The Danger of Backfiring Skepticism

The Danger of Backfiring Skepticism June 19, 2012

Skepticism ought to be about critical thinking. But it often ends up being something else, which is illustrated nicely in the latest cartoon by David Hayward:

It is a bit like the point made in Richard Beck’s recent blog post about scapegoating. Going against the flow, once looked down upon, is now highly appreciated in certain circles – so much so, that those who value skepticism may assume that they are being appropriately skeptical when they are not, or may jump on a fringe bandwagon just because that movement disagrees with the majority viewpoint.

But should true skepticism be what Don McLeroy calls “standing up to experts”? Clearly there are groups that go against the flow in all sorts of ways that seem to be the very antithesis of skepticism to those who have not bought into the fringe views in question: young-earth creationism and other forms of antievolutionism, the anti-vaccination movement, Holocaust denial, Jesus-mythicism, and the list could go on and on. These folks could certainly describe themselves accurately as “evolution skeptics” or “climate change skeptics” or whatever else. But the skepticism in question is not about the rigorous critical analysis of the evidence, but a choice to reject conclusions which are by no means sacrosanct, but are widely accepted precisely because they have been subjected to rigorous investigation and debate by those with the most relevant qualifications and experience, and despite the desire of all such scholars to draw distinctive conclusions, consensus has emerged because the evidence and logic point in a particular direction.

And so the danger inherent in skepticism is that when we value going against the flow more than the careful, critical investigation of evidence first and foremost by a community of people who dedicate their lives to the study of that area, we may end up badmouthing those whose work is in fact held to the highest standard with respect to needing to argue logically and provide evidence for conclusions, and opting instead for views whose logic and treatment of evidence does not even come close to that rigorous standard.

None of us has the time to investigate all matters as fully as we might like or ideally be able to. And so it is easy for someone to get a tiny bit of information about science, medicine, or history, and set themselves up in judgment over those whose professional pursuits have allowed them to devote years to studying the evidence and seeing the bigger picture. That wider spectrum of evidence and broader context may be crucial to drawing the right conclusion. And so, while some so-called skeptics may love to claim that it is a mere “argument from authority” when one points to the consensus of scientists or historians or other experts, in fact this fallaciously misconstrues what that logical fallacy is. And more than a century ago, William Clifford already addressed this aspect of evidentialism in his famous essay “The Ethics of Belief,” in which he wrote:

If a chemist tells me, who am no chemist, that a certain substance can be made by putting together other substances in certain proportions and subjecting them to a known process, I am quite justified in believing this upon his authority, unless I know anything against his character or his judgment. For his professional training is one which tends to encourage veracity and the honest pursuit of truth, and to produce a dislike of hasty conclusions and slovenly investigation. And I have reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the truth of what he is saying, for although I am no chemist, I can be made to understand so much of the methods and processes of the science as makes it conceivable to me that, without ceasing to be man, I might verify the statement. I may never actually verify it, or even see any experiment which goes towards verifying it; but still I have quite reason enough to justify me in believing that the verification is within the reach of human appliances and powers, and in particular that it has been actually performed by my informant. His result, the belief to which he has been led by his inquiries, is valid not only for himself but for others; it is watched and tested by those who are working in the same ground, and who know that no greater service can be rendered to science than the purification of accepted results from the errors which may have crept into them. It is in this way that the result becomes common property, a right object of belief, which is a social affair and matter of public business. Thus it is to be observed that his authority is valid because there are those who question it and verify it; that it is precisely this process of examining and purifying that keeps alive among investigators the love of that which shall stand all possible tests, the sense of public responsibility as of those whose work, if well done, shall remain as the enduring heritage of mankind.

Those who have relevant expertise can make mistakes. But they are less likely to than someone without relevant qualifications and whose time is not as fully devoted to research in the area. And when a consensus emerges among experts, that needs to be taken seriously.

If you are someone from outside a given field, and you are thoroughly convinced that you have seen matters more clearly than the thousands of academics who work in that field for a living, you might just possibly be a unique genius. But if you do not realize that the far more likely explanation for this state of affairs is that your skepticism has backfired, then you simply aren’t thinking skeptically about the matter.


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