The Problem with Negative Media Skepticism

Dogmatic Skepticism Does Not Advance Science
by Rupert Sheldrake

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.

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 [now CSI], 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.

– Rupert