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Skeptical Ethics— What Should We Investigate?


Martin Bridgstock

Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

Skepticism has, as one of its major motivations, a deep ethical concern about the consequences of unwarranted beliefs. This ethical concern should begin with the first stage of skepticism—deciding what most needs to be investigated.

In early 2006, this magazine published a trail-blazing paper by David Koepsell, a leading secular humanist. Koepsell argued that it is time for skeptics to begin to develop their own ethical principles for investigation in the same way that scientists and other professional groups have done.

Most skeptics seem strongly aware of the ethical dimensions to their work. They regularly express horror at the sometimes disastrous consequences of paranormal belief (e.g. Levi 2006; Hoyt 2004) or disgust at the blatant falsehoods peddled by psychics and other gurus (Wiseman and Greening 1998; Nickell 2001). Occasionally, skeptics express concern at the conduct of other skeptics, arguing that they have breached ethical principles (Wendell 2006; Nickell 2006). Therefore, we need to clarify these concerns and produce a coherent set of ethical ideas.

Koepsell stresses that ethical principles have to be practical. They must provide guidance for skeptical investigators, not endless theoretical arguments about metaethics. So, he suggests, we should use case studies to develop our understanding of ethics and base skeptical ethics upon the example of ethics in science.

Having made that decision, Koepsell plunges straight into the ethics of skeptical investigation. He argues for the principles of equipoise (lack of bias), fidelity (commitment to the truth), and informed consent by the subjects of research. He also takes the view that compassion is a good guiding principle.

Koepsell’s paper is a bold attempt to stake out some new territory, but there are at least three problems with it. First, if we completely avoid big ideas about ethics—metaethics—then how do we decide what kind of ethical rules to adopt and which rules are the most important? Koepsell favors concern for truth and compassion, but these sometimes have to be balanced against each other. For example, debunking a paranormal belief may lead to truth but may also cause great distress among believers. How do we decide which is more important unless we delineate a general view of our ethical concerns?

The second problem with Koepsell’s approach is much simpler. He wants to base skeptical ethics on scientific ethics, but the contexts are quite different. Science is mostly carried out in laboratories and evaluated by other scientists. By contrast, skepticism operates in the community, where scientific rules and thought are poorly understood. Therefore, the kinds of ethical dilemmas faced are likely to be quite different. An example is evident in the widespread skeptical testing of dowsers. For the most part, dowsers appear to be amiable people who sincerely believe that they can find water by paranormal means. Groups such as the Australian Skeptics regularly subject dowsers to double-blind controlled trials, which the dowsers regularly fail (Australian Skeptics 2003). The dowsers then produce a series of incoherent explanations and continue on their way as before. In this kind of context, scientific principles may prove a very poor guide to action.

A third problem is that Koepsell seems to see ethics as beginning with the process of investigation. It need not. It can begin at a much earlier point: the selection of the topic to be investigated. In general, selecting a topic for research is not an ethical issue among scientists, but it can be a crucial matter for ethical consideration among skeptics.

A Starting Point for Skeptical Ethics

A simple place to begin skeptical ethics is with the question, “Why are people skeptics at all?” There are, of course, many answers, some of which have nothing to do with ethics (for example, skepticism is fascinating and fun), but two ethical concerns keep recurring that can provide the basis for an ethics of skepticism.

The first ethical concern is that unwarranted paranormal beliefs can lead to disastrous outcomes and cause suffering and even death to innocent people. There are many examples of this. James Randi argued that Jim Jones had such a strong grip on the minds of his followers in part because they believed he could perform miracles (Randi 1980). This enabled Jones to lead them to an orgy of murder and self-destruction. Skeptics often point to cases in the news where children have suffered or died because of their parents’ preferences for “alternative” forms of treatment (e.g., Hyde 2001). It is clear that a major source of ethical concern among skeptics is the understanding that poorly evidenced beliefs can lead to disastrous outcomes.

The second major ethical concern was argued in the founding days of CSICOP (now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER). During the 1970s, there was a great flowering of alternative lifestyles and beliefs, many with a distinctly paranormal flavor. The founders of the modern skeptical movement have repeatedly written of their concern about these developments and their fear that public understanding of science is so poor that perhaps the very operation of science might be threatened by these new beliefs. This seems to have been one of the key reasons for founding CSICOP. For example, Paul Kurtz writes that in the 1970s, “I was distressed that my students confused astrology with astronomy, accepted pyramid power, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, Kirlian photography, and psychic surgery without benefit of a scientific critique” (2001). Later in the same paper, Kurtz explains why science itself cannot perform this educational function: “science has become overspecialized . . . [which is] one reason why the scientific outlook is continuously undermined by antiscience and pseudoscience. . . . [S]pecialists in one field may not necessarily be competent to judge claims in others. . . .”

Partly for this reason, Kurtz believes that skepticism has a major role to play in a modern society which is largely ignorant of the true value and nature of scientific inquiry.

Echoes from Other Thinkers

It seems clear that these two ethical concerns—the disastrous effects of unwarranted beliefs and the danger of widespread ignorance of science—form the basis of much skeptical thought. They are not new concerns. Martin Gardner, in his seminal work Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Gardner 1957, 6, 186–87), outlined both. Back in the nineteenth century, mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford, advocating an “ethics of belief,” argued that believing without adequate evidence is “always, everywhere and at all times wrong.” He gave two reasons. First, believing without adequate evidence was likely to lead to disasters and, second, holding unwarranted beliefs makes us more gullible and less able to distinguish truth from falsehood in the future (Clifford 1879). Clifford’s arguments went into eclipse for about a century but now appear to be enjoying a minor revival (Zamulinski 2002). It seems clear that skeptics have been concerned about the dual consequences of inadequately supported belief for a long time.

There are other ethical concerns that skeptics sometimes present. For example, in 2004, astronomer Philip Plait addressed the Australian Skeptics’ convention in Sydney, Australia. He resoundingly refuted the claims that the Apollo missions were hoaxes and told of how distressed he had felt when he learned of these accusations (see also, Plait 2002, 173). The Apollo moon missions were a staggering feat of technology and organization, and the courage of the astronauts is beyond doubt. The “Apollo Moon Hoax” claimants are seeking to deny NASA and the astronauts their rightful acclaim. Plait’s outrage is both understandable and illustrates a different type of ethical concern over the injustice to NASA and the astronauts. Still, the most widespread ethical concerns are the two explained above: that unwarranted belief can lead to appalling suffering and can endanger our best methods of understanding the universe.

Developing an Ethics of Skepticism

The next step may seem obvious, but it is important. We should acknowledge that there are degrees of injustice among ethically or morally wrong acts. Some are usually worse than others. For example, consider criminal acts. Most of us would agree that shoplifting is a less serious crime than armed robbery. Armed robbery, in turn, is a less serious crime than murder. We could draw up a list of crimes in order of their seriousness. Though there would be some variation from person to person, it is likely that our rankings would be fairly similar overall.

In the same way, skeptics would probably agree that some paranormal beliefs are more dangerous than others. Holding certain paranormal beliefs is most likely to result in disaster and the suffering of innocent people. Holding others is most likely to endanger a general understanding of science and logical methods of reasoning. This distinction is important, as it gives us the basis for an ethics of skepticism.1

The basis for an ethics of skepticism then follows from a simple question. Which paranormal beliefs most merit investigation? We all know that huge majorities of people in western societies subscribe to paranormal beliefs. Skeptics are greatly outnumbered. Therefore, it seems logical that the most skeptical attention should be devoted to those paranormal claims which are regarded as the most dangerous. It is here that the most impact can be made, either in terms of relieving suffering or in terms of protecting the rational basis of modern science. Koepsell’s ethical approach is set within the process of investigation and so neglects this crucial ethical question.

What should the priorities be? Which paranormal claims seem to merit investigation using these ethical criteria? I hope that my fellow skeptics will have thoughts on this. I offer my own as a contribution to the discussion.

Judging by reports in the news, two types of belief seem to be most dangerous and cause the most suffering. One type is belief in modern alternative medicine, which claims to be a valid substitute for mainstream treatment. Again and again, one hears of children whose parents have rejected mainstream medicine—with which the prognosis was good—and opted for alternative “cures” that have not worked (Hyde 2001; Stickley 2002). It is horrific to learn of children dying of cancer and malnutrition because their parents could not distinguish well-evidenced from poorly evidenced claims about health. Clearly, the more skeptical work that can be done here, the better.

The second area where paranormal beliefs seem to cause great suffering is in the area of psychic counseling. As Goode has pointed out, people visiting a clairvoyant or psychic are likely to be troubled and vulnerable. Many psychic practitioners are probably compassionate and ethical. On the other hand, it is disconcerting that when four London psychics were presented with a vulnerable, distressed woman (in reality an actor), they all proposed highly expensive additional psychic remedies. They did not suggest counseling or medical help but began pushing their own high-priced measures (Wiseman and Greening 1998). The case of the young woman in Texas who found herself owing $21,000 to a psychic is another example (Davis 2005). Perhaps the worst is the case in Australia of a young woman who became addicted to “psychic hotlines” and ran up bills of $80,000 Australian (about $65,000 u.s.). She resorted to crime to pay for her addiction, thus spreading the misery further (Australian Skeptics 2007, 6).

Unwarranted belief in these two areas is causing a good deal of human suffering, and strong skeptical intervention—investigating the claims and publicizing the results—would probably be beneficial. What about the second dimension, however? Are there paranormal beliefs that endanger the very basis of modern rational and scientific thought? By implication, virtually all paranormal belief attacks rationality, but one or two appear to be especially dangerous.

In western countries—particularly the United States—there is a system of paranormal belief that actively and explicitly seeks to undercut the basis of modern science. Its most recent guises of creation science and intelligent design seek to subordinate scientific inquiry to a particular set of religious beliefs. In my own state of Queensland, Australia, the creationists were at one time extremely powerful and on the verge of having their dogmas forced into school science lessons. It is therefore quite alarming to find in the founding legal documents of the Creation Science Foundation of Queensland, Australia, these statements:

The scientific aspects of Creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Sovereign Creator of the universe and Redeemer of mankind. . . . The Bible is the written Word of God. . . . Its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all the original autographs. . . .The account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life. (Bridgstock 1986, 81; emphasis added)

Similar commitments can be found in many creationist organizations. It also became clear during the recent Pennsylvania court case that the “intelligent design” movement is simply creationism in disguise (Forrest and Gross 2004). Quite explicitly, the goal of the creation scientists and their supporters is to alter the very basis of science and force it to conform to their religious opinions. Additionally, this approach has immense political backing—perhaps by a majority of the population in some countries—and an apparently endless determination to corrupt the teaching of science in favor of the imposition of its own dogmas. Despite repeated defeats and setbacks—the Overton and Jones rulings (1988 and 2006, respectively), defeat in the United States Supreme Court (Shermer 1991), and defeat in Australia (Bridgstock 1995)—the fundamentalists’ determination apparently remains undiminished. According to the British magazine New Scientist, they are now seeking to establish an ostensibly “scientific” record of research that may convince a future judge that their claims are not pseudoscience (Biever 2006).

Given its massive backing, its charter to corrupt the basic nature of science, and the relentless determination of its proponents, it seems clear that the creationist movement—however it is disguised—must be regarded as a major danger to science and the basic functions of a rational democratic society. It clearly merits strong skeptical awareness and, where necessary, intervention.

Some Limits to the Argument

So far, the theme of this argument has been simple. Skeptics are primarily concerned with the great danger that paranormal and other unwarranted beliefs pose to humanity in threatening the very basis of rationality, especially the functionality of science. If we accept that some beliefs are more dangerous in these respects than others, then it seems clear that skeptics should ensure that priority is given to analyzing those claims that are the most dangerous.

This should not be taken as an argument that all skeptics should devote their efforts to only these areas. As Clifford argues (1879), all unwarranted beliefs have the potential to damage our critical faculties. In addition, it would be absurd for, say, skeptical linguists or historians to abandon their own fields of expertise and feel obliged to enter others about which they know little. There is plenty to be done in their own areas. However, all skeptics should be aware that some beliefs are extremely dangerous, in both the senses outlined above, and we should see to it that they are critically examined by skeptical investigation.

A second important point is that the argument does not suggest that science is the only form of knowledge. All it implies is that science—and rational-critical thought in general—is invaluable to humanity, and should be safeguarded if threatened by any form of irrationality or faith-based pseudoscience. We do not need to endorse the view that science is always right—it isn’t—and we certainly should not put science on any kind of pedestal. It is simply an extremely valuable form of human activity which, judging by history, can easily be crippled or destroyed.

A third point is that that the falsity of claims about alternative medicines and creationism cannot automatically be assumed. Skepticism is committed to the investigation of paranormal claims. As Koepsell said very clearly, the goal of skepticism is to find the truth. It is very likely that most claims made for the value of alternative medicines are false, and that the evidence produced for intelligent design or creationism is deeply flawed. However, this does not justify dismissing such claims without adequate testing and checking. Being skeptical means preserving an open mind and being prepared to look at new claims and evaluate new evidence. If we fail to do this, then we are falling into the same trap as the fundamentalists, and we deserve to be evaluated even more harshly since we should know better.


  1. Philosophically minded skeptics will immediately identify this approach as belonging to consequentialist ethics. There are many schools of consequentialism and many other approaches to ethics. However, this one appears the most straightforward, yielding useful results very quickly.


Martin Bridgstock

Martin Bridgstock is a senior lecturer in the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. He is a scientific and technical consultant to CSI and in 2006 was awarded the Australian Skeptics’ prize for critical thinking.