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What Skepticism Ain't, Part 1

by Josh Weed

December 4, 2013

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If you question authority, challenge common opinion, abhor dogma, and consider an intellectually honest pursuit of the truth to be a noble goal and an ultimate virtue, you are a skeptic. If you’ve already realized that you are, you’re probably sick and tired of being repeatedly subjected to a few tired old mischaracterizations of your skeptical philosophy. Don’t fear! I’ve compiled some of the most common reasons people give for disliking skeptics, and the reasons why ­" in my opinion " they are based on faulty premises. By discussing what skepticism isn't, my ultimate goal is to shine some light on what skepticism is. However, I can't speak for the rest of the skeptical movement " whichis why I'm hoping that you'll join the discussion.

"Skeptics are just cynical.”

People who value openness, positivity, and imagination, often mistake skepticism for cynicism. If you came by the word "skeptic" by looking up synonyms of "cynic", you could also make this mistake. However, cynicism is antithetical to the modern scientific skeptical movement. Cynics doubt unconditionally, whereas a true skeptic will accept anything if sufficient evidence is provided. To quote Stephen Jay Gould, we will accept anything if it has been “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”

The Greek word from which “skeptic” is derived, “skepticos”, translates as “inquirers” or “seekers”, not “doubters”. This is quite appropriate, as the intention of a skeptic is to inquire into the true nature of reality. Doubt is a necessary part of the process, but doubt is just one tool in the skeptic’s tool kit. It must be accompanied by reason, evidence, and logic. Without them it is pointless and impotent: doubt without reason is cynicism, doubt without logic is unintelligible, and doubt without evidence is a dead end. Thus, mistaking scientific skepticism for doubt is nearly as absurd as mistaking Sherlock Holmes for a magnifying glass.

There is one caveat: skeptics do make a lot of negative statements. However, this isn’t the result of a predisposition toward type II (false negative) errors, or a negative mindset. It is the result of there being orders of magnitude more inaccurate information than accurate information in the world. Skeptics value evidence, but most of the claims out there are either anecdotal, or conflict with the evidence in some way. The people who make these claims often don’t restrict themselves by things like reason, evidence, and logic, and thereby afford themselves the freedom to make their claims as appealing as possible (handicapped by these three things, it can be difficult for skepticism to compete). By virtue of this freedom, such ideas spread like wildfire. As a result, skeptics are constantly playing wack-a-mole with nonsense, dooming us to be mistaken for curmudgeonly cynics.

When faced with the charge of cynicism, it’s important to stress the positive side of skepticism: rationality. The importance of rationality cannot be overstated. It is the most powerful tool that there is for effecting positive change in the world, because if you want to make the world a better place, you must first understand the world itself. Additionally, rationality helps you to discriminate between what is truly good and bad " with regard to the well being of sentient beings " through an improved capacity to predict the consequences of specific actions. Superstition, motivated reasoning, and dogmatism are diametrically opposed to understanding the cause and effect world that we live in. Dismantling their byproducts is a criminally undervalued service to humanity, akin to taking out the garbage...It's a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

“Skeptics are intolerant.”

It depends upon what is meant by intolerant. Skeptics are intolerant of pseudoscience, and tend to not suffer fools lightly. Does that make us intolerant people? I don’t think so. Demanding evidence for a claim or dismissing a claim because of implausibility is a sign of intellectual integrity. You are only being intolerant if you attack a person’s character instead of their claim, or, even after sufficient evidence has been provided, you continue to criticize. That brings us back to cynicism, which is a form of intolerance.

Unfortunately, people can’t help but be offended when you criticize their beliefs. Despite your best efforts to leave them out of the crosshairs, they often feel like you are attacking their identity; by asking them to question their belief, it’s almost as if you are trying to coerce them into sawing off a limb. However, that says nothing at all about your propensity towards tolerance. In fact, I strongly suspect that when someone has a belief challenged, the stronger their emotional reaction is, the higher the chance is that it was reached in an uncritical way; someone who has carefully reasoned their way to a position can confidently and calmly elucidate when challenged, whereas someone who has reached a position through an emotionally driven thought process will resort back to emotion when challenged. That's just a pet theory of mine though. What do you think?

In summary, a strong emotional response points not to intolerance on the part of the skeptic, but to an inability to "think about thinking" on the part of the person being challenged. If we weretrying to take away peoples right to believe what they want to, or criticizing them solely on the grounds that they don’t believe as we do, that would be intolerant. But that's not what we're doing. The point of skepticism isn't to tell people what to think, but how to think.

“Skeptics are close-minded.”

This accusation stems from a warped idea of what it means to be open-minded. Being open-minded means that you are open to accept anything under the right conditions, it does not mean that you are a relativist who is permanently neutral on everything, or that you treat rhetoric, anecdotes, and testimonies as if they carry as much weight as the scientific method.

In the 21st century, we have enough genuine scientific knowledge to rule some things out as being implausible to the point of ridiculousness. Sure, that doesn’t make them impossible. But just because something isn’t strictly impossible doesn’t mean that its chances of being true are good enough for you to justify entertaining it, a la Russel’s teapot. We already have highly effective tools for evaluating the plausibility of fact-based claims, why not take advantage of them?

When, under the pretense of open-mindedness, someone tries to defend an implausible idea with the assertion that “anything is possible”, what they are really saying is, “I know that the idea is unlikely to be true, but I am suspending my disbelief because I find its implications emotionally gratifying.” As I have previously stated, this type of thinking is in direct opposition to rationality. In the moment, people may feel warm and fuzzy believing in things that aren't true, but false beliefs don’t end at the people who hold them. They often have far-reaching ramifications, and can cause unexpected harm ­" not just to the people who hold them, but to those around them as well (vaccine denialism is a perfect example).

Skeptics aren't closed minded. Actually, we're about as smack dab in the middle of the road as you can be. We strive to keep this balance because, although an open mind is healthy, an unconditionally open mind can be dangerous ­"­ as dangerous as the ideas that you give a free pass to as a result. However, it's not just what you let into your mind that's important. It's a well know fact that, if you're not careful, your brain could fall out!

“Skeptics have a double standard.”

When it comes to extraordinary claims, skeptics have a higher standard, not a double standard. For example, if someone publishes results that are consonant with mountains of previous findings, they will not come under much scrutiny, because they are only further reinforcing something that is already well established. However, if someone publishes results that could be revolutionary ­­" like results that suggest the existence of a new natural phenomenon, or that could overturn a scientific consensus ­" their methodology will be highly scrutinized, and they will be expected to present extraordinary evidence to prove their extraordinary claim. In fact, their evidence will need to be at least proportionate to all of the previous evidence that their claim contradicts. It’s called the burden of proof, and you will be rejected by mainstream science if you can't carry it. That needn't stop you though. There's plenty of room for more quacks on the fringe, and everyone will nod vigorously in agreement while you complain about those scientistic types and their double standard.

“Skeptics don’t believe in anything.”

In a way this is true. Skeptics strive to hold provisional opinions, which are based upon the best available evidence, and are able to change in the light of new, better evidence. If belief is something that isn’t pliable like that, and isn’t reached through an examination of evidence, then most skeptics would be proud to say that they don’t “believe” in anything. On the other hand, if this is really an accusation that skeptics are nihilistic and don’t hold to any principles, it is flat out wrong. Skeptics “believe” in things like logic, reason, and open-ended inquiry.

Here's an interesting question. Why is it such an insult to say that someone doesn't believe in anything? I think the answer is quite clear. We live in a society where belief, for belief's sake, is highly exalted. Watch almost any Disney movie and you'll see a reflection of this. We are told to believe, because "if you believe, anything is possible." Now, I recognize that having a positive outlook is hugely beneficial, but boundaries are also important. Shouldn't having a good reason for believing be the thing that is exalted?

“Skeptics are arrogant.”

Often, when you back someone into a corner that they cannot reason themselves out of, they will call you arrogant, as if that's some kind of trump card that automatically discounts your opinion.Really, they are just attacking your character in order to obscure the fact that they can’t come up with a valid counter argument.

That being said, some skeptics are genuinely arrogant…because some people are just arrogant. The only difference is that an arrogant skeptic will tend to display their arrogance the most when faced with a claim that comes into conflict with their understanding of the evidence.

We value good science, so pseudoscience tends to irritate us. How individual skeptics deal with this emotion depends upon their character. Arrogant skeptics behave arrogantly about it. I personally think that they’d be better off if they didn’t. People are more willing to hear you out if you temper your criticism with kindness. However, whether or not a skeptic chooses to do so ultimately comes down to personal temperament and style.

Sadly, within any group, it is the arrogant ones who tend to be the loudest. Thus, sampling bias is probably skewing the perception of skepticism, making it seem like most of us are arrogant. However, I’m still open to the idea that a disproportionate amount of skeptics are arrogant...I’d just have to see some evidence first.


by Josh Weed

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