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Skepticism is a Good Thing [Repost]


(Here’s something from my archives, my first actual critique of a post on a blog I used to frequent. I still pop in there once in a while, but less frequently than I have. Still, it was and still is a good source of insight into at least one believer’s mind and how he argues. The LOL of old Mistykins dates from the original posting of this critique. Rest easy, Mistykins.)

Hey, guys. I recently came upon this post on a psychic’s blog I sometimes frequent, the post in question being entitled There Are No Good Skeptics, and since I feel obligated to act the stereotype of the Evil Pseudoskeptic™, I thought I would have a little fun with it, deconstructing a few of the points it makes in order, and showing just how and where it is simply far off the mark.

Believers tend to have a very parochial view of skeptics, and often promote a number of common logical fallacies and misconceptions about them that they do not bother to challenge.

I’ll attempt to point out in this post precisely how they are excellent examples of highly flawed thinking and how in many instances, believers are merely launching defensive tirades.

There are too many misconceptions and logical errors in the article of discourse for all to be handled in the space of this post, so I’ll deal mostly with the four, in order, that stand out the most, those that the author himself has chosen to highlight.

Where possible for considerations of space, the points addressed will be complete and verbatim:

Skepticism does not allow curiosity. One of the hallmarks of almost every skeptic I have come across is that as soon as they find information that agrees with their views they stop looking. Why? If you’re convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist, you stop looking into it or looking for it. You simply assume that everything you hear that might be positive simply can’t be true.

Wow! My logical fallacy meter just overloaded. This is a straw man as well as a cheap ad hominem. It completely misrepresents how skeptical thinking works, nor are skeptics convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist without doing the research to actually find out. Fact-checking is skeptical. Also…

There also seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy here to round out this troika of fallacies, implying that one has to either be curious or skeptical and not allowing for the possibility of both.

Skepticism does not challenge its assumptions. When you doubt something, you doubt it for a reason. For example, many people doubt the existence of psychic ability because they think all the people who believe it are gullible; Or that the rest of science would rush to embrace it if it were true or that psychic people would rush to the casinos and win millions of dollars. Skeptics do not seem to understand that these are mere opinions about something they know little about.

The three claims trotted out as assumptions are simply a set of straw people. I do not hold these as ‘assumptions’ as part of my skepticism. And they certainly aren’t representative of the views of most skeptics even if ‘many people’ hold them. There is a difference between being skeptical about something, and being a skeptic.

Speaking for myself, the only assumptions I use are that (1) science and reason are valid ways of knowing the world, and (2) the world is real, whether or not it is what it appears to be.

The last statement is just an ad hominem, in this case a cheap way to dismiss skeptics by calling them ‘ignorant.’ It would have been much more informative if he had simply done the research to find out what the ‘assumptions’ of skepticism really are, and then address them instead of just dismissing his critics.

Skepticism slows the advance of ideas. One of the amazing features of skeptics everywhere is that they make very few contributions to the area they are criticizing. In parapsychology this is extreme. Out of thousands of studies you can count all of the vetted professional studies performed by dedicated skeptics on one hand. (Part of the reason for this is that once people are doing careful experiments they are allowing themselves to be convinced by the evidence. At which point the other skeptics consider them to be deluded believers.)

What to say about this one…what to say…This claim is so blatantly false that it comes seriously close to being an outright lie, but as I normally read this guy’s blog with the assumption that he’s being sincere in what he writes, out of respect I’ll refrain from making such an accusation.

All of modern science employs skepticism, as the complement, not the contradiction, to the curiosity to ask new questions and the imagination to conceive new ideas.

Skepticism is essential as the means to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; what works from what doesn’t.

Thomas Edison once said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the hard work of winnowing the intellectual gold from the intellectual rubbish, since most ideas ever conceived turn out to be wrong.

All scientists who have contributed to major advances in their field are skeptics by definition. It’s blind belief that impedes the advance of ideas.

Believers tend to express views of skeptics almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to the paranormal, and little else. They don’t consider the use of skepticism in the broader context of all of modern science.

It is very hard to learn new things about the subject you are skeptical about. Being skeptical means that you hold strong views on a subject. That means that contrary information only gets through via cognitive dissonance. That is to say, the evidence contrary to the opinion that is held has to be so overwhelming that the skeptic’s thinking process finally seizes up. All evidence up to that point is either ignored or dismissed. This is a very inefficient way to learn.

This claim is also simply false.

First, cognitive dissonance mostly applies to those beliefs that are very important, such as to our self-image and how we view the world, not what we only casually accept.

Second, different people deal with cognitive dissonance in different ways, and I deal with it by changing my beliefs without a hitch if the evidence warranting it is sufficient.

Third, as a skeptic I do not hold strong views on the paranormal, and many skeptics I’ve read consider belief in it it more interesting and important than the paranormal itself. To me, the idea of psi ability is just an intellectual curiosity, not something I’ve invested years and a lot of money in.

Conclusion: The author of the post critiqued here has said in at least one entry on his own blog that he has never understood the skeptical mindset, and his article is a prime example of that shortcoming.

In his article, he has attributed motives, thinking, beliefs and biases to skeptics that are simply not borne out as fact, and that despite claiming to be psychic he has no way of knowing short of doing the legwork to find out.

I have attempted to avoid committing such attributions in this critique, and out of respect for the author suggest that before he tries to present his personal views as objective fact, that he make the effort to inform those views. Otherwise, he’s just rehearsing his own prejudices.

The Truth About Psychic Detectives [Reposted]


Paranormal investigator Ben Radford’s 11-part talk for the National Capital Area Skeptics on April 14, 2009. This is a bit lengthy, but very informative and amusing, unless you’re a psychic detective, in which case you probably won’t find it very amusing at all.

Tales of the Spam Box, w/ Humerosity



Here’s something fun I found in my spam folder just a few days ago. It’s an ad from an oxymoronic professional outlet of online (*drum roll*)  psychic consulting services, and I found it rather humerus in content, as fittingly, is the site itself.

Humerus enough to warm my cold, eldritch, inhuman heart…

Were these people even aware of my diabolical skeptic nature? Did they have any idea of the sort of abject cruelty I engage in with this sort of thing?? Unfortunately, I suspect that this was not the case. Muahahahahaha!

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our three most powerful weapons are fear, surprise, and a nearly fanatical devotion to the Church! Confess, heretic, or I’ll bring out…the comfy-chair…and the soft pillows!!”

Still, bad Monty Python paraphrases aside, it’s a good idea in my book to be wary of any attempt at looking professional when even the spambots sign what they send to other websites as something too generic, like ‘Expert,’ or ‘Admin,’ and having visited their website I noticed the same sort of thing going on. I mean, what’s wrong with doing what other spam accounts do and use absurdly silly but unique fake screen-names, like Sertiltpytuf, or some such, and impossibly long fake email addresses that never show up when you google them?

What’s up with that?

So I checked out their home-page, and I’d hoped that they would have more rigorous standards of webmastering quality on the site itself. Sadly, I was disappointed.

Well, even I can’t have everything…

Unfortunately, the text that follows is that of the entire comment, with no changes in spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalization, or syntax…Note the interesting run-on sentence before the main paragraph.

Expert

http://www.myspiritualexperts.com

OUR PSYCHICS HELPS YOU THEY ARE TESTED AND TRUSTED

Our psychic always online for chat and e-mail
In order for psychic our experts to be authentic they of course have to be able to give accurate readings, and make accurate prediction on future events. In some situations, Our psychic experts will know where a pet or person is, or can find things that are missing.
Our experts can do :- love readings psychic readings astrology reading numerology relationship tarot card reading crystal ball reading aura reading angles reading and also career and financial readings.

Now concerning part of that: Just WTF is an ‘angles reading?’ I did a brief search on it, thinking perhaps it was some new sort of occultish divination using geometric forms, but instead was rather depressed to learn that it’s a misspelling of ‘angels reading,’ presumably some sort of cold-reading employing the conceptual element of imaginary divine emissary spirits.

*sigh* At least geometric forms have been shown to actually exist, even if in the abstract…

BTW, I used the [rel="nofollow"] command on that link just because I’m a big blue tentacled meany and don’t feel like doing them any favors.

Aliman, it looks like that prediction you tweeted me in jest just a few days ago came true, but I’m wondering if the ‘psychics’ saw it coming.

I suspect strongly that they did not…

A skeptic ‘fesses up


I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’ve had my moments as a larval skeptic, and I’m not out of the chrysalis yet… When I first got into the skeptical movement some three and a half years ago, I was, like anyone involved with something novel and interesting, just a wee bit more excited about it then than I should have been.

In my newbie enthusiasm, I have said things on this blog that I am not particularly fond of recalling, things I no longer agree with which make me cringe when I think about them. Have I dismissed believers as though they were all idiots or lunatics? Have I criticized unfairly? Have I attacked faith itself and not merely taken its excesses to task? In many of my earlier posts, perhaps I have, often without meaning to, and in doing so shamed myself by contributing in my small way to the condemnation of other skeptics to ‘permanent minority status,’ as Carl Sagan once put it.

I have, over time, acquired a much more comprehensive view of those who espouse certain… non-scientific doctrines and concepts, and they are at least as diverse as skeptics, and almost certainly more common.

As a former religionist, I do not consider religion itself to be the evil that the so-called New Atheists make it out to be. There are far too many people I know, good, caring people who practice a religion or spiritual tradition, Old or New Age, who are not zealots. Many are steadfast supporters of science and reason, and express opposition to religious extremism in politics. These are people who I think the world of, who have done nothing but wish me well in my endeavors. Certainly they and the traditions they practice deserve more respect than I’ve given.

Regardless of its benefits and drawbacks, its gems and its warts, religion will be with us for some time, though individual traditions may rise and fall with the march of history. It is not my place to take away from people that from which they draw solace. I restrict myself to commenting upon its fallacies and excesses. Faith in moderation is not the enemy — my problem is with extremism.

As a former paranormal believer, I do not wish to dismiss those who still are as universally crazy or stupid — there are many brilliant, articulate, sane and well-educated believers in the paranormal and fringe-topics. While this alone does not validate their beliefs as true, nor their views correct, it does mean that I need to treat them with respect as individuals, and avoid hasty generalizations of them in my commentary. If one cannot respect those one disagrees with and even criticizes, one is not a skeptic, but a bigot.

In my experience, many of the paranormal and fringe-science proponents I’ve dealt with play by different rules of logic and evidence, some with none at all that I can discern, and these discussions are rarely constructive — often we have wound up talking through each other instead of to each other. But some employ the same thought-processes and reasoning as I, and these discussions have been enriching to say the least. Not all believers come from Mars.

It has sometimes been frustrating to me, and at other times instructive, but in any case it’s something to learn from, and illuminating with the insights it imparts and clues it reveals about the thought-processes of some believers. I’m not psychic — I can’t get inside peoples’ heads and read their minds directly, and I don’t know of anyone who really can — but I can learn a bit on how they think by listening to what they say, online and in person…

…And this blog is at its heart a learning experience — so learn is what I’ll continue to do. Fnord.

Skepticism is a Good Thing


Hey, guys. I recently came upon this post on a psychic’s blog I sometimes frequent, the post in question being entitled There Are No Good Skeptics, and since I feel obligated to act the stereotype of the Evil Pseudoskeptic™, I thought I would have a little fun with it, deconstructing a few of the points it makes in order, and showing just how and where it is simply far off the mark.

Believers tend to have a very parochial view of skeptics, and often promote a number of common logical fallacies and misconceptions about them that they do not bother to challenge.

I’ll attempt to point out in this post precisely how they are excellent examples of highly flawed thinking and how in many instances, believers are merely launching defensive tirades.

There are too many misconceptions and logical errors in the article of discourse for all to be handled in the space of this post, so I’ll deal mostly with the four, in order, that stand out the most, those that the author himself has chosen to highlight.

Where possible for considerations of space, the points addressed will be complete and verbatim:

Skepticism does not allow curiosity. One of the hallmarks of almost every skeptic I have come across is that as soon as they find information that agrees with their views they stop looking. Why? If you’re convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist, you stop looking into it or looking for it. You simply assume that everything you hear that might be positive simply can’t be true.

Wow! My logical fallacy meter just overloaded. This is a straw man as well as a cheap ad hominem. It completely misrepresents how skeptical thinking works, nor are skeptics convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist without doing the research to actually find out. Fact-checking is skeptical. Also…

There also seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy here to round out this troika of fallacies, implying that one has to either be curious or skeptical and not allowing for the possibility of both.

Skepticism does not challenge its assumptions. When you doubt something, you doubt it for a reason. For example, many people doubt the existence of psychic ability because they think all the people who believe it are gullible; Or that the rest of science would rush to embrace it if it were true or that psychic people would rush to the casinos and win millions of dollars. Skeptics do not seem to understand that these are mere opinions about something they know little about.

The three claims trotted out as assumptions are simply a set of straw people. I do not hold these as ‘assumptions’ as part of my skepticism. And they certainly aren’t representative of the views of most skeptics even if ‘many people’ hold them. There is a difference between being skeptical about something, and being a skeptic.

Speaking for myself, the only assumptions I use are that (1) science and reason are valid ways of knowing the world, and (2) the world is real, whether or not it is what it appears to be.

The last statement is just an ad hominem, in this case a cheap way to dismiss skeptics by calling them ‘ignorant.’ It would have been much more informative if he had simply done the research to find out what the ‘assumptions’ of skepticism really are, and then address them instead of just dismissing his critics.

Skepticism slows the advance of ideas. One of the amazing features of skeptics everywhere is that they make very few contributions to the area they are criticizing. In parapsychology this is extreme. Out of thousands of studies you can count all of the vetted professional studies performed by dedicated skeptics on one hand. (Part of the reason for this is that once people are doing careful experiments they are allowing themselves to be convinced by the evidence. At which point the other skeptics consider them to be deluded believers.)

What to say about this one…what to say…This claim is so blatantly false that it comes seriously close to being an outright lie, but as I normally read this guy’s blog with the assumption that he’s being sincere in what he writes, out of respect I’ll refrain from making such an accusation.

All of modern science employs skepticism, as the complement, not the contradiction, to the curiosity to ask new questions and the imagination to conceive new ideas.

Skepticism is essential as the means to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; what works from what doesn’t.

Thomas Edison once said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the hard work of winnowing the intellectual gold from the intellectual rubbish, since most ideas ever conceived turn out to be wrong.

All scientists who have contributed to major advances in their field are skeptics by definition. It’s blind belief that impedes the advance of ideas.

Believers tend to express views of skeptics almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to the paranormal, and little else. They don’t consider the use of skepticism in the broader context of all of modern science.

It is very hard to learn new things about the subject you are skeptical about. Being skeptical means that you hold strong views on a subject. That means that contrary information only gets through via cognitive dissonance. That is to say, the evidence contrary to the opinion that is held has to be so overwhelming that the skeptic’s thinking process finally seizes up. All evidence up to that point is either ignored or dismissed. This is a very inefficient way to learn.

This claim is also simply false.

First, cognitive dissonance mostly applies to those beliefs that are very important, such as to our self-image and how we view the world, not what we only casually accept.

Second, different people deal with cognitive dissonance in different ways, and I deal with it by changing my beliefs without a hitch if the evidence warranting it is sufficient.

Third, as a skeptic I do not hold strong views on the paranormal, and many skeptics I’ve read consider belief in it it more interesting and important than the paranormal itself. To me, the idea of psi ability is just an intellectual curiosity, not something I’ve invested years and a lot of money in.

Conclusion: The author of the post critiqued here has said in at least one entry on his own blog that he has never understood the skeptical mindset, and his article is a prime example of that shortcoming.

In his article, he has attributed motives, thinking, beliefs and biases to skeptics that are simply not borne out as fact, and that despite claiming to be psychic he has no way of knowing short of doing the legwork to find out.

I have attempted to avoid committing such attributions in this critique, and out of respect for the author suggest that before he tries to present his personal views as objective fact, that he make the effort to inform those views. Otherwise, he’s just rehearsing his own prejudices.

(Last Update 14:36, 12/5/2009, Image Added)

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