Sceptical About the Sceptics

John Harney
Magonia 56, June 1996
On being invited to review this book, [1} one of the latest sceptical works, I decided to try to get a clearer idea of what scepticism is and what sceptics aim to do. What are sceptics supposed to be sceptical about? Do sceptics believe nothing at all about anything unless they have cast-iron proof? Where does scepticism stop? One of their main preoccupations is with the debunking of allegedly paranormal events. The problem here is that they do not give any definition of what they mean by paranormal.
If a group of sceptical experts investigated a haunted house, for example, and could find no plausible explanations for events which they witnessed and recorded, would they admit that they had a genuine case of paranormal phenomena? Or would they carry on working to solve the mystery? Or would they go mad and be led gently away by men in white coats?

According to my dictionary (Chambers English Dictionary, 7th ed. 1990) the word paranormal means "abnormal, esp. psychologically; not susceptible to normal explanations". However, it doesn't seem that sceptics are engaged in studying abnormal psychology. They are concerned that we should not think there is anything in tales of the paranormal beyond psychological disturbances and conjuring tricks. Let us have a look at Nickell's book.

He is evidently proud of being recognised by his fellow sceptics (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)) as a field investigator, but most of this book is taken up with rehashes of old stories, starting with the Fox sisters, whose tricks gave rise to nineteenth-century spiritism, and proceeding to more modern cases, most of which have been thoroughly investigated and explained to the satisfaction of most sane people.

The cases which he has investigated personally are often surprisingly trivial. For instance he travelled to an abandoned farmhouse in Kentucky to investigate reports of a mysterious banging door, said to be caused by the restless spirit of a child killed in an accident nearby in the last century. He found that this phenomenon was caused by gusts of wind. (What else?) There are several other accounts of travelling long distances to investigate similarly trivial reports.

A slightly more interesting case concerns the investigation of a report of blood mysteriously appearing on the walls and floors of a house in Atlanta. It was established that the blood was human, but did not come from the elderly couple living in the house. Further investigations instigated by Nickell indicated that up to half a pint of blood was used. He concludes his account by quoting a police investigator saying: "Some adults will act like children just to get attention". Yes, but what about the blood? Where did the old pair get it from? This intriguing question is not followed up.

Nickell has concluded that nothing paranormal has happened and moves on to the next case, about a poltergeist manifestation in New England in 1979, for which he supplies the usual sceptical explanations. These explanations are highly credible, but what is the point of such exercises? If you think that such reports are bunkum and can readily be explained psychologically, then why not just sit back and wait for a really difficult contemporary case to get your sceptical teeth into? If the sceptics are right you'll wait a long time and save a lot of effort.

A section is devoted to apparitions of the Virgin Mary. These, we are told, can generally be attributed to neurotic teenagers craving public attention, egged on by credulous devotees of the Marian cult.

This was not the case with the apparition at Knock, Ireland (1879). It was "quite different from the others we have discussed". The vision consisted of an illuminated image on a church wall of figures including Mary and Joseph which were easily identified by the witnesses as they were portrayed in accordance with the conventions of Christian iconography. No in-depth investigation here, though. Nickell brushes it aside with remarks about "pious imaginations" and "the testimony of credulous villagers".

Nickell tries to cover so much ground in this book that many potentially interesting cases get only brief mentions. The aim appears to be to rubbish as many reports as possible. As it is not clear what would constitute a genuine example of a supernatural entity the exercise Seems rather pointless.

Scepticism is a useful tool to employ when faced with claims of instant cures for deadly diseases, or plausible sales pitches, but it can become a bit tedious when it is pursued as an end in itself, so that it is applied indiscriminately to everything that is not to the writer's taste. The result of this tendency is to give the impression that sceptics desire to alter human nature so as to eliminate not only mindless gullibility and crass superstition but also everything that seems to them to be frivolous or not strictly rational. In the sceptics' ideal world we would approach all questions in the manner of Star Trek's Mr Spock or Commander Data.

CSICOP's magazine Skeptical Inquirer shows this lack of focus in employing scepticism. It contains many excellent articles dealing with such matters as the misuse of health statistics and the inability of the claims made by psychic detectives to stand up to critical examination. On the other hand, Skeptical Inquirer cannot resist wasting space on more frivolous subjects. For example, the January /February 1996 issue has an article which gleefully lists predictions made by psychics which were supposed to come true and of course didn't before the end of 1995. Now if these were plausible predictions there might be some point in the exercise. These predictions, however, are either too vague to be worth noting, or so silly that they were obviously written as a joke:

•  A child will stun judges at a 7th-grade science fair when he presents a working time machine" made from parts of a microwave oven.

•  A meteor the size of a Buick will hit a used car dealership in Las Vegas. No one will be injured in the crash, but the crater will open up a vast underground reservoir of drinking water, solving the desert town's water shortage"

•  Michael Jackson's "already weakened schnozz" will "permanently collapse" after an outraged mom punches him during a public appearance".

I thought at first this item had been intended as a joke rather than a solemn warning that the predictions of psychics were not to be relied upon, but the same issue also contains a rather po-faced item complaining about magazines which indulge in April Fool hoaxes. 

Another problem with the application of scepticism is that some people don't know where to stop. This is illustrated by a letter to the editor (from David C. Richwerger) in response to an article entitled 'Consciousness as a Valid Subject for Scientific Investigation' by Huntly Ingalls, which appeared in the September/October 1995 issue. The writer "noticed that no attention was given to the many scientists who still believe that there is no such thing as consciousness". Richwerger goes on to say: "A perfectly sound, materialistic and parsimonious explanation for every human behaviour observed or experienced can be given without having to conjure up consciousness".

I don't know if you can make any sense of that. Difficulties arise, however, from the fact that until recently consciousness was generally regarded as a subject to be studied by philosophers rather than scientists. Some of them have tried ingenious methods of disposing of the problem by denying that it exists, but this tends to place them on the brink of solipsism. Attempting to deny the reality of consciousness inevitably leads to paradox and confusion. Richwerger does not explain how his presumably non-conscious scientists can be said to believe or disbelieve anything!

In the next issue of Sceptical Inquirer, Richwerger is gently chided by Ingalls who observes that "it is remarkable to hold that the existence of consciousness needs to be proven".

I mention this topic because I believe that we are going to hear a lot more about it in the future, as scientists increase their attempts to establish what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for consciousness. Also in the January /February issue is an article about the portrayal of scientists and sceptics in popular entertainment. The author, William Evans, complains that: "Film and television entertainment programming increasingly portrays science and reason as tools that are unsuitable for understanding our world in a new age of credulity." He cites films and television programmes in which people attempting to deal with horrifying supernatural events are hampered and endangered by the intervention of a sceptical scientist. Only when he is got rid of or made to see the error of his ways can the problem be successfully resolved. The list of films he mentions in this connection even includes Ghostbusters!

Presumably the sceptical alternative to such films would be ones in which the sceptic arrives, carries out investigations and then gathers everyone together to give a detailed explanation of how they have been deceived either by natural phenomena or the activities of some unscrupulous trickster. You don't have to be a great dramatist or novelist to realise that this would be an anticlimax and that most people would quickly switch to another channel. Films like the ones Evans complains of are made to entertain, not to teach people to be sceptical.

A constructive approach to the problem as he sees it is to encourage television companies to make documentaries which deal with matters of scientific controversy more objective. The problem is that it is difficult to attract large audiences for such programmes, at least in the USA, and this would not please the advertisers.

It is not clear what steps American sceptics would be willing to take to enable people to take science more seriously and to make it harder for them to be deceived by charlatans. Would they favour public service broadcasting financed by compulsory television licences, as in Britain? Would they be willing to pay extra taxes to improve educational standards?

Perhaps they would find their work easier if they confined their attentions to worthwhile targets, such as scientific fraud, quack medicine and extravagant claims of special powers made by people attempting to part the credulous from their money.

[1] Joe Nickell. Entities. Prometheus, 1995.