Hayley is a Ghost

Skeptic Fail?

Posted on: December 9, 2010

I dislike the term ‘skeptic fail’ immensely because it quite clearly suggests a skeptic has failed to be skeptical, and although that is possible not every mistake a skeptical person mistakes is ‘skeptic fail’.

I hadn’t heard the phrase used much prior to the other day on twitter when I saw the tweet below that was talking about the QED homeopathic vodka video.

I wasn’t annoyed by the fact that the criticism was invalid because Michael Marshall and Mike Hall who feature in the video actually touched upon the very point of QED Vodka sobering you up in the video, but that the term ‘skeptic fail’ had been used to describe this possible oversight on their part.

Today I read this article from Brian Dunning about criticism he has seen online regarding the Skeptoid episode about DDT insecticide and how he hadn’t actually received the points made by these people in an email or more personal format. Again, I’m not interested in going into the specifics of each case here – that can be left up to other forums of discussion, but what I wanted to focus on was the strange way in which may seem to take great pleasure from pointing out the mistakes of others while actually not doing anything in any way to spread rational thinking.

Another example that has just come to mind is the blog I linked to in my previous post ‘The hidden dangers of Charity Fatigue’ in which the author pointed out what people were doing wrong, but not how they could correct themselves.

This is something we discuss in great detail on Ep. 77 of Righteous Indignation that will be released next Monday (Dec 13th), however I just wanted to briefly write a post to point out that it is so easy to tell other people when they are wrong but, as skeptics, isn’t it better for us to point out how and why they are wrong, and how they can correct their viewpoint and understanding of something?

Being open-minded is all about being willing to change your understanding of something when more information comes along that shows a different conclusion to the one you currently hold (as long as the information stands up to skeptical scrutiny of course…)

Perhaps I’m alone in thinking that trying to help others see the logic in a situation is more important and productive that pointing out they’ve failed.

Whenever someone makes a logical fallacy or uses flawed thinking in a discussion with me, or in an article or similar I cast my mind back to the days in which most of my time was taken up by using pseudoscience to show that ghosts existed in supposed haunted buildings. I was fooling nobody but myself but I didn’t know that and although people told me I was wrong I just took that to be their opinion, one they were entitled to.

The things I was doing were indeed typically ‘skeptic fail’ even though I didn’t identify as a skeptic back then, but it wasn’t until someone actually showed me how I was wrong and how I could stop being wrong that I began to realise that there were flaws in my logic.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to tell someone they’re wrong, but why not just take an extra second to show them how to get on the right track? Sure, you can’t force somebody to change their mind and if they refuse to see the logic in what you are saying then it really is their problem, but at least you’ve tried.

Or is it really that satisfying to try and publically humiliate somebody for a mistake they seem to have made? Do people actually achieve something other than an ego boost when they do that? And did I miss out on the memo that said actually there ARE people who don’t make ever mistakes?


7 Responses to "Skeptic Fail?"

Maybe it’s an issue of ego, but I find that those in the skeptical community take a particular amount of glee in trashing their own. Perhaps it’s because the non-skeptical are such easy targets and we all can see the flaw in their arguments at first glance…I too, tire of pointing out the same logical fallacies over and over again. It starts to wear on you, knowing that you’ve made a good point and won the argument and knowing it’s not going to change the mind of the person with whom you’re debating. Nothing you say is going to make this person a critical thinker, most likely. Perhaps proving a skeptic wrong is more of a badge of honor.

However I’ve noticed the same lack of fact-checking and bandwagon-jumping in the skeptical “world” as I’ve seen in the news media. I didn’t have a problem with the Skeptoid in question. It seemed rather balanced to me. I’m not pro-DDT but I know that sometimes a cost/benefit analysis can be worthwhile in situations like these. While living on St. Thomas I was often sprayed by DDT trucks as they drove by in the late afternoon. I initially was freaked out by this but soon accepted it as part of life. Lots of birds in the Caribbean, to this day.

I think Brain Dunning did a fairly good job of not presenting the “rich westerner” point of view as the only valid one, which we all tend to do. I’m not ready to say “hey, let’s start using DDT again!” but Dunning didn’t advocate that. He’s definitely correct on one point – he’s one of the most accessible skeptics out there – no reason someone couldn’t have called him up, or emailed or twittered or FB’d or sent smoke signals and said hey, I have a problem with this, before writing a snarky blog post. People in general and skeptics in particular often seem to be more interested in being right than making progress. As usual, Hayley, you’re on the money with this one.

“Or is it really that satisfying to try and publically humiliate somebody for a mistake they seem to have made? Do people actually achieve something other than an ego boost when they do that? And did I miss out on the memo that said actually there ARE people who don’t make ever mistakes? ”

Yes, true. Although I’ve come across people who refuse to see any kind of questioning (even if it’s well-meant) or raising of ‘well, maybe it isn’t so, have you considered…’ as a outright threat to (in the extreme case) ‘everything we’ve worked for’.

Being available to talk about it, pointing out that others tried, even going up to someone and saying ‘Look, when you have the time, I’d really like to talk about X and *please* let’s discuss it in person…’ – it just sometimes won’t work. It’s resulted in my losing contacts (I decline to use the word ‘friends’ in regards to them) because of the overwhelming sense of ‘but we must be right for we are the righteous and how dare you question us’. Not so much ‘herding cats’ as ‘bag of indignant Siamese kittens with narcissistic-disorder’ at times – very discouraging. :/

Note that this isn’t exclusive to skeptical-circles; I could name any venture out there that has cliques, in-groups, masses of appeal where just taking a step back and assessing progress, goals and so forth would be a bit of a culture change! I find it a little heartening that there’s more people over time who hail from different fields who are bringing their experience of assessment, re-evaluation and impact analysis to skeptical outreach.

I think Dunning’s podcast was an epic skeptic fail, and no matter how much he squirms bout his sources, or accuses people who point out his errors as having an ideological agenda, it doesn’t change the fact that he took shoddy claims to support DDT use at face value, uncritically presented motivations attributed to environmentalists and totally misrepresented current policy on the issue.
His response is disappointing, but not surprising, despite his “things I was wrong about” he has always been very reluctant to address mistakes and much more inclined to dismiss the by setting up straw men of his opponents. As for his “they didn’t email me” why would they? Plenty of people posted objections on the transcript page which he either ignored, or deliberately took out of context.

The QED vodka – no so much

Thanks for visiting my blog 🙂 As I mentioned, I am interested in the claims made but I wasn’t touching upon who was right to say what and who wasn’t, just the fact that if we’re going to offer criticism it does make more sense to offer a fair criticism of the topic to the person rather than writing about their ‘fail’.
For example, a recent ghost case I helped to investigate was the Dorset county museum ghost photo that supposedly showed the ‘ghost’ of Judge Jeffries, but actually was just a light reflection with the pareidolia effect causing it to look like a hooded cloak.

It would have been so easy to write an article mocking the people for going to a newspaper with the photo, but instead we wrote a rational article showing our findings and thoughts and we contacted the people who had taken the photo to let them know our thoughts and that we were going to put the article up and it opened up a whole huge discussion that was way more productive than us just belittling them.

It’s not always possible, but you don’t know if you don’t try.

Homeopathic vodka wouldnt sober you up anyway. Drinking water can make you feel better by reducing the dehydration you get from drinking lots of alcohol but the only thing that will actually sober you up is giving your liver enough time to process the alcohol so sciencepunk’s tweet about a skeptic fail is itself a fail. And there’s probably some aspect of this comment that’s inaccurate so we’re getting into a loop of never ending recursive fails.

Skeptic Fail?

Ridiculous phrase that means nothing other than a non-skeptic thinks they’ve proven the skeptics wrong.

There is no basis for like cures like.

All these homeopathic things are not based on biology, but the snake oil sales traditions.

It’s funny to me when people get uptight about “Big Pharma” when these homeopathy people are literally selling free city water as medicine.

The only impact that this homeopathic vodka is having is that the water is re-hydrating the body – which water does help somewhat since alcohol dehydrates you.


[…] written before about how ‘skeptic fail’ isn’t a constructive criticism, and I’m not writing this blog post to mock […]

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Hayley is a ghost

Hayley Stevens is an advocate for science-based research into seemingly paranormal experiences and occurrences. With a background in the pseudo-scientific research into ghosts, Hayley offers a unique insight into the strange world of ghost hunting through her experience.

She describes herself as 'a ghost hunter who doesn't hunt for ghosts' and this is her personal blog where she writes about ghosts, people, and other interesting things. Read more here.

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