Proper Criticism by Ray Hyman Since the founding of CSICOP in 1976, and with the growing n
by Ray Hyman
Since the founding of CSICOP in 1976, and with the growing number of
localized skeptical groups, the skeptic finds more ways to state his
or her case. The broadcast and print media, along with other forums,
provide more opportunities for us to be heard. For some of these
occasions, we have the luxury of carefully planning and crafting our
response, but most of the time we have to formulate our response on
the spot. Regardless of the circumstance, the critic's task, if it is
to be carried out properly, is both challenging and loaded with
Many well-intentioned critics have jumped into the fray without
carefully thinking through the various implications of their
statements. They have sometimes displayed more emotion than logic,
made sweeping charges beyond what they reasonably support, failed to
adequately document their assertions, and, in general, have failed to
do the homework necessary to make their challenges credible.
Such ill-considered criticism can be counter-productive for the cause
of serious skepticism. The author of such criticism may fail to
achieve the desired effect, may lose credibility, and may even become
vulnerable to lawsuits. However, the unfavorable effects have
consequences beyond the individual critic, and the entire cause of
skepticism suffers as a result. Even when the individual critic takes
pains to assert that he or she is expressing his or her own personal
opinion, the public associates the assertions with all critics.
During CSICOP's first decade of existence, members of the Executive
Council often found themselves devoting most of their available time
to damage control - precipitated by the careless remarks of a fellow
skeptic - instead of toward the common cause of explaining the
Unfortunately, at this time, there are no courses on the proper way to
criticize paranormal claims. So far as I know, no manuals or books of
rules are currently available to guide us. Until such courses and
guide books come into being, what can we do to ensure that our
criticisms are both effective and responsible?
I would be irresponsible if I told you I had an easy solution. The
problem is complicated, and there are no quick fixes, but I do believe
we all could improve our contributions to responsible criticism by
keeping a few principles always in mind.
We can make enormous improvements in our collective and individual
efforts by simply trying to adhere to those standards that we profess
to admire and that we believe that many peddlers of the paranormal
violate. If we envision ourselves as the champions of rationality,
science, and objectivity, then we ought to display these very same
qualities in our criticism. Just by trying to speak and write in the
spirit of precision, science, logic, and rationality - those
attributes we supposedly admire - we would raise the quality of our
critiques by at least one order of magnitude.
The failure to consistently live up to these standards exposes us to a
number of hazards. We can find ourselves going beyond the facts at
hand. We may fail to communicate exactly what we intended. We can
confuse the public as to what skeptics are trying to achieve. We can
unwittingly put paranormal proponents in the position of underdogs and
create sympathy for them, and, as I already mentioned, we can make the
task much more difficult for the other skeptics.
What, then, can skeptics do to upgrade the quality of their criticism?
What follows are just a few suggestions. I hope they will stimulate
further thought and discussion.
1. Be prepared. Good criticism is a skill that requires practice,
work, and level-headedness. Your response to a sudden challenge is
much more likely to be appropriate if you have already anticipated
similar challenges. Try to prepare in advance effective and short
answers to those questions you are most likely to be asked. Be ready
to answer why skeptical activity is important, why people should
listen to your views, why false beliefs can be harmful, and many
similar questions that invariably are raised. A useful project would
be to compile a list of the most frequently occurring questions along
with possible answers.
Whenever possible, try your ideas out on friends and "enemies" before
offering them in the public arena. An effective exercise is to
rehearse your arguments with fellow skeptics. Some of you can take
the role of the psychic claimants, while others play the role of
critics. Also, for more general preparation, read books on critical
thinking, effective writing, and argumentation.
2. Clarify your objectives. Before you try to cope with a paranormal
claim, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying
to release pent-up resentment? Are you trying to belittle your
opponent? Are you trying to gain publicity for your viewpoint? Do
you want to demonstrate that the claim lacks reasonable justification?
Do you hope to educate the public about what constitutes adequate
evidence? Often our objectives, upon examination, turn out to be
mixed. Also, especially when we act impulsively, some of our
objectives conflict with one another.
The difference between short-term and long-term objectives can be
especially important. Most skeptics, I believe, would agree that our
long-term goal is to educate the public so that it can more
effectively cope with various claims. Sometimes this long-range goal
is sacrificed because of the desire to expose or debunk a current
Part of clarifying our objectives is to decide who our audience is.
Hard-nosed, strident attacks on paranormal claims rarely change
opinions, but they do stroke the egos of those who are already
skeptics. Arguments that may persuade the readers of the National
Enquirer may offend academics and important opinion-makers.
Try to make it clear that you are attacking the claim and not the
claimant. Avoid, at all costs, creating the impression that you are
trying to interfere with someone's civil liberties. Do not try to get
someone fired from his or her job. Do not try to have courses dropped
or otherwise be put in the position of advocating censorship. Being
for rationality and reason should not force us into the position of
seeming to be against academic freedom and civil liberties.
3. Do your homework. Again, this goes hand in hand with the advice
about being prepared. Whenever possible, you should not try to
counter a specific paranormal claim without getting as many of the
relevant facts as possible. Along the way, you should carefully
document your sources. Do not depend upon a report in the media
either for what is being claimed or for facts relevant to that claim.
Try to get the specifics of the claim directly from the claimant.
4. Do not go beyond your level of competence. No one, especially in
our times, can credibly claim to be an expert in all subjects.
Whenever possible, you should consult appropriate experts. We,
understandably, are highly critical of paranormal claimants who make
assertions that are obviously beyond their competence. We should be
just as demanding on ourselves. A critic's worst sin is to go beyond
the facts and the available evidence.
In this regard, always ask yourself if you really have something to
say. Sometimes it is better to remain silent than to jump into an
argument that involves aspects that are beyond your present
competence. When it is appropriate, do not be afraid to say "I don't
5. Let the facts speak for themselves. If you have done your
homework and have collected an adequate supply of facts, the audience
rarely will need your help in reaching an appropriate conclusion.
Indeed, your case is made stronger if the audience is allowed to draw
its own conclusions from the facts. Say that Madame X claims to have
psychically located Mrs. A's missing daughter and you have obtained a
statement from the police to the effect that her contributions did not
help. Under these circumstances, it can be counter-productive to
assert that Madame X lied about her contribution, or that her claim
was "fraudulent." For one thing, Madame X may sincerely, if
mistakenly, believe that her contributions did in fact help. In
addition, some listeners may be offended by the tone of your criticism
and become sympathetic to Madame X. However, if you simply report
what Madame X claimed, along with the response of the police, you not
only are sticking to the facts, but your list eners will more likely
come to the appropriate conclusion.
6. Be precise. Good criticism requires precision and care in the use
of language. Because, in challenging psychic claims, we are appealing
to objectivity and fairness, we have a special obligation to be as
honest and accurate in our own statements as possible. We should take
special pains to avoid making assertions about paranormal claims that
cannot be backed up with hard evidence. We should be especially
careful, in this regard, when being interviewed by the media. Every
effort should be made to ensure that the media understand precisely
what we are and are not saying.
7. Use the principle of charity. I know that many of my fellow
critics will find this principle to be unpalatable. To some,
paranormalists are the "enemy," and it seems inconsistent to lean over
backward to give them the benefit of the doubt, but being charitable
to paranormal claims is simply the other side of being honest and
fair. The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt
or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the
ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for
not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish
between being wrong and being dishonest. We often challenge the
accuracy or the validity of a given paranormal claim, but rarely are
we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is
self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret
or represent an opponent's arguments. The principle tells us to
convey the opponent's position in a fa ir, objective, and
8. Avoid loaded words and sensationalism. All these principles are
interrelated. The ones previously stated imply that we should avoid
using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms. We should also
try to avoid sensationalism. If the proponents happen to resort to
emotionally laden terms and sensationalism, we should avoid stooping
to their level. We should not respond in kind.
This is not a matter of simply turning the other cheek. We want to
gain credibility for our cause. In the short run, emotional charges
and sensationalistic challenges might garner quick publicity, but most
of us see our mission as a long-term effort. We would like to persuade
the media and the public that we have a serious and important message
to get across, and we would like to earn their trust as a credible and
reliable resource. Such a task requires always keeping in mind the
scientific principles and standards of rationality and integrity that
we would like to make universal.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank