Saturday, October 07, 2006


I never meta-skeptic...

In his call for submissions for the 45th Skeptics' Circle, host Karl Mogel challenges us to consider skepticism itself, and what makes us "skeptics", rather than "just deniers whose opinions will never change, which, as you all know, is not what skepticism is about." As I think about that, I see that that makes this a "meta-skeptic" post, addressing skepticism of skepticism.

Because, you see, as I think about it I realize that there are basically none of us who are skeptics, in that "true" sense that we're asking questions, refusing to believe without proof, but that if given proof we will accept it and believe. OK, if they dug up a bunker in Iraq tomorrow and found a stash of nuclear missiles in it, we'd probably accept that as proof that, well, there were WMDs in Iraq after all — though, actually, I'd still question whether they'd been planted there, so I'd still be skeptical.

But I'm talking about skepticism about the usual skeptic issues. God. Astrology. The kookier bits of alternative medicine. Whether King George has a brain larger than a walnut. It's easy to say that all someone has to do is show you proof that astrology works, and you'll accept it and be a skeptic no longer... when you know that no one will provide such proof. It allows us to say that we're skeptics while we nudge each other knowingly over a beer, forever safe in our skepticism.

It's rather like the old conjugation:

I stand firm.
You are hard-headed.
He is an obstinate pig.
Only here it's the view of "skeptic" vs "denier", and the difference between them seems to be based on which side of the argument one accepts: If I don't believe you, I'm a skeptic; if you don't believe me, you're a denier.

We say that the difference is one of proof, that disbelieving something for which there's ample evidence is denial, but disbelieving something that lacks solid proof is skepticism. And yet those with whom we disagree certainly think our evidence is lacking, and find plenty of "proof" for what they believe. The pious say, "If you show me proof that there's no God, I'll believe you — but you can't!" The godless say the same the other way. It's all in the mind of the believer.

So what this exercise has made me understand is that there's really no "skepticism" in that purest sense. And I don't write this as self-criticism, really. I find nothing wrong, nothing at all wrong, with the form of skepticism that we really have. We're all more or less like kids on the playground, standing in front of each other with arms crossed, defiantly shouting "Is not!" and "Is too!" It doesn't change anything, of course. I know what I know, and I'm skeptical of the rest.

Now, go ahead: Deny it.


Evan said...

Since I'm often disgreeing with your posts, I wanted to stop by and say I like this post and agree.

Skeptico said...

Re: It's easy to say that all someone has to do is show you proof that astrology works, and you'll accept it and be a skeptic no longer...

You’d still be a skeptic. A skeptic isn’t one who just disbelieves things – a skeptic is one who evaluates claims using critical thinking. If the evidence were to support astrology you could believe in astrology and still be a skeptic.

Re: ... when you know that no one will provide such proof.

I think the word is “evidence”, not “proof”. That aside, I do think it’s unlikely that anyone would provide the evidence because all the evidence to date show’s it’s bunk. The evidence necessary to overturn the huge amount of evidence that astrology doesn’t work, would have to be enormous. We would need multiple independent double-blind tests that overturn the results of the tests so far, and I think this is unlikely. But if it was provided we would have to accept it. Saying that it’s unlikely (based on the results of tests to date), that such evidence could be found, is not nudging each other knowingly over a beer (and therefore not really being skeptics), it’s being realistic. The burden of proof is upon believers in astrology, and they’ve failed again and again.

Barry Leiba said...

Skeptico, thanks for the comments.

Yes, probably "evidence" is a better term, and I did use that a couple of times. And what I meant about your first comment (and I think you know this) is "...and be skeptical of it no longer."

I agree with you that, say, astrology (and other stuff too) is poodle-twaddle, and that is why no one's able to produce evidence of it. Yes, about the burden a proof, yes about the repeated failure. I absolutely agree with all of that.

But that's pretty much my point: that we already know that no one'll be producing evidence of it. Can you honestly say that if someone did provide evidence, you'd believe it? Maybe you can; I'm not sure I can. I'm so sure that it's poodle-twaddle that I guess... well, let's just say I'm glad that no evidence is likely.

Skeptico said...

Depends how much evidence. The point is, it would have to be a lot of evidence: more than the 40 odd tests astrology failed that I write about. But if there were 60-80 positive tests they would have to be considered. One test wouldn’t do it – but that’s because one test wouldn’t counter the numerous negative tests, not because I’m determined not to believe.

Paul said...

I'd echo Skeptico's comments. "Proof" is for mathematicians. Scientists, and skeptics, deal in evidence.

Your examples of religion, and astrology certainly support your claim. However, skepticism isn't only about those outrageous and irrational claims that we all love to ridicule. As I wrote in my piece, it is a way of thinking about the world in general. There are many things we may start out skeptical about, and later accept on the presentation of evidence. It is the general practice of critical thinking we (or at least I) would like to promote to a greater audience, not just debunking of silly claims.

Does that make any sense?

Barry Leiba said...

Paul, you hit the nail on the head; thanks for the comment. More on all this in a follow-up post.