They Called Me A Pseudoskeptic!

No, I don’t believe there is anything paranormal going on. I’m sceptical of extraordinary claims that the psi folk make but which they cannot confirm. It would be different, perhaps, if psychics really did solve crimes, or predict lottery numbers, or if minefields were being routinely cleared by dowsers, or if anything – anything paranormal at all – could be proven clearly and unambiguously.

It seems, however, that anyone like me who doubts the existence of any of the myriad claims made about the paranormal is not merely a sceptic, but a pseudosceptic. Gosh! I need testable, confirmable evidence before I will believe that a claim that contradicts the known physical laws might be true! I just don’t have faith, and that won’t do.

I’ve been called a pseudoskeptic often by the believers, who seem to think that a “true sceptic” is someone who goes through the motions of examining the evidence offered by the psi proponents, and thereafter accepts it uncritically. In fact, it is claimed that the reason people like me do not accept the paranormal is because I just haven’t examined the evidence. But the opposite is true: I spend as much – or more – time looking at paranormal claims and the supposed evidence supporting it as I do reading about actual science. And I find the evidence in favour of the paranormal woefully inadequate. But I do have a knowledge of science and its methodology, although I make no claims to be a practising scientist.

The believers put great emphasis on the research offered by parapsychologists – often people who do actually have scientific credentials. It sounds good to say that scientists have proven the existence of psi; they have Ph.D. qualifications (usually), so what more do I want? Am I just rejecting science that does not conform to my personal prejudices – as the believers claim?

Actually no – I am rejecting research that no mainstream scientist can replicate. That’s a key point, because nothing is accepted in science unless it can be replicated, and even then it can take a long time to overcome the scepticism of other scientists. Plenty of parapsychologists have claimed to have found proof of psi, but if it only happens in their own laboratories, and no-one else can reproduce the same results and there turns out to be absolutely no practical benefits from it, then why believe? If the psi believers and researchers cannot provide evidence that stands up to independent scrutiny then it is reasonable to doubt the claim – to be sceptical, even. After more than a hundred and fifty years of scientists dabbling in paranormal research there is not one single practical application that has come out of any of it. Of course I’m sceptical – any rational person should be.

In the real world, paranormal claims fall flat. Psychics simply do not do the things they – and others – claim for them.

Consider this scenario:

You meet someone who claims to be a concert pianist. He is with a group of his friends who all confirm his story and even offer anecdotes about the concerts he has performed in the past. They tell you that he has been tested by qualified music examiners and passed every test and exam they have put to him. They regale you with accounts of this pianist performing musical feats that seem impossible to you, a non-musician. You protest that there is no evidence that this person has any musical ability, so why should you accept such a claim?

The matter can be resolved, however: there is a piano in the room, so you invite this pianist to play something. You propose that even though you are not a musician, you will accept the claim that this person is at least a pianist if he can play a recognised piece of classical piano music. You will even leave the choice of music to him, just so long as it is a known classical piece. You are not going to accept “Chopsticks” – you want some kind of Waltzy Sonata or something; nothing less will do.

If this person sits down and plays, say, Mozart’s Alla Turka, note-perfect, I think I would be be convinced. And so should any other reasonable person.

But what if your request for the alleged pianist to perform as he claims he can is met with the reply, “It doesn’t work like that”? That’s the standard reply from psychics and their supporters, after all.

And what if you are told that because you are sceptical of his abilities, his musical abilities will not manifest themselves – that’s the way it is in the presence of sceptics and unbelievers?

Suppose he said that he will not do it because the piano that is there is an upright, and the performance of music on anything less than a Steinberg  grand piano is “not conducive” to musical performance?

What if he said to you, “The production of music is a rare and elusive phenomenon that cannot be called up at will”?

Maybe he might say, “Musical phenomena are spontaneous and cannot be predicted, so I can’t be expected to perform on demand.”

OK, then, suppose he finally agrees to do the test and sits down at the piano, only to produce nothing more than a jumble of notes with no melody whatsoever. He might acknowledge that he got it wrong then, but he assures you that he gets it right about eighty or ninety percent of the time, i.e., every time you are unable to see or hear him perform.

By now I think I would conclude that this fellow can’t play a piano. I might even tell him to his face that I don’t believe he has any musical ability.

But then his followers would probably call “foul.” They just know that he can do what he claims, because they have heard him with their own ears, not realising that they are themselves tone deaf and have no knowledge of music theory.

In a similar way, psychics and their supporters are like that. They have lots of faith, but no knowledge of how science works, or even what constitutes valid evidence (and no, anecdotes are not evidence).

If you have watched some of the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent auditions by people who are truly awful singers but who – together with their supporters – believe they are great performers, you might start to understand my analogy. The show’s judges – who do know something about music – can usually be relied on to weed out the hopefuls who cannot do what they think they can.

The reality is not that I have not studied what the paranormalists believe is evidence for the paranormal; in fact,  they themselves have little or no understanding of science. Even many of the parapsychologists who do have scientific credentials are themselves practising pseudoscience. In fact the believers often dismiss empirical findings with the casual refrain, “Science doesn’t know everything.” Some self-styled “experts” also claim to have evidence but they just won’t let you examine it. And science itself is usually referred to by the derogatory term “scientism.”  Oooooh!

If there is such a person as a pseudosceptic, then its definition boils down to this: a pseudosceptic is another name for a denialist. A denialist, like a believer, has a fixed point of view that is impervious to reason. I can be convinced of the existence of the paranormal if anyone can ever prove it. A belief backed up only by excuses for constant failure will not do it for me; nor will anecdotes, personal testimony, heartfelt declarations and so on.

Show me a psychic that can actually do anything psychic and I will accept it. But make a claim for the existence of psi without backing it up with testable evidence and I will doubt it. That’s what scepticism is about.

For your entertainment:

Here is someone who claims to be a pianist, and actually proves it. This is brilliant.

Someone who does what he claims.


Here are some people who genuinely believe they have talent, but are making complete fools of themselves. Tragic and sad.

Ambition goes beyond ability


Here are some psychics who do what psychics do, (fail when tested) but just happen to be exposed as charlatans. (And they didn’t see it coming, for some inexplicable reason.)

Psychics: the reality


Naturally, it might just be that the three mediums featured above were just having an off day. I mean, psi doesn’t work like that, does it? It’s a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t be called up at will. They are also in the presence of a sceptic and the conditions are therefore not conducive to psychic effects Etc., etc., etc.

No doubt there will be believers who will make excuses – as they always do – for these psychics and other psychics who can’t do anything psychic. But the main point still remains: paranormal proponents have yet to prove beyond any doubt that the paranormal is real. They have not done that, nor have they produced a testable hypothesis that would make any headway into psi, and they certainly do not have anything approaching what could be described as a theory (in the scientific sense) that can explain psi or be predictive in any way that science would accept.

No one can prove a negative, so no one can actually disprove the existence of the paranormal. The burden of proof is on those who claim that the paranormal is real; until they do so, I remain sceptical.

There is nothing pseudo about reasonable doubt.

4 responses to “They Called Me A Pseudoskeptic!

  1. On the contrary, I personally found this a mostly well-tempered analysis of psi research. A classic example of a pseudosceptic is someone who dismisses the psi hypothesis off the bat without reading any of the psi literature, so there *are* psi pseudosceptics in that regard, and they do come across as closed-minded. Although here it is clear that you’ve actually looked into some of the data and formed a conclusion, which indicates a balanced sceptical perspective.

    One of my theories about psi is that it’s not something we “do” per se, it is something that appears to arise out of the determinants of our physical (and/or meta-physical) reality. If anomalous phenomena are non-local (or non-personal) (which is just one possible theory), then the music metaphor you gave wouldn’t really be applicable. I’m not sure how many psychics, healers, clairvoyants etc. would actually claim to “have” psi abilities on-demand, certainly some acknowledge that it “just happens” as the result of a seeming external force. If that is the case, then you are most certainly correct that it would be difficult to capture or demonstrate the presence of psi in laboratory conditions (and difficult to replicate in any conditions for that matter). Though as you mention, this argument might well be used as a convenient excuse for certain proclaimed psychics, I don’t think it gives us a basis to stop investigation into the area altogether.


  2. Alexd,

    Thanks for commenting.

    For me, a pseudoskeptic is merely a denialist – someone who dismisses paranormal claims without any critical analysis. That is just the other side of the coin, however. There are also believers who accept paranormal claims without any critical analysis. There are closed-miinded people on both sides of the debate.

    What gets to me, though, is the fact that many of the believers have no real idea of how science works – which is quite obvious from the fact that they do not understand why their beliefs are not accepted by mainstream science. They quote pseudoscientists who are often qualified in legitimate areas of science, but who are no longer practising the real science they were trained in.

    You seem to be saying that psi is, indeed, a phenomenon that can’t be called up at will, but I have to ask, if that is true, how do stage and TV psychics produce their alleged phenomena night after night without fail? The same goes for telephone psychics, radio phone-in psychics, etc, etc. That doesn’t seem to raise any red flags with “serious” psi researchers. But it raises an interesting problem: is the phenomenon spontaneous or not? You can’t have it both ways. That’s just one of the many things that make me sceptical.

    I wouldn’t try to put any kind of ban on psi research, though. (I might be wrong about its non-existence, after all.). If anyone can ever prove the existence of any kind of paranormal or supernatural phenomenon it will open up a legitimate area of scientific research, and it would, of course, go from being woo to being scientific. I wouldn’t object to that, but I do object to the pro psi people dismissing me with simple platitudes like, “It doesn’t work like that.” If they can’t show me how it does work, and demonstrate why it doesn’t work under certain conditions, I’m going to continue asking awkward questions, even if it means I have to be a thorn in their side.

    If it works, prove it to the standards required by basic science. I think that’s a fair request.


  3. Most of those who identify themselves as Sceptics at least from what I’ve seen, do fall more into the Psuedoskeptic category. As a former believer in the paranormal and now a sceptic, I highly doubt that paranormal phenomena exists but still remain ‘agnostic’ on the matter.

    Joe Nickell is a good example of an individual who calls themselves Sceptic but in reality is a Psuedoskeptic. He wrote a report on the proceedings in the Enfield poltergeist case and omitted a lot of important details, for example he claimed that a police officer stated that she had seen a chair ‘slightly shake’ when in reality she had seen the chair slightly levitate and move across the room. This is just biased and dishonest and not the marking of a true sceptic.


    • Jordan, thanks for your comment.

      I haven’t read Joe Nickel’s report on the Enfield Poltergeist, but I will check it out if you can provide a link to that, but also a link to what you say the police woman stated, so that I can compare the reports myself. If I accept what you say without confirmation I could be accused of being gullible; if I rejected it without checking it I could be accused of being a pseudosceptic.

      Personally, I have always found Joe Nickell to be a reliable source. You accuse him of being “biased and dishonest.” That’s a big claim to make, so please feel free to offer confirmable evidence.

      I would also be interested to know what is your own definition of a “pseudoskeptic.”


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