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Monday, 2 March 2009

Pseudoscepticism and Pseudo-History

When I was researching "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" a key issue I wanted to address was pseudo-history. There was a huge amount of Chinese whispers, urban legends and exagerrated and mixed up accounts to cut through to get to the truth relating to these two famous elephants. Pseudo-history, like the better recognized pseudoscience, is an unhistorical way to look at history. I have covered conspiracy theories in two of my previous posts on here. First in my interview with Dr. Heather Vallance and later in my short report on the psychology of conspiracists. They are perhaps the most easily recognizable and prolific form of pseudo-history. However, there is also unintentional faction and pulp non-fiction. Both of these were covered in my article "Myths, Faction and Pulp Non-Fiction". All of this type of think goes off on a confirmation bias rather than following the sage advice uttered by A.C. Doyle's fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes, in "The Adventure of the Reigate Squires": "Now, I make a point of never having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me".

Recently the news has featured a member of the Catholic clergy who was criticized for his views on Holocaust Denial. Bishop Richard Williamson, who according to the Times news paper is a member of an "ultraconservative sect" of the Catholic Church, had his excommunication lifted in January this year, but immediately ran in to problems due the views he expressed on a Swedish TV show. He issued a public apology on 26 February, but few people were happy with its tone. Williamson apologized for upsetting anyone, but he didn't indicate he had changed his views. There is now more talk about him being prosecuted in Germany where it is apparently an offence to deny the holocaust:

Holocaust Denial is, of course, another example of pseudo-history. There is also a conspiracy theory believed by many "Holocaust Revisionists". Understandably it is a very offensive "theory" to those who lost their relatives to the holocaust. It is also hard to see any other link to holocaust denial and especially those who believe in the "Jewish Consipiracy" than anti-semetism. It is for these reasons that many see Holocaust Denial as a hate crime. Unfortunately I fear, taking the view that you should be arrested for propagating bad history will only help strengthen the con-theos rather ridiculous case. For more on holocaust denial I would

'CoverCover via Amazon

recommend you read Michael Shermer's chapter on the subject in his "Why People Believe Weird Things" book or his collaborative work "Denying History", which focuses on the whole argument. Here are some worthy reviews of the latter work As a side point and in the interests of keeping matter objectiv, there is also an interesting critique of Shermer's argument that doesn't support holocaust denial in anyway, but nevertheless pulls the author up on supposed logical fallacies gives an example of what makes history and science the best known methods for establishing fact: they are always up for review and objective criticism, and good historians and scientist welcome such challenges in the interests of further knowledge and understanding.

Holocaust denial is also an example of pseudoscepticism (pseudoskepticism). This is a term coined by Marcello Truzzi.

Marcello TruzziImage via Wikipedia

Truzzi succinctly put what he meant by pseudoscepticism in the following paragraph taken from a 1987 piece he wrote called "On Pseudo-Skepticism" in the "Zetetic Scholar" journal:

"In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new 'fact.' Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of 'conventional science' as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis --saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact--he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof".

Very often con-theos are pseudosceptics by design. They start with a preconceived conclusion and then progress with a confirmation bias. Such an approach means that they are prone to nitpick for details they feel contradict the established view and support their own. Often in the recording martial arts and circus history I have noticed that too much has been provided by anecdotal evidence and, worse still, qualified by the appeal to authority logical fallacy argument. This is why I don't like to see any historical figure to be presented in a saintly or devilish light. I want "warts 'n all" accounts so that I can humanize the figure and get closer to the truth.

A pseudosceptic can also be a cynic. They can take the position of doubt

:de:en:Image:RANDI.Image via Wikipedia

without even hearing the case, which is not good history or science. The position of the good sceptic is to say "that sounds like a really interesting idea. Please prove it". The good sceptic/scientist/historian has to also ask himself as well as the person he is in conflict with: "Is there anything that woudl make you change your stance?" It's an argument put forward by the famous sceptic and magician James Randi. It's a wonderful starting point. If you or your debater says there is nothing that could be provided that would change their point of view then the argument is already over.
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