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Sceptics using unfair arguments? Surely not!
Published in The Skeptic, Volume 16, Issue 3 (2003)

David W Owens advises his fellow believers on how to avoid being bamboozled by their devious opponents …


DO YOU EVER get into an argument with a sceptic only to end up exasperated and feeling you’ve been bamboozled? Sceptics are often highly skilled at tying up opponents in clever verbal knots. Most sceptics are, of course, ordinary, more-or-less honest people who, like the rest of us, are just trying to make the best sense they can of a complicated and often confusing world. Others, however, are merely glib sophists who use specious reasoning to defend their prejudices or attack the ideas and beliefs of others, and even an honest sceptic can innocently fall into the mistake of employing bad reasoning.

In reading, listening to, and sometimes debating with sceptics over the years, I have found certain tricks, ploys and gimmicks which they tend to use over and over again. Here are some of them. Perhaps if you keep them in mind when arguing with a sceptic, you’ll feel better when the debate is over. Shucks, you might even score a point or two.

Raising the bar (or impossible perfection)
This trick consists of demanding a new, higher an more difficult standard of evidence whenever it looks  if a sceptic’s opponent is going to satisfy an old on Often the sceptic doesn’t make it clear exactly what the standards are in the first place. This can be especially effective if the sceptic can keep his opponent fro noticing that he is continually changing his standard evidence. That way, his opponent will eventually give up in exasperation or disgust. Perhaps best of all, if his opponent complains, the sceptic can tag him as whiner or a bad loser.

Sceptic (S): I am willing to consider the psi hypothesis if you will show me some sound evidence.
Opponent (O): There are many thousands of documented reports of incidents that seem to involve psi.
S: That is only anecdotal evidence.  You must give me laboratory evidence.
O: Researchers A–Z have conducted experiments that produced results which favour the psi hypothesis.
S: Those experiments are not acceptable because of flaws X, Y, and Z.
O: Researchers B–H and T–W have conducted experiments producing positive results which did not have flaws X, Y, and Z.
S: The positive results are not far enough above chance levels to be truly interesting.
O: Researchers C–F and U–V produced results well above chance levels.
S: Their results were achieved through meta-analysis, which is a highly questionable technique.
O:  Meta-analysis is a well-accepted method commonly used in psychology and sociology.
S:  Psychology and sociology are social sciences, and their methods can’t be considered as reliable as those of hard sciences such as physics and chemistry. Etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Sock ‘em with Occam
Sceptics frequently invoke Occam’s Razor as if the Razor automatically validates their position. Occam’s Razor, a principle of epistemology (knowledge theory), states that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is to be preferred – or, to state it another way, entities are not to be multiplied needlessly. The Razor is a useful and even necessary principle, but it is largely useless if the facts themselves are not generally agreed upon in the first place.

Extraordinary claims
Extraordinary claims, says the sceptic, require extraordinary evidence. Superficially this seems reasonable enough. However, extraordinariness, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Some claims, of course, would seem extraordinary to almost anyone (e.g. the claim that aliens from Alpha Centauri had contacted you telepathically and informed you that the people of Earth must make you their absolute lord and ruler). The ‘extraordinariness’ of many other claims, however, is at best arguable, and it is not at all obvious that unusually strong evidence is necessary to support them. For example, so many people who would ordinarily be considered reliable witnesses have reported precognitive dreams that it becomes difficult to insist these are ‘unusual’ claims requiring ‘unusual’ evidence. Quite ordinary standards of evidence will do

Stupid, crazy liars
This trick consists of simple slander. Anyone who reports anything which displeases the sceptic will be accused of incompetence, mental illness or dishonesty, or some combination of the three, without a single shred of fact to support the accusations.  When Charles Honorton’s ganzfeld experiments produced impressive results in favour of the psi hypothesis, sceptics accused him of suppressing or not publishing the results of failed experiments. No definite facts supporting the charge ever emerged. Moreover, the experiments were extremely time-consuming, and the number of failed, unpublished experiments necessary to make the number of successful, published experiments significant would have been quite high, so it is extremely unlikely that Honorton’s results could have been due to selective reporting. Yet sceptics still sometimes repeat this accusation.

The Santa Claus gambit
This trick consists of lumping moderate claims or propositions together with extreme ones. If you suggest, for example, that Sasquatch can’t be completely ruled out from the available evidence, the sceptic will then facetiously suggest that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny can’ t be ‘completely’ ruled out either.

Shifting the burden of evidence
The sceptic insists that he doesn’t have to provide evidence and arguments to support his side of the argument because he isn’t asserting a claim, he is merely denying or doubting yours. His mistake consists of assuming that a negative claim (asserting that something doesn’t exist) is fundamentally different from a positive claim. It isn’t. Any definite claim, positive or negative, requires definite sup- port. Merely refuting or arguing against an opponent’s position is not enough to establish one’s own position. In other words, you can’t win by default.

As arch-sceptic Carl Sagan himself said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If someone wants to rule out visitations by extra-terrestrial (ET) aliens, it would not be enough to point out that all the evidence presented so far is either seriously flawed or not very strong. It would be necessary to state definite reasons which would make ET visitations either impossible or highly unlikely. (He might, for example, point out that our best understanding of physics pretty much rules out any kind of effective faster-than-light drive.)

The only person exempt from providing definite support is the person who takes a strict ‘I don’t know’ position, or the agnostic position. If someone takes the position that the evidence in favour of ET visitations is inadequate but goes no further, he is exempt from further argument (provided, of course, he gives adequate reasons for rejecting the evidence). However, if he wants to go further and insist that it is impossible or highly unlikely that ETs are visiting or have ever visited the Earth, it becomes necessary for him to provide definite reasons for his position. He is no longer entitled merely to argue against his opponent’s position.

There is the question of honesty. Someone who claims to take the agnostic position but really takes the position of definite disbelief is, of course, misrepresenting his views. For example, a sceptic who insists that he merely believes the psi hypothesis is inadequately supported when in fact he believes that the human mind can only acquire information through the physical senses is simply not being honest.

You can’t prove a negative
The sceptic may insist that he is relieved of the burden of evidence and argument because “you can’t prove a negative”. But you most certainly can prove a negative! When we know one thing to be true, then we also know that whatever flatly contradicts it is untrue. If I want to show that my cat is not in the bedroom, I can prove this by showing that my cat is in the kitchen or outside chasing squirrels. The negative has thus been proved. Or the proposition that the cat is not in the bedroom could be proved by giving the bedroom a good search without finding the cat. The sceptic who says, “Of course I can’t prove psi doesn’t exist. I don’t have to. You can’t prove a negative”, is simply wrong. To rule something out, definite reasons must be given for ruling it out.

Of course, for practical reasons it often isn’t possible to gather the necessary information to prove or disprove a proposition, e.g. it isn’t possible to search the entire universe to prove that no intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. This by itself doesn’t mean that a case can’t be made against the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, although it does probably mean that the case can’t be as air-tight and conclusive as we would like.

The Big Lie
The sceptic knows that most people will not have the time or inclination to check every claim he makes, so he knows it’s a fairly small risk to tell a whopper. He might, for example, insist that none of the laboratory evidence for psi stands up to close scrutiny, or he might insist there have been no cases of UFOs being spotted by reliable observers such as trained military personnel when in fact there are well-documented cases. The average person isn’t going to scamper right down to the library to verify this, so the sceptic knows a lot of people are going to accept his statement at face value. This ploy works best when the Big Lie is repeated often and loudly in a confident tone.

Doubt casting
This trick consists of dwelling on minor or trivial flaws in the evidence, or presenting speculations as to how the evidence might be flawed, as though mere speculation is somehow as damning as actual facts. The assumption here is that any flaw, trivial or even merely speculative, is necessarily fatal and provides sufficient grounds for throwing out the evidence. The sceptic often justifies this with the ‘extraordinary evidence’ ploy.

In the real world, of course, the evidence for anything is seldom 100% flawless and foolproof. It is almost always possible to find some small shortcoming which can be used as an excuse for tossing out the evidence. If a definite problem can’t be found, then the sceptic may simply spec- ulate as to how the evidence might be flawed and use his speculations as an excuse to discard the information. For example, the sceptic might point out that the safeguards or controls during one part of a psi experiment weren’t quite as tight as they might have been and then insist, without any supporting facts, that the subject(s) and/or the researcher(s) probably cheated because this is the ‘simplest’ explanation for the results (see “Sock ‘em with Occam” and “Extraordinary claims”; “Raising the bar” is also relevant).

The Sneer
This gimmick is an inversion of “Stupid, crazy liars”. In “Stupid, crazy liars”, the sceptic attacks the character of those advocating certain ideas or presenting information in the hope of discrediting the information. In “The Sneer”, the sceptic attempts to attach a stigma to some idea or claim and implies that anyone advocating that position must have something terribly wrong with him. “Anyone who believes we’ve been visited by extraterresrial aliens must be a lunatic, a fool, or a con man. If you believe this, you must a maniac, a simpleton or a fraud.” The object here is to scare others away from a certain position without having to discuss facts.

To be fair, some of these tricks or tactics (such as “The Big Lie”, “Doubt casting”, and “The Sneer”) are often used by believers as well as sceptics. Scientific creationists and holocaust revisionists, for example, are particularly prone to use “Doubt casting”. Others’ ploys, however, such as “Sock ’em with Occam” and “Extraordinary claims”, are generally used by sceptics and seldom by others.

Unfortunately, effective debating tactics often involve bad logic, e.g. attacking an opponent’s character, appeals to emotion, mockery and facetiousness, loaded definitions, etc. And certainly sceptics are not the only ones who are ever guilty of using manipulative and deceptive debating tactics. Even so, sceptics are just as likely as anyone else to twist their language, logic and facts to win an argument, and keeping these tricks in mind when dealing with sceptics may very well keep you from being bamboozled.


David W Owens is a native Georgian whose family came to Georgia well before the Civil War. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and works for the state Department of Transportation.

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