Normally I'm reluctant to engage in psychologizing. It's impolite to presume knowledge of other people's subconscious minds and to infer motivations that are supposedly hidden even from the persons under consideration. Besides, psychologizing is a double-edged sword; the people we're analyzing can always come back with none-too-flattering assertions about our own subconscious motivations. As a debating tactic, a way of scoring points, psychologizing is both counterproductive and unfair.
Still, there are some disagreements where the psychology of the participants plays such a large role that it simply must be acknowledged. To pretend it's not a factor is dishonest. The never-ending debate between proponents of psi and Skeptics is one such case.
I've observed Skeptics in many forums over many years. (Note the capital S, denoting militant debunkers, a nomenclature proposed by Roger Knights. I'm not talking about casual scoffers or people who are genuinely undecided.) My impression is that Skeptics, in general, are characterized by an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance — as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.
The relevant portion of the definition in the first paragraph is: "... or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values."
No one has a monopoly on this kind of mental stress. All of us are uncomfortable when our cherished beliefs and preconceptions are challenged by a contrary opinion or a troubling factual claim. All of us are prone to cognitive dissonance to some extent. But Skeptics, I believe, typically carry this mindset to the nth degree. They are supersensitive to the discomfort, stress, and — yes — pain of having their worldview challenged.
When such a Skeptic is presented with evidence of the paranormal, he finds it deeply upsetting. He does not see it as a mildly annoying paradox or a funny, quirky story suitable for cocktail party conversation. He feels that it is an existential threat — a threat to the integrity of his ego, and therefore to his sense of self.
This is why Skeptics are stridently hostile to parapsychology research. They cheer when a parapsychology lab closes. They insist that parapsychology papers be excluded from peer-reviewed journals, on principle. They agitate to have parapsychology, as a field, ousted from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If they were really interested in getting to the truth, they would want more research, more discussion, more openness. If parapsychology is a scam, why not expose it by making it as public as possible? But they want to shut it out of polite discussion or shut down the enterprise altogether. This makes sense only if they are motivated by a secret fear that parapsychology will prove them wrong (as, in my opinion, it already has).
A clear example of this psychology was on display in a public debate between Rupert Sheldrake and Lewis Wolpert. Sheldrake screened a short video about experiments involving a parrot who (unlikely as it may sound) seemed to exhibit telepathy. He saw that Wolpert had turned away and was refusing to watch. Later in the debate he pointed this out:
Well, I noticed that when the parrot film was showing, Lewis wasn't looking at it! That film was shown on television and in [an] early stage of our investigations, he did the same then. They asked a sceptic to commentate. Lewis appeared on the screen and he said, Telepathy is just junk; there is no evidence whatsoever for any personal, animal or thing being telepathic. The filmmakers were surprised that he hadn't actually asked to see the evidence before he commented on it, and I think, this is rather like the Cardinal Bellarmine and people not wanting to look through Galileo's Telescope. I think we have a level here of just not wanting to know, which is not real science. I'm sorry to have to say it, Lewis.
Some people would see Wolpert's refusal to watch as stubbornness or closed-mindedness, or as a debating tactic, but I think aversion to cognitive dissonance is likely to be the deeper explanation. It would have been almost physically painful for him to pay attention to a video that so directly challenged his beliefs. Instead he acted like a child who claps his hands over his ears and sings "La la la!" rather than hear upsetting words.
Because any evidence for psi or life after death is so disturbing to him, the Skeptic tends to avoid it whenever possible. But if he cannot avoid it, then he must find a way to neutralize it. The need is urgent, which is why the first available explanation consistent with his preconceptions is eagerly seized upon. This is also why Skeptics are "debunkers" at heart; their impulse is not to engage with the evidence but to dismiss it as quickly as possible.
This accounts for the tendency of Skeptics to come up with a quick-and-dirty explanation of any troubling phenomenon. Because cognitive dissonance is so painful for Skeptics, they often do not even read the cases closely — or if they do read them, they don't absorb or retain what they're reading. It's a defense mechanism. Rather than engage with the material, which would make them deeply uncomfortable, they skim it, find the first detail they can "debunk," and declare the case closed. They can safely forget it. Dissonance has been resolved, and order is restored. (Matt Rouge, a commenter here, calls this "the fallacy of the glancing blow.")
Some people, noting the poverty of many ad hoc Skeptical explanations, decide that Skeptics are unintelligent or consciously dishonest. I don't think this is true. While a few may be dishonest and/or not too bright, I believe most Skeptics are of above-average intelligence and are not intentionally deceitful. Their hastily proffered explanations fail because the Skeptic does not take the time to treat the material seriously. Like Lewis Wolpert, he just wants to avert his eyes from any troubling claims.
A Skeptic encountering evidence of the paranormal is like the stereotypical woman in a movie farce who discovers a spider in her hair. Does she pause to calmly assess the situation? No, she starts batting wildly at her head, screaming, "Get it off me!" In this state of mind, even the most intelligent and knowledgeable person will be hard pressed to think logically. Panic makes anyone stupid.
But what happens when the first, hastily contrived explanation fails? Then another explanation must be cobbled together immediately and affirmed with the same absolutism. If that one fails, another will be seized on, and another, and another — none of which will satisfactorily address the evidence (at least in the stronger cases), but all of which will serve to protect the mind from the agonies of doubt and ambiguity, which are simply intolerable.
On the other hand, many proponents of the paranormal have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Exceptions exist; there are paranormalists who are just as defensive and reactionary as any Skeptic. But for the most part, people who have made an in-depth study of psi and related phenomena are able to maintain a state of doubt for years without undue discomfort.
I believe that these two mindsets — a fairly high degree of comfort with ambiguity, versus an extreme aversion to ambiguity — are the major psychological divide between the Skeptical and paranormalist camps, and the main reason they so frequently talk past each other.
It doesn't help that, in my observation, Skeptics are not good at introspection. They are largely unacquainted with their own psychology and thus blind to their biases. They may even flatter themselves with the belief that they are uniquely unbiased. Biases are for other people, not them. This is in line with their avoidance of cognitive dissonance; any admission of their own bias would create some doubt about their conclusions.
Of course, this type of psychology is not limited to Skeptics. It can be found in many people, including some who are very successful. More than a few high-ranking politicians and business leaders seem to have this mindset. It is, in some ways, socially advantageous. A person who permits himself no doubts can inspire others to follow him. "He must know what he's doing," people say. "He's always so sure of himself." Since most people are beset by doubts, they admire someone who seems to have none.
Insecure people, in general, are likely to idolize those who seem unafflicted by inner conflicts. They don't realize that the appearance is a mirage, and that their heroes are merely exceptionally good at papering over their own doubts, concealing them even from themselves.