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Psychology of the Skeptic

Robert McLuhan (of Paranormalia) recently gave a talk at a Society for Psychical Research study day devoted to ‘the skeptics’. He has posted the text of his talk, “The Psychology of the Skeptic“, to his blog – I highly recommend you take the time to read it through, it’s an excellent piece. Robert points out that while there is usually much talk of the dysfunctional psychology of a ‘believer’ in the paranormal, not as much attention is given to the psychology of the skeptic:

[S]kepticism per se is absolutely rational. Indeed, for many people in our secular-leaning society, belief in such things as ESP is a deviation from the social norm. The believer is an odd breed who is willing to believe in things that aren’t there, clearly prey to delusions and wishful thinking, unable to think critically, and so on. It’s implicit in the titles of the debunking books: The Psychology of the Psychic, The Psychology of the Occult, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience, Why People Believe Weird Things.

But the intensity of dogmatism of many of the critics, their violent responses and seeming inability to connect with our reasoning, makes us suspect that there is such a thing as a skeptical psychology. It’s not just the believer who is special – there’s an awful lot going in skeptics’ heads as well. Where skeptics see their automatic dismissal of paranormal claims, even when made by serious scientists, as a necessary and healthy reaction, we often see it as dogmatic, intolerant, and religious in its intensity, indicating a deep emotional commitment to the mechanist worldview. Some even see it as a rerun of the Reformation in a secular setting – with dissenters beating at the gates of the establishment, and embattled scientists defending orthodoxy against their heresies.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t skepticism at all, at least in its original sense. Where skepsis, in the original Greek, means rational doubt and probing, the word skeptic has increasingly come to mean defensive and doctrinaire, and a skeptic as someone who identifies with a position and defends it to the bitter end, often striving to downplay, misrepresent or simply ignore the evidence. This is by not necessarily a fair or universal definition, but it’s nevertheless one that is increasingly made.

Robert’s talk covers some interesting ground, including how a number of skeptics seem to have had a Damascus-like conversion to skepticism after one of their beliefs was refuted – what he refers to as the “experience, of being abruptly disabused of a belief, and it has had a powerful impact”. He goes on to quote David Leiter as to the effect this shock has:

Such scientifically inclined, but psychologically scarred people tend to join Skeptics’ organizations much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous. There they find comfort, consolation, and support amongst their own kind. Anyone who has spent much time engaging members of Skeptics’ organizations knows about their strong inclination toward ridicule and ad hominem criticism of those with differing viewpoints.

I often criticise the modern skeptical movement here on TDG. Some probably mistake this as a signal that I “believe” in the paranormal and odd claims, or that I support every claim made out there. I don’t – there’s *a lot* of absolute rubbish out there – but I do enjoy reading and researching them, even if to see how a certain belief is being propagated…and it’s important to note the difference. There is *a lot* I could criticise about the paranormal genre (and readers will know that I do), but most of it comes back to “belief”. As Robert Anton Wilson once wrote, “Belief is the death of intelligence.”

The modern skeptical movement bugs me for the simple fact that they should know better. Their reason for being is supposed to be critical thinking, and yet it has become quite obvious that it is as much a belief system to many ‘adherents’, as those that they criticise regularly.

Other speakers included Rupert Sheldrake, Guy Lyon Playfair, and Professor Chris French was also invited to reply to the talks from a skeptical point of view. Coverage of the event by the Cosmic Citizen blog said that Chris French “pointed out that many of the criticisms of extreme skepticism (inflexibility, selective presentation of facts, lack of interest in alternative points of veiw, etc.) could also be levelled at extreme ‘Believers’ in the paranormal.” I think this is a fair observation. However, I also think it’s worth pointing out that the “extreme skepticism” seems to take the lead in the authoritative skeptical organisations (e.g. Randi, CSICOP), whereas leading parapsychologists do not engage in such extreme behaviour.

Full coverage of the event at Cosmic Citizen can be read below:

All excellent and thought-provoking reading.

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