Is it time to give up on “Skepticism”?
Today I’m recovering from a rather unpleasant patch of illness that has left me drained, tired and at times irritable — and has prevented me posting the following thoughts for over a week. As I can’t see anyone caring anyway, the following post can be seen as a sort of note to self — but hopefully in future rows I can refer people here. I was awaiting the chance to read Daniel Loxton’s piece on scepticism – I often agree with him on much – but in the end have seized the opportunity to write my own thoughts here. I shall adopt a short, simple and hopefully clear style, rather than my usual one.
So, I don’t want to be called a “skeptic” any more. Or even a “sceptic”, though I think I prefer that, it having the advantage of being spelt correctly in the British English I speak. Of course, if you go to the Greek — but either way, the issue is sceptic does not work for me. I even think it’s potentially harmful. We might need to lose it.
I know a bit about ghosts. I know people experience ghosts. I’m still fairly ambivalent about what ghost experiences represent and whether science can currently explain them. (I think not all). I am therefore surely not a sceptic?: I am open to “paranormal” beliefs.
Or am I? Skip back to 2006 when I joined the JREF forum, Randi’s place. People were just as belligerent and rude there back then as today (and some, indeed many, just as ace) and I soon ended up trying to explain that I saw Scepticism as a methodology, a critical process of investigating facts and assessing evidence, rather than a simple process of nay saying. I argued many posters at the JREF were “a priori skeptics” – that is that they knew say the paranormal was all bunk, therefore there was no need to address paranormal claims. (And such opinions still appear there today). APS, a priori skepticism can be defended as a tactic, but is irrational (in the technical sense) as an actual worldview.
I guess I had best defend that last statement. OK, imagine tomorrow we prove that some phenomena that occurs in paranormal books – take Giant Squid as that happened – really exists. Giant squid were staples of 70′ paranormal books. Therefore to APS they can not be real because they are/were paranormal. Now you can presumably if you are an a priori skeptic move things from the “paranormal” to the “real” category — but how remains rather obscure, because once you allow that it removes any justification for the APS of paranormal claims in the first place. Luckily most people who adopt APS are not concerned with epistemology or consistency, only in sneering at anyone who lacks their extreme faith-based beliefs. (I’m sure I don’t have to explain why APS is faith based?)
So enough of APS: it is still a minority position. Most sceptics I spoke to agreed with my 2006 definition of scepticism as a process: a way of looking at the world. Now I spent a lot of 2008-2010 reading philosophy of science, as I kept finding myself puzzled by things I experienced in sceptical circles (people used “rationalist” to mean something other than “argument based on deduction, not sense-observation” for example — and they used “empirical” to include mathematical proofs which are not empirical but rationalist, as well as conflating “rational” and “true” and “irrational” with “false”. I was irritated at times by what seemed to be the exuberance and bull headed self confidence of people who thought they were clever, yet often struck me as not actually knowing what they were talking about. Rather than fight over misappropriation of philosophical language, words can change their meanings and usage after all, I however noted something quite clear —
There seemed little difference between a process sceptic (or methodological scepticism) and normal scientific methodologies.
Yes I really did just write that in red bold. :D Methodological Scepticism and Science are one and the same thing. If you disagree with me, as I’m sure someone must, then please do comment, and tell me how they differ. Both begin by asking questions, and usually involve attempting to falsify a hypothesis. Both involve ending up making a judgement regarding the strength of the evidence, and if the research supported or opposed certain conclusions. Science like Scepticism can be performed by people irrespective of their personal ideological baggage – even Richard Dawkins has been able to perform science successfully despite his clearly strong ideological biases.
In process Scepticism paranormal belief is perfectly compatible with said scepticism, if that is what the empirical evidence leads you to. And hence the strong scepticism among many spiritualist circles, and large numbers of scientists I think who sit in such circles – they have a very anti-faith and evidence based mindset, and spiritualism provides what appears to be empirical proof, or so its adherents profess.
Now I’ve bolded that last paragraph cos I want to look at it more. I’m not a spiritualist, and immediately my instinct is sod “process scepticism”/”scientific methodology”, they are all deluded or being defrauded. Yet I immediately stop myself – because that claim is absolutely unfounded. I have certainly seen fake mediums – and ones who were convinced of their own abilities too – but I certainly have not seen enough to know they were all fakes, even if the Problem of Induction allowed one to make such grandiose claims. I have certainly know enough intelligent critical people who think they have encountered empirical evidence of the persistence after death of loved ones to realise my reaction is emotional, and far from sceptical.
As a sceptic I should do the work: conduct some experiments, investigate the evidence, and not draw conclusions beyond what the evidence permits. To allow “scientific cultures” sneering contempt for mediumship to influence my thinking is clearly seriously unscientific; and when I turn to the arguments most commonly brought against studying such things as impossible, I find most of them are of the category “belief claims for a materialist philosophical worldview” rather than actually anything to do with Science.
If Scepticism is as I propose simply synonymous with Science, it must remain as neutral as possible in framing the questions and conducting the research. If Scepticism is not Science, but instead something more akin to the philosophical defence (apologetics) of materialist, reductionist, and eliminative philosophies then it should be honest that it is that – faith based teaching, a form of apologetics, and state so.
So to go back to those spiritualists — I must adopt an open minded approach as far as I can, given my prejudices, to the phenomena. I must attempt to be objective. If strong belief either way is allowed to interfere with my reading of the data, my science will be flawed. I will want to render the whole research as transparent and objective as possible.
So why disguise my Scientific investigation as something else, dressing it up as “sceptical”? If that term says nothing about my final position (which will be evidence based) why use the misleading “sceptic” term? I’m assuming that no one thinks one can scientifically investigate spiritualism’s reality with the conclusion already written – that would be appalling science – so why take on a label that seems to suggest one is doing exactly such a thing?
Furthermore, imagine you think you have seen a ghost, or a bigfoot, or somesuch. You look in the phonebook – there is the local woo group with their YouTube video series, or the local SCEPTIC. Who will you go to? I doubt it will be the sceptic – even if you are unsure about exactly what you experienced, sceptic implies someone who won’t believe you.
Science is methodologically rigorous, critical thinking, and evidence based. Why do we need to add a Skeptic label?
We don’t. I suggest “Skeptics” stop trying to promote “scepticism”, and promote simpler easier to sell virtues, Truth and Science. No one will react badly to you promising to use science and objectively look for the truth. They may even support you.
I can only think of four reasons why the term Sceptic may be used…
1. It may be employed by people who feel insecure about their credentials for doing science. Don’t. You do not need to wear a white coat or have a PhD in a Scientific discipline to do science. If you aspire to do science, people will help you. Choose a simple research topic, think of an experiment, and try and ask a few folks to check out your methodology before you start. Make sure your ethics are good. And publish your results, if only on the web :)
2. It might be employed by people who think researching say ESP or Lake Monsters without setting out clearly they think it is all bunk will damage their university careers and funding. If so I sympathise, but your publications can speak for themselves, and I think the contrary implication that you are researching topics with your mind already made up as to the outcomes might do you rather more damage in much of academia than a predilection for studying slightly offbeat things.
3. It might be employed by people who genuinely believe there is a difference between sceptical and scientific methodologies, and that the former is superior. If such a position is held, please do explain it to me.
and finally 4. Some people may like calling themselves skeptics because it sounds clever. I have often found skeptics to be fairly intellectually self-assured. I don’t think advocating Science is any less clever though.
So seriously, this whole skeptic thing, it has got so much baggage attached. Stuff it. You find great papers and poor papers in the journals, and whether written by sceptics or believers is irrelevant. Evidence and sound analysis — good science – is what matters at the end of the day.
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