Skeptical about Skeptics

As someone who has never had enemies, it took me quite awhile to understand that as a parapsychologist, I have enemies.  As a psychotherapist who sometimes works with people beset with paranoid delusions, I have to say that this band of enemies would merit inclusion in the Delusional Hall of Fame — except for the fact that it really exists!

A couple of years ago I gave a reading of my book, First Sight, at a local bookstore.  The little audience was made up of perhaps 20 people who seemed interested and congenial.  When the time for questions came, the first several were intelligent, somewhat skeptical, genuinely curious.  Then a flood of others started, from about 7 or 8 people scattered through the audience.  The first man asked why I had written a book defending creationism.  This set me back, since my book has nothing to do with creationism, but I tried to respond thoughtfully.  Then I was scolded for not understanding scientific method.  I pointed out the large body of scientific work that my book treats.  I was told that J. B. Rhine cheated in his research and was careless to boot.  I gave personal stories about Rhine (I knew him fairly well) illustrating his remarkable honesty and self-critical integrity.  I was told that I did not understand the mind’s capacity to deceive itself by seeing illusory pattens in random data.  I pointed out places in my text in which I dealt usefully with just that possibility.  And so on it went, all from people who clearly had not read a word in my book and had no idea what it contained.  After the reading was over, one man, a physicist from a nearby university, lingered and chatted about this and that in regard to the possible physics of psi if it should exist.  As he was about to leave, he said “A lot of us came tonight, you know.”

Who came?”

“The Triangle (Research Triangle) Atheists.  We were hoping to make a fool out of you.”


I checked the group’s website later and found that they had indeed organized a gathering at the reading for the sport of exposing the foolishness of a woo-woo peddler.  A couple of desultory remarks that followed up confirmed my impression that their fun was spoiled by my responses, which I believe were well-informed, thoughtful and consistently kind and courteous.

Thus I discovered first hand a local “chapter” of an international group.  They often refer to themselves as Militant Atheists or Guerrilla Atheists.  They are intensely motivated to attack religious belief, superstition, and what they consider pseudo science — which by definition includes everything about parapsychology.  No matter how rigorous the parapsychological research may actually be, it simply must be attacked relentlessly.  Ridicule and slander are favorite tools.  There are no compunctions about being uninformed.

This group has astonishing control of how parapsychological work is presented in the media, and in the online resource, Wikipedia.  For an account of the truly operatic pitch of this drama, see Craig Weiler’s book Psi Wars:  TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet

Now a fine new resource has come upon the internet for those who wish to have some perspective about this brand of zealous “skepticism.”  It is called “Skeptical About Skeptics.”  

The designers of this site have done their homework.  Their elucidation of this odd group of people and their somewhat puzzling motivation (why do they care so much?) is fair and enlightening.  Science is an inherently skeptical enterprise, and this is a natural and generally productive thing.  This skeptical instinct can be hijacked by ideologues, however, and when this happens, scientists and all the rest of us need to be informed about it.

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