Analysing Skeptics?

I’ve often been accused by the believers of “not looking at the evidence” for the existence of psi – or any aspect of the paranormal. That isn’t true; I like to read anything I can come across that purports to provide evidence for anything paranormal whatsoever. I have quite a collection of books on various aspects of what is claimed to be paranormal, and there is a large number of paranormal blogs, websites and twitter accounts I follow.

What I notice, though, is that a huge majority of those sites do not actually provide evidence of anything paranormal; rather, they tend to attack sceptics. And worse, their view of scepticism in general, and sceptics in particular, is so far removed from the reality of the situation that I don’t wonder why the believers are as wrong in their perception of the paranormal as they are when it comes down to their mistaken view of scepticism.

I thought about this when I came across a recent post on Michael Prescott’s blog, cutely titled, Skeptics On The Couch. It’s not the first time I’ve come across a believer giving a “psychological analysis” of what they think goes on in the mind of the average sceptic. More interesting is the fact that Michael Prescott – like many other paranormal proponents – has no qualifications (as far as I can find out) in psychology anyway.

My interest here is that I do have a degree in psychology, so I look with a jaundiced eye when unqualified people blather on about it. But more than that, the same people usually have no qualifications in any scientific discipline whatsoever, but happily quote various fringe scientists who claim to have provided decisive evidence in favour of various matters paranormal. The same people also express indignation that mainstream science will not accept the “findings” of parapsychology, but they are blissfully unaware that their ignorance of science prevents them from understanding why science doesn’t accept it. It’s one thing to say that some parapsychologists have produced “evidence” that the paranormal is real; it’s another thing to be able to read a scientific paper and actually understand it. It is yet another thing to be able to examine the research paper in question and be able to deconstruct it and explain it in a meaningful way that would be understandable to others – in particular, non-scientists. It’s yet another thing to look at it and say, “He’s got it wrong, and here is why…”

What might be wrong with the methodology or the statistical results of any example of paranormal research? I really don’t think that Michael Prescott is in a position to criticise science or sceptics until he understands science and how it works.

But it’s easy to complain. If you really, really believe something, you might not be able to accept that others don’t. And you might also not be able to support your belief with testable evidence, and you also might not be able to provide falsifiable evidence, and you might not be able to just provide anything substantial of any kind. What you provide might not be scientific at all. If that’s the case, then just stop for a moment and ask yourself why your evidence is criticised.

Michael Prescott assumes that sceptics have a belief system, and that if those beliefs are challenged, then sceptics enter a state of cognitive dissonance – an uncomfortable mental state where two conflicting beliefs are held at the same time, forcing the person to do some mental gymnastics to overcome that dissonance. Therefore, according to Prescott, sceptics have to find ways to dismiss evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

However, Prescott commits the same fallacy as other believers, namely, assuming that scepticism is a belief system. In fact, sceptics are not defending a belief system of any kind; they are challenging those who do have beliefs, to prove their claims. It’s not part of any belief system I have that ghosts don’t exist, but when people claim they do, then the onus is on them to prove it. The claims made by paranormalists contradict what science knows about the laws of nature, and it’s not up to me to disprove those claims. If ghosts do exist, for example, then the believers have to show how it is possible for psychic “energy” to exist without contravening the laws of thermodynamics. If telepathy and the claims made for it are true, then it is up to the believers to demonstrate why the inverse square law doesn’t apply, as it does with, say, radio communication.

After about a hundred and fifty years of what might be described as serious research by parapsychologists, they are still trying to prove that there is anything paranormal going on at all. The research they produce is not accepted by mainstream science for some basic reasons – flawed experimental design, failure to replicate, statistical errors and so on. It is not, as Prescott would have you believe, because scientists and sceptics are protecting their worldview, it is because parapsychological research fails the basic tests of scientific research. And as well as that, there is no theory that underpins paranormal claims.

My own suggestion for the believers, if they want their claims to be accepted, is to produce someone who can perform the paranormal feats they claim to be able to do. Publicly predicting lottery numbers would be one thing, perhaps. Even better, in the light of recent events, would be providing the information that would allow governments to prevent any further terrorist attacks.

But let me head off any objections to that particular suggestion. It would be said by the believers that if any psychic did go to the police with such (specific) information, then he or she would likely be arrested because it is assumed that only inside information could give details of a specific terrorist event.

That’s OK, though, because our psychic could give information about terrorist attacks all over the world – but could one person really know the details of all the daily terrorist attacks that are ongoing? It would be recognised very quickly that a more likely answer to this conundrum is that this psychic is the real thing. That person would go from being an arrested suspect, to the most protected asset in the world. Terrorism would be stopped dead in its tracks. What really happens, of course, is that it is only after a major event – terrorism, earthquake or whatever – that the psychics appear and claim they knew about it beforehand.

But now come the excuses for why it doesn’t happen. We’re told that paranormal abilities are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will. It doesn’t work in the presence of an unbeliever. A skeptic in the room upsets the psychic vibrations. And the list goes on, and on, and on, but none of the ad hoc excuses presented can be tested or confirmed.

Similarly, there is no limit to the speculation about how paranormal phenomena supposedly occur. Is a ghost or apparition really made of “energy,” as many paranormal pundits say – as if energy is some kind of substance or “stuff”? To say that a ghost or anything else is “made of” energy, is to do no more than to expose one’s total ignorance of physics in particular, and science in general. It’s a belief without (dare I say) substance.

Another ad hoc speculation is quantum physics to “explain” the paranormal. I can’t help wondering why quantum physicists themselves aren’t all over it – if the paranormal exists and really is quantum based.

And so it all goes. The existence of the paranormal is not proven; its promoters have endless excuses for why it doesn’t work when tested under properly controlled conditions; and the ideas about how it supposedly works are nothing more than speculation with no way of testing any of it. Whose belief system is under threat here? The promoters of the paranormal have only beliefs, built on nothing but hope and wishful thinking. It certainly isn’t sceptics who are worried that their supposed beliefs or worldview are going to be seriously challenged any time soon.

As always, the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim, and is independent of what anyone else believes or disbelieves. If anyone’s belief system is under threat, then it is the belief system of those who already believe in things that simply do not fit in with what is already known about how nature works.

If anyone is suffering from cognitive dissonance, then it must be those who believe the paranormal is real. They are faced with an inability to prove their claims, and the fact that science does not accept any of it (for very good reasons). The way out of their dissonance is to assume their beliefs are true, and to claim that science just wants to maintain a perceived status quo at all costs. The fact that science thrives on new discoveries and would embrace the discovery of a new force of nature (call it psychic energy if you want) seems to escape them.

No, the bottom line is that sceptics, and science in general, are not defending any belief system, nor are they afflicted by cognitive dissonance. Personally, I feel no need or desire to disprove the existence of ghosts, telepathy or anything else; my own interest is in trying to get the proponents of the paranormal to actually prove their claims. The fact that they cannot understand science or why they have not proven their case to a reasonable level is something they themselves are unlikely to come to terms with.

The evidence available suggests that the paranormal does not exist, except in the minds of the believers. There are innumerable cognitive biases that people fall prey to, and those biases have been well studied and are quite sufficient to explain why the strong beliefs of the believers can be so resistant to change. Science changes in response to new data and new experimental results, so scientists can’t be justifiably accused of being either closed-minded or defending a particular worldview. The people who are guilty of that are those who spend time promoting paranormal claims, and are unable to understand why those claims are untenable.

In the meantime, I would just point out to them that they know as little about psychology as they do about physics – or any other branch of science. Sceptics aren’t the ones who hold unsupportable beliefs; the paranormalists themselves are the ones who have a belief system and worldview based on faith alone. Unfortunately, the more prominent promoters of woo often have a strong following of other believers who are even more ill-informed than them. So their own belief system is reinforced and further promoted.

It’s just a pity that faith is so easy, while science is so hard. It’s easier to believe, and so hard to know. And even easier, apparently, to psychoanalyse the people who would like to see some convincing evidence.

6 responses to “Analysing Skeptics?

  1. Excellent post, with which I agree entirely.

    If supporters of the paranormal allege there is evidence of it, and if they accuse science of ignoring it, then it’s disingenuous of them to then claim it only works sporadically, or can’t be tested, because these are features that exclude it from scientific consideration in the first place. The reality is, of course, that almost everyone has had at least one weird experience in their life, many experience several. It takes a leap of reason to realise that these experiences are psychological in origin, both the actual experience and the way we later recall it. Hence even people who don’t ‘believe’ in the paranormal will, in effect, contradict themselves by saying ‘but there are things we can’t explain’ (implying supernatural, that is).

    There’s also the point that the scientist who actually finds genuine evidence of the paranormal would become renowned over night. Of course, if they announced this with the level of evidence presented by the parapsychologists then they’d be treated as a joke.


    • Geoff, thanks for your comment.

      The woo folk do not understand why their so-called evidence for the paranormal does not meet even the minimum standards required by science. If they did understand, then they wouldn’t be using the only other option they have, namely ad hominem attacks against science in general and sceptics in particular.

      They only compound their problem when they assume they know enough about psychology to “explain” why sceptics like me (and you, I guess) lift an eyebrow and shake our heads at paranormal claims. The irony, of course, is that there are sound psychological reasons why the believers themselves stick resolutely to faith claims that they cannot prove, and which have very often been completely disproven.

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a sceptic’s work is never done.


  2. Michael Prescott
    He thinks thoughts can turn into spirits and take on objective existence, he also thinks ectoplasm is real (it was cheesecloth), he believes in levitation of tables too. Nuff said. He has fooled himself.


  3. I arrived at this entry searching for “psychology of believers in pseudoscience”. You say that pseudoscience believers attack you as not reading their evidence. For four months I have debated a man who fits the personality profile of low self-steem, low agreeableness, high distrust for authority, nay, for everything and I’m already fed up with his arrogance and ignorance. At first I thought it could be interesting to see what he had to provide and, as you, I have cared to read (begin to read is more accurate) everything he has pointed out as “evidence”, which has been a stream of flawed logic, failure to understand probability, failure to understand conditional probability, failure to understand that science doesn’t explain the why (just the how), failure to understand that science never promised to understand everything, failure to understand double blind experiments and the scientific method in general, and so on and so forth. After having began to read all these “evidence”, I can only classify the authors as broken, arrogant fools, begging for validation and money in the worst case, or simply ignorant, well meaning fools in the best case. It’s sad that some of these authors are scientists working at universities with a track record of published papers and academic qualifications (Gary Schwartz, author of The afterlife experiments, a book full of nonsense not because of what he is investigating, but because not one of his experiments satisfies proper scientific standards). The man I have been meeting is certainly not after fame or fortune, and doesn’t have the mental capacity to scheme in any way. He’s a nice, well-meaning fool who lives in a world of fantasy. He lives 100% off the government and is disconnected from the reality of how ideas are evaluated. To illustrate his broken logic: one of his contentions with science is that any fenomenon that cannot be explained with the current paradigm is dismissed as unpublishable or false. There is no point in arguing then that Einstein was reviled by his fellow scientists, that he rendered the Newtonian understanding obsolete, and that his theories were accepted after they agreed with experiment. Just as there is no point in arguing about how QM also turned classical understanding upside down (in its domain of the very little), and was accepted after the experiments began working out. To people on this level of ignorance, it’s easy to dismiss Einstein, quantum mechanics and everything else as wrong, or a conspiracy. But when I point out that savants exist, and that no one doubts them, and yet there is no theory for how they perform their feats of memory, no understanding, but that they deliver everytime, that they “work” in the presence of skeptics, and how charlatans do not reach even that level, he pauses and mumbles some excuse, unable to continue. To him, savants were cute, sympathetic, living proof that everything is possible and that science does not understand everything, therefore all of it must be wrong.


    • Lara, thanks for commenting.

      I detect some frustration in your comment, but I would suggest it’s not worth worrying about. True believers (in anything) will never change their minds about their firmly held beliefs. But worse than that, there is what is known as the “backfire effect,” in other words, even if you provide positive proof that they are wrong, it only strengthens their belief.

      Personally, I don’t see myself as trying to convince any believers that they might be wrong, although I do see myself as trying to get any believer to provide convincing evidence that their paranormal beliefs might be true. Much of the evidence for the paranormal is weak at best, and there are, as you say, many flaws in the evidence the proponents of the paranormal put forward.

      I don’t mind if anyone can prove the existence of any alleged paranormal phenomenon, although the evidence would have to stand up to scrutiny, especially the need for any such evidence to be tested and confirmed by independent scientific researchers.

      It seems to me that parapsychology research will not make much (if any) progress until those researchers are willing to accept that there are flaws in their research methodology, and change accordingly. However, even when some psychics are caught out in blatant fraud, the believers just brush it aside. Eusapia Palladino, for instance, was caught repeatedly cheating, but the investigators assumed that when they didn’t catch her out then she must be producing genuine psychic powers. A similar thing happened with Colin Fry when someone switched the lights on during a supposed séance and saw he was walking around waving a spirit trumpet everyone thought was flying because of psychic energy. Just two examples among many, but the believers are not going to accept that maybe – just maybe – their preferred psychics might not really be psychic at all. And it goes without saying that any psychics caught out in fraud are still going to be supported by those who believe in them.

      It looks to me like you are debating with someone whose mind is not only closed, but welded firmly shut. Personally, I think you might as well give up on him.


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