Friday, November 28, 2008

Why "pseudoskeptic" is a worthless label

A few weeks ago, the local skeptical group decided it would be a good idea to have "pseudoskepticism" as a topic. The idea is that we get to discuss what sort of mistakes denialists make, and in turn elucidate the definition of a "skeptic". It turned out that it wasn't a good topic after all. People really seemed to dislike the word "pseudoskeptic", though it's hard to properly convey what's so wrong about it.

More recently, Matt Nisbet, Scienceblog's notoriously uncharismatic proponent of "framing", attacked the word "denialism" on account of it being inflammatory. I don't know about that. It seems to me that if "denialism" is negative, it's not because of the word itself, but because of the content of its meaning (if that makes any sense). The content of its meaning isn't going to go away, no matter what we call it. But forget Nisbet. (Forget, I say!) My main point relates not to Nisbet but to this Respectfully Insolent response. As an afterthought, Orac says this in his response:
Of course, if you're less pugnacious than Mike, Mark, or me, in my benevolence, I'll suggest an alternative term other than "denier" or "denialist." Lately, I've started to like the term "pseudoskeptic." It captures the essence of what denialists do almost as much as the term "denialist." Remember, a true skeptic is always open to changing his or her mind if the evidence and science demand it.
No! Don't use "pseudoskeptic". It's bad!

The first thing that strikes me about the word "pseudoskeptic" is that it gets us into the "fake vs true" mode. It's the perfect setup for the No True Scottsman Fallacy. Every time I hear the word "pseudoskeptic", it practically begs to be replaced with the phrase, "not a True Skeptic (TM)". After all, if you've never heard the word, that's exactly what the conjunction of "pseudo" and "skeptic" will mean to you. If it came into popular use, I can just imagine the devolution of discussions. "You're a pseudoskeptic!" "No you're a pseudoskeptic!" I hate the word, I hate it!

If my worries seem farfetched, we only need look at the history of the word. (Skeptical history!) It's common knowledge (read: on Wikipedia) that the word was coined/popularized by one of the founders of CSICOP, Marcello Truzzi. CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now simply called CSI), was founded in 1976 as one of the first skeptical organizations to ever exist. Marcello Truzzi was the editor to CSICOP's official journal, The Zetetic. Unfortunately, Truzzi had some sort of falling out with CSICOP because he wanted to include pro-paranormal stuff in the journal. Truzzi left CSICOP, and founded his own journal, The Zetetic Scholar, which included arguments both for and against the paranormal. It was around this time that Truzzi said that the so-called skeptics were becoming pseudoskeptics.

The temptation to simply say, "No, you're a pseudoskeptic" is strong. In my mind, Truzzi was completely wrong, and CSICOP completely right. Truzzi's position was that of pyrrhonic skepticism, the position that we cannot know anything for sure. Pyrrhonic skepticism is wrong because we can know things, not with complete certainty, but with sufficient certainty. I can't know absolutely for sure that psychics don't exist, but I can be sufficiently sure, given the vast amounts of evidence, that they are vastly unlikely. There is a lot of merit to drawing tentative conclusions even when you're not completely sure. Truzzi's position is that of "fair and balanced" journalism, which simply portrays both sides of every issue equally, regardless of the relative merits of either side.

Truzzi, perhaps sensing that the word "pseudoskeptic" would simply bounce back at himself, decided to take another label for himself: "zetetic". A wise move, I say.

But doesn't "pseudoskeptic" have its uses? It seems like it would be useful against factions that call themselves skeptical, the epitome being the "Global Warming skeptics". Now, personally, I don't really think of them as fake skeptics. No, they are true skeptics, albeit under a different definition of skeptical. Skepticism means many different things, after all. When I use it, I refer to the method of determining the veracity of claims through rational and scientific thought. Other times, skepticism means something like Truzzi's zeteticism. In the case of Global Warming skeptics, it simply refers to a position of doubt. It's a moot point whether that doubt has been achieved through proper use of rational and scientific thought.

We don't have a monopoly on the meaning of "skepticism". But of course, we'd like to. Therefore, it's to our advantage if we disassociate the skeptical method from the position of Global Warming skepticism. To do that, we need to give them a different name. But "pseudoskepticism"? Please don't. In my benevolence, I'll suggest an alternative term other than "pseudoskeptic". Use "denier" or "denialist". The meaning of the term is obvious, even to someone who has never heard it before: "One who denies". It may have a slightly inflammatory connotation due to its connection to Holocaust denial, but that's pretty weak. Global Warming denial is distinct from Holocaust denial--I should have thought that obvious.


Larry Hamelin said...

I have to disagree with you.

The "No True Scotsman" fallacy is a specific move in philosophy: It consists of taking an accidental or contingent feature and making it a definitional feature to preserve a material implication. It is not a fallacy to say that some case does not fit a pre-existing definition. It's not a NTS fallacy to point out that Angus (who takes sugar in in porridge) was born and raised in Wales.

Why shouldn't we have a monopoly on skepticism? The whole point of the Global Warming deniers calling themselves "skeptics" is to leverage the scientific and rational meaning of skepticism, without employing the entire definition of scientific skepticism. We have to point out not only that their position is not actually skeptical, but that they are illegitimately and dishonestly using the word. We need to point out that they're not just mistaken, they're actually lying.

In just the same sense, we call creation "science" and intelligent design pseudoscience: Not just because these positions are not scientific, but also because they are dishonestly trying to use the trappings and forms of science to promote a fundamentally unscientific position.

Anonymous said...

@Barefoot Bum: must we then differentiate between those that are actively lying and those that are sincerely mistaken? Not all people that practise pseudoscience are actively lying, even though they may be spreading falsehoods (lies).

One big difference I feel I must point out: pseudoscience and pseudoskeptic? No, pseudoscience and pseudoskepticism. How many people speak of pseudoscientists? Yup, I detest "pseudoskeptic". It seems like a character assassination to me. I'm more open to "pseudoskepticism". Pseudoscience talks about a false idea, of which the person conveying it might be a victim. A pseudoscientist however is attributing the "evil" to a particular person.

Can the "no you're the pseudo-" also be applied to denialism? No you're the denialist for denying my "skepticism"...

One man's freedom fighter remains another's terrorist. I dunno, pick whatever word you want, but if you mean the word negatively, do go to great lengths ensuring that what you mean by that word is well communicated and understood.

miller said...

Barefoot Bum,
That is a good point with respect to the No True Scottsman fallacy. If I wrote it over again, I would not include that bit.

However, when I say we don't have a monopoly on the meaning of "skepticism", I am saying this as a matter of fact. This is a situation in which it's good to be prescriptivist about our language, but we must admit the reality that people use "skepticism" to mean many different things. I believe the use of "pseudoskepticism" will only degrade our favored definition of "skepticism", because it's just so easy for people to bounce it back at us.

In this essay, I have to admit I was not even trying to be careful of the distinction between pseudoskeptic and pseudoskepticism. It's a good idea to be careful with our words. (Of course, that presupposes that we're trying to be nice, which, let's face it, is not always true.)

Scott said...

I know this is old, but I had to post. Just to play devil's advocate for a moment: why doesn't this argument hold equally for the term "pseudoscience"? (Assume we're setting aside for a moment the valid distinctions between "pseudoscience" and "pseudoscientist," "pseudoskepticism" and "pseudoskeptic.")

miller said...

I think it's clear from history that "pseudoskepticism" is more prone to abuse while "pseudoscience" is less prone to abuse. But it's not obvious why this is the case. Good question.

I would first suggest that "science" has a much more established definition than "skepticism". More people have heard of science. Even though there have been many arguments about what distinguishes science and pseudoscience (the demarcation problem), people generally have an idea of which is which; they know it when they see it.

"Skepticism", on the other hand, has been used to mean many different things throughout history. You might even say that the skeptical movement "stole" the word for their own purposes in the last few decades. The person on the street thinks "skepticism" means doubting or questioning, while I think of it as a larger method of discerning truth from falsity. These definitions are sometimes aligned, but also sometimes in conflict. Because of the varying definitions, both sides can usually get away with calling their opponents pseudoskeptics.

See Steven Novella, who said that the word "skeptic" is sub-optimal, but we're stuck with it.

Scott said...

I think your answer is a good one -- and I find it interesting that in the end, the "problem of demarcation" in both cases relies more on social consensus than on any explicit definition. I must say it seems, at least on its surface, a rather Feyerabendian response.

miller said...

Yeah, I tend to lean towards descriptivism, if you haven't noticed.

I don't think it would be a bad thing if we had a more prescriptive definition of science or skepticism. I just don't think we have the power to make it so.

Purple Scissor said...

Well, this is old but if anyone is looking: I think you haven't properly studied the meaning of pseudoskepticism, because it has a very definite definition, and what it basically means is that someone is being pseudoscientific. So a pseudoskeptic is a pseudoscientist. We've properly defined it here, in accordance with Truzzi and good scientific practice. It is easy to not be a pseudoskeptic. I mean, it is not really that hard to have a definite opinion and still follow the rules of science. Truzzi was not asking that people forgo realism and common sense.

miller said...

Why should pseudoskeptic mean the same thing as pseudoscience, when clearly, skepticism is not the same thing as science? And if by pseudoskepticism you mean pseudoscience, why not just call it pseudoscience?

Purple Scissor said...

Skepticism as applied to pseudoscience is nearly always the same thing as applying science. Improperly applied skepticism of this sort is ipso facto pseudoscience. You are right that not all skepticism is science. Here is scientific skepticism
I cannot think of a case of pseudoskepticism that is not pseudo scientific skepticism. Even most religious skepticism is about science.

Anonymous said...

To put it simply - Truzzi had a falling out with certain people at CSICOP. So he left and then redinfined "pseudoskepticism" such that his former friends at CSICOP would automatically be "pseudoskeptics". Of course by his definition, his own flavour of skepticism would be fine - as legions of his followers have agreed (as Purple Scissor has shown).

Shot Info

Anonymous said...

"I can't know absolutely for sure that psychics don't exist, but I can be sufficiently sure, given the vast amounts of evidence, that they are vastly unlikely."

LOL, this statement alone confirms that you ARE a true pseudoskeptic.

You're "sufficiently sure" that psychic ability is "vastly unlikely". Let's say that "sufficiently sure" equates to about 75% certainty. And then let's say that "vastly unlikely" means a chance of less than 0.1%.

So you're about 75% certain that psychic ability has a less than 0.1% chance of being true. Wow, that's pretty amazing. And you've based such a conclusion on the "vast amounts of evidence".

I'd like to see that evidence. I've yet to see a single, unbiased, scientific and rigourous study that has been done that disproves psychic ability. Forget your James Randi nonsense. He's not even a scientists to begin with, and he's been shown, on numerous occasions, to be nothing more than a dishonest, disingenuous fraud.

On the other hand, there are numerous studies, or collections of studies, which have been analysed by such reserchers as Dean Radin, showing that there is a VERY GOOD CHANCE that the ability of the human consciousness to directly affect its surroundings is true. And then there's the incredible scientific studies conducted by numerous great scientists which you can read all about in Lynne McTaggart's book, "The Field". The Bibliography in this book, with HUNDREDS of citations, many of which are published in journals, can be checked out for yourself. All the laboratory experiments are conducted with utmost attention so as to remove any uncertainty in the results. The validity of these experiments is no less than those experiments done for more mainstream science.

Of course conveying to you all of information will most likely be nothing more than a complete and utter waste of time, as you have shown yourself to be a pseudoskeptic. You've misrepresented the real reason that Truzzi left CSICOP (it was essentially out of disgust for the close-mindedness he witnessed). He was never "pro-paranormal". He was PRO-SCIENCE. If the results of an experiment showed things that were a little strange (by our current understanding of how the universe operates), then he didn't just dismiss those results out of hand based upon a-priori assumptions, as all pseudoskeptics such as yourself do continually.

It has become clear to me over the years of researching various groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and also researching the psychology behind pseudoskepticism itself, that most pseudoskeptics are beyond any kind of help and are actually holding back true innovation and advancement of science in a most detrimental way. They profess rationality when their thinking is anything but rational. They are *no different* to the dogmatic preachers who won't accept any new information that challenges their dogma which can be found in the "Bible of Materialism". They are *exactly* like those pseudoskeptics who poured ridicule and scorn upon the idea of humans being able to create aircraft that could fly, or of the possibility of electricity, or indeed of a light bulb. The pseuodskeptics of today would be those same pseudoskeptics of yesterday.

Any scientist who dares challenge the Bible of Materialism is instantly branded a heretic. Non-scientists who challenge that dogma are more often than not labelled uneducated, misinformed, ignorant, stupid, unintelligent, misguided, etc., though these terms are also applied to scientists. In reality, the pseudoskeptic should look in the mirror when using these words. And then there are the name-calling pseudoskeptics, which sadly are growing every day. Ad hominem attacks are becoming quite acceptable these days to such people.

In short, trying to rid pseuoskeptics of their toxic, deranged thinking and transforming them into TRUE SKEPTICS is like trying to extract blood from a stone. As such, this post has no doubt been nothing but a waste on people like yourself, though it might just get read by a more open-minded person, if it isn't deleted.

Purple Scissor said...

Hello anon, cool rant you have there. could use your help, since you seem to know some of the pro evidence. There are some skeptics who registered also and have begun putting things in. Our pseudoskepticism article just went to the first page of Google. Check it out. Oh, and don't talk to Shot info, he's stalking WikiSynergy around the web with a vendetta.

miller said...

Anonymous, I am a little confused about your position. You seem to very much like the label "pseudoskeptic" (disagreeing with the main point of my essay). You believe that pseudoskeptics have "toxic, deranged thinking". But you also take a strong stance against ad hominem attacks and name-calling. So... which is it?

Incidentally, I do not think Truzzi is a "pseudoskeptic", nor is his thinking toxic and deranged. He simply evaluated the evidence wrongly, as have you.

It's all very well to refer to a pair of researchers and hundreds of citations, but that doesn't mean a lot. If you don't get into details, then you are being just as handwavy as my own reference to "vast amounts of evidence" (and yes, I admit I was handwaving there, since it was tangential to my point). I contend that neither of us really have time to get into the details. Experts in the field would have more time for these details; they should be the first targets of persuasion.

Naturally, I am not expert in psychology or statistics. However, I know enough quantum mechanics that I can say that Lynne McTaggart's thoughts on the subject are quite mistaken. If it so happens that psychic claims are true, researchers better find a new physical mechanism, because the quantum explanations simply fail. The longer they continue their sloppy theorizing on quantum mechanics, the more the credibility of their field suffers.

Anonymous said...

@Purple Scissor - nice switch there (whoooo a vendetta :-). Still doesn't discount the reasons why Truzzi decided to redefine a simple english word to make it into an attack on people he disagreed with. It's worth reflecting on how others (like yourself) now use his redefinition to label skeptics as pseudoskeptics, and believers as skeptics.

Ta Shot_info

Anonymous said...

I find this completely ridiculous. A worthless label? "Someone who makes negative claim without bearing the burden of proof of that claim." It's simple. It's technical language.

What I gather is that you don't like who uses the word, and how they use it. You have to argue against them and their logic, not against simple language.

It's obvious that those who the furthest against the grain are going to use the word more often, right or wrong as they may be, because it is those researchers who are most likely to run into genuine pseduoskeptics.

miller said...

What I gather is that you don't like who uses the word, and how they use it.

Orac of Respectful Insolence used the label, and I like Orac. I don't think anyone, on my side or not, should use the term "pseudoskeptic", because it's just bound to bounce back and forth with no real meaning behind it except feelings of animosity.