On Pseudoskepticism


So, I’ve been wondering why pseudoskepticism bothers me so much. I think I finally have the answer. All my life I’ve loved learning and curiosity, even in those cases where we are “surprised” by new discoveries in areas that we though were settled.

Pseudoskepticism is an affront to all that, but masquerades as science and learning. At its very worst, as in the cases of Stephen Barrett (of quackwatch fame) and the amazing James Randi, it substitutes real science and research with, well, bullshit. I’ll refer to this page and others in my resource on alternative medicine on examples of replacing real honest inquiry with platitudes, false reasoning, and general BS.

In addition, I’ll offer the amazing million dollar challenge as an example of an attempt to replace reasoning with BS. Often cited as a piece of evidence that paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, water memory, and a host of other phenomena do not exist, a little deeper digging reveals the challenge is a poor exhibit of this extraordinary hypothesis. Randi has positioned himself as the sole judge of the outcome of the tests in the challenge, a process that is not open and certainly not scientific. He also does not accept all applicants, and, while Mr. Randi is welcome to do whatever he wants with his money and his challenge, the procedures he has set up (including the poor reasoning for rejecting an application in the example I linked to) has made it a poor process for scientifically elucidating the existence and nature of the phenomena he’s claiming to disprove.

I especially detest the hiding behind “the skeptic has no burden of proof,” which, while a skeptical remark does not need any proof, no such statement applies to the claims made by pseudoskeptics. The reason a skeptical remark, such as “I am unconvinced by this study,” has no burden proof is because there is no claim. (Though most well-reasoned critiques of studies talk about whether the study design is capable of producing the information required to reach the conclusion, whether adequate controls are in place, and so forth.) But the pseudoskeptic makes claims, such as “cold fusion belongs in the dust bin of history” while hiding behind the idea that he has no burden of proof. The idea behind this opinion, i.e. “cold fusion is false,” is a claim and requires evidence in a reasonably scientific discourse.

So there you go. For the most part, I couldn’t care less what members of the Skeptic’s Circle think of alternative medicine, cold fusion, psychic phenomena, or anything protoscientific or pseudoscientific. However, when the poor and lazy reasoning masquerading as critical thinking starts to take traction, I have to speak out.

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