Welcome to Skeptics Anonymous
by Guy Lyon Playfair
Organised skeptics tend to be pretty ignorant about the subjects they hope to debunk. L. David Leiter of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania was for several years ‘actively’ engaged with the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT) after being introduced to it by an old friend, a sometime CSICOP supporter who had left that organisation ‘in protest over specific non-professional behaviour on their part’. This, Leiter has found, is ‘a seemingly frequent complaint of former CSICOPers’.
Leiter is all for what he calls ordinary skepticism which ‘acts to refine and improve scientific enquiry’, but ‘organised skepticism’ struck him as something very different and rather alarming. Its adherents, he noted, tend to be people ‘whose mental processes are continually and rigidly out of balance, in the direction of disbelief’.
What particularly worried him was that organised skeptics tended to be pretty ignorant about the subjects they were hoping to debunk. Some would even deliberately avoid reading anything that was contrary to their views as if they were afraid of being contaminated. He had the impression that people joined PhACT ‘much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous’ in the hope of finding ‘comfort, consolation and support among their own kind’.
His most interesting finding was that all the hard-line skeptics he came to know personally (getting on quite well with some of them) admitted that they had had ‘an unfortunate experience with a faith-based philosophy, most often a conventional religion’ (His emphasis). They had lurched from one extreme to the other, embracing science as the ultimate non-faith- based philosophy but unfortunately doing so ‘with one thing no true scientists can afford to possess, a closed mind’.
PhACT members must have begun to suspect they had a fifth columnist in their midst when Leiter gave a talk entitled ‘Skeptical About Skeptics’ which received a review in the society’s newsletter that was ‘studded with ridicule’ of the kind he had come to expect. He duly made a formal reply which the editor refused to publish. He concluded that skeptics ‘can dish it out but they can’t take it’.
He eventually blew the whistle by ‘outing’ himself in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol.16 No.1, 2002) with an article entitled “The Pathology of Organised Skepticism” which prompted a lengthy reply in PhACT’s newsletter from a disgruntled member named Amardeo Sarma entitled ‘Misguided Stigmatisation of “Organised Skepticism”‘. Once again, Leiter’s rejoinder was not published which, as he points out in a follow-up JSE essay (Vol. 18 No.4, 2004), it would have been had Sarma published his piece in the JSE where, he adds gleefully, it would have had a much wider readership.
Leiter subsequently found additional hard evidence for his two main conclusions: that extreme skeptics are often rebounding from exposure to a faith-based philosophy in their formative years and that they avoid reading anything that threatens to change their minds or at least broaden them a little.
One PhACT member with whom he remained on good terms admitted that he had been a ‘bible-believing Christian’ in his high school years but had subsequently become an avowed atheist who found much of Christian doctrine ‘preposterous’. Two other members admitted, on their society’s website message board, to having reacted to their strict religious upbringing in a similar way.
Even so, Leiter’s atheist friend was not opposed to free enquiry. He contributed generously to PhACT’s on-line lending library, offering books of his own for loan on a number of subjects other than skepticism including religion, parapsychology, UFOs and even creationism. Leiter asked him how many members had availed themselves of his offer of access to his private library. The answer was – ‘None’. His friend had come to suspect that some of his fellow skeptics ‘may actually have a phobia about reading material that is contrary to their own views’.
It is gratifying to know that skeptics, like reformed alcoholics, can be useful if only for keeping each other happy and protecting them from all those heretical ideas out there.