The Problem With Militant Debunkers

Militant Debunkers. They’re different from good skeptics because I say so and you can take my word on this because my opinions are right.

I’m kidding of course, but this is the reasoning I see again and again from people who support or believe in certain paranormal ideas and claims, and it’s ridiculous. It’s an easy way to dismiss entirely the criticisms of your idea or field while pretending not to. It suggests that you can decide which criticisms of bad ideas are valid and which aren’t, but when you’re the one promoting nonsense I’m afraid that’s just not true. You can ignore skeptical criticism, of course, but you can’t dismiss it as Bad Skepticismjust because it isn’t to your liking.

People use the word skeptic to describe others and themselves inaccurately or unfairly all too often  – if it isn’t climate change deniers trying to make their ignorance sound distinguished, or anti-vaccination quacks assuring you that their anti-science stance is justified, it is people like Michael Prescott asserting that Bad Skeptics are probably just sick in the head.

Prescott recently wrote a post on his blog full of accusations that border on Ad Hominem. Don’t worry though because he pointed out that he was talking about Skeptics and not skeptics because he has ‘observed Skeptics in many forums over many years. (Note the capital S, denoting militant debunkers, a nomenclature proposed by Roger Knights. I’m not talking about casual scoffers or people who are genuinely undecided.) My impression is that Skeptics, in general, are characterized by an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance.’

Oh boy. Where to begin.

Firstly, calling people ‘Militant Debunkers’ is pretty fucking derogatory and a clear indication that someone has a chip on their shoulder.

Secondly, psycho-analysing people and accusing them of insincere motives when it isn’t your job to do so is just rude, man. Especially if you’re not a psychologist.

Thirdly, Militant skepticism? Who is Prescott trying to impress? Deepak Chopra?

A skeptic is someone who uses skepticism to examine claims being made to see if there is quality evidence or data to support them… nothing about scoffing, nothing about being undecided – though it’s totally cool to be honest about not being sure as that’s how we learn stuff. However, whether you are a believer or a non-believer is entirely independent of being a skeptic (though, of course, skepticism can lead to belief and non-belief as part of the process of rational inquiry.) People who routinely debunk ideas without examining them are probably not skeptics because skepticism requires an open mind. Simple. 

Militant skeptics routinely refuse to examine evidence means that anybody who refuses to examine evidence becomes a militant skeptic automatically and can be dismissed, which is super convenient for those who don’t want to have to deal with alternative arguments. Fingers in ears, la la la I can’t hear you, and all that.

‘But Hayley, if people refuse to examine evidence surely they’re closed minded?’ you might cry, but this assumes that all evidence is always worth examining and that just isn’t the case when there are other reasons to doubt the validity of the claim – ideas that have been long shown to be incorrect, dodgy methodologies, scams, claims made by people who have been previously shown to be unscientific in their research and so on. If someone tells you they’ve got evidence the world is flat you’re probably not going to examine their evidence. If Andrew Wakefield publishes a new study we can quite confidently assume that he’s probably up to shenanigans, and if Rupert Sheldrake says a dog is psychic you know he might be barking up the wrong tree…

I used to dismiss Bad Skeptics™ when they disagreed with my thoughts about the paranormal and back when I was a ghost hunter it was the fashion for ghost hunting teams to have a Good Skeptic™ on their team to demonstrate that they didn’t just dislike skeptics, just Bad Skeptics™. Laughable, really. Prescott isn’t the first person to lazily dismiss all skeptics by talking about the Bad Skeptics™ as though being sincere and he won’t be the last but I think it’s important that people who do this are called out for it. Now, it would be easy for me to start making all sorts of assumptions here about Prescott and his motives to round this blog post off but I’m not that uncouth and I have standards. Low standards, sure, but standards all the same.

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Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

27 thoughts on “The Problem With Militant Debunkers”

  1. Skepticism with an upper case ‘S’ is also known as ‘argumentum verbiosum.’

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the [deceiving] State.”

    Unfortunately, it is possible to tell a lie so often that the truth itself becomes relatively unconvincing. In such a case, it is better to tell a righteous lie to save a good people than to attempt to tell the similar truth and leave those people unprotected against some demonic enchantment.

  2. I stopped at the first f-bomb. No civil discourse here. There is no way to determine whether evidence is good or bad without looking at it. It really is that simple. Turning away, plugging one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying ‘La, la, la, can’t hear you,’ isn’t adult, isn’t scientific, isn’t civil discourse.

  3. Michael Prescott is the man who claims Eusapia Palladino was still genuine even though she was caught cheating by about twenty different scientists over and over. No reason to take anything seriously he says. Is Prescott a militant believer? 🙂

  4. This article is based on ridicule, without an actual cogent argument in it. The author might find it enlightening to investigate, for example, the actual evidence for Rupert Sheldrake’s take on dogs, and the manner in which Richard Wiseman skewed the evidence in his attempted debunking of it. She might be surprised.

  5. I read your comments and found you to be as close-minded as you pretend Michael Prescott is in his (very apt) description of Militant Debunkers. If the shoe fits, dear, you have to wear it whether you like it or not.

  6. The author of this piece is quite young and may not be aware of tactics used by ‘skeptics’ in the past that would attempt to ruin, if possible, the lives of those making claims they could not reasonable refute. It maybe that in some of their cases (think Phillip Klass) the term ‘skeptic’ is not completely appropriate; instead they behave as little more than paradigm jihadists.

  7. Q1. Have you had any papers published in any periodicals, or written a book that has been published? Q2. Do you have any academic qualifications relevant to the subject matter of your website?

  8. Re my question. I am simply endeavouring to ascertain what knowledge and qualifications you have: it appears that you have taken exception to this reasonable question. After all, anyone can start and run a website. If you believe your opinions have validity, one would expect you would have submitted papers, detailing these opinions. to peer-reviewed publications. You say that you have not done this. Some may find this speaks volumes.
    Moreover, it is not unreasonable to assume you would have academic qualifications in at least one subject that has a relationship with the subject matter. But again, you say that you have none…
    Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many books, etc.,you have read on the subject of parapsychology and psychical research.

  9. A refusal to look at the actual evidence, because she already “knows” what the right answer should be, puts Hayley in the same category as the bishops who, for the same reason, refused to look through Galileo’s telescope.

    For the record, Sheldrake’s experiments showed a definite awareness by dogs of their masters’ impending return, while the masters were still miles away. Richard Wiseman got the same results when he attempted to debunk Sheldrake, but attempted to explain it away through creative reinterpretation of those results, enabling him to ignore the dogs’ real behaviours. But many writers, based on their materialist prejudice, like to say that Wiseman debunked Sheldrake, ignoring the inconvenient real facts.

  10. The gist of Rodney’s question is to raise the question of the stance you adopt (if any)
    when you consider evidence. Personally, I would not take much notice of anyone who approaches a situation with preconceived ideas and/or a specific opinion and the reason for this is self-explanatory.
    Although you compile a website, you concede that you have not submitted any papers to peer-reviewed publications, or written any books, and you have no qualifications pertinent to the subject matter. Why don’t you give talks with audiences of people (with varying opinions) who have years of experience of investigating alleged paranormal’ phenomena who can question your conclusions?
    With regard to Sheldrake, you say in your reply that his experiments were ‘questionable’ (in your opinion that is), but you do not qualify this. Why not submit a paper offering proof for your opinion?

    1. This is a blog, David. Not a science reporting website. I am quite open about not being an academic but a field-based paranormal researcher who identifies as a skeptic. I do give talks to audiences of paranormal investigators when I can and people DO question my conclusions. I also have not submitted a paper because a) I do not want to b) I do not have time and c) other people have already done so.

      You’re attempts at dismissal are rather bordering on dodgy logic.

    2. In view of what you say, and claim, I suggest taht your final comment is better directed at you (I also assume that a detailed paper supporting your opinion about Sheldrake will not be forthcoming).
      PS. Your sentence should read “Your attempts at…”

  11. I am sorry if you did not like my use of the third person. I thought I was talking to readers in general of this blog. My apologies.
    What is the basis of your statement that Sheldrake’s experiments were questionable? I understand that many people did not like his results, as they challenge the prevailing physicalist view of the world, and so they criticise him, but I have seen no evidence so far that his experiments were not well conducted. He is an experienced scientist with a fairly solid CV. His experimental results have aroused a lot of controversy, but his methods seem sound enough.
    It has always been the case in the past that scientific progress was made when somebody produced experimental results or theories that challenged the contemporary scientific consensus. And it has often been the case that such ideas have been attacked. Louis Pasteur’s ideas about germs come to mind, for example. Scientific conservatives were very scornful.
    It seems that Sheldrake is facing a similar barrage of conservative scorn, even though others are able to replicate his results.

    1. Graciously handled Rodney. And on behalf of Sheldrake defenders everywhere — exactly. Refute his results or point out the flaw in his experimental design or step aside please. Or the best option study his results and think about the implications and applaud his courage and ability to carry on despite the torrential fearful bullshit masquerading as smug superiority.

    2. Alright, look. The blog post wasn’t about Sheldrake’s specific claims, but when it comes to the case of N’kisi there are some genuine questions about whether what the parrot is allegedly saying is being interpreted that way through the will to believe. There are some things said by the bird that aren’t clear until you hear it said with subtitles, for example.

      Other people have pointed out the flaws in this research and other research by Sheldrake and as my blog post wasn’t specifically about that I didn’t go into greater detail.

  12. You said: “if Rupert Sheldrake says a dog is psychic then you know he may be barking up a wrong tree”.

    You seem to be saying that an experiment showing that animal psychism is real must ipso facto be flawed. Sheldrake’s experimental results are open to scrutiny, and sceptical attempts to show that he was wrong have failed. Other experimenters have replicated his results. So how is it that we are to “know” that he might be barking up a wrong tree?

    1. There is undeniable controversy that comes with Sheldrake’s work and so many won’t take his word for claims he makes as a result. I doubt he’d want them to. They’ll look at the evidence with scrutiny until they know for sure. When I write ‘you know he may be barking up the wrong tree’ this is what I meant.

  13. There is no evidence from anybody to suggest that Sheldrake was barking up a wrong tree, and certainly nothing to suggest that we should “know” that he was. The only reason that Sheldrake’s work is controversial is that he challenges some cows that are sacred to the currently fashionable physicalist dogma. There is no credible doubt about the integrity of his work, except from theoretical defenders of that dogma.

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