Everyone has heard of pseudoscience— unscientific ideas masquerading in the guise of science. But its corollary is less well known. Pseudo-skepticism is also unscientific ideas masquerading in the guise of science. Pseudo-skeptics are also known as debunkers but I prefer the former term as it rightly notes that pseudoscience and pseudo-skepticism are two sides of the same coin. One can roughly be summed up as unfounded acceptance; the other, unfounded rejection.
Just as negative and positive polarity share a common source of magnetism, these two mindsets also have a common attitudinal base. They are both hasty thinking in support of one’s current beliefs. They both halt deliberation at the comfortable conclusion. They are both averse to a thorough consideration of uncomfortable possibilities.
As with pseudoscientists, pseudo-skeptics tend against thoughtful consideration and towards certainty.
To make the analogy of leaving no-stone-unturned in search of truth, there are stones we like to turn over (perhaps they are lovely or lightweight) and stones we avoid turning over (maybe they are covered in slime or are too hard to lift). Both pseudoscientists and pseudo-skeptics exhibit the same human frailty: they fail to turn over every stone. Pseudo-skeptics tend to deny the possibility that they might be exhibiting the same frailty that they readily accuse others of (in psychology this is known as projection). In fact, they might even deny the possibility of the very existence of pseudo-skepticism. It would be just as silly to believe that there is only positive polarity in magnetism as to believe there is only pseudo-science and not pseudo-skepticism.
How To Identify a Pseudo-Skeptic
Debunkingskeptics.com has assembled a chart comparing True vs. Pseudo Skeptics (site offline, credit to Wayback Machine for preservation). Here are a couple of examples of the pseudo-skeptical mindset from their site:
Does not question anything from established non-religious institutions, but takes whatever they say on faith and demands that others do the same.
Does not ask questions to try to understand new things, but judges them by whether they fit into orthodoxy.
Pseudo-Skeptic Case Study: James Randi
James Randi makes a fair example of the attitude of the failure to turn over every stone of the pseudo-skeptic. In a National Geographic show about crop circles 2 National Geographic: Is It Real? Season 1, Episode 1 , Randi declared (to counter the possibility that crop circles might be made by UFOs), “if you were someone in a UFO and you wanted to leave us a message, wouldn’t you go to the lawn of the White House and make a crop circle?”
An assertion so easily countered demonstrates that Randi is favoring his comfort zone over true inquiry. How does Randi know that aliens haven’t contacted the White House? Does he think the White House would surely have told him of such a visit? Of course, whether or not aliens have contacted the White House is moot. Randi’s point is aliens wouldn’t communicate that way. How does he know how aliens might choose to communicate with us… is he an alien? Would you expect a baboon to successfully deduce how a higher intelligence might choose to communicate with baboons? Perhaps advanced civilizations tread carefully with primitives, preferring unintimidating ways of slowly hinting at their presence, realizing that gradual acceptance over generations is the optimal way to introduce a new planet into the interstellar community.
These are not logical stretches, they are fairly obvious objections to Randi’s assertion. To not see the weak ground of his own claims indicates a hastily drawn conclusion. Randi is a classic pseudo-skeptic. His indignant posturing is a telltale sign of projection, which in turn is denial. He
is was (this article was written before Randi’s death) that which he vehemently accused others of.
One area in science relevant to this conversation is confirmation bias, or the “tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs”. Just as magnetism requires distinct terms for each state of polarity— positive and negative— so too, we need separate terms to distinguish the polarities of bias: towards and away from. Rejection bias, therefore, is the tendency of people to reject information that does not match their beliefs.
Pseudo-skeptics would do well to see their commonalities with pseudoscientists. It would give them a sense of compassion for the mindset, as they would see in themselves how easily comfort can distort inquiry. They would also see a clear path towards improving their own mindset by noticing when they are falling in that trap, that they may avoid it.