What is skepticism?

There are two things I’ve learned over the last year.

1) If you get a room full of self-described skeptics, gathered to converse skeptically about something, a minor tweaking of the conversation can cause an alarmingly large percentage of said “skeptics” to start spewing utter nonsense; and

2) Manyself-described skeptics seem to believe (yes, believe) that nothing can be believed, and assert that the ONLY thing that EVER matters is “the” truth, and at the same time insist that “the truth” can never be trusted (unless they themselves have uttered it). Such an approach can cause said skeptic to wield a skeptical hammer that is so big it obscures their vision to the determent of their intended goal. That a significant subset of these “skeptics” are sociopathic and terribly annoying is unfortunate.


But, what do I know about skepticism?

I recommend the following three related blog posts:

Yes, The Pope Should Be Arrested, and I Don’t Care Who Does It

Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial

All That and a Skeptic

I am not recommending these three posts because I agree with what they say. I only partly do, and I partly don’t, perhaps rather strongly. I deeply and strongly disagree with the separation of ways of thinking (including scientific skepticism) and political perspectives. It is part of the progressive political perspective to be a rational thinker. Explicitly. It is part of the Republican Tea-baggging Yahooistic political perspective to be …. well, something else. Somewhat explicitly. It would be perilous to ignore this. It is explicitly part of the modern Atheist movement to think skeptically. A religious person is not thinking skeptically about that aspect of their lives, and if they were, they’d be some form of atheist or agnostic, and so on.

Perilous, and perhaps a bit sophistic. Which perhaps ties us back to items 1 and 2 above.

Anyway, go read these three posts and the commentary and engage in the discussion!

Comments

  1. #1 badrescher
    April 14, 2010

    “It is part of the progressive political perspective to be a rational thinker.”

    And here I thought we understood each other. I think this statement is bass ackwards. Actually, I’ll go one step further and say that it’s bullshit. A great example of a person with a progressive political perspective is Bill Mahr. Rational? I think not.

    Nobody, to my knowledge, has suggested that we ignore irrational acts or give them a “pass” because, hey, that’s politics!

    To use an example from politics, it is a skeptical pursuit to discuss whether it is legal to require individuals to purchase private health insurance. It is a skeptical pursuit to discuss the effects of such a requirement on the economy, the price of insurance for everybody, infant mortality rates, whatever. It is NOT a skeptical pursuit to discuss whether it is fair or moral.

    But NOBODY said that a person who uses information about the effects and legality to make a decision about whether it is fair or moral is not a skeptic.

    What I said was that moral judgment and moral pursuits are not within the scope of skepticism and they should not be. I think I covered why in my post, so I’ll leave it a that.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    April 14, 2010

    I would say that if we ask ourselves “How do we conduct ourselves as a nation in the modern world” there is a reasonably good argument, from a skeptical perspective, that our conduct should involve certain things. For instance, we should not have slavery and we should not systematically exterminate people who are inconvenient. Those are acts that run against all ethical and moral thinking, so a person in charge of proposing the rules and regulations of a nation, and doing so as a skeptic, would not put aside the possibility of NOT having slavery or concentration camps simply because s/he can’t think of a “purely” skeptical argument for not enslaving people.

    Furthermore, to even spend a minute arguing whether or not mass exterimination of people that annoy you or slavery (or whatever) does nor does not have a “logical” or “rational” basis is an insult to all those who have died or suffered under such conditions. The skeptic who does so is rightfully ignored by others in society, rightfully examined as a possible case of sociopathy.

    This is why I think the sketpical movement attracts so many obvious sociopaths.

    I have come to have a perfectly skeptical, non-moral stance on the death penalty. I am opposed to the death penalty. for entirely skeptical reasons. (I.,e rational and scientific). The fact taht the death penalty is a hot button, moral/ethical issue does not make it impossible for me to have such a view.

    As I mentioned in a comment on one of the facebook threads, the average liberal progressive political activist, while acting actively … does not muse over the crazy yahoos we deal with because of said yahoo’s lack of ethical or moral standing as often as we muse over the yahoo’s lack of rational thinking. Try spending several hours over the course of a campaign working for the progressive candidate phone banking, where you can observe the reactions of the political operatives after getting off the phone with this or that Dittohead.

    Bill Mahr is of no consequence. Isn’t he a comedian or an entertainer or somethign? I’m a progressive liberal without cable TV. What the fuck do I care about some guy on cable?

    Anyone who watches the Rachel Maddow show a few times will understand that my argument is very very far from bullshit, Barbara. Not even close!

    What I said was that moral judgment and moral pursuits are not within the scope of skepticism and they should not be.

    I agree with that. Nowhere do I not agree with that.

  3. #3 Jonathan Simmons
    April 14, 2010

    My reading skills might not be at their best today, so forgive me for not having a complete idea of what you’re getting at.

    I think that there’s clearly some confusion about what skepticism is among skeptics themselves. It’s obvious to me that most skeptics aren’t familiar with Ancient Skepticism (in the academic sense) or Pyrrhonian skepticism. I also doubt that most skeptics know anything about Montaigne or Descartes or Hume or the Pragmatists (Rorty in particular) or Wittgenstein or any of the current debates about skepticism.

    I’m not suggesting that most skeptics SHOULD know anything about what I just mentioned because many skeptics distance themselves from academic discussions of skepticism and most scientists don’t give a crap about skepticism outside of its common usage which has some vague relationship to critical thinking skills or not being easily fooled.

    The so-called figureheads of the New Atheist movement probably do know quite a bit about skepticism. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett certainly do (I highly recommend reading Harris’s endnotes in The End of Faith because you get to see him show off).

    Does any of this matter? I don’t know. A lot of skeptics seem to adhere to the copy-theory of truth and they’re quite reactionary to anyone attentive to our most serious epistemological problems. That’s annoying. When a lot of so-called skeptics talk about truth, I think they mean “Truth” with a capital “T” and that’s just bollocks. When questioned, they bring up the usual rebuttals: tentative, probabilistic knowledge … science is our best tool, yada, yada, yada …

    As if anyone questioning their epistemological position is foaming at the mouth to go after science (admittedly, they often are), but it seems beyond most skeptics to acknowledge that you can have a nuanced position regarding truth, evidence, facts, etc., without being anti-science.

    Skeptics on the whole seem comfortable with disagreement when it comes to particular issues, such as how best to test a claim, but when the criticism gets a little meta, they shy away and bless themselves in a non-religious way. You have to pat their heads and calm them down.

    *shrug*

  4. #4 MadScientist
    April 15, 2010

    I think there should be a lot more philosophical debate and skepticism about morals (but don’t wander too frequently into the ethicist’s playground, you may get lost and never be seen again). Specifically, “god says so” is the most fickle of moral bases. After all, god frequently says “go kill other people” – just ask Dubbyah – he’s on record as saying god told him we should invade Iraq.

  5. #5 daedalus2u
    April 15, 2010

    I have been trying to understand why people say that skepticism is silent with respect to things like slavery and child rape. I read the other 3 threads and I still don’t understand.

    Skepticism is a process, but so is morality. If a particular chain of action is said to be moral because it leads to certain results, that chain of action can be analyzed with skepticism, and if the chain of action does not lead to the certain results, then the morality of that chain of action is bogus.

    Usually systems that claim to organize themselves around what they call morality (such as the Catholic Church), are really just trying to exert authority and to acquire power.

  6. #6 Skeptic Ginger
    April 17, 2010

    Seems like a lot of rambling. Maybe I’ll re-read everything again, only not so late at night. So I only have comments on one of the blog entries right now, “Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial.”

    First, the term ‘skeptic’ to me means rational thinking, scientific evidence based conclusions, something along that view of the Universe, as opposed to the view that things occur by magic, or that we just know stuff because we do. It’s not that hard of a concept.

    I do disagree that skepticism is not atheism. I take issue with the science and skeptical communities making an exception for irrational god beliefs when, for example, they wouldn’t make a similar exception for irrational Creation beliefs. Seems people go out of their way to coddle some irrational beliefs while having no qualms condemning others.

    That doesn’t mean skeptics have to meet any True Scotsman ideals in order to be skeptics or rational thinkers. I’m skeptical any of us are perfectly rational thinkers. I just get annoyed when the rational conclusion, gods are mythical beings, is lumped into the category of a political opinion.

    The other points Barbara Drescher is making about skepticism not having a given political position, I mostly agree with. But that doesn’t mean there can never be an empirical/rational analysis of political positions.

    The fact one can find all sorts of abuse of the terms, skeptic and skeptical movement, shouldn’t come as any surprise. Just look at how many charlatans claim scientific evidence supports their bogus claims. Does that fact generate blogs about the term, scientist?

  7. #7 Zebz
    April 18, 2010

    Hi, how ya goin’
    I came across this post and I figured I could either quickly answer, or offer, a useful perspective on some of the questions it raised. So I have snipped some comments from the posts and added my own interpretation. Enjoy, hate, or “nyeeh who cares” as suits.

    “the truth” can never be trusted (unless they themselves have uttered it)”
    Essentially the definition above IS truth as everyone understands it, but strangely enough, never defines it. This is to my mind, the legacy of “truth” having spent the majority of its life being religions pussy bitch.

    “gods are mythical beings”
    gods ARE mythical beings. And pervasive mythical beings at that…. which raises the question “what is myth”. Where does myth and the “things” that resemble myth, fit into the way we understand “mind”? Many of the sceptics that I have met believe that their scepticism makes them somehow automatically invulnerable to the influence of “myth”. This is of course idiotic because, as you have noted:

    “a minor tweaking of the conversation can cause an alarmingly large percentage of said “skeptics” to start spewing utter nonsense”
    This is because scepticism is not automatic machinery that has become built into the mind of the sceptic. Very loosely defined it is a process of thought that can be deliberately applied to assertions or propositions – it takes work, effort and time to be a practising and effective sceptic. So, toss some variation into the discussion and demand an immediate response. Result=gibberishXtwaddle: And unfortunately often this gibberish is even worse than the crap that the religious spout. Why? Because of the “automatic invulnerability” (you guessed it) myth, as described above, existing in the mind of some professed sceptics, defending its unprocessed output.

    “Seems people go out of their way to coddle some irrational beliefs while having no qualms condemning others.”
    Given some of the extreme antics spawned by the religious mind over the years, you could describe this is as a survival skill.
    But this can also related to the reasons that we guard the results of our thought as described in the “tweaking” paragraph above. Rational thought takes work. Its not some random flotsam we found on the beach. If however we DO come across something that SEEMS rational “on the beach”, hell why not guard that as well? Hey I got me a freebie… no work required.

    “What I said was that moral judgment and moral pursuits are not within the scope of scepticism”
    Damn right. This morality stuff comes after you have applied scepticism to the concepts being discussed. Any clown can apply “moral judgement” to a bunch of nonsense. Some even specialise in doing that. This of course is the tactic of the shit-eating arseholes that spout the idiotic medieval crap which characterises so much religious discourse in the present day.

    “I do disagree that scepticism is not atheism.”
    Well duh! There are goofy atheistic myths as well as goofy religious myths. Just because “atheistic” myths are non “god-related” doesn’t make them non-mythological.

    Properly applied, scepticism is the safety guard over the bandsaw of our stupid monkey brains. Leave it off and you could well lose some mental fingers. ( Thinks — Beautiful: Analogy is the pasta of thought: no matter what the ingredients you can make a tasty dish – Hey! There’s another analogy!!)

    So, there we go. If anyone actually thinks this post is interesting then maybe I’ll post some stuff about the “alternate universe” where religion and gods live and how we can access it and begin to model its rules.
    Skeptical? ;)

  8. #8 Timothy
    April 19, 2010

    I’m sort of confused, what precisely are these skeptics claiming about truth, and most specifically what do you actually mean by “wield a skeptical hammer that is so big it obscures their vision to the detriment of their intended goal”.

    When they say the truth can never be trusted, is this referring simply to the (almost certainly true) claim that we can no nothing in a non-question begging sense, or something broader? etc.

    Could you maybe give examples of what you see as the poor logic of ‘skeptics’?

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    http://www.academia.edu/
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