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Ted Debiak is past president of New York Area Skeptics (NYASk)
In Defense of the Tools of Skepticism

by Ted Debiak


In 1988, an article appeared in the alt.paranormal newsgroup of the Internet. It was critical of the tools used by skeptics in discussions with non-skeptics and in evaluating the extraordinary claims made by proponents of the paranormal. I saw the article for the first time on Jim Lippard’s website (see below for the URL) while exploring the websites of other skeptical individuals and organizations.

Mr. Lippard has published numerous articles on various topics ranging from skepticism to the claims made about marijuana. He claims that his website is blocked by the censorware program distributed by the Church of Scientology to all of its members. He describes himself as “…a skeptic, director of Internet security operations, and philosopher, probably in that order”.

Mr. Lippard has included the article below as a part of his website because, apparently, he believes that the criticisms directed at skeptics in the article are also representative of his views. My attempts to contact the original author were unsuccessful since his email address is no longer valid and no name was shown. This article is my point-by-point response to each of the criticisms in the article. The sections of the original article are in Italics.

Original URL: http://www.discord.org/~lippard/stupid-skeptic-tricks.txt

"Date: 8 Apr 1998 01:19:29 GMT
From: DOwens6683 dowens6683@aol.com
Newsgroups: alt.paranormal
Subject: Stupid Skeptic Tricks

Ever get into an argument with a skeptic only to end up exasperated and feeling you've been bamboozled? Skeptics are often highly skilled at tying up opponents in clever verbal knots. Most skeptics are, of course, ordinary, more-or-less honest people who, like the rest of us, are just trying to make the best sense they can of a complicated and often confusing world. Others, however, are merely glib sophists who use specious reasoning to defend their prejudices or attack the ideas and beliefs of others, and even an honest skeptic can innocently fall into the mistake of employing bad reasoning.

In reading, listening to and sometimes debating skeptics over the years, I've found certain tricks, ploys and gimmicks which they tend to use over and over again. Here are some of 'em. Perhaps if you keep them in mind when arguing with a skeptic, you'll feel better when the debate is over. Shucks, you might even score a point or two.

* * *

1.) RAISING THE BAR (Or IMPOSSIBLE PERFECTION): This trick consists of demanding a new, higher and more difficult standard of evidence whenever it looks as if a skeptic's opponent is going to satisfy an old one. Often the skeptic doesn't make it clear exactly what the standards are in the first place. This can be especially effective if the skeptic can keep his opponent from noticing that he is continually changing his standard of evidence. That way, his opponent will eventually give up in exasperation or disgust. Perhaps best of all, if his opponent complains, the skeptic can tag him as a whiner or a sore loser.

Skeptic: I am willing to consider the psi hypothesis if you will only show me some sound evidence.

Opponent: There are many thousands of documented reports of incidents that seem to involve psi.

S: That is only anecdotal evidence. You must give me laboratory evidence.

0: Researchers A-Z have conducted experiments that produced results which favor the psi hypothesis.

S: Those experiments are not acceptable because of flaws X,Y and Z.

0: Researchers B-H and T-W have conducted experiments producing positive results which did not have flaws X,Y and Z.

S: The positive results are not far enough above chance levels to be truly interesting.

0: Researchers C-F and U-V produced results well above chance levels.

S: Their results were achieved through meta-analysis, which is a highly questionable technique.

O: Meta-analysis is a well-accepted method commonly used in psychology and sociology.

S: Psychology and sociology are social sciences, and their methods can't be considered as reliable as those of hard sciences such as physics and chemistry.

Etc., etc. ad nauseum."

Response: First, I agree that some so-called skeptics are prejudiced in their view of the world. Since they, like true skeptics, have not seen convincing evidence that psi exists, they have come to the conclusion that it does not exist and, therefore, further investigations into the subject are a waste of time and resources. If this attitude were universal, discovery would come to a halt. A true skeptic would continue looking for convincing evidence.

However, in any investigation, “raising the bar” is an absolutely necessary process that must take place before any claim is accepted. As an example, Einstein’s general theory of relativity has been accepted as fact for many years, in spite of its apparent contradiction of our everyday experiences. Its tenets are strictly adhered to by scientists planning space flights as well as by those studying subatomic phenomena. Yet, at every eclipse of the sun, it is put to the test again (and passes). Recently, the predictions of temporal distortion were tested again by comparing two synchronized atomic clocks, one stationary, and the other on a plane that circumnavigated the earth. Is this what constitutes “impossible perfection”? By definition, the answer is “No”, since it has been achieved. Scientists would be ecstatic to observe some evidence that contradicts the theory, just as scientists were fascinated to see Newton’s laws contradicted.

Of course, our exasperated author did not point out that the “Opponent” in the above dialogue is also “raising the bar” in response to the “skeptic”. Finally, I must point out that there is at least one higher level that the bar could be raised to. That is reproducibility. Psi phenomena, like all paranormal phenomena, have not been reproducible. In addition to all the levels of evidence in the discussion above, any claim must also be reproducible before it is accepted.

"2.) SOCK 'EM WITH OCCAM: Skeptics frequently invoke Occam's Razor as if the Razor automatically validates their position. Occam's Razor, a principle of epistemology (knowledge theory), states that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is to be preferred -- or, to state it another way, entities are not to be multiplied needlessly. The Razor is a useful and even necessary principle, but it is largely useless if the facts themselves are not generally agreed upon in the first place."

Response: I agree, mostly. Casting Occam’s razor as an unfair tool in making judgements is unfair. As our frustrated author states, it is useful and must be a part of the set of stuff that is used to accept or reject a claim.

"3.) EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS: Extraordinary claims, says the skeptic, require extraordinary evidence. Superficially this seems reasonable enough. However, extraordinariness, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Some claims, of course, would seem extraordinary to almost anyone (e.g. the claim that aliens from Alpha Centauri had contacted you telepathically and informed you that the people of Earth must make you their absolute lord and ruler). The "extraordinariness" of many other claims, however, is at best arguable, and it is not at all obvious that unusually strong evidence is necessary to support them. For example, so many people who would ordinarily be considered reliable witnesses have reported precognitive dreams that it becomes difficult to insist these are "unusual" claims requiring "unusual" evidence. Quite ordinary standards of evidence will do."

Response: Unusually strong evidence is necessary to support ALL claims, both extraordinary and ordinary. In fact many ordinary claims were extraordinary when first stated. Everything that most people do is done for reasons that are supported by extremely extraordinary evidence. Granted that the expectation of winning money by “playing the stock market” or other forms of gambling is not always supported by strong evidence, but that is acknowledged by the rational person. However, pressing on the accelerator pedal to increase your speed in an automobile or pressing on the brake pedal to slow down is supported by so much evidence that millions of people stake their life on it every day. In fact, the evidence for this and 99% of our other daily actions become more and more extraordinary each time it is tested.

Alternatively, the evidence for precognitive dreams (or psi or astrology…) is simply not in the same category as that for our everyday actions. In fact, alleged precognitive dreams are not evidence of precognition unless the predictions are recorded before they happen. The “precognitive” dreams are probably the ones that are remembered after some random event triggers a recollection, while the majority of dreams that were useless were forgotten. In fact, many events may be perceived as predicted from a single specific dream. If one could readily predict something specific after a dream but before the occurrence, it would be noteworthy. By the way this never worked for other psychics, or astrologers, or even interpreters of the Bible, not even Nostradamus, although they were all very successful after the event.

"4.) STUPID, CRAZY LIARS: This trick consists of simple slander. Anyone who reports anything which displeases the skeptic will be accused of incompetence, mental illness or dishonesty, or some combination of the three without a single shred of fact to support the accusations. When Charles Honorton's Ganzfeld experiments produced impressive results in favor of the psi hypothesis, skeptics accused him of suppressing or not publishing the results of failed experiments. No definite facts supporting the charge ever emerged. Moreover, the experiments were extremely time consuming, and the number of failed, unpublished experiments necessary to make the number of successful, published experiments significant would have been quite high, so it is extremely unlikely that Honorton's results could be due to selective reporting. Yet skeptics still sometimes repeat this accusation. "

Response: A true skeptic must acknowledge that there are still discoveries to be made. The source of those discoveries might be from the most unlikely place that can be imagined; therefore, all claims must be given a reasonable hearing. If the results of Charles Honorton’s Ganzfeld experiments can be reproduced in other laboratories by other researchers, they will be worth further consideration. However, widespread acceptance of a claim still does not make it valid. Consider the widespread practice of therapeutic touch in mainstream medicine. Numerous experiments have supported the claim that therapeutic touch is no better than a placebo, yet the gullible still flock to the con.

The person voted to be the number one outstanding skeptic of the twentieth century, James Randi, has tested a number of claims that most would consider of psychotic origin. Among those claim was one that stated that a person “… could influence, through his powers, any person chosen, to raise either his right or his left arm, at an ESP signal from the operator”. Everyone involved in the test was disappointed that it failed. After all, it would have been wonderful to be involved in such a discovery, if it were true.

"5.) THE SANTA CLAUS GAMBIT: This trick consists of lumping moderate claims or propositions together with extreme ones. If you suggest, for example, that Sasquatch can't be completely ruled out from the available evidence, the skeptic will then facetiously suggest that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny can't be "completely" ruled out either. "

Response: My only disagreement with this complaint is with the word “facetious”. A true skeptic should not be facetious. Still, the evidence for the existence of Sasquatch really is in the same class as the evidence for the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Pictures of all three are available and the ones of Santa Claus are a lot clearer than of Sasquatch. (More about this appears in the response to 7.)

"6.) SHIFTING THE BURDEN OF EVIDENCE: The skeptic insists that he doesn't have to provide evidence and arguments to support his side of the argument because he isn't asserting a claim, he is merely denying or doubting yours. His mistake consists of assuming that a negative claim (asserting that something doesn't exist) is fundamentally different from a positive claim. It isn't. Any definite claim, positive or negative, requires definite support. Merely refuting or arguing against an opponent's position is not enough to establish one's own position. In other words, you can't win by default.

As arch-skeptic Carl Sagan himself said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If someone wants to rule out visitations by extra-terrestrial aliens, it would not be enough to point out that all the evidence presented so far is either seriously flawed or not very strong. It would be necessary to state definite reasons which would make ET visitations either impossible or highly unlikely. (He might, for example, point out that our best understanding of physics pretty much rules out any kind of effective faster-than-light drive.)

The only person exempt from providing definite support is the person who takes a strict "I don't know" position or the agnostic position. If someone takes the position that the evidence in favor of ET visitations is inadequate but goes no farther, he is exempt from further argument (provided, of course, he gives adequate reasons for rejecting the evidence). However, if he wants to go farther and insist that it is impossible or highly unlikely that ET's are visiting or have ever visited the Earth, it becomes necessary for him to provide definite reasons for his position. He is no longer entitled merely to argue against his opponent's position.

There is the question of honesty. Someone who claims to take the agnostic position but really takes the position of definite disbelief is, of course, misrepresenting his views. For example, a skeptic who insists that he merely believes the psi hypothesis is inadequately supported when in fact he believes that the human mind can only acquire information through the physical senses is simply not being honest. "

Response: Our beleaguered author is simply wrong about at least one statement in the above section. A negative claim IS fundamentally different from a positive claim. Skeptics, as well as nonskeptics, are always asserting claims – I assert that the earth will continue to rotate for the foreseeable future, and I challenge anyone to show me contrary evidence. I am always happy to consider your evidence to the contrary of anything that I claim. Is the nonskeptic?

On the other hand, I will not make a negative claim because ”it IS impossible to prove a negative”. Carl Sagan’s words above can be restated in exactly those words (more about that below).

"7.) YOU CAN'T PROVE A NEGATIVE: The skeptic may insist that he is relieved of the burden of evidence and argument because "you can't prove a negative." But you most certainly can prove a negative! When we know one thing to be true, then we also know that whatever flatly contradicts it is untrue. If I want to show my cat's not in the bedroom, I can prove this by showing that my cat's in the kitchen or outside chasing squirrels. The negative has then been proven. Or the proposition that the cat is not in the bedroom could be proven by giving the bedroom a good search without finding the cat. The skeptic who says, "Of course I can't prove psi doesn't exist. I don't have to. You can't prove a negative," is simply wrong. To rule something out, definite reasons must be given for ruling it out.

Of course, for practical reasons it often isn't possible to gather the necessary information to prove or disprove a proposition, e.g., it isn't possible to search the entire universe to prove that no intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. This by itself doesn't mean that a case can't be made against the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, although it does probably mean that the case can't be as air-tight and conclusive as we would like."

Response: On this point, I’m afraid that our demoralized author has completely missed the point. He states that “To rule something out, definite reasons must be given for ruling it out.” He is absolutely correct because “You can’t prove a negative.” Using his example of proving that his cat is not in the bedroom, the cat that he saw outside may not be his cat, or it could be a hallucination that was telepathically planted in his and my mind by the aliens from Alpha Centauri that transmitted that other message in 3) above. Given all that, I would probably believe him because seeing the cat outside is certainly overwhelming evidence that it is not in the bedroom - but not proof. The distinction is important.

In fact, if it were Uri Geller’s cat, I still might not believe it. Unfortunately, I believe that there is agreement about the statement that there are a lot of hoaxers and con artists in this world that would be more than happy for people to believe that they had paranormal powers. How can the skeptic protect himself from them? He must demand reproducible evidence in a wide variety of circumstances.

Points numbered five and six are really restatements of point seven. The fact that it cannot be proven that ESP (or psi or psychokinesis) does not exist is a much heavier burden on the skeptic than on the nonskeptic. If it could be proven, we wouldn’t be having all these disagreements. The skeptic could point to such a proof and end the discussion. What a dull world that would be. It is much more interesting to look at all the claims in the hope that, under some circumstance, ESP does exist.

"8.) THE BIG LIE: The skeptic knows that most people will not have the time or inclination to check every claim he makes, so he knows it's a fairly small risk to tell a whopper. He might, for example, insist that none of the laboratory evidence for psi stands up to close scrutiny, or he might insist there have been no cases of UFO's being spotted by reliable observers such as trained military personnel when in fact there are well-documented cases. The average person isn't going to scamper right down to the library to verify this, so the skeptic knows a lot of people are going to accept his statement at face value. This ploy works best when the Big Lie is repeated often and loudly in a confident tone."

Response: As stated below, this is also a technique used by the paranormal claimant. Even if there is some laboratory evidence for psi or there are well-documented cases of UFO’s being spotted by reliable observers, why must the existence of psi or the existence of beings from another world be invoked as an explanation? San Francisco has no explanation for 40% of their murder cases. Does that mean we must assume that they were committed by Sasquatch or by extraterrestrial beings?

"9.) DOUBT CASTING: This trick consists of dwelling on minor or trivial flaws in the evidence, or presenting speculations as to how the evidence might be flawed as though mere speculation is somehow as damning as actual facts. The assumption here is that any flaw, trivial or even merely speculative, is necessarily fatal and provides sufficient grounds for throwing out the evidence. The skeptic often justifies this with the "extraordinary evidence" ploy.

In the real world, of course, the evidence for anything is seldom 100% flawless and foolproof. It is almost always possible to find some small shortcoming which can be used as an excuse for tossing out the evidence. If a definite problem can't be found, then the skeptic may simply speculate as to how the evidence *might* be flawed and use his speculations as an excuse to discard the information. For example, the skeptic might point out that the safeguards or controls during one part of a psi experiment weren't quite as tight as they might have been and then insist, without any supporting facts, that the subject(s) and/or the researcher(s) probably cheated because this is the "simplest" explanation for the results (see "Sock 'em with Occam" and "Extraordinary Claims"; "Raising the Bar" is also relevant)."

Response: This argument is very similar to many above. The claims that I make are easily demonstrated because they are supported by a lot of evidence. Doubt casting, like raising the bar and Occam’s razor, are necessary tests for any claim to be accepted. A true skeptic will not discard any relevant information; however, the nonskeptic does seem more willing to accept a claim based on much less evidence than would satisfy a skeptic. Let’s turn the tables around. What evidence (or how much evidence) to the contrary would it take for a person to doubt his claim? Falsifiability is an integral part of the test of the validity of any claim. Reproducibility, although not even mentioned by our dejected author, is another test that must be passed before I consider a claim to be valid.

"10.) THE SNEER: This gimmick is an inversion of "Stupid, Crazy Liars." In "Stupid, Crazy Liars," the skeptic attacks the character of those advocating certain ideas or presenting information in the hope of discrediting the information. In "THE SNEER," the skeptic attempts to attach a stigma to some idea or claim and implies that anyone advocating that position must have something terribly wrong with him. "Anyone who believes we've been visited by extraterrestrial aliens must be a lunatic, a fool, or a con man. If you believe this, you must a maniac, a simpleton or a fraud.” The object here is to scare others away from a certain position without having to discuss facts."

Response: This is a redundant argument to 4 above and the response is covered in that section.

"* * *

To be fair, some of these tricks or tactics (such as "The Big Lie," "Doubtcasting" and "The Sneer") are often used by believers as well as skeptics. Scientific Creationists and Holocaust Revisionists, for example, are particularly prone to use "Doubtcasting.” Others ploys, however, such as "Sock 'em with Occam" and "Extraordinary Claims," are generally used by skeptics and seldom by others.

Unfortunately, effective debating tactics often involve bad logic, e.g. attacking an opponent's character, appeals to emotion, mockery and facetiousness, loaded definitions, etc. And certainly skeptics are not the only ones who are ever guilty of using manipulative and deceptive debating tactics. Even so, skeptics are just as likely as anyone else to twist their language, logic and facts to win an argument, and keeping these tricks in mind when dealing with skeptics may very well keep you from being bamboozled."

Summary: Is the hard-nosed skeptic slowing down the rate of scientific progress because of his standards of evidence? My response is “No”. Science and technological progress demand that claims pass any test that we can throw at them. Otherwise, people start buying home energy appliances based on cold fusion, or law enforcement agencies purchase the DKL Lifeguard and try to locate living individuals behind walls with it. What is frightening is the amount of stupidity that already exists. Therapeutic touch was mentioned above. Other examples are people committing suicide because they are trying to board a nonexistent spaceship behind a comet, and people basing their life’s decisions on the advice of an astrologer. This is the real harm that is caused by prematurely accepting claims that have not passed strict tests.

Fortunately, science will continue to progress, and faster and faster computers will continue to be manufactured, in spite of the irrational beliefs of most people. I see no harm in speculating that psi exists, or that Sasquatch exists. I only wish that the hoaxes could be exposed more easily and that fewer people had made the “leap of faith” and refuse to consider other more prosaic explanations for the unexplained.

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Response to Ted Debiak, Jim Lippard

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