Skepticism and the Paranormal

With the proliferation of paranormal investigation shows, it seems everybody has an opinion about what’s real and what isn’t.

With the proliferation of paranormal investigation shows, it seems everybody has an opinion about what’s real and what isn’t. This has caused the very idea of the paranormal to become diluted in the minds of the public.

We’ve all heard of the popular skeptic, James Randi, who has offered one million dollars to any person who can prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the supernatural (like psychics) or the paranormal (spirits) truly exist.  A version of Randi’s challenge was first issued in 1964, and over a thousand people applied to take it, but none were successful. Over the course of fifty-some years, no one has claimed the prize.

Astronomer Dennis Rawlins described Randi’s challenge as insincere, saying that Randi would ensure he never had to pay out. Randi is reported as stating, “Concerning the challenge, I always have an out: I’m right.”

In the mind of a skeptic, who is defined as a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions, there will always be questions that cannot easily be answered, either by science or religion. Yet, what does one say to the millions of people worldwide who hold a firm belief in the paranormal and supernatural?

True skeptic vs. pseudoskeptic

Pseudoskepticism is defined as thinking that claims to be skeptical but is actually faith-based disbelief.  Because real skepticism is a justifiable position, pseudoskepticism may also be defined as making pseudoscientific arguments in pursuit of a skeptical agenda.

Skepticism, by comparison, is something much different and respectable.  All pseudoskeptics will claim to be true skeptics, but regardless of how they define themselves, the proof, it’s said, is in the pudding.

The most productive mindset one can have is simply this: always, always, always have a belief system that doesn’t resist change.  Go wherever the information leads you, without fear, because surely the truth is never something to dread.   —Darryl Sloan, author of Reality Check

Where true skeptics question everything and take nothing on faith, even from cherished established institutions, a pseudoskeptic doesn’t question anything from established religious institutions, but takes whatever they say on faith and demand that others do the same.

Skeptics ask questions to try and understand new things and are open to learning about them.

Where investigators have experience and knowledge in their armory, the pseudoskeptic has only their faith that such paranormal things cannot exist.

Pseudoskeptics do not ask questions to try and understand new things, but judges them by whether they fit into orthodoxy. True skeptics seek truth and considers it their highest aim, while pseudoskeptics immediately judges as false and debunks anything that contradicts their paradigm.

More importantly, the vast chasm that separates true skepticism from its false counterpart is that the former are able to rule out all conventional explanations for a phenomenon, and subsequently accept paranormal explanations, where the latter scoff and ridicule what they oppose instead of utilizing objective analysis and common sense in their conclusions.

If you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains must be the truth. – Author Arthur Conan Doyle, writing in Sherlock Holmes

Why have a skeptic on your team? 

Based on the criteria, skeptics are a healthy addition to any team. They allow the possibility of convention to exist and, barring that, can admit that they have no rational or common sense explanation for a paranormal event, having exhausted all their conventional explanations. They aid investigate teams in questioning what might, at first, appear to be something only found in the paranormal by holding a healthy suspicion of the phenomena until they have exhausted all other possibilities.

However, with the proliferation of highly vocal pseudoskepticism, investigators find themselves feeling the need to defend their findings.  At that point, the investigator is no longer operating under the idea of healthy skepticism, but are, instead, trying to justify their findings to a population who can no more admit their flawed reasoning than they can admit that the paranormal very well may exist above and beyond the means by which science might prove it to their satisfaction. Where a true skeptic would not ordinarily put an investigator on the defensive, pseudoskeptics hold that as their highest aim.  Once we are put on the defensive, we have lost the ongoing battle of words, ideas, and concepts.

Where investigators have experience and knowledge in their armory, the pseudoskeptic has only their faith that such paranormal things cannot exist; they are unable to admit when they’re wrong, unlike the true skeptic.  Pseudoskeptics will often attempt to discredit phenomena by claiming that science is unable to verify it.  However, true skeptics understand that science is a tool and a methodology, not a religion or authority to be obeyed.  They see the that the scientific establishment is subject to politics, corruption, control, censorship, and oppression, as all human-based institutions are, and therefore must be critically scrutinized and closely examined rather than taken on faith, especially in light of contrary evidence to their claims. And stating that science is the end-all be-all of understanding is to fall prey to more faith-based thinking.

Any decent investigator will tell you that the majority of paranormal claims can be explained by natural means. Every now and again, though, there is an occurrence that is more difficult to explain.

The word “skeptic” has become a dirty word in paranormal circles because many people don’t know what it means to be a true skeptic.  Skepticism is not about disproving the existence of paranormal phenomena, but about seeking to find the truth, whether it supports their claims to the contrary or not.  While it’s far too easy to jump from, “Something happened that I don’t understand,” to “It’s a ghost!” in our thinking, we must step back from such leaps of logic in order to best serve our primary goal: Truth. And there’s no better resource than a true skeptic.

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