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.