How many of our beliefs are arrived at by detailed investigation of particular claims? How many are arrived at due to our worldview's filtering system? That is, how many beliefs do we arrive at because of previous beliefs about kinds of things? I certainly don't reject astrology because I have studied it in hoary detail and have uncovered numerous specific faults and errors. The same is true for my disbelief in bigfoot, auras, astral travel, aliens kidnapping presidents, visions, etc.. If a salesman tells me that a car will get 200 miles per gallon on water, I don't feel a need to investigate the matter; yet, I form an opinion of the truth of the man's claim without study. If my neighbor tells me she is really the Queen of England in disguise, I don't believe her even though I will not bother to check out her story. If a reliable source claims in all seriousness that the emperor of Japan has been metamorphosed into a giant insect, I don't feel a need to go to Japan to see for myself. Rather, I lose all confidence in that source from the moment she spouts such obvious non-sense. I feel I am perfectly justified and am not being closedminded in any meaningful way by arriving at these beliefs without detailed investigation. The openmindedness of a critical thinker should not be confused with credulity and gullibility.
If someone tells me they have a rattlesnake for a pet, I don't necessarily doubt him, even though I might think him odd. If a lawyer tells me that there is a California law which forbids peeling an orange in hotel rooms, I won't disbelieve him just because such a law seems bizarre to me. If a physicist reports that there are four fundamental forces of nature--gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear--I don't scoff at the claim even though the claim strikes me as odd and even if I don't understand her entire explanation of the forces. That is, I don't automatically reject an idea just because it seems odd to me.
On the other hand, I don't suspend judgment on an idea just because I don't have proof that it is false. There are two things a reasonable person should consider before suspending judgment on claims they know nothing about or which strike them as odd: who is making the claim and what kind of claim is being made. A claim made by a physicist in the field of physics deserves to be treated differently than a claim made by a parapsychologist in the field of esp . Physicists talking about physics do not have a long history of fraud, self-deception, mistake, inadequate grasp of proper experimental controls or of focusing on silliness like using the mind to bend spoons, move compass needles or slide salt shakers across table tops. Though physicists know as well as paranormalists that there is more than one way to bend a spoon, they don't use that fact to support alternative and superfluous explanations to natural phenomena. And, while physicists know as well as paranormalists that the observer affects every observation, they don't use this fact to claim that when tests show a hypothesis is false it is because of the negative psychic influence of skeptics. Furthermore, when physicists can't explain something they don't use this to justify their belief in occult forces. Finally, physicists, unlike paranormalists, don't have a history of making and believing claims based mainly on the testimony of other people they like and trust. Physicists, as a general rule, don't report on a phenomenon they've discovered and then systematically restrict access to their proof first by not allowing non-believers to control the experiments with alleged psychics and secondly by claiming that the psychic has moved away and can't be found or has stopped being psychic or doesn't want to be tested any more. Imagine a physicist claiming to have discovered a new sub-atomic particle which only he and a select group of friends can observe, or who claims that all his research was top-notch and adequately controlled but that the particle can no longer be observed by anyone because it has moved on to another galaxy or has the power to disguise itself as an ordinary particle, thus frustrating any future attempts at verification.
Of course, there have been physicists who have been frauds, gullible, mistaken, dishonest, incompetent, secretive, and creative in their construction of ad hoc hypotheses to save their pet theories. There have been and still are physicists who swear by some form of psychic or occult phenomenon. This only means to the critical thinker that a claim made by a physicist in the field of physics could be false. It certainly doesn't mean that the reasonable thing to do is to reject as probably false every claim made by every physicist. That would be absurd. A critical thinker should remain openminded enough to consider claims made by physicists in the field of physics because of the claimants and the type of claim. For the same reason, a critical thinker need not be so openminded as to consider claims made by paranormalists about paranormal phenomena: because of the claimants and the type of claim.
A skeptic who investigates haunted houses or does years of research into astrology is certainly openminded. But, in my view, such openmindedness goes way beyond the call of duty that requires a critical thinker to keep an open mind. I admire such people for their dedication to the cause of truth and for their tenacity. On the other hand, I have no disrespect for the critical thinking abilities of those skeptics who consider investigating aura readers and spoon benders to be a waste of precious time. The likelihood that there will ever be any discovery by any paranormal investigator that will enhance our understanding of human nature or the human mind is close to zero. At best such research will continue to provide evidence to those who think that the human belief system is mainly constructed by wishes and delusions than by facts and evidence.
My general rule of thumb is to ask what's more likely? that this fellow is correct or that he is in error or is a fraud? For things like astral travel, or aliens kidnapping presidents, my answer is always that it is more likely the fellow is in error or a fraud. For things like rattlesnake pets or lizards with two heads, I give the fellow the benefit of the doubt. For flying horses or apparitions of the Virgin Mary, I always answer that delusion or fraud is more likely. For claims that certain bones indicate some ancient non-mammal could fly, I suspend judgment rather than reject. And so on. Why do paranormalists either use different rules or apply the same rules in different ways? All I know for sure is that the answer to that question is not to be found in examining either the intelligence or sanity of paranormalists. The evidence is in: there is not a shred of evidence that supports the hypothesis that paranormalists are not at least as intelligent and sane as skeptics. Each side has their share of the foolish and deranged and neither side seems to have a larger share. That is not so when it comes to comparing incompetence, naivete, and capacity for being deceived. The paranormalists seem to have a disproportionate share on those counts. As for fraud, well, I used to think that there was much more of it going on among the paranormalists than among the real scientists. I'm not so sure any more. Faking data to support pet hypotheses seems to know no boundary.
Baergen, Ralph. Contemporary Epistemology (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1995). $28.26
"Great Fakes of Science," in Martin Gardner, Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981), chapter 10.
"The Will to Believe" in James Randi, Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New-York: Prometheus Books,1982), chapter 10.
Sagan, Carl. Broca's Brain (New-York: Random House, 1979), pp. 53-65. $4.79