Science, Skepticism, Art and Skill

So, I’ve touched on this topic before in a previous video post, but recently I received an email from someone who is interested in learning change work but is, at the same time, held back by uncertainties… Here it is, along with my reply.


“Hi James

We had a brief discussion, via email, some time ago which essentially boiled down to trying to sift the wheat from the chaff when it comes to therapeutic (both mental and physical) interventions designed to ‘help’ people.

I’m sure you receive many emails every day so don’t expect you to remember but the conversation revolved around a sense of stuckness I was experiencing due to the lack of, or changing opinion in regards to, empirical evidence for many of the seemingly good interventions.

I know that you are an advocate of EMDR type intervention (you mention this in Create Instant Change), and I’ve been in agreement, theoretically,  in terms of how eye movement might disrupt information stored on Alan Baddeley’s proposed ‘visuo-spatical sketchpad’ information. I know there was some interest in this theory years ago and some interesting research carried out bringing Baddeley’s theory into the mix.

However, I came across the link below recently and wonder if you’ve seen it and what your thoughts are.

I’m not trying to take a challenging or undermining perspective with this , I’m just using this as an example of how the sense of stuckness and unease I feel in terms of personal development is created (i.e. invest a lot of time understanding something only for it to be possibly based on pseudoscience).

I think for me it is important to truly believe in something and be passionate about the work I do and future work I want to do, and to know that what I’m doing is not wishy washy. Does this make sense?

By the way, I very much enjoyed your ‘fundamentals of non-verbal influence’ I gained a lot from this and thanks for the link to Keith Johnstone’s Impro – I’m working my way through this…”


Hi ******

Seems like you have yourself caught in a bind! There probably isn’t much I can do to help you loosen it by email, but here are some thoughts:

Firstly, before paying too much attention to ‘skeptics’ recognise that ‘skepticism’ in this sense is pretty much akin to religion – self identifying ‘skeptics’ tend to be playing a role and dogmatically rehearsing a particular set of quite narrow perspectives. I have rarely found that those who self identify as ‘skeptics’ are even remotely skeptical with regard to their own underlying assumptions. Remember, it is possible to apply critical thinking to ANYTHING and take it apart. It is possible to frame anything up as a perverse or naive perspective. When critical thinking is taken to be a revealer of ‘truth’ we are on dangerous ground – it isn’t, it is a deconstructor of intellectual positions and all such positions can be met with Skepticism (which is a narrow attitude) and critical thinking. Sure, have skepticism, just don’t let yourself be had by it.

So, science… Is tennis scientific? You could give a sciencey description of it, and apply theories from physics to it etc. But where are the double blind trials to say tennis ‘works’? Should we run trials of tennis against football to see which one works better? (by what criteria). What about literature? What about education? When you apply a reductionist method to a complex human activity, what gets lost through that application?

I’m not saying here that science isn’t useful in helping us understand stuff, but it is a specific methodology and carries with it inevitable limitations. ‘Science’ can inform the development of a tennis player to some degree, but tennis will never be ‘science’. So, does this mean people can’t develop skill in tennis? Can’t win tennis matches?

Most of human civilisation was built in the pre-scientific era. Science is a tool of exploration and discovery, not a means for doing. In essence, changework is not science and never will be. It is art.

Secondly, be careful how you use the term ‘pseudoscience’… what specifically do you mean by that? Most clinical interventions (and medical interventions, for that matter) are NOT based on either science (as in then methodological approach) or ‘pseudoscience’ (which, as I understand it, is generally thought of as the attempt to make something unscientific appear scientific – you may be working with different definitions though).

So, what to do here? As it is possible to build studies to serve almost any agenda, most ‘science’ is probably best taken with at least a pinch (and sometimes a handful) of salt – a good dose of skepticism, you might say… or, at least, critical thinking about the experiment design, implicit and explicit biases, funding etc.

My recommendation for you here is to stop deferring to ‘science’ and start conducting your own explorations. Try things, see how they work. Build models that help you make sense of things. Try some variations, note the results. Borrow some ideas from others, implement them (adapt them if you like) see how they work. This is how human beings have developed effective skills for millennia… stretching way before the era of science. And, sure, listen to the perspectives of scientists. How can you make use of them? Just don’t let that data source eclipse you own investigations.

Also, use your skepticism to question your own assumptions about science. Science is a methodology – it is very useful but also limited and flawed (like logic is a methodology… but is only as good as the premises it is working with).

If you apply the thinking you seem to have/be doing to ANY skill set, you will pretty much guarantee that you will stop yourself from advancing in that skill set. What if, as a guitar player, I didn’t start practising because I wasn’t sure if playing with a plectrum was the way versus finger style? What if I was trying to find if ‘flamenco’ had a better evidence base than ‘classical’ instead of getting in there and working up my skills. Or as a magician whether one card control had more ‘scientific validation’ than another?

Science is the WRONG PARADIGM for developing skills and techniques. At best it can suggest and inform – nothing more!

Anyhows, I am labouring the point. I am suggesting here that it is your approach to ‘finding out’ that is keeping you from progressing, not the ambiguity of ‘facts in the world’ that you seek through science. Change your paradigm – Changework is art not science. Here’s a parallel – all of the gold medal winners at the last olympics had coaches. These coaches are artists, coaching is their art. The evidence base for each coach’s personal approach is that their clients win medals and, as such, is NOT from ‘scientific’ studies undertaken under ‘scientific’ conditions. (Though they may make use of scientific discoveries in informing their art).

My hope is that you will think about what I am saying here and begin to see another way. Is what I’m saying scientific? No. Is it pseudoscientific? No. It is my perspective based upon my own experience and exploration, and I am hoping here that it will serve you.

The only way you will know that what you are doing is not “wishy washy” is to develop solid skill through practise, experimentation and the monitoring of results. Your current way of thinking seems to be stopping you from doing that and creating a catch 22 (it keeps you from the experience and type of exploration that you need to engage in).

So… can you trust yourself to explore for yourself?

AND be a skeptic – real skeptics do their own thinking and exploration – they don’t rely on the Skeptical Enquirer, Derren Brown, James Randi or Richard Dawkins (the Prophets of Skepticism) to do it for them – not saying you do… just watch out for that if you are engaging with the skeptical community. Personally I prefer to be a rigorous, aware and flexible thinker than a ‘Skeptic’, and I would advocate that to others to.


Obviously, there is a limit to what we can achieve here together on email, so…

…to sum up:

Shift your perspective. Treat this as an art and skill set. Demote science to a useful tool among many. Do your own exploration. Find out for yourself. Be skeptical of Skeptics the ‘Skeptical Agenda’. Be skeptical of your own position – is it really that ‘accurate’? How is it serving? How is it not?

Of course, all of that is just recommendation for a fresh direction of exploration… as to what you choose to do, that is down to you.

Hope that helps!



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All the very best

James Tripp

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About The Author

James Tripp

Hypnotist and Transformative Facilitator. Creator of Hypnosis Without Trance.


  • Mick Boon

    October 14, 2014

    You are dead right about the skeptics James. The skeptic crowd defend their beliefs with a deeply religious vigor, they need to take off their blinkers.

    • James Tripp

      October 14, 2014

      Indeed… could do with being a little more skeptical about their own assumptions at least.


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