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The Real Peril of Skepticism

A couple of weeks ago, Deepak Chopra wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle titled “The Perils of Skepticism“. It certainly touched a nerve with many self-identified skeptics, and with good reason: Chopra’s article fails to point out that skepticism is a wonderful and necessary tool, used by all great scientists. And, apart from carelessly confusing skepticism with the debunkery practiced by modern skeptical personalities, he also wants to define that latter group as being boring, useless people. This is simply not the case: James Randi for all his flaws, has also done some good things (and is certainly entertaining), and Carl Sagan was one of the most important science-educators of the 20th century – to name just two self-identified ‘skeptics’ who have contributed good things.

No, the real peril of skepticism lies in people thinking that just invoking the word grants authority; believing that someone who is known as a ‘skeptic’ has an opinion which can be trusted. So, when Phil Plait says that the 1947 Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting “is now understood to have most likely been a fireball breaking up”, we should perhaps ask him whether – as an astronomer – he really believes that any fireballs breaking up have ever traveled pretty much horizontally for almost three minutes. Or, when modern skeptics dismiss the mediumship of Leonora Piper by invoking the ‘authoritative debunking’ of the case by Martin Gardner, we might ask how authoritative it could be when Gardner gets numerous ‘facts’ completely and utterly wrong. And, when James Randi posts in a 2008 Swift newsletter that “[Dean] Radin’s latest distraction – parapsychologists are fond of abandoning lines of investigation when they prove fruitless – is ‘presentiment'”, we should definitely ponder what sort of authority Randi is on the matter, considering Radin has been researching (and publishing) on presentiment since the 1990s.

The danger in skepticism is simply when people think of it as a movement, with certain dogmas and authority figures. Skepticism is a tool. And we should apply it to anyone’s claims, whether they are Deepak Chopra or James Randi.

  1. This reminds me of the
    This reminds me of the electronics tinkerers who were known as hackers in the sixties and seventies trying to reappropriate the term from people who commit computer crimes today. Sure, you can call them “crackers” as often as you like and try to restore the word “hacker” to its original meaning but in the end there are barely a handful of original hackers and hundreds of thousands of script kiddies. It’s an exercise in futility.

    There aren’t many honest skeptics left. If there were then the results of Project Stargate would be THE hot subject in the scientific community. What you have is a dogmatic scientific community egged on from the sidelines by the intellectual equivalent of soccer hooligans.

    1. What used to be healthy skepticism
      Might now be called critical minding.

      A psychological mind is bend on recuperating any form and use it for its own purpose.

      Like the establishment ended up recuperating anything and everything that seemed could create cracks in its shell.

      Take rock and roll music for instance. At first it was a sort of revolution, some underground movement. As it became more and more popular it ended up being recuperated by publicists and got integrated in the money making machine, making it part of the system, not something parallel.

      Skepticism is the same. In reality, skepticsm is a mind mode that could be dangerous to the establishment, since it is not only the outrageous claims of those that look outside of the box that is under the microscope through it, but also the claims of those who seek to dominate the space held by the box.

      By recuperating the term, you not only create a sort of monopoly on the right to ‘critical thinking’ but you also impeach any critic of what is being defended as dogma.

      What the neo-skeptic fails to see is that what he is defending is the same as what he thinks he hates. That what he is attacking is what he is proposing.

      Believing a negative does not amount to any more real knowledge than believing a positive.

      1. true skeptics should
        look at every side of every argument objectively. I haven’t seen that for a very long time. But as Greg said, their a very important tool. Without them theorists would have a field day.
        Skepticism is a dangerous thing to the establishment but they are not called skeptics but rather conspiracy theorists.
        Skeptics that make a living out of it can not be trusted to be honest about it. It’s their living and they need a little contraversy for ratings.

      2. one man’s skeptic …
        I find it fascinating to look at the behaviour and reactions of the scientific orthodoxy with regard to skepticism.

        Skeptics of paranormal research generally come from among the ranks of the materialist orthodoxy (CSI/CSICOP, for example). On the other hand, Climate Change skeptics seem to come from a minority outside the orthodoxy. Howls of indignation can be heard loud and clear when the orthodox view is challenged by an organised skeptical community (as in the CC debate). Claims of ad hominem attacks, straw-man debating tactics, fiddling with the data by vested interests (corporates, the Saudi’s, etc.) and downright dishonesty are hurled back at the skeptics.

        However, when the skeptics are drawn from the ranks of the orthodoxy the loud indignation can then be heard when they, the majority view, are accused of the very same tactics.

        I find it hard to be as generous or as respectful as Greg is towards the likes of Randi when he and his disciples have clearly been guilty of most if not all of the dirty tricks in the book. On the other hand, Radin, Sheldrake, Schwartz and others are often all too keen to take the extra steps towards those receding goalposts demanded of them by the skeptics.

        On this site there are reasonable skeptical contributors (daydreamer comes to mind). They are prepared to consider the other point of view. When the orthodox view becomes dogma, all hope of an open minded debate is gone. Because few in the scientific community will admit to being dogmatic, I fear that the world will have to wait for a new generation of scientists (following the lead of Radin, etc.) before that open debate can take place.


        1. Its a bit like…
          Lets consider pro-choice and pro-life proponents.

          Pro-choice are generally against the death penalty.

          Pro-life are generally for the death penalty.

          In the end, it is a question of ideology and not a question of factuality.

          I tend to ignore ideologues. They are not mind expansive and that, regardless of any side of the fence they like to camp themselves.

          1. language
            I think it is just an example of some people hijacking the language. They want a nice label for themselves, one that sounds like they are competent and enthusiastic in their endeavour.

            This never works in the long run, the label comes to represent narrow mindedness and thoughtlessness.

            Pro-choice and pro-life are good examples. So is gay. So are many of the political labels.

          2. Test of time, development, or battle for consciousness
            It does seem almost like any label is ultimately doomed. What this says about us in a larger sense i do not know.

        2. Hi Dave, Firstly sorry for
          Hi Dave,

          Firstly sorry for not answering a previous post we were engaged in, i mean to go back to old posts, but haven’t the time at the mo.

          Thanks for the kind words.

          It can be hard to be self skeptical. I guess the mind tries to pull us toward positive assertions of our selves rather than more muddled realities.

          I find the tight rope of skepticism a very difficult one to walk. There is no external perspective to tell you whether you are doing it well or not.

          A good part of it is based in trying to combine information into a single picture. This might be the wrong thing to do, i do not know. Science tends to ingrain an idea of a single vision of life, the universe, and everything. Even still, i do not think this is necessarily wrong.

          We are all skeptics, the definition seemingly evaporates in this context and we are left with just whether we agree on things or not. Skeptical philosophy is a little different, but philosophies can often try to be pure unto themselves instead of being honest about the evidence. Such that we should be skeptical of a near spherical earth. Misuse of this would try to weigh this idea equally against a flat earth and get the whole picture wrong, though not necessarily the philosophy, which is telling of its weakness.

          P.Z Myers (arguably a swear word here πŸ˜‰ ) stuck up a reply by Asimov that i thought was good. In it he remarks on the absolutist use of truth by skeptics of science in the way they use comparisons of older understandings against newer ones to undermine the claimed accuracy of the newer ideas. The idea that ‘old ideas have been shown to be wrong and the same will happen to your new ideas’. Up until then i hadn’t considered how this absolutism dictated the use of the idea. Asimov points out that knowledge is not absolute, but is gained incrementally. The flat earth idea was reasonable, the curvature being very close to zero. Eventually the consensus merged on the more accurate idea of a sphere, then a sphere with a bulge at its equator. These are still approximations though. Obviously the difference in the mental picture of a flat earth and a near spherical one is greater than just the rounding off of the curvature to zero would mean. Either way knowledge is not absolute and neither is understanding. This is a nice idea and explains a lot.

          I could write on this subject for years. Mainly because i am so confused by it.

          Ultimately where skepticism should rest is with false ideas. If we are skeptical of something that is true then it is misplaced. Knowledge is incomplete and not absolute though so where should we correctly place skepticism? Is it equally as fair, for us uneducated, to be skeptical of the mainstream instead of the unorthodox, given the nature implied by the language of the two? What events in a persons life can lead to the rightful skepticism of the mainstream? If a person talks to a ghost can they then disagree with geology, or should they just disagree with something in biology, or neurology? What about physics, thermodynamics, astrophysics, astrogeology etc.

          I find this so hard since there seems to not just be a correlation between skepticism of particular mainstream ideas, but with whole sets of the mainstream or even anything mainstream, while if the skepticism was fair it would be more confined to only the ideas contrary to the exact evidences experienced by a person, and there would be more interaction and permeation when formulating hypothesis of the unexplained phenomena.

  2. skeptics πŸ™
    I don’t think Chopra’s overstating things… the blow-back is evidence of this.

    Do we really need to playcate Skeptics with “you do good things sometimes”? Big picture… the modern skeptical movement hurts science.

    1. I’d go more along the lines
      I’d go more along the lines of ‘The modern skeptical movement hurts itself’. The scientific method is independent of it and it is too recent a thing with too little impact to really affect children in the schools and collages who will become the futures scientists. All the evidence is that science and its products will be more important in the future. I see little evidence that ‘science’ is being harmed. Just some perceptions of it. Science is about a billion times bigger than the skeptical movement.

      Overall increase in knowledge in certain areas could be being slowed down by orthodox refusal to look at the unorthodox of course, but this is different to science, but the debate goes on and everyone is doing research. At least the orthodox are not sentencing the unorthodox to death or fining them. Though there are negative aspects to going against the mainstream of course – but it depends on how you do it and in what fashion. Simply being polite will not save your reputation if you are calling everyone wrong about everything without good evidence, but if you believe you are right and you think you can prove it then i would say that it doesnt matter too much. Ideas have historically changed and have always worked this way – well at least since we stopped killing each other over them.

        1. Did you not get the letter πŸ˜‰
          I refer to the mainstream orthodoxy of ‘scientific orthodoxy’ in the western world. The ‘mainstream’ that is usually referred to in these conversations on the Grail.

          Obviously there are many ‘mainstreams’ around the world depending on which culture you are in, which country, etc In many of these you risk much worse than your reputation if you suggest idea’s perceived to be outside of the box by the orthodoxy.

          1. oh that one
            Oh that mainstream. Are we sure it wasn’t this mainstream on TDG, where there is not doubt about UFOs being mostly alien spacecraft, where NDE experiences are mostly credible, where the universe is electric, remote viewing is routine?

          2. confusing
            Well it gets confusing to keep track of which mainstream I’m not supposed to be a member of.

            Are the non-members of the mainstreams not a solid majority? At least on the internets?

          3. Mostly?
            I thought UFO’s were only about 5% alien spacecraft?!

            I like the idea of having an energy consciousness that survives death, i can feel myself toying with the idea more and more, almost like a hedonistic drug. I just have to work out how to incorporate it into my atheistic materialism πŸ˜‰

            It seems pretty easy sometimes. Apophaticism mixed with a good dose of humility would be enough. It is only back on land where we might talk about the various evidences, what definitive conclusions can really be drawn from them and to what degree they are being used to arrive at preferred conclusions. Then more importantly how these evidences interact with each other, and with other well evidenced theories, that i get my skeptical hat on. Not to mention the array of repeated experiments that just serve to complicate things by not falling in line.

            After all it is not simply that there is the mainstream, then ghosts, NDE’s, UFO’s, electric universes and ESP’s. They are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. Each culture has its own take on what is behind it, the scientific mainstream being no different. It is trying to tease out of the evidence specifics for each that is interesting.

            So do we have remote viewing or Demon trickery? Is it the demons hiding from experimenters that produces the experimenter effect or does belief weaken your soul and allow demon attack? Or are some people opening their third eye and being deceived. With the Stargate project 20% of the information from remote viewing was judged to be correct, but with 80% incorrect and understanding that misinformation needs to be supplied alongside correct information for it to work and that misinformation is worse than no information are the demons opposed to US intelligence?

            How close does paranormal evidence take us to our own cultural norms, or should we be looking at Islamic culture and their perspectives on witchcraft and invisible demons walking the earth and flying above our heads able to interact with the world and harm us. For that matter Christian theology isnt too polite about ghosts either. We are supposed to go to heaven or hell, voices in our ears are likely to be demon trickery as well, by my understanding.

            The commonalities on the Grail might not be in our cultures scientific mainstream, but they are in our cultural mainstream. When i was thinking of other ‘mainstreams’ i was thinking about those held in more conservative Islamic countries etc. Especially having worked in Saudi and what with them about to try and execute another witch.

    2. Playing nice
      [quote=atsakiris]I don’t think Chopra’s overstating things… the blow-back is evidence of this.

      Do we really need to playcate Skeptics with “you do good things sometimes”? Big picture… the modern skeptical movement hurts science.[/quote]

      Hi Alex, nice to see you posting on this topic. Speaking for myself personally, any praise or respect I might give to skeptics is not designed (in any way) to placate them. I’m personally not a person that sees many topics in black and white, there are numerous shades to every story. I just think it’s fair to point out this greyness at times – especially as I tend to focus quite a lot on criticising skepticism here on TDG. My (rather constant) criticism is not meant to say “all skepticism is crap, and all these paranormal claims are correct”. There is far more to criticise in the paranormal area, it’s just that most of it I don’t take seriously (and think a lot of people are like me). Like you, I think the modern skeptical movement has much more influence, and it has been an overwhelmingly negative one when it comes to progressing science by properly researching fringe/new paradigm ideas. I also believe that numerous individuals in the skeptical field (to name three: Randi, Shermer and Wiseman) are more interested in their own promotion than science.

      1. All in all i think much of it
        All in all i think much of it is evidence that we are all the same.

        I would like to see a bigger discussion of the whole subject of skepticism. I think the Grail thinkers would be good, but i don’t know if there is any solution for us to find, or if we should ever think there should be.

        The likes of Randi can be considered to be commercial skepticism, or skepticism appealing to a denominator. I wish i had his money to do it properly, perhaps we could all join together here (if we had that money) to give it a proper go, rather than some of the tests Randi does which end up showing very little.

        Two things interest me at the moment.

        Firstly, where skepticism is right and where it is wrong? if it ever can be wrong to be skeptical especially given its relationship with education and experience.

        The second is more an interest. Skeptics often hold their position because they cannot see how to combine old knowledge with new suggestions. Plate tectonics suffered from this until a model was suggested of how continents could move across the planets surface. Taking the idea of a soul, how do we combine this with the neurological and psychological sciences.

        Many religious, spiritual and paranormal ideas have ramifications across one or more of the sciences. It seems to me that many skeptics of the paranormal hold the position because they find it hard to combine the two. I appreciate that people would say that perhaps they do not need to and there is no need to be skeptical of something you dont understand. I agree with this in many ways. However believers in the paranormal often actually exhibit the same thing when they simply dismiss science rather than still learning it and holding the same principle they ask scientists to. What do people think about this?

  3. I’ve always respected Randi –
    I’ve always respected Randi – representing the left-brain/logos/yang/sun – for his ability to skewer the many charlatans that attempt to convert people’s gullibility into an income.

    Likewise, I admire Chopra – representing the right-brain/sophia/yin/moon. His deep humanity, wisdom, essentially optimistic and highly spiritual approach to living, particularly as a counterweight to the kind of nastiness that many noob skeptics bring to the table, declaring all to be nothing just as devoutly and annoyingly as any Xtian noob who’s ever shared her newfound certainty, or any freshman who’s boldly contradicted a philosophy prof with 30 books behind him.

    We need balance in our lives. I’m pretty sure that not just Einstein but also Sagan and Feinman and Bronowski and many other great figures of the 20th century would agree with Chopra. ‘Moderation in all things’ includes staying away from ideological extremes. I learned in the playground that a teeter-totter is only fun with someone on each end. Otherwise its just another way to get a sore ass.

    Not only that, but we all have different styles of thinking and relating to the universe. Skeptics too often assume that they have a superior vantage point on a universe with endless mysteries that will *never* be resolved … as Einstein (who *never* attacked) said. If I can’t enjoy that music that you enjoy, that doesn’t necessarily make my musical taste inferior to yours. You *may* be blind to what I’m experiencing.

    Because I was raised exposed (without any choice in the matter) a very conservative religion, I had my proto-scientific head filled with a lot of detrimental superstitions that took me decades to gouge out. So I had plenty of reason to be very angry with the people who ‘helped’ me to ‘see The Light’. But hate only consumes the hater – and stridency never got anyone laid. Too many skeptics are like venomous snakes. So I learned to laugh and reason rather than snarl and attack. Balance.

  4. Degrees and Effects of Scepticism
    Scepticism has degrees. A legitimate questioning, often quite useful, is not the same as a solidly closed mind, yet the word is often applied to both in a way that suggests there is no difference.

    In the “paranormal” area even a mild scepticism has an actual effect, one I find highly instructive.

    Throughout my life I’ve had some very unusual experiences and untold minor experiences. Some I’ve shared with others, that is, these were group experiences, but most were of a solitary and thus highly subjective nature. I know what I experienced but cannot speak of them without attracting extreme scepticism (depending on those to whom I speak).

    A few years ago I got into an extended on-line interaction with someone who took a strongly sceptical position.

    Off-line, I began to question my own experiences. As a result, I thought to list as many as I could think of and examine each.

    The most blatant examples came to mind first, but as I focused on these, something changed in my own mind and I began to remember additional experiences I’d completely forgotten.

    I listed these, too, but was forced to recreate the list I’d made — I’d been making this by hand and hadn’t allowed sufficient space when I began.

    As I continued, I had to reorder the list again and again — the more I focused on these experiences, the more I remembered, as the very act of focusing on them generated an altered, expansive consciousness.

    Eventually I had a very long and detailed list. Quickly reviewing it, it was plain to me that my sceptical opponent was, basically, inexperienced and/or ignorant and the sceptical frame of mind I’d fallen into before making my list — beginning to doubt my own experience after such questioning — was akin to having fallen asleep. Somehow, the mere act of making the list had begun to reawaken me.

    This also showed me that maintaining a strongly sceptical stance stops the mind down (liking stopping down an old fashioned camera shutter) and prevents awareness of experience that doesn’t pass the sceptical filter — your beliefs about what is and what is not possible become, to a great extent, self fulfilling.

    Sometimes, however, conditions are such that a powerful and unusual experience happens no matter how sceptical a frame of mind you might be in, although I have no simple way of determining exactly what such conditions are, or how to replicate them.

    I’ve posted before here about a very powerful experience that occurred while witnessing two woman operate a ouija board (I view the ouija board as a kind of prop or tool that enables both a mild trance and communication from the users’ own “subliminal selves” through their conscious minds).

    This happened even though, when asked if I would like to engage in such a session I’d thought to myself (“ouija board — how very junior high school”) before agreeing, however inwardly reluctant to do so, completely forgetting that this was exactly how Jane Roberts and her husband, Rob Butts, had started down the path that led to Jane’s channelling of Seth and the dictation of thousands of sessions and many entire books.

    They had chosen to explore the use of such a board as part of Jane’s decision to write a non-fiction book about the paranormal and were quite sceptical to begin with, but not entirely so — they did this on the heels of a very unusual OOBE of Jane’s that had also included some automatic writing while she was OOB. At first they got nothing but gibberish, but they persisted, and eventually Jane could “hear” Seth begin to answer questions before the planchette began to move, after a good number of sessions.

    In my own case, I was a participant/witness not at the board, but the resulting experience did lead to several years of very wild paranormal adventures shared with a number of others.

    I marvelled at the description of the paranormal investigators’ activities in Deborah Blum’s book. They maintained a sceptical attitude throughout all of their work and definitely encountered true mysteries but what if they had allowed themselves to be a bit less sceptical, enabling an expansion of consciousness? What if they themselves had personally entered trance, instead of witnessing others in that condition?

    In the end, you have but your own experience, not that of another. Why restrict it by holding too strongly to a sceptical attitude?

    Bill I.

    1. Skeptic vs sceptic
      I could be a skeptic, which should mean to not believe, bearing in mind that not believing does not mean denying.

      But I could not bring myself to be a sceptic for fear of ending at the bottom of a sceptic tank.

      1. Skeptic vs Sceptic
        I used to spell it “skeptic” but then discovered that this was the alternate spelling, so I standardized on “sceptic.”

        Sceptic is close not just to septic, but also sceptres; skeptic might call to mind “skeptomaniacs.”


          1. unlikely claims….?
            I’m somewhat skeptical about your claim in the other thread,”nothing special about the Pyramids, just a pile of stones”.
            LOL. thanks for the laugh earthling.

        1. Spelling
          “Skeptic is the preferred spelling in the US.

          In the UK it’s “sceptic.”

          But I believe “skeptical” is spelled (spelt) the same way throughout the Anglosphere. (“Sceptical” is apparently archaic.)

          1. I like “skeptick” too. It
            I like “skeptick” too. It hints at “magick” as in “magical thinking” a huge sin in the skeptic’s book, but one of which they are often guilty themselves.
            The beauty of the more archaic “sceptic” is that it is just one letter away from “septic.”
            Of course, we are all skeptics, and it is a shame that discourse has been recently marred by a popular misapplication and corruption of the term at the hands of certain insincere intellectual thugs. It reminds one in reverse of the similar recent corruption and hijacking of “conspiracy theory.”

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