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Symptoms of Pathological Skepticism

William J. Beaty

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: Many members of the mainstream scientific community react with extreme hostility when presented with certain claims. This can be seen in their emotional responses to current controversies such as UFO abductions, Cold Fusion, cryptozoology, and numerous others. The scientists react not with pragmatism and a wish to get to the bottom of things, but instead with the same tactics religious groups use to suppress heretics: hostile emotional attacks, circular reasoning, dehumanizing of the 'enemy', extreme close-mindedness, underhanded debating tactics, justifications, and all manner of name-calling and character assassination.

Many members of the mainstream scientific community react with extreme
hostility when presented with certain claims. This can be seen in their
emotional responses to current controversies such as UFO abductions, Cold
Fusion, cryptozoology, psi, and numerous others. The scientists react not
with pragmatism and a wish to get to the bottom of things, but instead
with the same tactics religious groups use to suppress heretics: hostile
emotional attacks, circular reasoning, dehumanizing of the 'enemy',
extreme closed-mindedness, intellectually dishonest reasoning, underhanded
debating tactics, negative gossip, and all manner of name-calling and
character assassination.

Two can play at that game! Therefore, I call their behavior "Pathological
Skepticism," a term I base upon skeptics' assertion that various
unacceptable ideas are "Pathological Science." Below is a list of the
symptoms of pathological skepticism I have encountered, and examples of
the irrational reasoning they tend to produce.

(Note: all the quotes are artificial examples)

1. Belief that theories determine phenomena, rather than the reverse.

"The phenomenon you have observed is impossible, crazy stuff. We know
of no mechanism which could explain your results, so we have grave
suspicions about the accuracy your report. There is no room for your
results in modern theory, so they simply cannot exist. You are
obviously the victim of errors, hoaxers, or self-delusion. We need
not publish your paper, and any attempts at replicating your results
would be a waste of time. Your requests for funding are misguided,
and should be turned down."

2. Erecting barriers against new ideas by constantly altering the
requirements for acceptance. (A practice called "moving the

"I'll believe it when 'X' happens" (but when it does, this immediately
is changed to: "I'll believe it when 'Y' happens.")

"I won't believe it until major laboratories publish papers in this
field. They have? That means nothing! Major labs have been wrong
before. I'll believe it when stores sell products which use the
effect. They do? That means nothing, after all, stores sell magic
healing pendants and Ouija boards. I'll believe it when a Nobel
Prize winning researcher gets behind that work. One has? Well
that means nothing! That person is probably old and dotty like
Dr. Pauling and his vitamin-C..." etc.

3. Belief that fundamental concepts in science rarely change, coupled
with a "herd following" behavior where the individual changes his/her
opinions when colleagues all do, all the while remaining blind to the
fact that any opinions had ever changed.

"The study of (space flight, endosymbiosis, drillcore bacteria,
child abuse, cold fusion, etc.) has always been a legitimate
pursuit. If scientists ever ridiculed the reported evidence or
tried to stop such research, it certainly was not a majority of
scientists. It must have been just a few misguided souls, and must
have happened in the distant past."

4. Belief that science is guided by consensus beliefs and majority rule,
rather than by evidence. Indulging in behavior which reinforces the
negative effects of consensus beliefs while minimizing the impact of
any evidence which contradicts those beliefs.

"I don't care how good your evidence is, I won't believe it until the
majority of scientists also find it acceptable. Your evidence
cannot be right, because it would mean that hundreds of textbooks
and thousands of learned experts are wrong.

5. Adopting a prejudiced stance against a theory or an observed phenomena
without first investigating the details, then using this as
justification for refusing to investigate the details.

"Your ideas are obviously garbage. What, try to replicate your
evidence? I wouldn't soil my hands. And besides, it would be
a terrible waste of time and money, since there's no question about
the outcome."

6. Maintaining an unshakable stance of hostile, intolerant skepticism,
and when anyone complains of this, accusing them of paranoid delusion.
Remaining blind to scientists' widespread practice of intellectual
suppression of unorthodox findings, and to the practice of "expulsion
of heretics" through secret, back-room accusations of deviance or

"You say that no one will listen to your ideas, and now the funding
for your other projects is cut off for no reason? And colleagues
are secretly passing around a petition demanding that you be
removed? If you're thinking along THOSE lines, then you obviously
are delusional and should be seeking professional help."

7. Ignoring the lessons of history, and therefore opening the way for
repeating them again and again.

"Scientists of old ridiculed the germ theory, airplanes, space
flight, meteors, etc. They were certain that science of the time
had everything figured out, and that major new discoveries were no
longer possible. Isn't it good that we researchers of today are much
more wise, and such things can no longer happen!"

8. *Denial* of the lessons of history. An inability to admit that
science has made serious mistakes in the past. Maintaining a belief
that good ideas and discoveries are never accidentally suppressed by
closed-mindedness, then revising history to fit this belief.

"Throughout history, the *majority* of scientists never ridiculed
flying machines, spacecraft, television, continental drift, reports
of ball lightning, meteors, sonoluminescence, etc. These
discoveries are not examples of so-called 'paradigm shifts', they
are obvious examples of the slow, steady, forward progress made by

9. Using circular arguments to avoid accepting evidence which supports
unusual discoveries, or to prevent publication of this evidence.

"I do not have to inspect the evidence because I know it's wrong.
I know it's wrong because I've never seen any positive evidence."

"We will not publish your paper, since these results have not been
replicated by any other researchers. We will not publish your
paper, since it is merely a replication of work which was done
earlier, by other researchers."

10. Accusing opponents of delusion, lying, or even financial fraud, where
no evidence for fraud exists other than the supposed impossibility of
evidence being presented.

"Don't trust researchers who study parapsychology. They constantly
cheat and lie in order to support their strange worldviews. Very
few of them have been caught at it, but it's not necessary to do
so, since any fool can see that the positive evidence for psi can
only be created by people who are either disturbed or dishonest.

11. Unwarranted confidence that the unknown is in the far distance, not
staring us in the face.

"Your evidence cannot be real because it's not possible that
thousands of researchers could have overlooked it for all these
years. If your discovery was real, the scientists who work in that
field would already know about it."

12. Belief that certain fields of science are complete, that scientific
revolutions never happen, and that any further progress must occur
only in brushing up the details.

"Physics is a mature field. Future progress can only lie in
increasing the energies of particle accelerators, and in refining
the precision of well-known measurements. Your discovery cannot
be true, since it would mean we'd have to throw out all our hard-
won knowledge about physics."

13. Excusing the ridicule, trivialization, and the scorn which is directed
at 'maverick' ideas and at anomalous evidence. Insisting that
sneering and derisive emotional attacks constitute a desirable and
properly scientific natural selection force.

"It is right that new discoveries be made to overcome large
barriers. That way only the good ideas will become accepted.
If some important discoveries are suppressed in this process, well,
that's just the price we have to pay to defend science against the
fast-growing hoards of crackpots who threaten to destroy it."

14. Justifying any refusal to inspect evidence by claiming a "slippery
slope." Using the necessary judicious allocation of time and funding
as a weapon to prevent investigation of unusual, novel, or threatening

"If we take your unlikely discovery seriously, all scientists
everywhere will have to accept every other crackpot idea too, and
then we'll waste all of our time checking out crackpot claims."

15. A blindness to phenomena which do not fit the current belief system,
coupled with a denial that beliefs affect perceptions.

"Thomas Kuhn's 'paradigm shifts' and sociology's 'cognitive
dissonance' obviously do not apply to average, rational scientists.
Scientists are objective, so they are not prone to the psychological
failings which plague normal humans. Scientists always welcome any
data which indicates a need to revise their current knowledge. Their
"beliefs" don't affect their perceptions, scientists don't have
"beliefs", science is not a religion!

16. A belief that all scientific progress is made by small, safe, obvious
steps, that widely-accepted theories are never overturned, and that no
new discoveries come from anomalies observed.

"All your observations are obviously mistakes. They couldn't
possibly be real, because if they were real, it would mean that
major parts of current science are wrong, and we would have to
rewrite large portions of we know about physics. This never
occurs. Science proceeds by building on earlier works, never by
tearing them down. Therefore it is right that we reject evidence
which contradicts contemporary theory, and recommend that funding
of such research not be continued."

17. Hiding any evidence of personal past ridicule of ideas which are later
proved valid. Profound narcissism; an extreme need to always be
right, a fear of having personal errors revealed, and a habit of
silently covering up past mistakes.

" X is obviously ridiculous, and its supporters are crack-
pots who are giving us a bad name and should be silenced."

But if X is proved true, the assertion suddenly becomes:

"Since 'X' is obviously true, it follows that..."

18. Belief in the lofty status of modern science but with consequent
blindness to, and denial of, its faults. A tendency to view shameful
events in the history of modern science as being beneficial, and a
lack of any desire to fix contemporary problems.

"It was right that Dr. Wegner's career was wrecked; that he was
treated as a crackpot, ridiculed, and died in shame. His evidence
for continental drift convinced no one. And besides, he did not
propose a mechanism to explain the phenomena."

19. A belief that Business and the Press have no tendency towards close-
mindedness and suppression of novelty, and that their actions are
never are guided by the publicly-expressed judgement of scientists.

"If the Wright Brothers' claims were true, we would be reading about
it in all the papers, and flying-machine companies would be
springing up left and right. Neither of these is occurring,
therefor the Wright's claims are obviously a lie and a hoax.

20. Refusing to be swayed when other researchers find evidence supporting
unconventional phenomena or theories. If other reputable people
change sides and accept the unorthodox view, this is seen as evidence
of their gullibility or insanity, not as evidence that perhaps the
unconventional view is correct.

"I'll believe it when someone like Dr. P believes it."

But when Dr. P changes sides, this becomes:

"Dr. P did some great work in his early years, but then he destroyed
his career by getting involved with that irrational crackpot

21. Elevating skepticism to a lofty position, yet indulging in hipocricy
and opening the way to pathological thinking by refusing to ever cast
a critical, SKEPTICAL eye upon the irrational behavior of scoffers.

"Criticizing skeptics is never beneficial. It even represents a
danger to science. One should never criticize science, it just
gives ammunition to the enemy; it aids the irrational, anti-science
hoards who would destroy our fragile edifice."

22. Belief that modern scientists as a group lack faults, and therefore
clinging to any slim justifications in order to ignore the arguments
of those who hope to eliminate the flaws in Science.

"I think we can safely ignore Thomas Kuhn's STRUCTURES OF SCIENTIFIC
REVOLUTIONS. Despite his physics training we can see that Kuhn was
an outsider to science; he obviously doesn't have a good grasp on
real science. Outsiders never can see things in the proper positive
light, it takes a working scientist to see the real situation.
Also, he stressed his central themes way too much, so I think we can
ignore him as simply being a sensationalist. And besides, if he's
digging up dirt regarding science, then he must have a hidden agenda.
I bet we'll find that he's a Christian or something, probably a

23. Blindness to the widespread existence of the above symptoms. Belief
that scientists are inherently objective, and rarely fall victim to
these faults. Excusing the frequent appearance of these symptoms as
being isolated instances which do not comprise an accumulation of
evidence for the common practice of Pathological Skepticism.

"This 'Pathological Skepticism' does not exist. Kooks and
crackpots deserve the hostile mistreatment we give them, but
anyone who does similar things to skeptics is terribly misguided.
Those who criticize skeptics are a danger to Science itself, and we
must stop them."

Read more articles on this topic:

Skeptics and Their Arguments