Booting the Ball in No Man’s Land… A Rant for Sceptics
I should really avoid this topic like the plague, but I’m going to talk about it anyway, and risk upsetting everyone, because that’s what I happen to do!
I nearly used in my title the words ” the sceptics movement”, but as I think the idea of a movement that makes sceptics sounds like a creed or religious group is a misnomer I avoided that term; one thing is certain, sceptics always argue, disagree and often strongly, over all kinds of things. Where the evidence is solid they tend to agree, but on moral issues, tactical issues, social or political issues, or scientific areas where the evidence is weak sceptics hold strongly divergent opinions. And that is good and healthy.
I self-identify as a sceptic, as most of you know: my scepticism is often sharply turned towards to the claims of my fellow sceptics, owing to the ridiculously partisan Sceptics versus Believers binary opposition one often sees, which prevents any meaningful critique of sceptical writings from those perhaps best qualified to be sceptical about them. I am often pained by the emotive responses one sees from sceptics and believers alike, where mudslinging and vitriol obscure rational debate – but until we break down the “us versus them” herd mentality” it will be hard to make progress. Anyone who knows me knows I am a harsh critic of my fellow Christians; I am a virulently harsh critic of my fellow sceptics and paranormal believers, and a ferociously harsh critic of my own beliefs, which I attempt to dissect as best I can on a continual basis. That’s not easy, so I post and debate on forums, and wherever possible engage with the best arguments and thinkers I can who sharply oppose me; I have learned a lot, and modified many beliefs as a result. I’m still wrong on many things i know, and hopeless ignorant and misguided at times, but I make an effort to try and cast a critical eye over my own stuff as much as everyone elses. I despise bullies cock sure of themselves and filled with self importance – and regularly get my own ego punctured when someone hands my hat to me in a debate or discussion, and am glad of it. We all need a little doubt, a little humility.
Some of you may remember my old Most Haunted forum signature, taken from Andrew Eldritch’s song Possession? (YouTube link contains sound)
I’ll be your imagination,
Tear apart what you believe,
Make a mess of your conviction,
Take away my pride and leave,
Nothing, but the debris,
Cuts, two ways..
I meant it. I really did. And that doubt, that criticism, I apply indiscriminately. I am not a comfortable person to be around at times..
Now if you are a paranormal believer, expecting another lambasting of sceptics, probably best to stop reading now; this post is not aimed at you. It’s aimed at sceptics, and those who identify as sceptics, and concerns something that puzzles me. Why do they attack their own?
Scepticism is vital, and important, in addressing real issues, of bad science, bad medicine, and quack practices that cost or ruin lives, of that I have no doubt. Sterling work is done in these fields by podcasts, Skeptics in the pub meetings, and conferences up and down the land. I have immense respect for the hard work done by huge numbers of people in these areas.
So what is my beef? Because even the best sceptics in my area, parapsychology, paranormal belief and psychical research, are frequently treated with quiet disdain by their colleagues. While the JREF has obviously always stressed the importance of testing and studying paranormal claims, and in places like Rational Skepticism one sees intelligent comment, while UKSkeptics, BadPsychics and other sites did valuable work in addressing issues, and their are blogs like Bare Normality and Hayley Steven’s and Ersby’s that deal intelligently with the ssues, skeptics who choose to study paranormal claims are often, unless big names like Chris French, Richard Wiseman, Sue Blackmore or Ray Hyman, treated with disdain by their sceptical colleagues. “Why bother to study something so pointless?” seems to be the refrain. Fighting homeopathy is seen as real sceptical “work”; trying to actually look at the peer reviewed parapsychological literature is treated with contempt, and trying to investigate yourself these claims, as Hayley, ASKE or Ersby did is met with disdain. People like Dr Braithwaite are ignored; the believers are unhappy with their negative findings, and naturalistic explanations for phenomena in terms of neuroscience or whatever; the sceptics are content at best to point at their work when they meet a “woo”, and run away.
I have immense respect for sceptics who engage with the subject, and offer meaningful critiques. Most of them I would actually classify as parapsychologists however much they would resist the label, as they make a meaningful contribution to the discourse, and many if not the majority of academic parapsychologists are extremely sceptical of most if not all paranormal claims. How many are there? Probably as many as there are parapsychologists producing papers in the field — two or three dozen, turning out good quality commentary, doing their own experiments, and speaking at sceptic conferences. Now hardly anyone among the sceptics dares critique Wiseman for researching this stuff; he s too clever, too charismatic and above all too clearly knows what he is doing — but [people don’t actually read his research papers do they? The APRU did a fascinating series of podcasts How many folks have listened to them? From the other “side” (perhaps from the “other side”?) all the Society for Psychical Research lectures and conferences for many many years can be purchased or borrowed from the society on CD (ity says tape on the website, but most are on CD these days) – how many people have listened to them? Prominent sceptics and some of the very best in parapsychology are available to hear — for a free download from the APRU, for a small fee (£5 non-members) or postage if a member from the SPR – and yet who bothers?
Still, people are busy, I understand that. Start investigating paranormal claims outside of say mediums and psychics and you can get caught up in real science issues,a nd philosophy of science issues. Worse than that crazed loonies like me might come after you, and boy am I fierce when woken from my slumbers. But the anti-paranormal camp are not content to ignore the research – they actually often seem to denigrate those among their own who do engage with the subject, and openly ask why stuff on ghosts or ESP actually appears at sceptic conferences. They know, with all the fervour of a fuindamentalist believer, that its all bollocks – so why listen to those who bother to critique it intelligently and sceptically? Their disdain for the subject rubs off on the poor sceptics who do intelligently comment, and while they are lauded when the going gets tough and something like Bem’s habtituative precog paper gets mainstream attention, most of the time they are quietly ignore and sometimes condescended to.
Sometimes I feel I’m playing football in no man’s land. I have come through adversity to gain respect and genuine admiration for those I disagree with, and believe sceptics and believers with a strong interest in paranormal claims can reach out, and boot the ball for a Christmas Day friendly, and who knows, together we might score some goals?
But for the sceptics who actually do engage with the evidence, and who do try to seriously study and address the issues, well they face derision from their peers, and frankly dismissive attitudes from many who should bloody know better. For them it’s more a case of
Shot by both sides….
That’s what happens when you kick that ball over the top. And it is frankly disappointing in people who call themselves rationalists. If you can’t be bothered to do the work, at least respect those who do, and by their intelligent critiques do everyone a favour and advance our knowledge OK?
Almost no one shoots at me, perhaps because they know I’ll come out guns blazing??? Well here is your chance — if you think the serious investigation of paranormal claims does not warrant the effort (and I would be the first to concede there are more vital areas of public finance, advertising and health care needing sceptical engagement) just say so. But don’t denigrate those who dedicate their time freely and graciously to working on these issues, be they “believer” or “sceptic”. If you think it’s all rot, that is your right — but an argument from ignorance remains an argument from ignorance, and you should be sincerely grateful to those who do the work for you.
So that’s it really. Stop putting down those who study stuff you don’t claim to understand. If like some of the sceptics I have mentioned, or many others – VK, Louie Savva, Sue Blackmore,Matthew Smith, Ciaran O Keefe, fls, Soapy Sam, Campermon the list goes on you are willing to do the work and have come to a reasoned judgment against these things, that awesome, and I appreciate your work and opinions — but if you are not one of these people, whenther or not i have named you, stop turning on those who do as “second rate sceptics.”
Put up, or STFU.
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