No Skepticism Policy

Universe has a firm “No Skepticism” policy.

Don’t get me wrong, I dig empirical knowledge. And I like the ancient, Pyrrhonian school of Skepticism founded by Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 B.C.); Pyrrhonian skeptics believed that nothing could be known, not even “this” (i.e the very statement that nothing could be known) and strived for a constant state of inquiry as a source of pleasure. Since absolute knowledge is unattainable, the Pyrrhonian Skeptics felt that their end was: “In opinionatives, indisturbance; in impulsives, moderation; and in disquietives, suspension,” which is essentially agnosticism, as I understand it. From Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of all Ages (deeply recommended): “Those who suppose they have found truth are called Dogmatists; those who think it incomprehensible are the Academics; those who still seek are the Skeptics.” Even Socrates adhered to this worldview: I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.

It’s contemporary “scientific” or “activist” skepticism that I have a problem with.

Although the foundational epistemology of science is skeptical (prove everything), contemporary “scientific skepticism” has become shorthand for “debunking,” namely those claims and theories beyond mainstream science. Unlike scientists, who are primarily concerned with verifying and falsifying hypotheses within their own fields, self-named scientific skeptics focus their criticism on claims they believe to be a priori implausible, which is to say all the great acronyms: UFOs, ESP, etc. While I respect some debunkers (even hard-assed James Randi has saved countless fools from the trappings of psychic surgery), the general conceit bothers me, as it essentially pits the unqualified against the unqualified in a kind of endless boring flame war. Certainly skeptics uncover the “truth” of some matters — i.e. that there was no ghost, no alien, no demon — but it brings nothing new to the table. In our heart of hearts, even the most starry-eyed among us know that there are probably no ghosts nor demons, and that we are alone on our giant rock, bitching amongst ourselves. Is pragmatically destroying the imaginative convictions of conspiracy buffs and New-Agers a worthy practice of one’s time on this lonely Earth?

Yes, UFOs are probably not real. Yes, a man who claims he was abducted by aliens (or slipped through another dimension, or saw a ghost) probably has other shit going on, lucidity-wise. And yet, does he pose a threat to buttoned-up society? Does he throw the fabric of the everyman’s cosmology into whirling disarray? The answer is, of course, a resounding n-o, no. In fact, the everyman has no idea of the astounding breadth, fervor and variety of the UFO-man’s idiosyncratic belief system, nor does he have an inkling of the profound multitude of others like the UFO-man. Nor does he care, because he is entirely concerned with his own psycho-social-religious worldview, which might arguably be as bonkers as the rest. And yet, here come the debunkers anyway, to firmly tell everyone that it was all just a glimmer of light, reflected on some swamp gas.

I have a firm “no skepticism” policy not because I don’t believe in good science — which is rooted in a firm tradition of questioning — but because I love the unloved margins of pseudoscientific thought. This blog has played host to myriad bogus theories, from the inter-dimensional Bigfoot to Unarius and the Omega Point. I’ve never intended to showcase these things out of fey exoticism, or to belittle them. Rather, I believe we can only truly understand where the wobbly lines between science and the rest of the world lie if we don’t intellectually humor all the extremes. The rational mind doesn’t exist without the irrational mind, and I believe in learning through difference.

Most of all, however, I consider myself a Skeptic in the old school, which is essentially a hopeful position. We don’t know anything, but we can dream.

Comments

  1. #1 Mikey
    April 14, 2009

    Those UFO guys are assholes.

  2. #2 Christina
    February 22, 2010

    This is fabulous! I’m so glad you’re here at ScienceBlogs now, we need a lot less of the calling New Agey people stupid and a lot more creative and thoughtful writing. Welcome, I’m looking forward to reading more of your stuff, and is it lame to say I’m a fan of YACHT and your videos too? Because I am :)

  3. #3 Claire L. Evans
    February 22, 2010

    Not lame at all! Thanks so much for the welcome.

  4. #4 jerry
    February 23, 2010

    Problem: what about the cases where pseudoscience actually causes real harm? Countering the claims of the anti-vaccine movement, cancer quacks, etc. seems like a very useful endeavour to me.

  5. #5 Treppenwitz
    February 24, 2010

    And yet, does he pose a threat to buttoned-up society?

    Hey, what’s the harm?

    Aside from disagreeing with your estimation of the danger of pseudoscience and other fuzzy thinking, I think your definition of “scientific skepticism” or “activist skepticism” is unhelpful. I much prefer Steven Novella’s succinct description of the skeptical movement: it’s about promoting critical thinking and scientific literacy.

    Clearly, simply donning the title of skeptic does not qualify one to respond to every claim, and those who don’t realize this risk ending up in the “unqualified against unqualified” situation you describe; however, despite my general lack of faith in the general population, I think it is within the average adult’s ability to learn a little critical thinking. It doesn’t take extensive formal training to notice basic logical fallacies or to ask whether there are more prosaic explanations for an observation.

  6. #6 Chelydra
    February 25, 2010

    Pyrrhonian skeptics believed that nothing could be known, not even “this”

    According to your linked Wikipedia article, this was the belief of academic skeptics, not Pyrrhonian skeptics. Pyrrhonians refused to take even that stance, claiming they couldn’t make judgements about anything. I also fail to see how the belief that we can’t ever know anything is “essentially a hopeful position.” It seems to be quite the opposite.

    I believe we can only truly understand where the wobbly lines between science and the rest of the world lie if we don’t intellectually humor all the extremes.

    If you don’t want us to intellectually humor them but you also don’t want us to debunk their beliefs, what exactly do you want skeptics to do? Just ignore them completely? Besides, what “rest of the world” is there that science can’t touch?

    he is entirely concerned with his own psycho-social-religious worldview, which might arguably be as bonkers as the rest

    No. As Issac Asimov wrote:

    …when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

    Philosophically speaking, science may not be able to prove anything, but that type of thinking doesn’t apply to the real world. All points of view are not equally valid, and, as commenters have already pointed out, pseudoscience is currently harming all of us, at least financially (not to mention the entire planet).

  7. #7 Claire L. Evans
    February 25, 2010

    To begin with, of course I understand that skepticism (however you preface it) protects us from harm — I did make a parenthetical aside about James Randi saving poor shlubs from psychic surgery, didn’t I? I also understand that it’s the basis of scientific thinking, and I don’t imagine that my wistfulness for UFO kooks and the other victims of traditional “debunking” will do much to upset the balance of the scientific method (they are underdogs, after all).

    I concede my definition of Pyrrhonian skepticism was slightly off. Looks like I misread my sources; in any case, I still stand by the idea that an unknowable world in total flux is, indeed, optimistic, simply because it implies that anything might be possible — not to mention it puts us in our place a little. I think this point is purely personal. And, of course, impractical in this modern world, where the ignorance of many has become a true hazard (although I do see a difference between ancient Skeptical thinking and pure dumbness).

    In any case, I’m not speaking to any political form of pseudoscience — excuse me, in my bubble, I forget this is a charged subject. Anti global warming “science,” the dinosaurs-and-humans-together stuff, health quackery: clearly a worthy cause for debunking of all kinds.

    No, my defense is for the tinfoil-hat folks, the UFO buffs, the Sasquatch hunters, the cryptozoologists, the abductionists, the New-Agers, the people whose world views can serve to remind us of the wild fecundity of the human imagination, when faced with mystery. I see this form of pseudoscience as being on par with a more ancient human drive: the desire to rationalize the things we don’t understand, to articulate the darkness and bend it to our will. No, I see no harm done there. As long as the will is not imposed on others in a harmful way, can you really see harm done? Is a bearded man in the sky much different from a steely reptilian alien with sinister aspirations? Neither fall within the purview of science. And that’s my point: why bother to tell someone their God is bogus? Or that they were never abducted by aliens? It’s the same, in my view. Of course, the same courtesy is rarely proffered to the debunkers, but my earnest desire is to see conversation and, yes, “intellectual humoring,” in these cases — not the hard-nosed deflating of fetid alien dreams.

    Go gently…

  8. #8 Treppenwitz
    February 25, 2010

    No, my defense is for the tinfoil-hat folks, the UFO buffs, the Sasquatch hunters, the cryptozoologists, the abductionists, the New-Agers, the people whose world views can serve to remind us of the wild fecundity of the human imagination, when faced with mystery. I see this form of pseudoscience as being on par with a more ancient human drive: the desire to rationalize the things we don’t understand, to articulate the darkness and bend it to our will.

    I don’t see this as a defense of such people at all. What you’re basically saying is that modern ignorance should go unchecked because you have a romantic view of ancient ignorance.

    The harm isn’t in believing in Bigfoot, per se. What’s harmful is the lack of critical thinking skills that leads people to such beliefs.

    I propose an alternative way to get those warm fuzzy feelings you get from interacting with fantasy-prone adults: ask a child to explain some natural phenomenon. Then, after you explain what’s really going on, you can get some additional warm fuzzies when the explanation clicks in their head and their face lights up. As an added bonus, you’ve contributed to someone’s education.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    February 25, 2010

    Is a bearded man in the sky much different from a steely reptilian alien with sinister aspirations? Neither fall within the purview of science.

    If either one lands on the White House lawn, would you say that no scientists should be called in?

    Temperamentally, I tend to agree with your larger point. F’rinstance, I’ve had a running quibble with Orac regarding the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine, on the basis that having such processes tested by a friendly agency makes the usually forthcoming disproof that much more convincing, and that the prospect of finding even one successful treatment in a thousand may pay off quite handily.

    That said, anyone making specific claims, including having been anally probed by E.T. last Saturday night, needs a series of pointed questions more than a pat on the head.

  10. #10 Claire L. Evans
    February 26, 2010

    @Treppenwitz Well…fine, but that happens to not be my point. Whether or not you read my piece as as being a defense of the aforementioned UFO buffs (et al.) doesn’t change the fact that it was intended to be one. You’re extrapolating the context of my point a little.

    In fact, I agree with you wholeheartedly! Critical thinking is essential. But so is a little magic, a little fantasy. Both are fundamental to the human experience, and I don’t particularly understand why a willingness to humor the fantasies of others is mutually exclusive to an appreciation for fact.

    And, I might add: I’m in no way endorsing pseudoscience, just saying that I’m interested in it, what motivates it, how it propagates, how people around the world use the idea of “science” for different philosophical and ideological reasons, and why. We’re not talking about coddling anyone, just listening to their stories with interest. Why not be interested? How do you expect to have a conversation, or be an influence for the change you wish to instill, if you don’t know the idiom, if you haven’t walked the fabled mile?

    I don’t see this conversation resolving itself any time soon, because the divide we’re talking about is the very divide we’re experiencing. To which I say: OK, and thank you for the debate.

    Oh, and @Pierce R. Butler: absolutely. Pointed questions — but asked kindly.

  11. #11 Skeptic Ginger
    February 26, 2010

    “It’s contemporary “scientific” or “activist” skepticism that I have a problem with.”

    Well if you misconstrue what a skeptic is (hint there are no true Scotsmen) then cherry pick one of the more benign false beliefs you might come to the conclusions you have in this blog post.

    You don’t have to look far to find imperfect skeptics. In fact, good luck finding anyone with perfectly rational thinking. After all, we are handicapped by the path the human brain has taken in evolution.

    But that is not a reason to gripe about a group of people who believe it is worthwhile to promote rational thinking and critical thinking skills. That’s the core of what the skeptical community is all about despite the broad spectrum of interests and the occasional flaws which exist within that skeptical community.

    As for the harmlessness of irrational thinking, you need to spend a little more time around Mr Randi and our JREF community.

    Serious harm is done by the million dollar campaign to put Creationism and Intelligent Design into school science classes. The entire Bush administration’s 8 years included numerous assaults on the integrity of science doing long term damage as it undermined the credibility of science. Exxon’s campaign against the credibility of climate science has done serious harm.

    Then there are the billions of dollars wasted on irrational thinking. It isn’t just psychic surgery here. How about the fact the National Health Service in the UK is finally questioning the expense of homeopathy which British taxpayers have been paying for all these years? That is a tiny fraction of the money wasted on fraud and bad medicine beliefs. We could afford excellent health care for everyone in the US if people quit paying billions for junk medicine. And ignorant anti-vaccine beliefs have killed unvaccinated kids.

    Then there is the harm done by irrational thinking like that of the 19 idiots who flew planes into the WTC towers. They did so believing they’d be richly rewarded in heaven. Do you know people still burn other people alive fearing they are witches? Albinos have been killed and sliced up because in some areas in Africa it is believed ground up albino has some kind of magic power and just as Rhinos may become extinct over similar false beliefs and some kids might have been given HIV because a rumor went out saying sex with a virgin cured AIDS. How do you get the president of South Africa declaring HIV does not cause AIDS? Apparently all you need is the Internet and a willingness to believe in a fantasy.

    These are events which have actually occurred in the 21st century.

    These examples are only the tip of the iceberg of harm resulting from irrational thinking. These are the things the skeptical community and the James Randi Educational Foundation are concerned with. To think our interest in promoting rational thinking stemmed from a bunch of nerds who had some urge to correct a few ghost hunters and UFO buffs couldn’t be more wrong.

  12. #12 Skeptic Ginger
    February 26, 2010

    “.. contemporary “scientific skepticism” has become shorthand for “debunking,” namely those claims and theories beyond mainstream science.”

    To be clear here, this is not what contemporary skepticism is all about. I think you’ve erred here in your assessment of the skeptic movement.

    Debunking addresses symptoms. The purpose being to enlighten those not already taken in by the irrational thinking. And the second purpose is to reveal the mechanisms involved in being fooled.

    Treating the underlying problem is where promoting critical thinking skills and the reliability of the scientific process comes in. As for “knowing we are right”, skeptics in principle are science/evidence based believers. Most of us understand the uncertainty of science and embrace it. Rational thinking includes the scientific process and rules of logic. Dogmatic thinking is not rational thinking.

    But I take special ire at your description of irrational beliefs as being beyond mainstream science. No they are not. Mainstream science provides the evidence refuting the Irrational beliefs. A better description of this stuff is outright error and sometimes a known phenomena called magical thinking. We can see how the erroneous conclusions were drawn. We can identify the errors in logic or in some basic science that resulted in the irrational beliefs. There’s nothing beyond science here at all. You just need to look behind the curtain.

  13. #13 Skeptic Ginger
    February 26, 2010

    Having now read your further comments, Treppenwitz answered the first reply better than I could have, so I’ll move on to the second one:

    “In fact, I agree with you wholeheartedly! Critical thinking is essential. But so is a little magic, a little fantasy. Both are fundamental to the human experience, and I don’t particularly understand why a willingness to humor the fantasies of others is mutually exclusive to an appreciation for fact.”

    It’s beginning to sound like you have some narrow issue here you posted in much too broad of a way. And now you are backtracking.

    Clarification accepted. But you still seem to be under the false impression that skeptics are unimaginative, boring fuddie duddies. To the contrary, most of us just prefer the incredible mysteries of the real Universe to the limited mysteries humans created from misinterpreting the evidence around them.

    UFOs and ghosts just aren’t any fun once you look a little closer. That doesn’t mean one can’t have great fun trying to figure out how there could be 11 dimensions or what an enormous (even after collapsed) star in the galaxy would look like rotating 4 times a second. And imagine what real ETs are going to look like when we finally encounter them. Give up the nonsense, there’s an incredible Universe out there.

    Hey, wait, that’s what your blog is about. ;-) So why are you intrigued with unsupportable mysteries when there are so many supportable ones out there?

  14. #14 Mike Olson
    February 27, 2010

    Claire, I tend to agree with you on this one. The fact is, if nothing else, coming to understand why someone believes something, or wants to believe something gives them a lot more credit for being a worthwhile human being, then simply proving them wrong and demanding they agree with you. The thing is we do need skeptics as has been repeatedly mentioned. But, the world is full of people who simply need answers to the mysteries the see around them. The world is an amazing place, and if all they hear are folks claiming a very mechanistic universe and telling them there is no magic…they lose hope. Honestly, there is a great deal to be said about the things you mentioned. For example: If you wanted to discuss ESP, you can approach it as “brain waves” traveling between people. Something akin to Jungs “collective sub conscious” in which everything thought goes to some collective pool of sorts, it could be that folks who seem to have ESP are fantastic at reading body language, verbal cues, eye movement(like many “psychics” actually perform) or it could be a combination of all of those things and being hyper-sensitive to the interplay of pheremones how different people are reacting as a whole…in short ESP could be seen as a hypersensitivity to many things both seen, unseen and sensed that most folks don’t realize. Skepticism is a great thing. But, there really should be room to believe in something as of yet undiscovered or unproven. How many times has some scientist claimed that understanding would never be reached on an issue because of the limits of technology? Or that all things worth inventing have already been invented? Intuition and imagination left unchecked by logic and reality is dangerous. But, it is also essential in making the greatest of scientific discoveries.

  15. #15 Adm.Ackbar
    February 27, 2010

    @Mike: Here here! Half the fun of being a scientist is dealing with what looks like magic. BTW I had sorely underestimated to this point what a bunch of petty nitpickers some of the folks on Sb are. Who in this modern century cares whether OP misstated the position of the pyrrhonian skeptics?! Get a life. I’d like to draw what I think is an important distinction: there is a difference between voodoo hooey (crystal power, chakras) and empirically challenged but mathematically sound beliefs (cryptozoology, UFOs). People can believe in either for the wrong reasons- I’m thinking here of housewives and awkward teens looking to feel powerful by wielding spells or channelling the dead- but simply keeping an open mind to that which is as yet unproven is not as big a sin as it has been portrayed ITT. I personally would be incredibly surprised if there were NOT intelligent life elsewhere in this multiverse of ours, for example. Similarly with cryptozoology, and following Mike’s point, is that time and again we have scoffed at those who were later proven right *coughcoelocanth* and I look forward to the day when we can peer with anticipation through our ghost-scopes.

  16. #16 Claire L. Evans
    February 28, 2010

    Point taken, all.

    I don’t want to seem like I’m backtracking (and I’m very sorry to have typecast Skeptics as fuddy-duddies), but it seems I’ve made too broad an argument about something specific. Please accept my apologies for offending the Skeptic community, but do understand that my perspective is that of a non-scientist polyvore, someone who’s just interested in all kinds of stuff, and I think it’s pretty absurd (and, dare I say, irrational) to conflate my desire to poke around in UFO cosmology and Bigfoot mythology with 9/11 and AIDS in Africa. I hate to say that the authoritarian, joyless zeal with which you’ve taken to shredding my point of view is, in effect, exactly what I’m talking about.

    I mean, guys, who endorses a lack of critical thinking? You need only to poke around this blog for five minutes to see I am a pro-science person, a pro-reason person, and a defender of your cause. My only point is open-mindedness, gentleness, and humor. In the end, I’m on your side, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore all the interesting, nontraditional ideas in the world, which is really all I meant to say in my above, slightly belletristic, ode to kookery. It doesn’t mean I’m going to endorse crystal healing or post fuzzy Bigfoot sighting videos (or ever diss the Skeptics again!) — only that I will report on those subjects, in a critical and informed way. Without lambasting them.

  17. #17 Skeptic Ginger
    March 1, 2010

    It appears we in the skeptic community need to do a better job educating the scientific community to what we are all about. Let me introduce myself. While I’m no true Scotsman, I think I represent the skeptical community fairly well as an individual.

    I love exploring the interesting things in the world so much I can brag about having gone to see the mysterious moving stones at the Racetrack in the middle of Death Valley. I read about this mystery as a child in the book, “This Baffling World”. I hired a car to take me to the Peru-Bolivian border to see the meteorite crater and see for myself what supposedly made people ill when the meteorite hit the ground. I flew in a small plane over the Nazca lines. I went to see the Ica Stones in Peru. I’ve been to the ET Highway and the Little A’Le’Inn near Area 51. I’ve been to Roswell New Mexico. I went looking for the face of Jesus on a Tortilla in New Mexico (though it was no longer there).

    This is but a tiny sample of the exploring I’ve done all over the world. I love this kind of stuff. You totally have the wrong idea about what the skeptic community is all about.

    I invite you all to get to know us better. Join our efforts to promote critical thinking. We are not out to make the world a dull place. We are all about introducing people to the wonders of science and the real Universe.