Tag Archives: skepticism

Douglas Hubbard

James Randi, retired magician and renowned skeptic, set up this foundation for investigating paranormal claims scientifically. (He advised Emily on some issues of experimental protocol.) Randi created the $1 million “Randi Prize” for anyone who can scientifically prove extrasensory perception (ESP), clairvoyance, dowsing, and the like. Randi dislikes labeling his efforts as “debunking” paranormal claims since he just assesses the claim with scientific objectivity. But since hundreds of applicants have been un- able to claim the prize by passing simple scientific tests of their paranormal claims, debunking has been the net effect. Even before Emily’s experiment was published, Randi was also interested in therapeutic touch and was trying to test it. But, unlike Emily, he managed to recruit only one therapist who would agree to an objective test—and that person failed.

After these results were published, therapeutic touch proponents stated a variety of objections to the experimental method, claiming it proved nothing. Some stated that the distance of the energy field was really one to three inches, not the four or five inches Emily used in her experiment. Others stated that the energy field was fluid, not static, and Emily’s unmoving hand was an unfair test (despite the fact that patients usually lie still during their “treatment”). None of this surprises Randi. “People always have excuses afterward,” he says. “But prior to the experiment every one of the therapists were asked if they agreed with the conditions of the experiment. Not only did they agree, but they felt confident they would do well.” Of course, the best refutation of Emily’s results would simply be to set up a controlled, valid experiment that conclusively proves therapeutic touch does work. No such refutation has yet been offered.

Randi has run into retroactive excuses to explain failures to demonstrate paranormal skills so often that he has added another small demonstration to his tests. Prior to taking the test, Randi has subjects sign an affidavit stating that they agreed to the conditions of the test, that they would later offer no objections to the test, and that, in fact, they expected to do well under the stated conditions. At that point Randi hands them a sealed envelope. After the test, when they attempt to reject the outcome as poor experimental design, he asks them to open the envelope. The letter in the envelope simply states “You have agreed that the conditions were optimum and that you would offer no excuses after the test. You have now offered those excuses.”

Douglas Hubbard, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business, Hoboken, 2012, 2nd ed., pp. 15-16

Bertrand Russell

Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures. When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does so, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Engels. A full-fledged Communist is not merely a man who believes that land and capital should be held in common, and their produce distributed as nearly equally as possible. He is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty. This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook. I believe the scientific outlook to be immeasurably important to the human race. If a more just economic system were only attainable by closing men’s minds against free inquiry, and plunging them back into the intellectual prison of the middle ages, I should consider the price too high.

Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, London, 1920, p. 8

Timothy Williamson

Sceptics are troublemakers who can disrupt our position without having a coherent position of their own, by presenting us with considerations to which we cannot find a response that we find satisfying. If they are sick, they infect us with their sickness. Although some people have more natural immunity than others, probably few epistemologists feel no conflict at all within themselves between sceptical and anti-sceptical tendencies.

Timothy Williamson, ‘Knowledge and Scepticism’, in Frank Jackson and Michael Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, Oxford, 2005, p. 694

Galen Strawson

[I]t is true that ‘I seem to see a table’ does not entail ‘I see a table’; but ‘I seem to feel a pain’ does entail ‘I feel a pain’. So scepticism loses its force—cannot open up its characteristic gap—with regard to that which ultimately most concerns us, pleasure and pain.

Galen Strawson, Freedom and Belief, Oxford, 1986, p. 223, n. 29

V. S. Ramachandran

Every scientist knows that the best research emerges from a dialectic between speculation and healthy scepticism. Ideally the two should co-exist in the same brain, but they don’t have to. Since there are people who represent both extremes, all ideas eventually get tested ruthlessly.

V. S. Ramachandran, Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of Mind, London, 2005, p. xvi

Carl Sagan

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of sceptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because the, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Carl Sagan, ‘The Burden of Skepticism’, 1987

Jonathan Glover

Amoralits are sceptics about the claims of morality. They do not have to be ruthlessly selfish—they may have generous impulses and care about other people—but they are sceptical about claims that they ought to do things for others. An amoralist says about ‘ought’ what Oscar Wilde said about ‘patriotism’: it is not one of my words. The generous, caring amoralist is in practice not much of a problem. It is the ruthlessly selfish amoralist who arouses the hope that amoralism can be refuted.

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, New Haven, 1999, p. 18

Bertrand Russell

Scepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it. Moreover, if scepticism is to be theoretically defensible it must reject all inferences from what is experienced; a partial scepticism, such as the denial of physical events experienced by no one, or a solipsism which allows events in my future or in my unremembered past, has no logical justification, since it must admit principles of inference which lead to beliefs that it rejects.

Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Its Limits, London, 1948, p. 9