The Crisis of Professional Skepticism
’Tis safer to be that which we destroy,
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.
— Lady Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2
A brilliant 20th century sociologist Marcello Truzzi (1935–2003) called himself a “constructive skeptic” of paranormal phenomena.
In 1975 and again in 1978, Truzzi, a man of even temperament, refined ethics, and dedicated but authentically questioning skepticism, stated a principle — not wholly original to him — that was later popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan. Truzzi’s maxim was: “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” The widely quoted precept, redubbed the “Sagan standard,” was repeated by the televised astronomer in 1980 as: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Truzzi resigned from the professional skeptics’ organization he cofounded, Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), about a year after its 1976 launch. Truzzi protested the group’s dominance by “pseudo-skeptics” more interested in injurious behavior toward claimants of the paranormal versus actual skeptical inquiry.
“I found myself attacked by the Committee members and board, who considered me to be too soft on the paranormalists,” he later wrote. “My position was not to treat protoscientists as adversaries, but to look to the best of them and ask them for their best scientific evidence. I found that the Committee was much more interested in attacking the most publicly visible claimants…The major interest of the Committee was not inquiry but to serve as an advocacy body, a public relations group for scientific orthodoxy.”
The problem that the sociologist described has endured. In recent talks and writing I have noted the intellectual crisis of professional skepticism. “This kind of practice,” I wrote in 2022 in Daydream Believer, “in which self-perceived rationalists do injustice to truth in pursuit of what they consider a defense of rationalism, has run riot throughout the professional skeptics’ field.”