismiss it with an irrelevant or false argument and then ignore it.

You can view the page here. What does a criticism about omission in a book have to do with creationism? That isn’t relevant at all and offers no value in addressing the criticism. Please take on the argument alone without injecting unnecessary rhetoric! Or you can examine an article by Donald Prothero on the same blog “Chemtrails” ?Really? Did You Flunk Science? This illustrates the use of generalizations and Ad Hominem attacks against believers. This is also a great example of mischaracterization of the opposition’s arguments. From reading Prothero’s blog entry you would have no idea of the scope of work that has been done by Chemtrail advocates. Dane Wigington has even claimed to capture abnormally high UVA and UVB levels. I don’t care what your view is on the issue, but if you are going to draw conclusions like Chemtrail Advocates flunked Science, or the entire notion is silly, you need to address some of the more compelling evidence. 

Or how about the term “woo” used by skeptics to label anyone who criticizes skeptical methodology. A more productive line of effort would be in coherently addressing these criticisms not establishing labels for common arguments. Unfortunately these terms are employed to dismiss criticisms by category instead of addressing the argument. 

And there are harsher examples to in the comments of many skeptical blogs and forums like JREF but I wanted to avoid taking examples from the low-hanging fruit. A little bit of Google will show you the way. 

The Participation Problem

The participation problem – I cannot understand how a group that self-identifies as the leaders of critical-thinking frequently cries incompetence when discussing paranormal investigators and cryptozoologists yet immediately assumes this incompetent field of researchers should have generated proof of the paranormal by now. If we were to apply critical thinking to this issue there are three possible explanations I can immediately come up with:

1). Investigators lack the competence to generate actionable evidence and data

2). The phenomenon cannot be easily measured and characterized with existing tools and techniques

3). The phenomenon has a explanation based on natural and known laws of science.

Why do skeptics assume number 3 when they actively acknowledge number 1 and fail to even discuss number 2? If skeptics claim the field is plagued by unscientific work then it logically follows that this unscientific work may have an effect on evidence collection and analysis. That is a perfectly reasonable explanation yet I never see it entertained by skeptics. You can read more about the burden of proof and the participation problem here

Pseudo-Skeptics vs. Believers: Resources

Another glaring issue in this field is the balance of resources. The scieentific skeptic movement has big names with big donors like Micheal Shermer and and Skeptic Magazine. There is CSI which also has a magazine. There is JREF which is ran in part by James Randi. These organization receive significant donations and have paid staff to help combat the pseudo-science of the believers. And there are a vast array of blogs and websites promoting skepticism. Not to mention skeptics have the support from many in  the scientific community.

There is even an effort dedicated to changing Wikipedia pages to promote skepticism and its big names. And this has attracted criticism from people like Rupert Sheldrake. And when Sharon Hill expressed that she was ready to stop running Doubtful news, bloggers mobilized the Skpetical community to keep the site going

Now look at the field of paranormal investigators:

Paranormal investigators don’t get grants or have backing from wealthy donors to support their cause. They have limited scientific involvement, limited scientific knowledge and very limited resources. It is a bit ridiculous to claim the paranormal is not a noteworthy area of study because the haphazard arrangements of paranormal investigators have not generated any definitive evidence. And aside from a few very rare exceptions like Richard Wiseman, the majority of the the skeptical community is engaged in topical discussion of the paranormal not hard research and analysis. 

It is not surprising to see why the community of paranormal investigators harbors disdain for scientific skeptics and pseudo-skeptics. They face the high standard of the scientific method without the resources and knowledge to meet that standard. Their opponents are well-funded and well-organized and will employ illogical attacks and arguments and even insults to reduce the credibility of critics. While skeptics could invest their significant resources in furthering the work they continue to produce only topical commentary on paranormal topics. What amazes me is after all this why some skeptics wonder why believers don’t drop their foolish beliefs and accept the all-knowing scientific skepticism arguments… Skeptics would do well to focus more resources on providing training and helpful suggestions. Criticism is only interesting for so long: At some point the audience says “Ok we get your message so what’s your alternative?” And on that I rarely see an answer from skeptics. Skeptics, if you want to improve the field of paranormal research, provide a point-by-point guide of policies and procedures. Topical commentary is a great ego building exercise, but not terribly helpful for the advancement of the field. 

This is by no means a complete list of common tactics used by some skeptics in the paranormal debate, and I know believers and people all across the spectrum share guilt. But I am under no obligation to provide a complete list. I have seen some quite vile comments on my explorations into skeptical territory and don’t make it a point to save each one. For those who truly have an interest in understanding and witnessing these errors go out and look for yourself. Apply your own critical thinking and feel free to comment on your findings. You don’t have to take my word for it. The truth is out there;)