The pseudo-science of "Scientific skepticism"

Just like other names shaped as pleonasms, like "Democratic Republic", the expression of "Scientific skepticism" is there to hide, in naive eyes, the fact that it is essentially devoid of what it claims to be all about.

To face the gaps between science and society and the proliferation of pseudo-sciences, some efforts are made in ordinary terms of teaching and popularization; but also, a special effort at explanation and promotion of science and criticism of pseudo-science, was developed by the "Scientific skepticism" movement.
In some ways, they did a number of good works.
 However, while this movement claims to represent science, and indeed has includes a number of scientists, this representation of science is not always faithful, their efforts often go to the wrong targets, and they sometimes deviate from scientific thought and practice too.
Most of their claimed principles of skepticism are usually correct; but the main problem is that they often fail to apply these principles correctly in practice, on effective issue of the paranormal. Or, they prefer to focus on the most ridiculous claims of paranormal in order to correctly dismiss them, while ignoring the more genuine, defensible ones.

Such a trouble is expectable, because, as we said, the normal scientific practice is normally based on dedication and isolation in the ivory tower of science. So, the lobbying and communication work done by skeptics, in an environment full of nonsense, and on subjects where scientific knowledge is not so developed yet, sometimes happens to deteriorate the rationality level of their claims and practices.
This eventually leads them to some absurd results, associating science with indefensible attitudes, making their efforts often counter-productive with respect to their goal of explaining and promoting science and rationality.

While rationality is indeed the right self-sufficient root of all credibility, how ironical it is to see it discredited by clumsy defenders trying to promote it as a religion, by irrational methods.

We already mentioned the scientific illiteracy of some of them. Let us present more aspects of their irrationality, incompetence and similarities with what they claim to oppose (religions, sects and pseudo-sciences).

Skeptics and paranormal phenomena

The question of the presence of paranormal phenomena (or miracles) is a very tough debate. The study of these phenomena developed as a scientific field, that is parapsychology, which came to be somehow officially accepted as a science when the Parapsychological Association became affiliated to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. Among researchers in this field, a sort of consensus more or less emerged, that some proofs of existence of supernatural phenomena are present, but they are usually very tenuous (with casual exceptions) so that it is not possible to provide as clear and simple proofs as many skeptics are usually requiring, but a long study in the field is required to figure out the existing evidence.

It is very hard to give a proper account of the situation of this debate (how scientific has the field of parapsychology developed, what evidence is there and how valid is it), not only because of the scarcity of the proofs and the hardness to check them, but also because irrational attitudes are widespread on both sides.

I spent quite a time reviewing the situation of the debate in France. Here is my full report but I only wrote it in French too. To roughly sum up:

There is only one research organization on parapsychology in France, Institut Métapsychique International (IMI), which is recognized as public interest organization but hardly has any public support, and roughly no recognition of its views by any other organization. (So, thorough debates usually have to refer to the data produced outside France as evidence for psi)

Instead, the views of the skeptics groups ("Zététique") are strongly supported by the academic system and other official scientific organizations.

The founding organization of the whole French skeptical movement (Cercle Zététique) was more and more discredited and finally self-dissolved, as the leading and finally remaining few members were the most sectarian.
Members who left as they were not happy with its methods formed other groups, but inherited its ill-informed claims and its biased methods.
One of them is the Laboratoire de Zététique, an official laboratory in the University of Nice, directed by the founder of the Cercle (Henri Broch), and officially supported by 2 French Physics Nobel laureates, both dead but still put forward as honorary members.

The other, less official but the least sectarian and thus most respectable, thus with the maniest members, is the Observatoire Zététique, based in Grenoble. So they have basically the same ideology from the same guru (Broch) but make a difference by their "soft attitude".
Smaller groups and independent skeptical webmasters also exist.
The Observatoire made clear its independence to not be mistaken with the others'sectarism, and prefers to not put forward its divergence with the other groups, but all is explained in its forum.

The whole ideology of the Zététique groups is that they are not interested in the paranormal for itself, but made the choice to focus on paranormal claims (preferably the most crazy and incredible ones, or their own caricatural interpretation of them) as a toy model for a pedagogical project of teaching the scientific method to a large public. But the practical effect of doing so is a dogmatic, ideological fight against all paranormal claims across society through unserious investigations only; and their discrepancy with science is particularly manifested by their amateurist, demagogic approach of the scientific method (which one web site of a small zététique group claims to be applicable by a child) - while of course keeping the conclusion fixed by "science".

The Skepticism pole of IMI's student group, whose members had to remain anonymous to avoid any sort of personal attacks, hold a blog and made a lot of contributions to many online discussions. Finally they set up a web site to debunk the claims of the Zététique movement.
By taking the time to review some of the many debates across forums and blog comments, it is striking how more rational and convincing (while remaining very polite and civilized) is the argumentation of these critics, as compared to the visible dogmatism, sectarism, amateurism and paranoia of the skeptics, which has been widely discredited anyway as such across any forum not hosted by them nor by any "officially scientific" organization.

Ironically, I even happened to find a lot of similarities between the attitudes of these "skeptics" and those of Fundamentalist Christianity, as well as with some aspects of Postmodernism, (both movements which skeptics officially claim to be radically opposed to), and which are not shared by mainstream science. In other words, by such a long, rich and extensive set of various rationality criteria, it happens that "Scientific Skepticism" falls on the side of irrationality together with its irrational "best ennemies" of religious fundamentalism and posmodernism which it is most similar to, while the whole of mainstream science generally falls on the opposite side (rationality).

So, the official support to the French skeptics groups and ideology is all a kind of Emperor's new clothes.

Examples of irrational features and symptoms of irrationality that are common between skepticism and (at least some of the other irrational movements such as) religion, pseudo-science and crackpot movements but differ from mainstream science:
On the other side, unfortunately, the community of paranormal believers (if we may call it so) did not properly manage to draw a separation from irrationalists and crackpots as well as the rest of the scientific community; some still mistake skepticism with mainstream science, and assume that in order to "fight" their "ennemies" that are skeptics, they would have to oppose the scientific community too, by making alliance with all possible other ennemies of mainstream science.
These ennemies of mainstream science, can be religions or paranoid cranks with their conspiracy theories accusing scientists to be dogmatic, close-minded and to censor new (crackpot) ideas.

What they didn't notice is that by developing such alliances, they are just ridiculizing their points in the eyes of scientists (just like skeptics are ridiculizing the scientific method in the eyes of any witness of paranormal phenomena).

Here is a long explanation that I wrote about how a pro-paranormal site, which claims to be scientific, fails to stand rationality standards, and thus discredits itself in the eyes of scientists.

Some aspects of the problem have already been pointed out in an article in IMI's site:

"To finish with some clichés: parapsychologists would be marginal, while skeptics would be the official representatives of science. And what if it were the contrary ?

(This text is an introduction to the lecture given by Pierre Lagrange January 28, 2005 at IMI)

I will want to consider two points during this presentation. The first is how all actors, whether favorable to the study of parapsychology or against this study, present the debate. In their view, this debate would oppose a parapsychology at the margins of science that would be barred from becoming a normal science because of the opposition of skeptics, integrated with the institution. But if you look at the situation as it stands, we notice that it is parapsychology, particularly through the Parapsychological Association, that belongs to the institution, while the skeptics are those gathered in associations outside the establishment. It is therefore not a controversy for the admission of a discipline but a controversy between scientists (parapsychologists) and science consumers (the rationalists) who are skeptical towards the interest for society of obtained results, as often happens (GMOs, nuclear energy etc.). Thus why do even parapsychologists accept reports on the controversy that do not correspond to reality and promote the discourse of skeptics ? That is an enigma.

But this puzzle does not come alone. In fact, I think it is related, at least in France to another very powerful speech in parapsychology circles. Indeed, for decades, endless controversies always occured following the terms imposed by rationalists. Thus parapsychologists scramble to meet the requirements of proof raised by rationalists rather than rely on the normal scientific practice and seek in the plurality of scientific practices the allies they would need. And this discourse on evidence taken from rationalists (that has the disadvantage of being by definition impossible to satisfy) is coupled with a lack of real practice of the discipline. However, it is difficult to accept that rationalists are such a great danger when we see that parapsychology has scientific societies such as the PA, newspapers referees and symposia. Nothing prevents French parapsychologists to use these tools but the frequent argument is that rationalists prevent their work. Isn't this argument a bit weak ? Also if you look back in time there were other times, especially in the early 50s with Robert Amadou, when parapsychology has created the conditions for a debate without worrying constantly of the only rationalist opponents (...) By focusing on rationalists, parapsychologists today give the impression of wanting to support them at all costs by refraining to find elsewhere relays to build an identity for research in parapsychology (...) we may wonder if rationalists would be an ally for some actors that otherwise would be obliged to produce facts, to show they have something to say. But as long as this sterile controversy lasts they can pose as oppressed and pretend that they are prevented from producing facts..."

So, finally, what evidence for the paranormal can be found ?
Personally, what I found most striking and meaningful as an evidence of the existence of spiritual realities beyond our physical universe, is the study of near death experiences.

For references of evidences, see links page.

Let us give an example of the irrationality of skeptics.
In any of their argumentative texts (that I know of) against the reality of the perceptions out of the body in near death experiences, skeptics have put forward the observation that these perceptions were "reproduced" by drugs or special stimulations of the brain, or the like. They presented this as an evidence that out of body perceptions were hallucinations, by arguing that the "natural" NDE were the same perceptions as these stimulated ones, and assuming that these stimulated ones are mere hallucinations, that would be a "model" of hallucination for the spontaneous NDEs.

A rational argument based on an observation, when addressing a competition between 2 worldviews (once assumed that these worldviews are well-defined enough as concerns the observation being discussed), is a matter of how it affects the ratio of probabilties between these views, whatever the a priori ratio of probabilities that one could give them.

As we explained with classical probabilities, the effect of an observation on the competition between two hypothesis, consists in a multiplication of the ratio of their probabilities by p/p' where p is the probability for the observation to have given the perceived result under one hypothesis, and p' the one under the other hypothesis. Thus it can significantly promote one hypothesis, only if the probability of the oberved result under the other hypothesis is close to zero.

In particular, in order for the observation of "out of body sensations" under drugs or specific brain stimulations, to be an argument against the "real out of body" interpretation of NDEs, this would require this result to have a probability close to zero under this hypothesis.

But, under the "real out of body" interpretation of NDE, there is absolutely no surprise that such experiments on the brain can really drive the soul out of it and thus produce real out of body perceptions in this way.
Strangely, when putting forward their experience of stimulated out of body perception as a "model" for NDE, they did not even consider any question of how it can be at odds or not with the real out of body hypothesis. So they did not contradict either that its probability for their observation can be 1. In fact, all they showed is their a priori unability or unwillingness to dare thinking about the view they are claiming to oppose.

Conclusion: skeptics are ridiculizing themselves by their way of showing that they don't even understand how to assess the weight of a rational argument based on an observation.

Now, it's a pity that among all testimonies of out of body perceptions, it seems none has been recorded in "fully controlled" circumstances in order to remain undeniable, though the situation as seen by the involved people is already sufficiently clear to make doubt unreasonable.
Let us just make a few remarks:
Indeed, the question of afterlife is, in principle, much more interesting for so many people (with many people on both sides of the controversy, each conviced to have some evidence on their side), than the quest for the Higgs boson, and is no less accessible to scientific inquiry. Therefore I see no reason why the amount of resources dedicated to the former remains so ridiculously smaller than the one for the latter.

A debate on rationalism

moved to a separate page.
Related pages :
My list of Links on the connection between quantum physics and consciousness that includes some links against the "skeptics" movement
Why is physicalism now a form of obscurantism in physics
Problems with Bohmian mechanics
Explaining reason and science
Metaphysics
Why learn Physics by yourself (2/3)
A long criticism of the Zetetique movement that I wrote in French, including, for example, a list of many similarities between this "Scientific Skepticism" and Christianity, in contrast with genuine science.

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