Academic Pride and Prejudice

Dogmatic Skepticism in Academia
by Stephen Braude

Stephen Braude

I began serious study of the parapsychological literature in the mid 1970s.

Something else began shortly thereafter: [my] growing disenchantment with the intellectual community.

Before I began to investigate the evidence of parapsychology, I still believed that intelligence was a weapon in the war against evil, that my colleagues in academia (especially in philosophy and science) were committed to discovering the truth, and that intellectuals would be pleased to learn they had been mistaken, provided the revelation brought them closer to this goal.

I now realize how thoroughly naïve I was.

Since dipping into the data of parapsychology, I have encountered more examples of intellectual cowardice and dishonesty than I had previously thought possible.

I have seen how prominent scholars marshal their considerable intellectual gifts and skills to avoid honest inquiry.

I have seen how intelligence can be as much a liability as a virtue in particular, how it sometimes affords little more than complicated ways of making mistakes, entrenching people in views or opinions they are afraid to scrutinize or abandon.

I have seen, in effect, how intelligence often expands, rather than limits, a person’s repertoire of possible errors.

I have also come to realize that members of academic and other professions tend to be strikingly deficient in the virtue that, ideally, characterizes their field.

I have seen how scientists are not objective, how philosophers are not wise, how psychologists are not perceptive, how histo­rians lack perspective, not to mention (while I’m at it), how physicians are not healers, attorneys are not committed to justice, psychiatrists are crazy, artists lack taste, etc.

Some of my revelations (however long overdue they may be) spring from personal experiences. I have observed with amazement, and, I suppose, ill-concealed disdain how academics proclaim confidently that the evidence of parapsychology is insubstantial, and then display that they don’t even know what the evidence is a lacuna about which they could hardly have been unaware.

I have seen college professors and a now famous, ambitious and (I believe) thoroughly unscrupulous magician move from relative obscurity to considerable notoriety by cultivating reputa­tions as debunkers and defenders of clear-headedness in large part through their sedulous avoidance of evidence they know they cannot explain. More disappointing still, I have discovered from my investigations of nineteenth century mediumship that none of this is new, and that prominent intellectuals have been behaving in these dishonest ways all along.

I must add, however, that there is a further and somewhat embarrassing personal reason for the present clarity of my perceptions. Frankly, I cannot pretend always to have achieved the sublimity of thought whose absence I criticize in my colleagues. Some of what I now understand about the varieties of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice I owe to having observed them in myself; they are demons with whom I am intimately acquainted.

For many years, I was content to dismiss reports of ostensibly paranormal phenomena as, at best, the result of confusions or delusions of various sorts. Of course, I hadn’t bothered actually to read any of the evidence and assess it for myself. My opinions were fashioned after those of my mentors, who (I later learned) were equally ignorant of the evidence, but with regard to whom I was too insecure and intimidated to display much independence of thought (especially on a matter that so easily provoked their derision).

Even after I became tenured and finally began to study the experimental evidence of parapsychology I continued to accept uncritically the received view that laboratory evidence was inherently cleaner and more reliable than non-experimental evidence.

Admittedly, I had no idea at the time how few of those who promulgated this wisdom had bothered to examine the latter body of evidence with any care. In fact, only recently have I come to appreciate how few parapsychologists are familiar with the material.

But at no point along the way was my ignorance benign; it was, in fact, a lazy and craven expedient. For one thing, it facilitated the disgracefully scornful attitude I occasionally adopted, initially toward parapsychology in general, and then later toward those who defended the non-experimental evidence. For another, it simply reinforced the complacency with which I held my beliefs.

Even after I began to study the evidence of parapsychology and develop a respect for the field and its data, it allowed me to remain smugly comfortable with my moderate radicalism. I made no effort to examine the non-experimental evidence for myself. I was content not to have to admit into my universe, phenomena that seemed to me bizarre and frightening (both personally and professionally).

Of course, in my heart, I knew what I was doing. But at that stage in my career I lacked the courage to challenge, not only an increasing number of orthodox academicians, but also the majority of active parapsychologists. Because of my sympathetic interest in parapsychology, my alliance with the former was in a state of flux, collapsing in some places and solidifying in others, and I was insecure about its future. And my alliance with the latter was new and presumably fragile.

I have now spent nearly twenty years carefully studying the non-experimental evidence of parapsychology, in fact, just that portion of it which is most contemptuously and adamantly dismissed by those academics who all along have been blithely ignorant of the facts. I started with the expectation that the received wisdom would be supported and that my belief in the relative worthlessness of the material would merely be better informed.

But the evidence bowled me over. The more I learned about it, the weaker the traditional skeptical counter hypotheses seemed, and the more clearly I realized to what extent skepticism may be fueled by ignorance. I was forced to confront the fact that I could find no decent reasons for doubting a great deal of strange testimony. It became clear to me that the primary source of my reluctance to embrace the evidence was my discomfort with it. I knew that I had to accept the evidence or else admit that my avowed philosophical commitment to the truth was a sham.

I am hardly comfortable about announcing to my academic colleagues that I believe, for example, that accordions can float in mid-air playing melodies, or that hands may materialize, move objects, and then dissolve or disappear. I have taken abuse and ridicule for the far more modest opinions expressed in my first book on parapsychology, ESP and Psychokinesis. But I have reached my present position only after satisfying myself that no reasonable options remain.

Actually, I find that my discomfort tends to diminish as I discern more clearly how little the most derisive and condescending skeptics really know about the evidence and how their apparent confidence in their opinions is little more than posturing and dishonest bluffing. In fact, I am less comfortable about stating my present views on parapsychology than I am about confessing how my intellectual independence was won, in part, through learning not to respect my colleagues.

So it was no accident that my second book The Limits of Influence and various articles written thereafter have occasionally taken a polemical and antagonistic tone. In the past, those who defended the evidence for large scale psychokinesis have too easily allowed themselves to be put on the defensive. In my opinion, they have responded too timidly, or graciously, to their most vocal opponents, especially to those motivated more by the love of publicity than by the love of knowledge.

However, I believe that the skeptic must be put on the defensive. The more evangelical of the lot inveigh against the forces of irrationalism. But I believe that their greatest enemies might be full information and an open mind.

It is a simple (and often profitable) matter to be a professional skeptic about parapsychology, especially when one suppresses the best cases and perpetuates misconceptions among those who know even less about the field. I hope, therefore, that my writings (especially Limits) have managed to inject some relevant data and clear reasoning into a debate where those commodities have been in short supply.

I believe that the evidence I’ve presented will seem respectable, if not coercive, to anyone without a scientific or metaphysical axe to grind. And I hope that my discussions of the evidence will make it more difficult for the self styled debunker to dismiss that evidence with feigned confidence, bogus or irrelevant facts, and facile arguments.

More Information

Parapsychology Researcher Dr. Stephen Braude Battles Against “Sleazy Arguments”
Alex Tsakiris, Skeptiko Podcast #111

Stephen Braude’s Website