Skeptics or Pseudoskeptics?

A genuine skeptic is one who inquires with an open mind, using critical thinking and paying attention to the evidence. Unfortunately, some people who call themselves skeptics are in fact pseudoskeptics. They believe they know the truth already and dismiss any evidence as irrelevant. They are committed to the belief that minds are nothing but the activity of brains and are confined to the insides of heads. Hence psi phenomena are impossible. Minds cannot influence other minds at a distance, as in telepathy, or know the future, as in precognition, or sense when a person is being stared at from behind. Therefore all the supposed evidence for psychic phenomena can be denied or dismissed.

Skeptical About Skeptics shines a light on these actors with articles by top scientists and thinkers, revealing their faulty critiques and the underhanded methods they employ. We highlight controversies in specific fields of research and examine prominent pseudoskeptics and skeptical organizations.

"A form of scientific fundamentalism"

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Comments on Steven Pinker’s view of the Paranormal

by Brian D. Josephson, Ph.D.

Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge
Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1973

Brian Josephson
Dr. Brian D. Josephson

In a talk in his BBC Radio 4 series ‘Think with Pinker’, Steven Pinker asked ‘why do so many of us believe in so much quackery and flapdoodle?’, characterising extrasensory perception as ‘paranormal woowoo’. I can imagine such language slipping out in the course of casual conversation, but on the BBC, in a programme where the text must have been carefully thought out in advance?

Something must have led to this being said in such an uncritical manner, so I thought I’d email Pinker to find out what had led him to speak in this way in regard to the paranormal. In response he came up with two arguments. The first has, at first sight, a degree of plausibility, and is the following: if there really are people with the claimed paranormal abilities, they could use these to win consistently at betting, and we would learn about that. However (as described in a recent Guardian article) it seems this does not happen, because when such people start to win significant sums of money the bookies take note, responding to the threat that they pose by imposing limits on how much they are allowed to bet. As a result, we cannot safely infer that there are no people who can use their paranormal abilities to win large amounts at betting.

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Call for Grant Applications from Researchers in Subtle Energy and Biofield Healing

The Biofield Research Fellowship Program

For researchers interested in exploring the science of subtle energy and biofield healing, the Biofield Research Fellowship Program is now seeking applications for a new grant/fellowship opportunity, which will provide six annual grants of up to $20,000 USD each, plus mentorship and community for emerging researchers across multiple disciplines.

Backed by a collaborative group of philanthropists and foundations called the Subtle Energy Collective (below), the Biofield Research Fellowship Program is funding rigorous examinations of biofield science with the goal of seeding a new generation of biofield researchers to advance the field and bolster its research base. In addition to grant funds, the Fellowship Program will provide Fellows with a collaborative community of emerging and established researchers and will pair each Fellow with a respected research mentor who has expertise relevant to their research. The findings derived from Fellows’ investigations will provide greater insight into biofield therapies and their applications for reducing suffering and promoting health and wellbeing.

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The Man Who Destroyed Skepticism

By Mitch Horowitz

Originally published on Boing Boing, Oct 26, 2020

James Randi
James Randi Sgerbic [CC BY-SA]

Several years ago I was preparing a talk on the life of occult journeyer Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Someone on Facebook asked sardonically: "Will James Randi be there?" My interlocutor was referencing the man known worldwide as a debunker of psychical and paranormal claims. (That my online critic was outspoken about his own religious beliefs posed no apparent irony for him.)

Last week marked the death at age 92 of James "The Amazing" Randi, a stage magician who became internationally famous as a skeptic — indeed Randi rebooted the term "skepticism" as a response to the boom in psychical claims and research in the post-Woodstock era. Today, thousands of journalists, bloggers and the occasional scientist call themselves skeptics in the mold set by Randi. Over the past decade, the investigator himself was heroized in documentaries, profiles, and, now, obituaries. A Guardian columnist eulogized him as the "prince of reason."

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Wikipedia’s Culture of Editorial Chaos and Malice

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, June 19, 2020
© Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD

Perhaps the greatest farce in the modern history of technology is the perception of Wikipedia as a legitimate encyclopedia. It has none of the qualifications as such but has all of the characteristics of a compromised propaganda machine disguised as an encyclopedia.

An authentic encyclopedia is transparent. Users can review the qualifications and expertise of its contributors. There is no personal animus or bias. If anything, these are people who are acutely conscious of the facts regarding any given subject. There is no whitewashing, no recasting or repurposing of negative content into positive opinions or vice versa. If an error is detected, it can be quickly corrected.

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James E Alcock

James E Alcock
Sgerbic [CC BY-SA]

James E. Alcock, PhD, is professor emeritus of psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a fellow and member of the executive council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and a member of the editorial board of the Skeptical Inquirer. In 1994 he received CSI’s highest honour, the “In Praise of Reason” award. In 1999, he was nominated by a panel of skeptics as among the two dozen most outstanding skeptics of the twentieth century. He believes that psi phenomena are impossible, and therefore the evidence for them must be non-existent. He therefore tries to explain away the evidence as based on wishful thinking, methodological errors, failure to fit in with the materialist paradigm and blind belief. Ironically, one of his areas of research in psychology is the nature of belief, as summarized in his book Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling.

In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, he said that the brain is a machine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not.” In 2019, together with Arthur Reber, he published a paper in the American Psychologist called “Searching for the impossible: Parapsychology’s elusive quest.” He and Reber were explicit about the dogmatic basis for their skepticism: “Claims made by parapsychologists cannot be true. The effects reported can have no ontological status; the data have no existential value.” Therefore all the evidence can be dismissed without bothering to consider it. His own brain produces a strong belief that has little respect for what is real and what is not. Like other dogmatic skeptics, he thinks he knows the truth already. Evidence is irrelevant. Alcock is an prime example of a skeptic for whom Science and Reason are a brand, rather than a practice.

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The Good Thinking Society

Simon Singh
Photo by English PEN [CC BY 2.0]

Simon Singh founded the Good Thinking Society (website ) in 2012 as part of his crusade against alternative medicine. The Society aims to fund skeptical projects and to campaign against homeopathy, ear candling and other forms of alternative medicine. It also supports mathematical education, encouraging schools to set up Top-Top sets.

In 2015 the Good Thinking Society threatened legal action against the Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group over the spending of £30,000 per year on homeopathy. Singh said, “Homeopathic treatments when paid for by the NHS are a waste of crucial resources”. Singh then campaigned for all other clinical commissioning groups in Britain that supported homeopathy to withdraw their funding. However he has provided no evidence that this would actually save money for the NHS. The patients who were receiving homeopathic remedies before Singh’s campaign did not simply evaporate. When people who had been supplied with homeopathic remedies were no longer provided with them, doctors might well have prescribed allopathic remedies instead which cost more.

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Wikipedia Editors: A Psychological Profile

by Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD

In looking up information on alternative health issues using a legitimate, highly respected encyclopedia such as Encyclopedia Britannica we find a fair, balanced, and scholarly review of the available literature on topics such as traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc. Britannica and any of the other six (6) comparable encyclopedias name the editors and provide curriculum vitae demonstrating their expertise in the area of their editing. There is no debasement. There are no attacks. No sense that a person reading any entry should feel mentally incompetent for choosing a particular piece of information. Also, at no point in these highly revered encyclopedias is there character assassination, ridicule, mocking, or disparagement of people supporting any of the alternative and complementary medical approaches. The process is transparent, instructive, and a benefit.

Now let’s compare that to an experience on Wikipedia which calls itself an encyclopedia, but fails even the most rudimentary challenges. Most of the editors are anonymous with no curriculum vitae to see if they have expertise in the area they are editing. Also, words such as “charlatan,” “quack,” “lunatic,” “fringe,” and “pseudoscientific” are not uncommon. There is zero transparency. One feels an oozing sense of condescension viewing the biographies of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, or physician Deepak Chopra, or the investigative work of Sharyl Attkisson. And these are just a few of the many individuals who are held in utter contempt, who have been judged as being of no legitimate value. And even worse, they have been condemned as quacks, charlatans, opportunists, without ever having been interviewed, as if in a Stalinistic show trial—condemned without an opportunity to respond to the allegations.

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The Evolution of Barbara Ehrenreich

A Skeptic's Progress
by Ted Dace

After decades of concealing the mystical experience that wrenched open her mind at age 17, Barbara Ehrenreich was finally coming to grips with what happened that sunny morning in 1959. But now she faced a quandary. Long revered as a dedicated atheist, even accepting awards from organizations of "freethinkers," a.k.a. skeptics, how could the noted author and theorist tell the world she'd once seen God - or if not God, at least the Other? By writing Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich courageously broke ranks, demonstrating that the scientific mind need not be burdened by ideological "skepticism."

Atheism ran deep in her family. Her dad, who'd escaped the mines of Butte, Montana by way of an education in metallurgy, liked to regale the wife and kids Sunday mornings with classic atheist tracts. So when 12-year old Barbara Alexander began to question the point of existence, the one place she would never go for answers was religion. This complicated her task enormously. Paraphrasing Pascal, "How shall we redeem this obscene slaughter called history," ask Will and Ariel Durant, "except by believing, with or against the evidence, that God will right all wrongs in the end?"

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Dean Radin

Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and chairman of the biotech company, Cognigenics.

Dean Radin
Dr. Dean Radin

Clever Rationalizations that Get in the Way of Progress

Skepticism, meaning doubt, is one of the hallmarks of the scientific approach.

Skepticism sharpens the critical thought required to sift the wheat from the chaff, and it forces experimental methods, measurements, and ideas to pass through an extremely fine sieve before they are accepted into the “scientific worldview.” A little critical thinking applied to many of the claims of New Age devotees reveals why many scientists are dubious of psi phenomena. Science requires substantial amounts of repeatable, trustworthy evidence before taking claims of unexpected effects seriously. Depending on the claim, providing sufficient evidence can take years, decades, or half-centuries of painstaking, detailed work. Learning how to create this evidence requires long training and experience in conventional disciplines like experimental design, analysis and statistics.

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Dogmatic Skepticism Does Not Advance Science

by Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D.

Biologist and author best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance. At Cambridge University he worked in developmental biology as a Fellow of Clare College.

Rupert Sheldrake
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

Dear Deepak,

I read your exchange with Michael Shermer with much interest. I agree with both of you about the need for skepticism as a essential part of the scientific process. But media skeptics are not usually part of a constructive scientific debate but rather follow a narrow, negative agenda. Michael claimed that skeptics such as himself are “thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective.” But there is a big gulf between this ideal and what media skeptics actually do, which, as you pointed out, all too often involves condemning open-minded inquiry. Like you, I have been the target of many skeptical attacks, and my experience has been very similar to your own.

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Pathological Disbelief: The Lindau Lecture

by Brian D. Josephson, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1973

Nobel Laureates’ Annual Meeting, Lindau, Germany - June 30, 2004
(download slides)

Brian Josephson
Dr. Brian D. Josephson


This talk mirrors "Pathological Science", a lecture given by Chemistry Laureate Irving Langmuir (1). Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir. Alfred Wegener's continental drift proposal (2) provides a good example, being simply dismissed by most scientists at the time, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favour. In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. Ref. 3, containing a number of hostile comments by scientists with no detailed familiarity with the research on which they cast scorn, illustrates this very well. In this "denunciation mode", the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones. Irving Langmuir's lecture referred to above is often exploited in this way, his list of criteria for "Pathological Science" being applied blindly to dismiss claims of the existence of specific pheomena without proper examination of the evidence. We find a similar method of subverting logical analysis in a weekly column supported by the American Physical Society (4).

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Deepak Chopra

Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and chairman of the biotech company, Cognigenics.

Deepak Chopra
Dr. Deepak Chopra

Skeptics in the Media: Gadflies Without a Sting

We live in a society where the worst humiliation, apparently, is to be duped. If Skeptic magazine’s table of contents reflects the world, we are buried up to our necks in charlatans, pseudoscientists, scam artists, and the self-deluded.

I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.

Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:

I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.

1.   Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.

2.   Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.

3.   Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience.)

4.   Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.

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