To be a true science-based skeptic is to question beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Scientific skepticism is agnostic to new ideas until enough evidence is made available to either support them or to prove them false. True skepticism is about questioning and not accepting explanations unless there is sufficient evidence. It is about thinking critically and not using specious reasoning to maintain comforting but false beliefs. Unfortunately, many people have a distorted view of what true skepticism entails. For them, a skeptic is simply an extremely pig-headed individual who rejects and ridicules anything falling outside of mainstream thought, particularly mainstream science. This is actually not true skepticism but skeptopathy.
Skeptopathy involves chronic irrational beliefs that certain phenomena are not true, improbable or non-existent simply because they are new, unusual, controversial or otherwise disturbing. I coined the term in May 1994 while discussing the topic of “cold fusion” (LENR) on the Usenet group sci.skeptic. Literally, the term skeptopathy means pathological skepticism.
Another way to look at pathological skepticism is to regard it as anything that is not skepticism but is misleadingly portrayed as skepticism. Similarly, pseudo-science is anything that is presented as science but does not actually follow the rules of science.
Unlike the true skeptic who rationally questions every claim, the skeptopath irrationally believes that unusual or disturbing phenomena are automatically false or improbable. The skeptopath has little to no evidence at all to support his delusional views. Ironically, the skeptopath is in actuality a true-believer (or poses as one). He is a true-believer in the status quo. He in fact has very much in common with the (often imaginary) subjects of his pompous ridicule.
Some examples of skeptopathy include: believing the three World Trade Center buildings which came down on 9/11 were not controlled demolitions because this would involve a conspiracy, believing that “cold fusion” (LENR) is bunk because of early problems people had with reproducing its results, believing there is no psychic phenomena because so many psychics are frauds, believing no extraterrestrial life is visiting Earth because the ETs have not yet presented themselves and believing “alien abductions” are not happening because the whole idea is just too absurd. See any mainstream “skeptic” forum such as the JREF forums for many more examples. Note that I am not in any way saying all of these examples are true. I am just saying that they have not been proven false. Until proven false, true scientists and true skeptics must treat these phenomena objectively and agnostically.
Skeptopathy has a long tradition in human history. Virtually every important revolutionary idea is at first treated with scorn and ridicule. It is almost as if many people are addicted to their beliefs about how the world is. When a new idea comes along that threatens to overturn that belief, the idea is subjected to an irrational barrage of ridicule and suppression. For example, in 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis was ridiculed to the point of asylum committal for daring to suggest that doctors should wash their hands after handling cadavers to prevent infection in their patients. In 1912 Alfred Wegener was ridiculed by the scientific community for advancing the theory of continental drift. The materials engineer Daniel Shechtman who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2011 for discovering quasicrystals, was ridiculed when he first put forth his theory in 1982. He was actually kicked out of his research group for daring to challenge the scientific orthodoxy.
The study of skeptopathy does not have as long a history though. In 19th and early 20th century certain philosophers have used the term “pseudo-skepticism”.[6,7] Marcello Truzzi more recently has popularized this term which is a synonym of skeptopathy. In 1984 Truzzi detailed the characteristics of pseudo-skeptics:
- The tendency to deny, rather than doubt
- Double standards in the application of criticism
- The making of judgments without full inquiry
- Tendency to discredit, rather than investigate
- Use of ridicule or attacks in lieu of arguments
- Pejorative labeling of proponents
- 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 is grounds for dismissing it
How does skeptopathy occur? According to L. David Leiter, pathological skepticism may arise from trauma inflicted by being forced to adhere to a faith-based philosophy, usually some form of religion. Based on my own experience observing “skeptics” I think Leiter is on the right track. It makes sense that someone who once subscribed to a dogmatic way of thinking in the past but then rejects it would tend to replace the original dogma with another form of dogma. Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. With pathological skeptics the authorities are mainstream scientists and government authorities. When these authorities establish a consensus “skeptics” will unquestioningly accept these principles as fact even when as with the case of the official 9/11 story, it violates not only the laws of physics but fundamental scientific principles as well.
Perhaps though not all skeptopaths are simply irrational or slow-witted. There’s an old saying: “You can’t awaken someone who’s pretending to be asleep”. If you watch them, you’ll notice many pathological skeptics won’t admit they’re wrong even when shown they are in complete contradiction with themselves. That’s a characteristic they share with psychopaths. It’s a warning sign that you’re probably dealing with a deceiver rather than a dummy. You deal with them in the same way by continually exposing the contradictions.
Like psychopaths as well, skeptopaths regularly use manipulation to support their beliefs. One of the most common forms of manipulation is the use of logical fallacies. It is important to understand that fallacies are used not just by the ignorant but by deft manipulators as well. The most common fallacies used are: bare assertion, straw man, appeal to authority, ad hominem, red herring and appeal to ridicule. These fallacies can appear convincing to the untrained eye. For that reason, sound understanding of fallacies is vital for any real skeptic.
3. 1.De Costa, C. “The contagiousness of childbed fever: a short history of puerperal sepsis and its treatment.” MedJourAustralia, Vol 177, 2/16 December 2002.
5. http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/10/discoverer-of-impossible-crystal.html Cited by S. R. Chubb, Introduction to the special series of papers… dealing with ‘cold fusion’”. In Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance (ISSN 0898-9621), vol. 8, nos. 1 and 2 (pp. 1–17), 2000.
6. Charles Dudley Warner, Editor, Library Of The World’s Best Literature Ancient And Modern, Vol. II, 1896.
7. H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) publ. T.F. Unwin. Reprinted in Friedrich Nietzsche, Originally published: Boston : Luce and Co., 1913. p.30.
8. Marcello Truzzi, Editorial, Zetetic Scholar, 12–13 (1987) 3–4; posted on the Anomalist web site at http://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html.
9. Note that Truzzi spoke of pathological skepticism as a condition where someone attempts to apply the deductive method to everything. However, such a condition is at best virtually non-existent and therefore should be ignored until evidence for its existence is forthcoming. Most people define pathological skepticism as simply bad skepticism. Pathological means there is something very wrong. A person with mental pathology has a serious mental disorder which impairs their life. A medical pathology involves severe disease. Therefore a pathological skeptic would be someone with a propensity for pseudo-skepticism.
10. Truzzi, Marcello (1987). “On Pseudo-Skepticism”. Zetetic Scholar (12/13): 3–4.
11. L. David Leiter, “The Pathology of Organized Skepticism”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 125–128, 2002
Michael Fullerton is a software designer based in Vernon BC Canada. His writing explores and exposes pathological skepticism and the corporate pseudo-science it tends to serve. He also has an intense interest in organizational psychopathy, or how psychopaths rise up in organizational structures of all kinds. As a pantheist he strives to be part of the movement to unify spirituality and science.