Skepticism and Negative Results in Borderline Areas of Science – 1981

Research Item – J.E. Kennedy 1981

When researchers who are skeptical of the validity of a hypothesis fail to replicate the significant results obtained by those more favorable to the hypothesis, the skeptics often explicitly or implicitly interpret the positive results as being due to some type of experimental error.

The purpose of this paper is to address the other side of the coin, the possibility that, at least sometimes, biased errors by the skeptics play a decisive role in producing their negative results and conclusions. To this end, some cases in which skeptics either carried out research or evaluated the work of others are examined for errors, and then some implications of these cases are discussed. The presentation here is not intended to be a state of the art summary of the research areas of these cases, but rather an examination of the strategy and methodology used in the examples. Before examining the cases, some background matters need to be dealt with.

Most people who consider themselves “scientific” sincerely believe that their judgments are based on objective evaluations of the evidence rather than on personal biases. This controversial (perhaps absurd, in light of recent work in the history and sociology of science—see e.g., Barber, 1961; Brush, 1974; Kuhn, 1963) view of their underlying motivations will not be specifically challenged here.

For the purpose of this discussion, the term skeptic is used to refer to those who have, for whatever reason, a strong expectation that a particular hypothesis will not be verified when objectively investigated. Those who are irrationally hostile to a phenomenon are, of course, also included within the domain of the term.

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