Pseudoskepticism

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Pseudoskepticism is used in two different ways. One of these is correct and another is used by woo promoters in an attempt to dismiss skepticism that steps on their personal toe.

Legitimate use[edit]

The correct, though less common, use of the term refers to those who declare themselves merely "skeptical" of a concept, but in reality would not be convinced by any evidence. Common targets of this kind of pseudoskepticism are global warming,[1] evolution, AIDS, GMOs, and even Religion. This essentially is cloaked denialism, as there is a vast amount of real evidence which is willfully ignored by these pseudoskeptics. Saying "I am skeptical of X" seems more reasonable than saying "I don't accept X and never will regardless of the evidence", even if the latter is more accurate.

Real skeptics are always prepared to change their positions based on new evidence, consistent with the scientific method. An example is Einstein's Cosmological Constant, which has gone through a number of revisions as to whether it applies or not[2] - thus making skeptics who changed their mind on that issue when the scientific consensus changed, prima facie real skeptics. Clearly if an individual has changed their mind on a topic, that is a positive defense against an accusation that they will not change their mind on that topic.

Use by noted skeptic Marcello Truzzi[edit]

Noted skeptic Marcello Truzzi, a co-founder of CSICOP, revived the term in 1987 specifically for arguments which use scientific-sounding language to disparage or refute given beliefs, theories, or claims, but which in fact fail to follow the precepts of conventional scientific skepticism. In his view, true scientific skepticism is agnostic to new ideas, making no claims about them but waiting for them to satisfy a burden of proof before granting them validity. His definition of pseudoskepticism, by contrast, involves "negative hypotheses"—theoretical assertions that some belief, theory, or claim is factually wrong—without satisfying the burden of proof that such negative theoretical assertions would require.

Truzzi description of pseudoskeptics as laid out in 1987 in the journal Zetetic Scholar (which he founded):

In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new "fact." Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of "conventional science" as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis—saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact—he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof...
Both critics and proponents need to learn to think of adjudication in science as more like that found in the law courts, imperfect and with varying degrees of proof and evidence. Absolute truth, like absolute justice, is seldom obtainable. We can only do our best to approximate them.
—Marcello Truzzi, "On Pseudo-Skepticism", Zetetic Scholar, 12/13, pp3-4, 1987[5]

Truzzi gave the following characteristics of pseudoskeptics, as he described them:

  • Denying, when only doubt has been established
  • Double standards in the application of criticism
  • The tendency to discredit rather than investigate
  • Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  • Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  • Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  • Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  • Suggesting that unconvincing evidence provides grounds for completely dismissing a claim

True skepticism, in his view, has the following characteristics:

  • Acceptance of doubt when neither assertion nor denial has been established
  • No burden of proof to take an agnostic position
  • Agreement that the corpus of established knowledge must be based on what is proved, but recognizing its incompleteness
  • Even-handedness in requirement for proofs, whatever their implication
  • Accepting that a failure of a proof in itself proves nothing
  • Continuing examination of the results of experiments even when flaws are found

Truzzi's definition is slightly broader than that which is synonymous with cloaked denialism. His definition includes those who on the surface appear to be true skeptics and even truly view themselves as true skeptics but which fail to properly apply the principles of genuine skepticism. For example, a person who denies the existence of aliens (extraterrestrial life) rather than taking a neutral stance, when such non-existence has yet to be proven, is a pseudoskeptic just as much as an oil industry spokesperson who intentionally falsely claims climate change is not happening for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry.

Usage by woo promoters[edit]

"Pseudoskepticism" is most often used as a loaded term by woo-promoters to dismiss skeptical criticism of their beliefs as unfounded. Some promoters of woo maintain that demanding evidence before accepting an idea is an extreme position, and they feel that we should all be agnostic about, well, everything. Given the difficulty of absolutely disproving even the most absurd hypothesis they then go on to maintain that all those who ask for evidence are "pseudoskeptics".

Consequently, these woo-promoters try to claim the high ground by calling themselves "open-minded." The intent is to draw a contrast with the scientific establishment as "closed-minded" for demanding actual evidence.

As an example, SCEPCOP maintains that pseudoskeptics "will never accept a paranormal [explanation] that includes metaphysical dimensions because they believe it's impossible."[3] It would be interesting to see what they think of the scientific method and methodological naturalism, as these don't necessarily "not believe" in paranormal explanations. Instead, once you've explained something paranormal or metaphysical, it ceases to be paranormal or metaphysical, and becomes part of normal naturalistic reality!

A testable hypothesis' mere implausibility is not enough to utterly reject it — but many such hypotheses, such as homeopathy or dowsing, have, nonetheless, been scientifically tested and rejected. Apart from its contradiction of established science, there is no logical reason to declare that, for example, homeopathy wouldn't "work", since worlds where water has a "memory" and homeopathy works are logically possible. But double-blind tests show the chemical argument against homeopathy to be valid. In this sense, the questions of "skepticism" or "pseudoskepticism" are moot.

Skepticism and agnosticism[edit]

In any case, skepticism and agnosticism are not necessarily exclusive positions. If somebody maintains that there are invisible, undetectable fairies at the bottom of their garden, there is no way to prove that this is not the case - though equally there is no supporting evidence and they are essentially non-existent by nature of their being "undetectable". There is a possibility that these beings do exist (by some definitions of the word "exist"), and accordingly it can be argued that "agnosticism" towards the claim is the appropriate position. However, being agnostic about a belief does not mean that there is a 50/50 possibility of its being correct - it merely means there is a possibility. In this case, the improbability of the assertion coupled with the lack of evidence justifies our being extremely agnostic about the assertion; in fact a position of such extreme agnosticism that it is, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from disbelief.

In this particular case we could equally easily call ourselves highly skeptical - there is no practical difference.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Articles on RationalWiki related to pseudo-studies
Pseudoarchaeology - Pseudoastronomy - Pseudohistory - Pseudolaw - Pseudolinguistics - Pseudomathematics - Pseudoscience - Pseudopsychology - Pseudoscience list - Pseudoscience in advertising - Pseudoskepticism - Pseudovitamin