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The Problem with Media Skeptics

by Rupert Sheldrake

Negative Skepticism Does not Advance Science

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After a recent exchange with Michael Shermer about the value of "positive" skepticism, I received the following letter from Rupert Sheldrake, the English biologist who is widely considered one of the leading thinkers in consciousness and post-Darwinian evolution. He offers a case in point about how fair or even scientific the skeptical attitude often turns out to be. Shekdrake's many books, beginning with A New Science of Life (1981), propose workable experiments to prove that evolution isn't merely materialistic and that a field of "extended mind" is real, affecting every life form on earth. Sheldrake is a speculative thinker by orthodox standards, but his academic credentials are impeccable and he has the patience to contend with his opponents on their own scientific terms.
For the original exchange between Deepak Chopra and Michael Shermer... The Downside of Skepticism

Dear Deepak,
I read your exchange with Michael Shermer with much interest. I agree with both of you about the need for skepticism as a essential part of the scientific process. But media skeptics are not usually part of a constructive scientific debate but rather follow a narrow, negative agenda. Michael claimed that skeptics such as himself are “thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective.” But there is a big gulf between this ideal and what media skeptics actually do, which, as you pointed out, all too often involves condemning open-minded inquiry. Like you, I have been the target of many skeptical attacks, and my experience has been very similar to your own.

Michael ended by trying to rebrand his kind of negative skepticism as positive.
"The skeptical fences are there for a reason — to keep the borderlands of science from shading too far into pseudoscience, non-science, and nonsense… Scientists don’t have the time or resources to shilly-shally with every new idea that comes down the pike. That is what the skeptics do, and as part of the scientific process: this is the power of positive skepticism." In other words, media skeptics are the self-appointed frontier guards of science, a job for which they think they need no credentials except their fervor.

Like you, I believe in the importance of an open-minded inquiry into the unknown. I have spent years doing research on human telepathy, including telephone telepathy, and other unexplained human and animal abilities. Some of this research is summarized in my book The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. In February, 2003, when this book first appeared, USA Today published a short article about it, which ended with a quote from Michael Shermer: "Sheldrake has never met a goofy idea he didn't like. The events Sheldrake describes don't require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means"

When I asked Michael to explain my findings “by normal means,” he could not do so. He told me that he had not seen my book. I arranged for him to receive a copy and proposed an online debate. He accepted this challenge in March, 2003, and said he would "get to it soon". In May, 2003, he told me, "I have not gotten to your book yet". I have since enquired repeatedly if there has been any progress, but he says he has been "too busy."

It’s easy to be a media skeptic. You get the last word. You can say what you like. You don’t have to spend years doing actual research. And you yourself can remain immune from criticism, because those you criticize have no right of reply. This is particularly true of Shermer’s regular “Skeptic” column in Scientific American, where people he has misrepresented, including eminent medical researchers, have been unable to get their letters published, or even acknowledged by the editor (see Who's Who of Media Skeptics ).

The problem seems to be in part that the media feel the need to present a “balanced” view, and this creates an opportunity for negative skeptics to pursue their agenda. Well-funded skeptical advocacy organizations like CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, concentrate their attention on getting their message into the media as often as possible, always with the privilege of the last word. They are very successful. Some TV channels, including National Geographic in its current “Is It Real?” series, have allowed themselves to become mass-market vehicles for organized skepticism.

If the media want to give a balanced view, one simple solution would be to reverse the normal procedure. Ask the skeptics to speak first, saying why they think something like telepathy is impossible, and then let those who have carried out real investigations present actual evidence. Better still, create a level playing field. Allow replies. This would be much more interesting for readers and viewers.

Unfortunately, media skeptics like Michael Shermer seem to be afraid of real debates. I would love to see a televised dialogue between you and him, with equal time on both sides. But I think he would do his best to avoid such an encounter.

See also... The Need for Open-minded Skepticism

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