I've read many books with a Skeptical slant, and I keep encountering three
particular arguments made by their authors which I think should be
addressed. These arguments are fallacies. They involve the ridicule and
intellectual suppression of famous historical scientific discoveries.
The three arguments:
1. These crackpots think they're right because they're ridiculed!A fairly clear version of the first error is illustrated below. I'm not picking on Dr. Bohren in particular, this same statement is also made by many other skeptical authors. ( And Bohren's book is excellent, anyone interested either in physics or science misconceptions should pick up a copy. )
Excerpt from CLOUDS IN A GLASS OF BEER, by Craig F.Bohren (c)1987, J. Wiley & Sons, Inc.
"The story of Arrhenius could be cast in such a way that he was a hero and his foot-dragging detractors were villains. I must say, however, that I am not opposed to scientific conservatism. Indeed, it is necessary (although when faced with it myself I chafe and writhe and say bad words.) We forget that many cockeyed ideas that were resisted by the savants of the day - the Establishment is the pejorative term used - are often shown to have been - cockeyed. Every now and then a rare genius turns out to have had a good idea despite initial resistance to it. And subsequently, hordes of crackpots try to make capital out of this: Arrhenius was ridiculed, he was right; I am ridiculed, therefore, I, too, am right. A manifestly faulty syllogism, but one widely appealed to nevertheless."Do crackpots really say that they're correct BECAUSE they are persecuted? Skeptics insist that they do. The skeptics are wrong. I'm a long-time crackpot myself, so I know better.
Since I've encountered the above error more than once, I begin to wonder
whether the skeptical authors can even hear the crackpot
complaints. Can they not even hear the various cautions against
overly-scornful behavior issued by "the woo woos?" I certainly hope the
skeptics aren't being consciously dishonest; that they aren't
intentionally using False Attribution or Straw Man in order to steer
attention away from any valid points their opponents may have. "Straw
man" is a very common debating strategy used in politics to spread
confusion and sway audiences. But occasionally I see scientific debaters
use it by accident.
So, why do I think the 'skeptic' authors are fallacious? Let's look at the details. Their argument with the crackpots starts when, over and over again, particular skeptical researchers dismiss extraordinary claims without first inspecting the evidence. Sometimes they justify their refusal in various ways. Here are a few, some I've seen made as arguments, others as unspoken assumptions:
But wait a minute. In these sorts of crackpot-vs-skeptic discussions, I
myself have said "but they laughed at Arrhenius..." yet my statement had
nothing at all to do with Dr. Bohren's quote above. I was not saying that
I'm right because I'm ridiculed! The skeptics are
misinterpreting the response of the offbeat researchers. They hear
this: "I am ridiculed, therefore I am correct!" But this interpretation
is wrong. This was mis-heard. It is not what the unorthodox researchers
are trying to say.
The Crackpots' mention of the Wrights, Arrhenius, Galileo, etc., was meant to address an entirely different point. Here it is:
Although the crazy ideas usually prove to be just that, every so often they do prove to be correct. They even occasionally prove to have immense value. They trigger scientific revolutions. Therefore "crazy" ideas must never be automatically dismissed out of hand without first inspecting their supporting evidence. And a sneering atttitude of belittlement is poison to any unbiased appraisal. If we ridicule crazy ideas without first giving them a fair hearing, we may exclude tons of dreck, but sooner or later we'll also ridicule the next Galileo.It's a bad practice to use sneering and ridicule to crush dissenting ideas. It's a very bad idea to erect some near-insurmountable barriers against all seemingly irrational ideas, because doing so will discard the occasional Galileos and Arrheniuses along with the large hoards of crackpots. Or in other words, never ridicule things which you've never even bothered to investigate.
Some Skeptics would prefer that the apparent crackpots invariably prove to
be just that: crackpots. But the reality is not so simple. If we fight
too hard to eliminate the "weird" stuff, then we run the risk of
suppressing the next Copernicus. I usually say it this way: There are
diamonds hidden in the sewage. Those who make it their job to keep
Science entirely and totally "clean" and uncontaminated by craziness will
also become the newest generation of scoffing debunkers who fight to
prevent the newest generation of disruptive, revolutionary advances.
The history of new ideas proves all this by example. Any inspection of
science history will reveal a long list of genuine discoveries which were
treated with extensive hostile prejudice. If skeptical people ignore such
powerful examples presented by "the crackpots," and if they instead
distort the historical examples and proclaim them to instead be a simple
logical error, then it is the skeptics who make the logical error,
not the crackpots. When a crackpot drags out the old "They Laughed at the
Wright Brothers" argument, that person is not stating that ongoing
ridicule proves crackpot ideas must be correct. Instead that person is
simply saying this:
"You who make a policy of automatically rejecting 'crazy' ideas without first giving them a fair hearing, you would have joined the experts in 1905 who refused to view the Wright Flyer in action, and whose continuing public ridicule eventually forced the Wrights to abandon the USA and move to France."And to the great shame of scientists everywhere, the charge often has merit.
"Theories have four stages of acceptance:
2. Crackpots' complaints of intellectual suppression are really just conspiracy theories!I've encountered another common misinterpretation of 'They Laughed At The Wright Brothers.' This is from sci.physics FAQ. The "laughing" in this case is at Galileo...
sci.physics FAQ, section 1.7 (7/97)Again, the Skeptics are making a large (and perhaps too convenient) misinterpretation. As before, things start out when "crackpots" claim to have made discoveries. Rather than carefully inspecting the evidence, instead the skeptics dismiss the unorthodox research out of hand. The crackpots object fiercely to such treatment. Then the skeptics ignore the complaints because they change them into invalid complaints called "conspiracy theories."
Suppression of dissenting opinion does not require any conspiracy.
Skeptics should do their opponents the courtesy of actually listening to
their opponents objections. When a crackpot complains that the entire
scientific peer group is attempting to suppress his/her work, we should
carefully examine the complaint. Does the researcher actually
claim to be the target of an organized conspiracy? If not, then to
state otherwise is indulging in a "straw man" argument. After all,
dissenters in any group are often suppressed by majority opinion, and such
"intellectual suppression" has nothing to do with organized conspiracies.
Think about it. It makes sense that if a significant portion of
individual scientists really are afraid of being proved massively
wrong in a public spotlight, and if most scientists really do have
emotional investment in a contemporary worldview... then a certain portion
of the "scientific establishment" really will tend to indulge in
irrational suppressive acts. We're only human. The history of science
reveals that this has happened time and again (recall Galileo, Wright
Bros., Plate Tectonics, Chandrasekar's black holes in 1930, jumping genes,
Krebs cycle, etc.) Anyone who thinks these suppression events don't
happen is simply ignorant of science history. See:
Suppression of dissenting voices doesn't imply the existence of secret
conspiracies. Just as no conspiracy is needed to explain intolerance
(racism/sexism,) no conspiracy is needed to explain intellectual
suppression. All we require is that a collection of individual attackers
have a common motivation. If the victim of genuine suppressive acts makes
a complaint, then it would be a great injustice to dismiss their complaint
as delusional paranoia. Analogy: if women complain about receiving lower
salaries then men, should we dismiss them as delusional Conspiracy
Theorists? Insist that low wages and workplace sexism requires a Grand
Conspiracy?!!! Obviously not. As the old saying goes, you aren't
paranoid if a group of people really is out to get you. And a
group can be out to get you even when the group doesn't organize or
conspire. In other words:
COMPLAINTS OF INTELLECTUAL SUPPRESSION ARE VERY DIFFERENT THAN CONSPIRACY THEORIES.
In addition, those who claim that suppression doesn't exist (by claiming
it's really just conspiracy theories) have demonstrated their ignorance of
the workings of science. After all, one main role of peer review is to
suppress science! It's supposed to suppress the bad, incompetent,
misguided science. Block it out. Prevent publication. Remove its
funding. Intellectual suppression is built into modern science as a
corrective feedback mechanism. It's hardly a "conspiracy." And peer
review isn't the only way that misguided research is suppressed. It's also
being suppressed whenever the scientific community simply ignores it, or
when a few zealous scientists attack it actively. This sort of
"suppression" is common and perfectly normal, and has nothing to do with
conspiracy theories. Suppression becomes a very serious problem when the
suppression itself proves misguided; when genuine revolutionary
discoveries are rejected for publication and when the research grants are
I see the above sci.physics FAQ entry as being dangerous. It promotes a
view where anyone who complains of scientific suppression is nothing but a
delusional paranoid. It's implying that intellectual bigotry cannot
occur. It says that all complaints of mistreatment are invalid by
definition. It justifies the following common ploy of many skeptics:
"ridicule first, and no need to ask questions later, since those
who complain about our ridicule can be easily defeated via our accusations
of delusional conspiracy-theorizing
While it's true that large numbers of crackpots do exist, with many of
these genuinely suffering from delusions of persecution, it's also true
of minority opinions exists in science. In my opinion, Kuhnian revolutions
shifts" are probably caused by this suppression. After all, scientists
are human, and if
we did not find older "paradigms" so useful, and cling to them so
fiercely, then science
might progress more smoothly and never require any periodic revolutions.
Paradigm shifts are a "stick-and-slip" oscillation, and the "stick" part
of the process involves suppression of minority opinion.
Also, sometimes scientific discoveries really do threaten powerful
interests (e.g. when popular pesticides are shown to be harmful, etc.)
In those cases, attempted suppression by money interests is very real.
There is also a less honorable example...
When human beings encounter ideas which threaten their fundamental worldviews, the typical response is to thoughtlessly and instantly crush the new ideas; to eliminate them. The searing discomfort engendered by encounters with new ideas is called "Cognitive Dissonance." The feeling is almost painful, and it's even more painful for scientists whose salaries or sometimes their very careers depend on correct mental models. When we feel this type of pain, the layman will take immediate steps to stop it. Researchers are not immune to this, although the historical evidence is so shameful that it is not widely acknowledged outside the fields of Science History/Sociology. Professional scientists who pursue unpopular research tend to encounter not only the expected passive disbelief and dismissal. They also suffer active suppression: ridicule, loss of funding (even loss of funding for their conventional work,) attempts to revoke honors, and myriad subtle attacks by colleagues, with the attacks often performed behind the scenes. In fact, one common attack is exactly the one above. It goes like this:
"Scientists never attack each other, so if you think colleagues are secretly trying to hurt your career, you must have mental problems and therefore need professional help."And so, when someone complains about scientific suppression, we must never automatically dismiss them as conspiracy-theorists. Instead we should take an unbiased view of the evidence. Yes, in many cases we will find that the hated "suppressors" are simply the thoughtful skeptics who are debunking some pseudoscience beliefs. But in a few rare cases we'll find that the "suppressors" are scientists whose entire world would be turned upside-down by any evidence which supports the strange new ideas. These scientists are individually taking action to silence anyone who brings forth that evidence.
So, when someone says "They laughed at Galileo", we must take care not to
automatically assume paranoia on their part. We should instead hear it as
a plea to examine their evidence, just as Galileo pleaded with his
contemporaries. Remember, it was not the religious authorities who
ignored Galileo's evidence. Instead it was his fellow scientists who
refused to actually come and look through that darned telescope!
3. Crackpots are really just saying that progress doesn't existSome skeptics often use a third straw-man argument to justify their refusal to inspect evidence. When a maverick researcher objects to being ridiculed, the skeptics respond with this 1989 quote from Isaac Asimov:
"When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."In other words, anyone who says "They Laughed at the Wright Brothers" couldn't possibly be pointing out the errors of skepticism. Instead they're really just saying that science is a disconnected series of upheavals, but with no real progress. After all, today's scientists are different than scientists of old. Today they're far too advanced to make such enormous blunders.
It's very convenient that skeptics chose the roundness of the
earth to illustrate how today's scientists are too advanced to make
mistakes. Better they should learn the history of biology, where the
examples are quite different. Transposable genes were ridiculed for
decades before the fairly recent
acceptance. Also the experts were blind to the symbiotic nature of
mitochondria and chloroplasts until even more recently.
Yes, our knowledge of Earth's roundness is close to 100% complete. But is
this really a good model for science as a whole? History contains other
examples. The most famous even involves the surface of the
Earth. If we understand the surface of Earth so well, why was Plate
as crackpotism for thirty years until geologists finally started taking it
seriously in the 1960s? The example of our understanding of Earth should
tell us to take
care before hurling ridicule, since the supposed experts might know far
less about the world than they imagine.
Asimov's quote is possibly dangerous to the more creative of mainstream
scientists. It subtly suggests that they must abandon revolutionary
discoveries on the grounds that science is complete and has no room for
such things anymore. It implies that the most important workings of the
world are all discovered, so everyone should stop looking for enormous
breakthroughs. But this is just plain nuts. Major discoveries in
today are forcing scientists to reexamine everything they thought they
understood. Suppose something similar could occur with a fringe research
topic, e.g. human minds and PSI phenomena. If "psychic powers" are ever
proved valid, then such an event will be a stunning and unexpected
breakthrough ...but it won't be unique. It will simply join the long list
of other disruptive revolutions which deflate scientists' hubris and push
their understanding of the world ahead far too suddenly for their own
One final note. Yes, they "laughed" at Galileo, but they DIDN'T laugh at
Bozo the Clown, not really. Examine that quote most carefully, since it
contains a subtle, dishonest twist. By "laughed" in the first instance,
we mean "they used mockery to suppress a dissenting voice." By "laughed" in
the second, we mean "they found Bozo funny." Changing definitions
of words mid-stream? That's a trick right out of the political
So it seems that even Asimov's quote about Bozo the Clown is yet another straw man argument: it attempts to hide the fact that the main topic of the quote is about defeating weird ideas with scornful guffaws and amused contempt. The second half of the quote makes no sense when compared to the first: there was no scorn or contempt directed at Bozo. The quote is dishonest. It is not about healthy laughter at all.