Skeptics will always face an uphill struggle against pseudoscience

Posted 07 January 2015

Vulnerable people fall for the claims of psychics and their ilk because irrationality is ingrained in the human psyche

A great article from the Guardian


If the scientific skepticism movement were to choose a mascot, we could do a lot worse than Sisyphus: the figure from Greek mythology doomed by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down again the moment he rests. Few other analogies really capture the frustrations and seeming futility of counteracting a widely held pseudoscientific belief.

Perhaps worse, it is not enough for us merely to push back against the outrageous claims of pseudoscience, and those who capitalise on the bereaved and the vulnerable (whether knowingly or unknowingly) – we also have to do so responsibly. We can’t afford to use the dirty tricks employed by some of those we criticise, lest we lose our own integrity and with it whatever persuasive power we may have had.

Equally, we can’t afford to advocate rationalism with the same brashness and rudeness displayed by some pseudoscientists, because our truths are sadly less welcome than their comforting untruths. It is easy to convince someone of a falsehood if it’s something they desperately want to hear. They will even pay you for the privilege, and defend you to the hilt.

This is the Greek tragedy of the modern skeptical movement. If we’re cursed to play the role of Sisyphus and forever push our boulder up the mountain, we’re also fated to do so with one hand tied behind our back. Rest assured, those advocating reason will forever face an uphill battle, and any victories will be slow and difficult – and the moment we stop pushing, the boulder will inexorably roll back.

So why do we bother? If every victory only holds back the tide for a while, what’s the point? It’s a question I’ve been considering a lot of late, and I think the answer lies in social responsibility, humility and an awareness of our own susceptibility. It’s too easy to see ourselves as being beyond belief, or above belief: “There but for the grace of a god I don’t believe in go not I, for I am smarter than that, and I cannot be fooled.”


Personally, I don’t buy that mentality for a moment. Intelligence is no guard against pseudoscience – smart people simply find smarter ways to justify their belief in the unjustifiable. Instead, the real defence against succumbing to seductive nonsense is an awareness of our own intellectual limitations and the cognitive flaws to which we are all prey. Or, in short, skepticism.

Skepticism is an anti-virus program for the brain: it simply provides the tools to check ideas, combined with the knowledge that can take the weight out of bad ideas. Knowing that psychics have specific ways of asking questions that make it sound as though they’re offering information means you’re alive to the trick when you hear it. Awareness of regression to the mean and confirmation bias might stop you attributing your recovery to the copper band on your wrist or the sugar pill on your tongue.

Knowing that President Kennedy’s seat in his car was raised to make him more visible to the crowd takes the mystique out of the trajectory of that magic bullet.

But the anti-virus software analogy isn’t perfect, because once you have been infected with a “logic virus” it’s hard to find and delete it, because it covers its tracks so well. People who fall for the seductive claims of psychics do so not because they’re wilfully flouting reality, but because there’s a phenomenal emotional sway that goes with the mystical. We have all lost someone close to us, and we have all felt the pain of bereavement. As skeptics, we have no magical answer to that pain.

At their lowest ebb, at their most vulnerable, that’s when people are most at risk of taking a logical misstep that, once made, is very hard to reverse. And that applies not just to the “illogical few”, but to every one of us, because we are all prone to moments of weakness. It’s part of the human condition, and it takes an act of near-perverse will to break that pattern, because it’s so deeply ingrained in our cultural and evolutionary psyche.

But that’s why it’s so important that we as skeptics and rationalists step up: when someone is in a bad place, it’s the responsibility of everyone who knows them – and even people who don’t know them – to watch their back. Because when I’m in that place myself, when I’m at my lowest ebb and feel as though reality offers no hope, I want there to be people who stop me walking – blinded by vulnerability – into an open manhole.

Michael Marshall is the project director for the Good Thinking Society and vice president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He tweets as @MrMMarsh.

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