How To Be A Good Skeptic

Are you a Skeptic or Skeptical? As the Science Editor for Paranormal Daily News, I’m naturally skeptical, but with an open mind. I enjoy exploring controversial subjects, and I’ve learned a lot about how to approach them. While some of these subjects, such as flat Earth, aren’t worth any serious inquiry, many other non – political ones are.

People may see something that they think is paranormal, but has an ordinary explanation. They may listen to a guru and believe that person without question, or accept a spiritual explanation without any evidence to back it up. They need more skepticism to help them stay grounded in reality.


But you can also go too far in the other direction. While you can mistakenly see something that isn’t there, you can also miss something that is there. While there are certainly believers who veer into irrationality, there are also skeptics who do the same. A skeptic who refuses to even consider the more controversial explanation, no matter what, is no more grounded in reality than their more flighty New Age counterparts.

I’m going to use two controversial subjects to demonstrate this: Bigfoot and psychic ability.


Controversy Is There For A Reason

A lot of controversial subjects are perceived that way because there is some evidence to support them. People get curious, look into a controversial subject and decide that something is there that’s worth investigating. A subject with some substance will continually attract people. Subjects without any decent evidence don’t attract serious research, and either attract very few people or they just die off, like Kirlian photography, orgone energy or perpetual motion.

If a subject attracts a lot of people and holds their attention over the course of decades. There’s probably a good reason for that.

A general rule of thumb is that research endures if there’s something to a subject, and tends to fall off if nothing of substance is discovered. No one with a brain is investigating the flat earth theory. Bigfoot however, continues to attract researchers and psychic research spans many organizations including a scientific organization recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Research in several languages and thousands of studies dating back decades, also back up the claim that it’s legitimate.

Many Controversial Subjects Encounter Resistance – Enter The Skeptic

Controversial subjects encounter irrational resistance and scoffing. This is part of the reason subjects become controversial in the first place. This alone neither validates nor invalidates a subject, it’s just something that you have to take into consideration. Etzel Cardeña of Lund University outlined this problem as it relates to psychic research here.

In this paper, I describe various examples of blatant attempts to censor parapsychology research and those doing it. They include raising false accusations, suppressing papers and data, and ostracizing scientists interested in the topic. The intensity of fear and vituperation caused by parapsychology research is disproportionate even to the possibility that the psi hypothesis could be completely wrong, so I speculate on psychological reasons that may give rise to it. There are very few circumstances in which censorship might be appropriate, and the actions by parapsychology censors put them at odds not only with the history of science but with the history of modern liberal societies.

If you are not skeptical of skeptics, then you’ve effectively given them god status, and it is impossible for anyone to change your mind. If your requirement is that advocates for a controversial subject have to convince the skeptics, then you can never be convinced that the skeptics are wrong. You should avoid this trap because you will have to stop listening entirely to people you disagree with.

The Role of Belief

While belief and trust play a vital role in understanding the paranormal, these traits have to be delicately balanced against being clear-sighted about how that trust and belief measure up against what actually happens.

This isn’t to say that we should never have beliefs or trust, but we need to identify them in ourselves and distinguish them from facts. What we believe and what we can prove aren’t always the same. So if our Flower Moonchild says, “I believe that aliens are coming to lead us.” This is not a problematic statement because it’s correctly framed as a belief.

On the other hand, if Sam Skeptic says, “people are just deluding themselves about the paranormal” this is a belief framed as a fact and it is problematic. Although the New Age person is making a fantastical statement, it is internally consistent. The skeptic though, has an opinion, but has veered off into propaganda by asserting it as a fact. Sam should have prefaced his statement with: “I think” or “In my opinion”.

How to be a good skeptic

How Much Do I Really Know?

People often learn a little bit about a subject and go on to form conclusions without realizing that they know far less than they think they do. This is known as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth and I see people fall into this trap all the time.

If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works, and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence and depth than they really do.”

. . . At present, the IOED is profoundly pervasive given that we have infinite access to information, but consume information in a largely superficial fashion. A 2014 survey found that approximately six in ten Americans read news headlines and nothing more. Major geopolitical issues from civil wars in the Middle East to the latest climate change research advances are distilled into tweets, viral videos, memes, “explainer” websites, soundbites on comedy news shows, and daily e-newsletters[.]

Good skepticism means honestly appraising how much you know about the subject you’re discussing. You should know enough about a subject you have opinions on to at least know the limits of your knowledge.

For example, while I endorse vaccinations, how much do I really know about them? Could I argue with an anti-vaxxer with an armful of medical studies? Nope. I understand the principles of vaccination, but my understanding is quite shallow. It feels like I know about vaccinations, but in reality, I don’t.

Avoid Assumptions

“If X were real, then we’d be seeing Y. Since we don’t see Y, X must not exist.”

The assumption here is that you know enough about X to make a statement about Y. But do you really? A lot of topics require some expertise and you can’t be an expert in everything.

When people present their assumptions as valid arguments, it’s an advertisement that they don’t know very much. It’s an ignorant thing to do and a waste of everyone’s time. I see this most often coming from self described skeptics who have made no attempt to poke holes in their own argument.

Assumptions, however logical they might appear to the person using them for arguments, are not facts and no one is required to provide evidence to refute them, although many people will anyway. As an example: “If Bigfoot was real, then why don’t we see more photos and video with all the cell phone cameras out there?” If you are not going to try to answer questions like this through your own research, don’t ask it in the first place.

These assumptions are usually made in a kind of egotistical one-upsmanship way. My experience is that often if the assumption is a common one, it has already been addressed, but the skeptic has done so little research that they don’t know about it. It’s better to avoid all this and engage the brain before opening the mouth.

Real skeptics stay away from this nonsense. The object is to learn something, not find people to scoff at.

Be Careful When Assigning Credibility

Beware of painting the people you disagree with as fools, incompetent and charlatans. Once you go down that path, you’re in a situation where you’re one of those tiresome people who thinks they’re right all the time. No one can ever prove you wrong if you never listen or take people you disagree with seriously. You have to be both skeptical of skeptics and open to the idea that people you disagree with might just have a point.

You’ve entered the land of the blowhard when you refuse to give any credibility to sources you disagree with. I see this all the time. Bigfoot researchers become “enthusiasts.” Parapsychologists become “woo meisters” and so on. It’s not skepticism at that point because there is a total lack of objectivity. That kind of behavior is on the level of zealotry.

Image: Canva

Be Mindful of Your Claims

When you state something as a fact, you’re making a claim. This implies the existence of evidence. Incidentally, it’s also a claim when you say that something doesn’t exist and making that kind of claim also requires evidence. It’s possible for example, to show that the earth isn’t flat and that Kirlian photography has no paranormal aspects to it, but you can’t support the claim that bigfoot isn’t real or that psychic ability doesn’t exist without without handwaving away the existing evidence.

I’ve seen wannabe skeptics claim that this or that has no evidence. That’s usually a false statement. Evidence can be anecdotal; it can come from an investigation; it can be a one off or replicated. Evidence, in other words, is an all encompassing term and it comes in many forms. What often matters isn’t whether evidence exists or not, but how convincing it is to us. Evidence that isn’t very convincing is still evidence.

This is why I say “be mindful of your claims.” Once you claim that something “has no evidence”, you’ve probably strayed from skepticism and veered off into absolutism.

Acknowledge the Accumulation of Evidence

As people explore controversial subjects, their pool of evidence will either grow or remain stagnant. An accumulation of weak evidence becomes strong evidence if there is enough of it. A couple hundred bigfoot sighting reports over 10 years might not be very convincing, but Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) has over 5,500 sightings and they correlate to certain areas where you would most expect bigfoot sightings.

Ghost sightings are common by comparison and occur all over the world in every culture and socioeconomic class and are documented as far back as we have enough written history to document these things.

Even if we can’t get clear, unambiguous documentation of either of these things, or in the case of ghosts, that is a topic of controversy. On the one hand, some perceive that we don’t even know what they are, and on the other, people believe they know what they are. The accumulation of evidence is meaningful. It is irresponsible and arrogant to summarily dismiss the experiences of thousands or even millions of people. It gets back to the problem of making assumptions. “They must be either frauds or fooling themselves” is not a valid argument when dealing with very large numbers of people.

What is the Rebuttal?

Advocates for controversial subjects generally know what the objections are and have rebuttals to them. Good skepticism requires knowing what those rebuttals are. It is necessary to get those rebuttals directly from the advocate, and not a second hand version created by another skeptic. They are often quite different.

When you start dealing with rebuttals, this is most often where you can no longer be just causally acquainted with a subject. To understand the arguments, you have to know more about the subject you’re investigating. This is why rebuttals often get ignored. But they are an important part of the process because it’s also where you find out just how good or bad the skepticism is.

Don’t Rely on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is not a valid source for either side. Its structure allows policing by anonymous people, meaning that topics can be captured and controlled by a small group of editors if they get people in the right positions. Rather than argue, they can simply ban people they disagree with. This problem is well documented.

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