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Okay, so I hyped the title. All the same, there’s been an interesting back-and-forth between Alex Tsakiris of the Skeptico podcast and Dr Steven Novella, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. It all began (I think!) when Alex did a bit of an opinion piece in a recent podcast, “What I’ve Learned From Skeptics Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, James Alcock and James Randi“. Alex’s commentary received a short rebuttal from Steven.

Alex then responded to Steven Novella’s criticism in a follow-up podcast:

…Steve got on me for calling Skeptics hypocritical, but I want you to imagine for a minute how Dr. Novella would feel if he spent five years of his life doing meticulous, careful research, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, only to have some hack come along and make baseless, reckless claims that call into question his integrity. He wouldn’t stand for it, and he shouldn’t stand for it in this case either.

Finally, in order to discuss the matter properly, Steve asked Alex to appear on the The Skeptic’s Guide, which he did last week. Personally, I thought the entire dialogue has been a good one, without too much childishness (apart from skeptic’s guide co-host Jay Novella, who seems to be able to make idiotic remarks with little effort – “This is what troubles me with this; you don’t even have the gut reaction of “okay, I’m making the claim that a dog is psychic”…to which a good response I guess would be to ask whether he would say “c’mon Mendel dude, are you really saying that you’re examining pea genetics?”) The fact that they seem to be agreeing to some joint experiments is promising, although I would wonder at the effects of any cognitive dissonance that might be encountered along the way.

I think points were won both ways, and while Alex has done an excellent job (and shown some real ticker to go on the TSG, with a group of skeptics confronting him), it really would have been good to see Rupert Sheldrake answering these questions. While Steven Novella was quite polite (and my goodness, how much does he sound like Michael Shermer?), Alex’s comments are largely borne out when you take a look at the messageboard for The Skeptic’s Guide, discussing the episode. Just on one point alone: a specific criticism Alex made was that skeptics don’t read the literature – and yet in that thread you have all these people rubbishing the psychic dog claims, mentioning that dogs can hear car engines from a long way off. However, a cursory reading of Sheldrake’s experiments will show that this was one of the first things dealt with – the person coming home sometimes took a taxi or walked. There are other examples of Alex’s criticisms being spot on…but the over-riding feeling of reading the forum is to understand why skepticism in its current form is so often rejected – because they act like dicks. You can cut and dice it, and dress it up in words like “arrogance via intellectual ego”, but the simple fact is they do act…like…dicks.

Not that I’m claiming they have any ownership of that. True skepticism is much needed (and very much underutilised) when investigating the topics we discuss on TDG. We post a lot of things that could well be bunk (and that includes the mainstream media news). I leave it in your hands to employ the critical thinking needed – so don’t let me down. We could certainly use a healthy skeptical movement…unfortunately, the current model is a pariah. It is not based on skepticism, but is instead largely a belief system based on materialism and intellectual arrogance. Let’s hope they evolve…because it can only be a healthy thing for investigators of fringe topics.