Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Convincing Evidence and Moving Goal Posts

I have updated my web page on Skeptical Fallacies
to include several new sections within About Skeptical Thinking:

Evidence Will not Convince a Pseudo-skeptic

There is a fundamental difficulty in convincing people to change their minds by presenting them with evidence. The difficulty is that the level of proof people require for giving up a strongly held belief is much more rigorous than the level of proof they require for holding on to a pre-existing belief. In order for someone to change their mind about a strongly held belief, they require absolute, 100%, ironclad proof and sometimes even that is not sufficient because in order to maintain a strongly held belief in the face of contradictory evidence, people only require a tenuous hypothesis to explain away the evidence. This is human nature. It is the real meaning behind the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". That phrase is not about the scientific method, it is about human psychology. This is why, for a pseudo-skeptic, it is so easy to fall back on the last bastions of skepticism, claiming the researchers are committing fraud, they are incompetent, or they are victims of deception in order to explain the researcher's observations of paranormal phenomena.

Moving the Goal Post

When trying to provide evidence to convince pseudo-skeptics, believers in paranormal phenomena often observe that the skeptics keep moving the goal post. For example, after a parapsychologist improves an experimental design and repeats an experiment in response to a criticism of a skeptic, the skeptic always seems to come up with a new objection. This can be easily understood if one considers why skeptics raise objections to evidence. When skeptics raise objections to evidence, it is not because they would actually believe the evidence if you satisfied their objection. Skeptics raise objections because they don't want the phenomenon to be proven. They raise objections to maintain their disbelief. That is why if you satisfy their objections, they will not change their minds and give up their disbelief, they will just come up with another objection to allow them to maintain their disbelief.

This is why it can be pointless to discuss the evidence with a pseudo-skeptic or to let a pseudo-skeptic dictate what evidence you should obtain. They are not sincerely interested in evidence, they are interested in maintaining their prejudice and they will invent as many new hypothetical problems with the evidence as necessary. Any hypothesis that supports his world view no matter how tenuous will be preferable to a to a pseudo-skeptic than any non materialist explanation no matter how much evidence there is supporting it. Repeated observations and repeatable experiments haven't convinced skeptics. Statements by Nobel prize winning scientists who were convinced by evidence hasn't convinced skeptics. When pushed to the limit, the skeptic always has recourse to the last bastions of skepticism: accusations of fraud, incompetence, and self-delusion.

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