Among the Doubtful: Open-Minded Researchers and Skepticism
Science, defined concisely, is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” Needless to say, in understanding scientific processes, one must also utilize logic to discern the probable from the unlikely.
In conjunction with a recent appearance I’ll be making on the popular late-night radio program Coast to Coast AM, I have received a good bit of feedback regarding the fact that, over at the C2C website, the biography for my appearance has me listed as a “skeptic.” Some thought it was a typo, while others felt that maybe it was just for publicity; in truth, I can claim neither… while many would disagree, I actually feel that “skeptical” is the best definition for my approach to studies of the unexplained. However, that doesn’t mean I’m at all willing to dismiss data when it’s put before me… hence, I’ve often been accused of not being skeptical enough to qualify among the most doubtful among us.
It brings to mind an interesting question though: is there such a thing as being too skeptical, versus not skeptical enough? When it comes to the study of the unexplained, are there times where our “skepticism” or “belief” is really based more on ideology, rather than an honest assessment of the facts? More importantly, are there times when ideologically-driven belief or skepticism could actually hinder the process of logical thought and assessment of various claims? Similar feelings have been expressed by a number of my friends in the research community, whose expertise ranges from UFO studies to science and theoretical ideas regarding the paranormal. Greg Bishop, author of Project Beta and long-time commentator on the discussion of UFO research and analysis, points out the roots of skeptical philosophy in ancient Greece (something I often cite in reference to my own skeptical leanings), outlining its advantages as a tool for maintaining objectivity through suspension of belief, rather than gravitating toward hard-lined ideologically driven ideals:
“Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. They disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things. A Pyrrhonist tries to make the arguments of both sides as strong as possible. Then he asks himself if there is any reason to prefer one side to the other. And if not, he suspends belief in either side.”
I do find myself asking what happened to this brand of philosophy, but more importantly, wondering when was it replaced by an ideology that justifies non-belief in various things, all-the-while employing a paradoxical, belief-oriented worldview that justifies a predetermined ideological outlook on all observable phenomena?
In her Media Guide to Skepticism, I think Doubtful News blogger and editor Sharon Hill gives a good definition of the skeptical thought process when properly tuned, and how it should come across when employed properly:
Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies tools of science. Skepticism is most often applied to extraordinary claims – those that refute the current consensus view.
The Skeptical process considers evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason.
The conclusion that is reached at the end of this Skeptical process is provisional because additional or better evidence may come along that points towards a more suitable explanation.
Sharon also reminds us what skepticism is not, which includes complete denial or dismissal of facts. Similarly evoking Greg Bishop’s recounting of the ancient Greek attitudes toward skeptical thought, here she also makes a distinction between the Pyrrhonist philosophy and modern skeptical attitudes:
Good Skeptics do not dismiss claims out-of-hand. The “Skeptic” is often seen as the “debunker”, the “downer”, or the “balloon buster”. It may appear that way for those who are very attached to certain concepts to which Skepticism is being applied, such as existence of ghosts, Bigfoot or UFOs. Skeptics aren’t skeptical of everything, either. In classical Greek Skepticism, the individual did not commit to stating “knowledge”; everything was doubted, there was no certainty. That is not a popular stance today. When we speak of modern Skepticism, we are talking about those who seek the conclusion best supported by current evidence and reason.
Sharon, while effectively deconstructing many stories and news items that are overtly absurd, also laments in her writing the attitudes particularly present today in fields of study such as cryptozoology, employing a very genuine desire to see clear, conscientious, and factual writing and research into the subject… something which I agree we see a lot less of today (see a few of my thoughts on this here). When compared with the writers of yesteryear, who often had scientific background in the study of biology, zoology, primatology, and even experience with world travel, we do see far less of the academic community engaged in cryptozoological debate today. As evidence of things as they once were, John Napier and Ivan Sanderson immediately come to mind (though the lovable Mr. Sanderson is known to have written his fair share of “bold” and speculative offerings during his years covering Fortean themes, amidst other work that represent exhaustive worldwide studies of the unexplained. The latter of these remain valuable for their documentation of reported encounters with strange varieties of fauna, as well as cultural attitudes, and beliefs in them).
Returning to the battle for ground between skepticism and denial, my friend Thomas Fusco, author of Behind the Cosmic Veil, also recently offered a very well constructed observation on the differences between the two:
There is a distinction between skepticism and denial. There are some deniers who pass themselves as being of the noble title of skeptic unopposed, because the distinction is not readily recognized or made by the general public, and therefore evades the common vernacular. I’ve seen a famous skeptic drift into the denier column on subjects like the paranormal to the point that when asked if his opinion would change if he experienced these things firsthand, he replied that he would immediately admit himself to a hospital where they could find the brain tumor, chemical imbalance, etc that would have to be responsible for the ‘hallucination’. And he was quite serious.
There are some skeptics who take their neutral positions to avoid the risk of actually being found wrong if they commit to one position or another except for the security of those things that are so well-worn that virtually no doubt remains or if it’s any topic that’s non-controversial. To me this can be a form of intellectual cowardice. Then there are those who ignore existing evidence or even fabricate their own to avoid having to give an alternative viewpoint any credence at all. With my work, for example, my skepticism grew from the fact that the status quo of mainstream cosmology simply did not answer fundamental questions arising from known anomalies without ignoring or denying not only hard scientific findings but also accepting the weight of countless personal experiences recounting virtually identical details as being itself a body of evidence demanding an explanation other than stock denial and dismissal. And then I made a commitment to a position, which indeed takes courage, like standing against virtually the entire field of mainstream physics by rejecting the existence of dark matter, a conclusion that science itself is now reluctantly drifting toward albeit kicking and screaming the entire way.
I recount this not for any ego-driven motive, but to illustrate a living example with which I’m personally most familiar of what I’ve been saying. Science is a tool; it is intended to be a servant of humanity, not its master. When one devalues, demeans or dismisses the moving experiences of a significant portion of humanity for the sake of safety and security based on any intellectual construction of system or philosophy, that one enslaves and dehumanizes all of humanity.
And of course, rather than merely to allow for people’s experiences, what Tom no-doubt offers here is commentary on the importance of considering those experiences, paired with the desire to carry out serious scientific attempts at understanding them, whether they be claims of the paranormal, sightings of mystery beasts, or of observations that include strange lights in the sky. There is indeed a very complex element to the human experience, and one that, rather obviously, we have yet to account for fully. To dismiss the improbable is a necessity; but to rule out the remotely possible, merely because it cannot fit into the expected framework of our consensus reality today, may be more than dismissive; it could be harmful at times, much like the pandering of pseudoscience as evidence of remarkable cures and alternative treatments for deadly diseases.
For example, today we know that there are likely physiological processes underlying the commonly reported “sleep paralysis” experience. These involve everything from wakeful hypnopompic or “post-dormital” episodes that incorporate factors ranging from heredity to possible parasomnial lapses between REM sleep and waking stages during the normal sleep cycle (and yes, there are also a variety of vivid paranormal experiences which are commonly reported with the condition just as well. They are, in my opinion, mysterious in equal measure to the physiological considerations present here).
Dr. David J. Hufford, who has studied the sleep paralysis phenomenon for years, became interested after having his own college experience where he awoke to find he was unable to move, and literally perceived that someone was seeking to strangle or suffocate him before he awoke fully and was able to move again. In delving into the search for related cases, despite some of the known physiological conditions that would emerge in support of this experience, he found that several patients who reported these nighttime experiences to their doctors were prescribed antipsychotic medications, when in fact, there may not have been any underlying psychosis at all.
Better to be safe than sorry, some might say… but it would do more to promote general health and wellbeing for these individuals if such experiences weren’t misdiagnosed as temporary psychotic breaks from reality, and the underlying causes behind the experience were studied and eventually explained. What might happen, for instance, in the event that under prescription antipsychotic medications that did not resolve the sleep paralysis experience, the patient continues to experience vivd, “paranormal” hallucinations that cause confusion, disorientation, and ultimately fear that interrupts their daily lives? Clearly, there would have to be some responsibility on part of the medical professionals involved to better understand the experience being described, and attempt to reconcile with its actual cause, rather than to sweep it under the rug.
Under similar circumstances, I’ve had experiencers of alleged alien abductions tell me stories about their experiences with doctors who, upon attempting to seek a professional opinion about their experiences, were similarly handed prescriptions for antipsychotic medication. In one instance, I was approached by an individual who explained that following what she described as an alien abduction, she awoke to find a odd (and noticeable) scar on her cheek. As a trained nurse and surgical assistant, she sought the opinion of a doctor who was also a trusted coworker of many years. When she explained her experience, the doctor advised that she take antipsychotic medication, and thereafter refused to speak to her following the diagnosis, save only for work-related interactions. In short, she was perceived as “crazy,” and was rejected thusly.
When people come forward with circumstances that appear to genuinely trouble them, but also extend beyond the generally plausible, it is easy for us to renounce or rebuke these individuals and their claims, especially when we cannot account for them logically within the context of our perceived reality. But while this seems to be both common, and an accepted practice in many cases today, is honest or right to do? Is it fair to dismiss such individuals, in every instance, rather than attempting to understand the problems they may be experiencing… whether they be literal, physical interactions they may have had, or otherwise? Sure, while scrutiny and skepticism must be employed in the search for understanding nature and our cosmos, there are also times where a bit of patience and open-mindedness are more than just helpful… in a professional sense, they could even be vital.
While it’s often asserted (and rightly so) that pseudoscientific claims can be harmful, perhaps there are times where it is just as important to accept an open-minded attitude in our approach. If we can’t, then the reality of experiences which appear “otherworldly” at the outset may go on to escape us entirely.