Pathology in Organized Skepticism

by Guy Lyon Playfair

L. David Leiter of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, has no problems with what he sees as ordinary or individual skepticism. Writing in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Spring 2002) he describes this as “a useful and important human trait, the ability to recognise that any claim or theory, no matter how well established or authoritatively propounded, may turn out to be wrong.” It is also “an important scientific tool especially when it is liberally applied to one’s own work” and it “acts to refine and improve scientific enquiry”.

Organised skepticism, or what the late Marcello Truzzi called pseudoskepticism, is another matter, as Leiter found when he infiltrated a group in his area called the “Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking” or PhACT. He never became a member “since in no way can I support [its] goals, both formal and de facto” and cheerfully admits to having attended its lectures, subscribed to its newsletter and got to know some of its members personally “for a somewhat covert reason”, which was that “they fascinate me as a subject of study, both as individuals and as an organisation”.

He found some of them not only to be ignorant about the subjects they were claiming to debunk, but to have something of a phobia about even reading anything containing views opposed to theirs, as if afraid of contamination. He had the feeling that they had joined PhACT “much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous” in search of “comfort, consolation and support among their own kind”.

Then, after getting to know some of the members quite well, he made an interesting discovery: “Each one who has disclosed personal details of their formative years … has had an unfortunate experience with a faith-based philosophy, most often a conventional major religion (his emphasis). Often this had been imposed on them by family or community so forcefully that they could not wait to break free and “throw off this philosophy with a vengeance”. Thus, Leiter says, “they gravitate to what appears to them to be the ultimate non-faith-based philosophy, Science.” However, “they do so with the one thing no true scientist can afford to possess – a closed mind”.

Organised skeptics, he concludes, are “scientifically inclined but psychologically scarred”. They have “a strong inclination towards ridicule and ad hominem criticism of those with differing viewpoints”. They have “an obvious and well-known bias towards disbelief” which makes them “far more comfortable on the trailing edge of science than on the leading edge”.

Members of the Society for Scientific Exploration, in contrast, tend to be “determined scientific explorers despite all the well-known risks involved”.

Leiter was courageous enough to give his (then) fellow PhACToids a talk entitled “Skeptical about Skeptics”, the reception of which led him to conclude that “As the old adage states: They can dish it out but they can’t take it”.