The Pseudosceptics

Recently I learned a new word; "Pseudosceptic" (spelled with a "k" to choice). It describes someone who professes rational scientific scepticism of something, but in truth is dogmatically opposed to it as a matter of entrenched belief, and uses rationalism as a mask to try and hide the fact that their denial is as much unsupported faith as any pseudoscientific belief. They may even be hiding the embarrassing lack of foundation from themselves.

What a delightful word. It encapsulates so neatly the aggressive rants against pseudoscience that so wear out the impartial investigator of many a fringe topic. Unquestioning fruitloops I can deal with; they at least have learned to get out of the way and leave others alone. But the rabid pseudosceptic is a relentless troll, a determined evangelist of the "If I shout loud and often enough, I must win the argument – and I will!" mentality. If you push at their logic, they seethe visibly with anger and dismiss you out of hand. Now I can label them and turn their own arguments against therm.

Scepticism, which in this context means rational, scientific scepticism, is a Good Thing. It is the way we diagnose and expunge all the crazy theories we have that just don't pan out. Like perpetual motion, the Ptolemaic Universe, creationism and so on. We'd be lost without it. The last thing we need is people muddying the waters by merely pretending to be rational, scientific sceptics.

Perhaps the most damaging pseudosceptics today are the climate deniers. Thanks to them, the oil companies and right-wing politicians of this world are able to keep accelerating its downfall. Oh, and the Diesel haters, who would rather live long and prosper themselves than see their children's children's children do so.

Next comes political aggression, all that right-wing Nationalist dogma (so often dressed in left-wing Communist clothing) that other nations, other factions, can never be trusted; there is no such thing as a genuinely principled friend. Expansionism is the only way to right past wrongs and restore whoever-we-are to our rightful place in the world, and what's more military force is a great way to achieve that. Britain has been growing progressively out of it throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, Europe and America eventually joining the trend. Sadly Russia, China and North Korea are digging themselves back in as fast as they can. While on political aggression, Donald Trump and his supporters found a few things to be pseudosceptical about too; they remain a menace to peace in the USA.

You find plenty among the medical fringe too. Those who deny that MMR, HIV or Covid vaccines might do some good at the one extreme, and those who deny that ME or migraines or depression or allergies are genuine medical conditions.

A particular example which has been irritating me lately is the branding of all parapsychology research as pseudoscience; anybody who runs an experiment, unless they do so with the preconceived goal and resulting happy conclusion of debunking someone else, is beyond the pale. It is all so absurdly circular: there is no scientific result indicating the existence of any psychic phenomenon, so if anybody produces one we will assassinate it with extreme prejudice. We are justified in doing so because it is wrong. And it is wrong because we are justified in what we do. Therefore, the only excuse for checking the results is to prove them wrong; showing the slightest doubt is heresy. Dogmatic idiots!

Perhaps the most purblind example I ever came across was the SCICOP investigation into Tony Hopwood's theory of dowsing. He too was a firm atheist and scientific rationalist. An electronics wiz, he became intrigued by magnetic theories of dowsing, suspecting that certain limited classes of event were significant but that the magnetic explanations were wrong. He eventually came up with an electrostatic theory and built the kit to demonstrate it in action. But when SCICOP and talking head Heinz Wolff set out to replicate his experiment, they put together a team of biologists - not an electromagnetics brain cell among them. So they filled the gap, not with someone impartial, but with Hopwood himself! When he turned up he pointed out that their experimental setup was hopeless, the electrostatic environment was all wrong. Did they listen to the expert? No, they pushed him to perform anyway, and the result was exactly as he predicted - hopeless. This was taken by our wonder team of pseudosceptical biologists as proof that the theory was wrong and the dowsing phenomenon did not exist. With hindsight, and knowing SCICOP's track record, it is clear that the whole game was a scam to discredit the mere suggestion that dowsing could possibly work. Not the slightest crack could be allowed in their pseudosceptical dogma, not even if it was a genuine scientific crack! Purblind indeed.

Today's parapsychologists too are beginning to question the pseudosceptics on their own ground. Caroline Watt, currently holding the Chair of Psychology at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit in Edinburgh, pulls few punches (in this radio interview) on the "armchair sceptics" who have not actually read the literature they are trashing.

Chris Roe is Professor of Psychology at the University of Northampton, Director of the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes, a board member of the Parapsychological Association, and current President of the Society for Psychical Research. He has revisited the Blackmore-Sargent and Bem Ganzfeld controversies and found as much wrong with the sceptical arguments as with the research itself. More widely, although there have been too many cases of fraud in parapsychology to ignore, he argues that the incidence of such cases is no higher than in psychology and in science generally, with the overall body of results in the field to be taken just as seriously once the frauds are discounted.

Etzel Cardeña makes a more direct frontal attack in "The Unbearable Fear of Psi: On Scientific Censorship in the 21st Century", Journal of Scientific Exploration, 29(4), 2015, pp.601-620.

For a more leisurely lampooning of the over-zealous psi critic, you can do worse than Eric Wargo; Time Loops, Anomalist, 2018.

Yes, the extreme fruitloops may not be about to inherit the Earth, but it is also time for the pseudosceptics to face their own weapons and be exposed for the dogmatic pseudoscientists they too have become.

The extreme pseudosceptic is a devious and dishonest manipulator who, like others of that ilk, is unable to accept that those who disagree with them might be perfectly decent folk, and instead treats us all as equally devious and dishonest manipulators. This psychotic principle is becoming known as the Dark Forest, named after an SF novel by Liu Cixin; you are alone and the only safe course is to treat every pair of eyes as an enemy. Any alliance (such as the recent one between Russia and China) is a temporary mask of convenience. Hate speech joins self-aggrandizement as their only truths.

Some pseudosceptics are so blinded by faith in themselves that they do not realise what they are doing, others fastidiously plot their devious lies. It matters little which; they all do great damage and need to be faced down by a true alliance of the sane and decent.

Updated 18 Feb 2022