Defining Pseudoskepticism

One of the points about my blog that I’ve tried hard to adhere to is being skeptical of pseudo-archaeology1 and even of other claims made in the name of science or medicine2. To date, I have at least 37 posts which I’ve given the label “skeptical3” including Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming and Pseudoskepticism from the “Junkman.4” In these two posts, I use the term “pseudoskepticism” as I refer to individuals whom I perceived as pretending to be skeptical about the topic of global warming. Both of the pseudoskeptics featured in these posts were presenting biased and fallacious arguments regarding global warming as a means of meeting the needs of a separate agenda.

The first pseudoskeptic I discussed was a journalist who writes for a blog and syndicates a right-wing conservative column to print and online media. This writer presented a skeptical position on the then recent documentary by Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, but failed to provide any logical reason or critical analysis to inform his pretended skepticism. In searching for a way to describe his position and the illogical arguments he presented via email with me after I commented on his critical article, I ended up with the only term I could think of that best summarized this writer’s position: pseudoskepticism.

The second pseudoskeptic I wrote about was the “junk science” author, Steven Milloy, who writes articles and books that give the appearance of presenting a skeptical viewpoint also about global warming (among other topics ranging from cigarette smoking to pollution). Even Bob Park, author of Voodoo Science and the weekly newsletter What’s New characterizes Milloy as a pretender and a pseudoskeptic that actually seeks only to further the agendas of industries like that of tobacco and oil.

The interesting thing is, when I decided to use the term “pseudoskeptic” to describe these gentlemen and their less-than-genuine positions, I googled the word to see what had been already written about it, thinking I could use comparisons to other pseudoskeptics or see if others had been similarly critical of Milloy. I harbored no delusions that I’d just coined the term and assumed that it was the logical way to refer to a “fake skeptic,” someone who wants to be seen as skeptical but really doesn’t take the time to give fair evaluation to all data or is willing to revise their position on the things they are skeptical about with the introduction of actual evidence.

I’ve been a long time skeptic and avid reader of journals like Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic, and, more recently, Free Inquiry. I listen to podcasts like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepticality on a regular basis. I participate actively in various internet communities and blogs (often under a pseudonym) giving the skeptical voice to topics ranging from religion to ESP to UFOs to archaeology. I’ve a pretty good and fair understanding of what it means to be a skeptic. And, as a skeptic, I find the easiest way to argue a position that includes extraordinary claims of the supernatural, the paranormal, or some aspect of pseudoscience is to demand evidence to support the claim and to show counter evidence of why more parsimonious explanations are both more probable and plausible.

Like most bloggers, I like to look at my stats from time to time to see where readers are coming from and, today, I noticed that there was a hit from a Wikipedia Talk page. Specifically, Talk: Pseudoskepticism where I found a discussion that was far more informative than the actual Wikipedia entry for Pseudoskepticism. I had previously read this entry when I was writing the first global warming post above, but I hadn’t read the Talk page until today. The problem I had with the Wiki entry was that it seemed to favor the pejorative description of “pseudoskeptic” that gets tossed around by woo-woos and cranks that are being criticized by skeptics. Rather than admit that their claims are without merit, they accuse those who dare to be skeptical of not being “open-minded,” not “thinking out of the box,” or as being “pseudoskeptics.” Apparently, they’re good skeptics as long as they don’t question the woo-woo’s beliefs, but pseudoskeptical if they criticize the mystery-monger and significance-junkie.

The Wiki entry begins by quoting the late Marcello Truzzi, a professor of sociology and founding member of CSICOP (now CSI) who later fell into disfavor of the group due to his apparent bias to the pseudoscientific and paranormal. The quote by Truzzi and the characteristics of a pseudoskepticism listed are useful and Truzzi is attributed as the first to coin the term “pseudoskepticism.”

Still, it’s the Talk page that I found some of the more interesting discussions on pseudoskepticism. There is definitely a camp that favors pseudoscience and woo that seeks to slant the Wiki entry to refer to something akin to militant debunkers. But there is also discussion that favors the definition I’ve used in this blog: “fake-skeptics.” One of the discussion threads on this page is about how science should be “agnostic” and scientists shouldn’t have opinions until all data are in:

IMHO, that “neither disbelieve or believe it” thing is a myth used by Truzzi and others to define their own point of view (the neutral one) as the only one allowed in science. This trick allows them to use ad hominem arguments against CSICOP and others whose point of view they don’t like, and I really wonder why skeptics let them do it. […]I think that scientists should be allowed to believe whatever they want. If a scientist makes a mistake because of his bias, other scientists with other biases can correct him. That’s what the scientific method is all about. But your model, where every scientist has to think in a certain restricted way, is a poor environment for the exchange of ideas because all scientists think the same. The diversity is missing. Your scientists are closer to robots than real people.

The discussion thread that linked to my “Junkman” article above was with regard to colloquial and “mechanistic, literal” usages of pseudoskepticism that varied from Truzzi’s own definition. My article was linked to by one editor and commented on by a second, though only as a point to show that there were uses of the term that may be beyond Truzzi’s. The responding editor rightly pointed out that my article only included the word pseudoskepticism in the title and not within the article itself. I left it up to the reader to infer what I meant in the title by “pseudoskeptic.” I must say that I agree with much of Truzzi’s definition, particularly the characteristics listed by the Wiki entry. However, I find some difficulty with how one might apply these characteristics to a critic in order to define them as pseudoskeptic or not. Does a single characteristic suffice? Must there be 6 out of 11 (as with diagnosing someone with ADHD)? Do some characteristics have more weight than others?

Here’s the list:

  1. The tendency to deny, rather than doubt
  2. Double standards in the application of criticism
  3. The making of judgments without full inquiry
  4. Tendency to discredit, rather than investigate
  5. Use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks in lieu of arguments
  6. Pejorative labeling of proponents as ‘promoters’, ‘pseudoscientists’ or practitioners of ‘pathological science.’
  7. Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  8. Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  9. Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  10. Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  11. Suggesting that unconvincing evidence is grounds for dismissing it

These could all be good habits for the skeptic to avoid, particularly when debating promoters and practitioners of pseudosciences like creationism, intelligent design, psychics, and Bosnian pyramidiots. But in that single sentence I violated the fifth and sixth of Truzzi’s characteristics. For the individual who is even slightly educated in biology or geology, would he then be a pseudoskeptic if he should criticize creationists without demonstrating proof of evolution? Would I be a pseudoskeptic if I remark that it’s far more plausible that the bright light in the sunset sky with a contrail is jet than it is an alien spacecraft leaving “chemtrails?” By Truzzi’s strict definition, I’m a pseudoskeptic if I say that a video of man bending a spoon he produced from his own pocket is unconvincing of his telekinetic powers.

Sorry Wikipedia guys. I like Truzzi’s characteristics… they’re good guidelines for how to avoid creating fallacious positions when debating mystery-mongers and significance-junkies, but the definition of pseudoskeptic is someone who is a fake skeptic. That someone pretends to be skeptical about an issue when he or she actually harbors credulous opinions or has a preconceived conclusion about a topic for which actual skeptics would be apt to criticize. QED.

Related Posts and Links:

  1. Blog Labels: Forbidden Archaeology; Pseudoarchaeology
  2. The Pseudoscience of an “Infomercial” Conman; Review: Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures, Part 1; Review: Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures, Part 2; Yet Another Kevin Trudeau Con; Kevin Trudeau: Pseudo-Advocate for the Consumer
  3. Blog Label: Skeptical
  4. Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming; Pseudoskepticism from the “Junkman.


4 Responses

  1. A fair article. I’ve been one of those editors involved in the Wikipedia article, and on the talk pages, and the subject is a lot more complicated than described.

    Just like the word “pseudoscience”, the word “Psuedoskepticism” is not scientifically defined. And that presents problems: we all interpret the definitions loosely.

    For this reason we generally don’t see scientists using the words, especially in scientific articles, because by themselves, and with no context, the words are no more than insults that convey no useful information.

    Most claims of pseudoscience I read are pseudoskeptical because they provide insufficient information to ascertain why something has been so labelled.

    Even when “woos” (as you call them) counter with the pseudoskeptical label, being a “woo” does not necessarily invalidate the label, but conversely, even an expert’s description of someone as pseudoskeptical does not validate it.

    I think that many skeptics use pseudoskeptical arguments, which does not necessarily make them pseudoskeptics.

    Likewise, I suspect that many who have had their work labeled pseudoscience, are lax, rather than deliberately pretending their work is scientific, when it is not.

  2. Note: the the blog article title is spelt ““psuedoskepticism”, but should be ““pseudoskepticism”.

  3. Note: the the blog article title is spelt ““psuedoskepticism”, but should be ““pseudoskepticism”.

    An embarrassing mistake, but thanks for catching it! My spell checker didn’t have “pseudoskepticism” in it (until I recently added it), so I kept making the typo without catching it.

    Thank you for your comment as well. I think, however, the important connotation of the term is when evaluating claims by denialists of global-warming, Holocaust, the Moon-landing, and the like. Or for those who take on the persona of the skeptic when they attempt to evaluate a scientific position on evolution, genetic manipulation of crops, health effects of smoking, the availability of oil as a natural resource, etc.

    In these instances, this “skeptical persona” is one with an agenda to discredit science (or any rational conclusion) while supporting a conclusion to the contrary or a conclusion that is inconsistent with a rational/scientific one.

    That, I believe, is the best place to apply the term “pseudoskeptical,” since the intent isn’t to be a true skeptic who evaluates all the data to arrive at a conclusion. Rather, the “pseudoskeptic” has a conclusion for which the data are sought to support.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t bad skeptics who doubt for the wrong reasons. I think these would be appropriately called “bad skeptics” just as someone who does science badly would be a “bad scientist.” Certainly there are fine lines delineating both of the terms in each of these categories (skepticism and science), but I think they’re separate nonetheless.

  4. Actually, the work “pseudoskepticism” is highly scientifically defined:

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