Skeptical damnation: What happened to withholding judgment?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching Professor Ray Hyman’s writings about the field of parapsychology. I don’t have to tell some of you how awesome he is (but shame on you who don’t even know WHO he is if you call yourself “skeptical” Sorry, didn’t mean to pull an almost “no true Scotsman”).

In the 1980’s, Hyman and parapsychologist Charles Honorton went back and forth in a public debate regarding a database that Honorton (and others) put forward as the best evidence for psi (extrasensory information exchange). The details of this project are endlessly fascinating but, in a nutshell, two top representatives from opposing viewpoints had a productive, intellectual discussion which resulted in the issuance of a joint communique between them stating what they agreed upon. Hyman noted that this document influenced the quality of future experiments of this type. The interesting quote I found from Hyman caught my eye today since it had less to do with any particular subject than with peoples’ response to opposing positions in everyday life.

No one knew the ins and outs of the extensive database like Hyman and Honorton because of their in-depth discussion. This was a huge collection of specialized information and five years of thoughtful critique. Yet, many commentators in the peanut gallery felt it their place to put in their two cents worth of opinion. To this wave of opinionation, Hyman said:

“Neither sides’ supporters had the necessary grasp of the details to independently judge which one of us was right.”

[R. Hyman, “What’s wrong with materialism?” In Debating Psychic Experience,  Krippner and Friedman, Eds., 2010, 144-145.]

Yet, judge they did.

This statement hit me square in the face today. We hardly ever have a solid grasp of the evidence in order to make a fully informed conclusion about an issue, let alone to condemn another person. Thanks to the internet, we feel inclined to head to our respective team corners and respond publicly and emotionally as soon as possible, to shoot from the hip based on less-than-valid information. Then, we defend that position.

I’ve been APPALLED by self-styled “skeptical advocates” who have made a habit of jumping to convenient conclusions on a controversial issue instead of waiting for evidence to be verified or even to come out at all! Especially when it involves personalities that the individual dislikes, the drama-bloggers, facebook-swearers, and rage-tweeters are ever so quick to point fingers and call names. They feel obligated to state their opinion regarding even highly personal and subjective issues, even to the point of being libelous and defamatory.

Really poor skepticism abounds. There have been so many incidents of outrage theatre over the past few years where snap judgments (followed by a conviction and metaphorical execution) have been made – mostly about feminist, social justice or he-said/she-said disputes – based on poor or no evidence except someone’s story or second or third-hand claim. Or, let’s throw a fit simply because he/she really hates him/her. It’s been embarrassing to watch.

What are you, twelve? This behavior is juvenile. However here are professionals, organization employees, and role models who are doing this. Last I checked, we are supposed to be rational adults. Any outside observer to the skepto-atheist community would be hard pressed to come to THAT conclusion based on evidence all around.

There is nothing wrong with defending or supporting your friends. But that does not mean blindly accepting that they are faultless and ganging up on others who have a different view. I have admitted that I support my friends who are in trouble, but that does not excuse whatever bad behavior they exhibited. I’m learning to take no side regarding right or wrong because I can’t know what the truth is. I also won’t condemn people for eternity for a mistake that they have the ability to make right. I value positive contributions and will continue to do so.

Excuse my bluntness but, Jeez, what a bunch of self-absorbed know it alls are around! Maybe, try taking a break from the flame-fests on the internets for a while and do something that’s not destructive to yourself, your friends, your reputation, and your philosophical colleagues who agree with you about generally everything else except these few internal squabbles!

You do not have a grasp of enough detail to judge who is right in a personal dispute that is not your own. Neither do I. But at least I recognize it.

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