"And sometimes he's so nameless"

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.

cj x

About these ads

17 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Dave Wood said, on February 15, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    True story, that

  2. Jonathan Elcock said, on February 15, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    I’m not sure the list of 4 possible reasons is all possible reasons, some other possible reasons might include.

    Self identifying as a skeptic to distinguish self from non-skeptics (and this might be very contingent on who you’re having a conversation with rather than some long lasting identify thing).

    Self identifying as a skeptic as move to claim shared identity with other skeptics (again this might be contingent on the precise conversation being had, but I am suggesting this as something a bit more than the sense above).

    You have already touched upon skeptic as a marker of boundary conditions, I study these phenomena, but at the moment I am not convinced that these phenomena actually happen, but feel you might treat the utility of that sort of boundary work a little too lightly.

    Some of the arguments around paranormal phenomena are not around things that are particularly open to scientific methods, needing instead a sensitivity towards either historical, and/or sociological and/or philosophical (and/or etc) approaches. So using ‘scientist’ as descriptor might not be accurate. Using skeptic might be more accurate. Although this comes from my own misgivings about the notion that science is the only way to investigate human activity (see for example http://www.kurtdanziger.com/Paper%205.htm). And just in case it is not clear I think science is a superb way to investigate many paranormal claims.

  3. Chris Jensen Romer said, on February 15, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Yeah, but I think you know me well enough to know that I am completely convinced that science is only one way of knowing: I have certainly written extensively about the epistemological limits of scientific knowledge on this blog, perhaps most famously in the passage where I point out 2 Timothy 3:16 is actually less tautological than Dawkin’s claim there is no Scientific Evidence for God. (just in case anyone wants short version, Scripture at time of 2 Timothy = what we now term The Old Testament, so not a self-referential statement, as 2 Timothy joins corpus of Scripture at date after written through usage as such: one of the foundational axioms of Science is Methodological Naturalism which excludes all supernatural elements for perfectly sound reasons of utility, so one can no offer Scientific Evidence for a Supernatural Entity — anyway all this is discussed elsewhere on my blog). So by saying Scepticism as a methodology is scientific I hope not to be seen to be endorsing Sceintism. something I have long railed against. Nope clearly there are other legitimate epistemological strategies – history, personal experience, pure reason, etc, etc. However, the methods employed by many of the Skeptics are primarily simply scientific skepticism — the ones who adopt ontological naturalism and make strong atheist claims for example I am likely to challenge on various grounds, but I do think a great deal of the success of atheism ideas right snow in our society do occur through the inadvertent and naive conflations of default methodological naturalism as ontological naturalism; such a worldview appears hegemonic in British Society, and it often takes quite a lot of discussion to allow people to see they have even conflated the two in the first place.

  4. Steve Ash said, on February 16, 2013 at 3:23 am

    Yes I agree, APS types aren’t really that bright, and most are really true believers. But I would say what you call methodological scepticism is actually what I would call Empirical Scepticism, which is the root of Scientific Method I agree. But then I’m a moderate, radical Pyrrhonist. Meaning I go a long way towards the axiom “Nothing can be known, not even this”, but perhaps not all the way. I’d believe in science producing half truths of pragmatic worth (along with other means of producing the same). Which I guess makes me a Falliblist in Science. And radical as I would follow my intuition in everyday decisions where science doesn’t help rather than custom as the conservative Pyrrhonists tend to.

  5. Karla McLaren said, on February 16, 2013 at 7:29 am

    I appreciate what you’re saying here, and I like the way you arrive at your conclusions. When I left skepticism behind, I did so because I found it to be so strongly ideological and un-selfaware. It seemed to be enough for people to call themselves Skeptics and upload all of the requisite information about dowsing, Popoff, and the unquestioned idea that all psychics are frauds and/or deluded. Some good inquiry could occur within all that ideological morass, but only because people can shine in any sort of troubling environment.

    Also, there’s a very unfortunate (and I think deal-killing) derision of social science within many areas of movement skepticism (it is looked down upon as a soft science) — but the problem with that is the study of the paranormal and the metaphysical is primarily a social scientific undertaking. Whether gods or ghosts or the afterlife exist is really not the point: what matters is how people respond to those ideas, and why.

    I was also fascinated by the crusading frame of “us against irrationality,” or “us against fraud,” or “us against woo” (“woo” is a derisive and dehumanizing term that is completely normative and accepted — and a sign of the strong ideological bent of the community) — when that polarized and dramatic frame pretty much guarantees a complete failure of outreach. In fact, I still cannot find a single skeptical site anywhere that does not treat believers or their beliefs in condescending and demeaning ways; these are not sites or organizations devoted to objective scientific inquiry. However, this subjective and polarized frame does strongly increase internal cohesion, so it’s not a complete loss.

    I’ve called skeptics “science fan boys,” and I’ve been very concerned about their ungrounded approach to science-as-certainty that you so aptly term APS. Though I honestly and truly need support in my work — to help people make sense of the many things they are being sold and urged to believe in New Age spirituality and alternative health care, the skeptical community is simply not a reliable or trustworthy source of sober, objective, or well-intentioned information. This is a source of grief for me every day, and anger.

  6. benthamfish said, on February 16, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I think that scepticism is a tool that helps people to examine problems. I can see why you might want to chuck the self-labelling of yourself as a ‘sceptic’, but I wouldn’t chuck out scepticism as a tool. I suspect that scepticism as a world view is pretty difficult, especially a priori scepticism – you might never come out of your room :-).

    Science is (a priori!) ‘empirical scepticism’, so you can’t really be a scientist and not some form of sceptic. There are, as has been mentioned, other types of scepticism, including the use of the term with a colloquial, and dare I say it, offhand, meaning.

    I see myself as having a generally sceptical view of issues that I encounter. I tend to address these issues in more of a ‘systems thinking’ way myself than a scientific one however, because I’m usually seeking a slightly different type of truth from a science-based one – usually a blatantly useful ‘good enough’ understanding, than a nugget of scientific truth, even though empirically based.

    I would agree that there is little difference between methodological scepticism and normal scientific method, mainly because scientific method is an ‘empirically sceptical’ method. It may be that you have equated ‘scepticism’ with ‘philosophical scepticism’, which leads you to question the use of scepticism in science? That might be an error.

    I’m not sure that attaching a label to yourself (‘I’m a sceptic’ or ‘I’m not a sceptic but a …’) is all that helpful. I think you’ve encapsulated an element of ‘truth’ in your last sentence: “Evidence and sound analysis — good science – is what matters at the end of the day.” However, I might take out the ‘good science’ bit, as that could be limiting, if you want to use other equally good techniques – how about: “Evidence and sound critical enquiry is what matters at the end of the day.”

    (For any US citizens out there: sceptic=skeptic, labelling=labeling, enquiry=inquiry, pavement=sidewalk).

  7. JM Abrassart (@JMAbrassart) said, on February 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Hello,

    I mostly agree with your blogpost. However, my definition of the skeptical movement is that it’s a tribe or a community of thinking. The parapsychological community is another tribe. People in one intellectual tribe (there are many of them) think together, and tend to ignore what the other tribes are doing. You’re criticism of the skeptical movement seems fair to me, but I think similar criticisms could be make of other tribes, including the parapsychological one.

    Keep up the good work,

  8. [...] to give up on "Skepticism?" Another great find via the links over at The Daily Grail: Is it time to give up on “Skepticism”? "And sometimes he's so nameless&quo… I think everyone here at the Skeptiko forum will find something of value in this one. [...]

    • the circling is worth it said, on February 20, 2013 at 3:19 am

      hmmm did you read the article or just the title? In my opinion, both extremes are deluded. Neither care about “evidence”. For some reason, it seems more fashionable to be on the extreme side of scepticism than gullibility. I guess that makes sense as a defense mechanism, not to believe anything you haven’t experienced first hand. But where would we be if we didn’t take just a little on faith and the words of others?

  9. alanborky said, on February 19, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    “even Richard Dawkins has been able to perform science successfully despite his clearly strong ideological biases”.

    I would rephrase that ‘even Richard Dawkins WAS able to perform science successfully UNTIL his clearly strong ideological biases overrode that possibility.’

    Otherwise I’d tend to agree with much of what you say and as someone who’s experienced time seeming to stop dead since a kid in the Sixties or having to use one of my own kids as guide dogs to help me cross the road because roads either seem to soar straight up in the air or plunge straight down or feel like they’ve turned to sponge rubber or I sometimes can’t tell whether cars’re a hundred miles away or right on top of me not to mention undergo religious style mystical experiences/visions or interact with what seem to be ghosts of Roman soldiers/Elizabethan waistrels/my own father/God amongst a whole host of critters I have to assert three things 1) anyone who unquestioningly asserts there’re no such experiences or they’re the product of overactive imaginations is talking completely out their arse because these experiences’re packed with so much super vivid detail and information you could spend a lifetime trying to put down everything you glean during any one of them 2) anyone who undergoes these experiences and unquestioningly takes it on face value they’re now the Son of God/Satan or bringing to humanity the messages/ultimatums of Things from Uranus or definitely interacting with the ghost of their father etc is beingly equally foolish because their actual explanation may lay so far on the other side of the Twilight Zone we haven’t yet evolved the cranial architecture to even begin to get a handle on them 3) not only do the two tribes of supposed skeptics and supposed believers NOT ignore each other’s points of view but as is the case with all religions/tribes there’re many subtribes/religious factions who’re sometimes even more hostile to their fellow skeptics/believers than they are to the official opposition something that’d be revealed by the bloodbath that’d instantly ensue the moment the opposition ever magically vanished.

  10. weirddreamsorg said, on February 20, 2013 at 1:46 am

    I do find it helpful to read skeptic blogs and forums for their objections to precognitive dreams, which is my area of interest. Some objections are reasonable and need to be considered in any claim, for instance, Richard Wiseman points out that a dream report that could be a prediction of the Aberfan mining disaster. “No school there” because “something black had come down all over it” and the he offers an alternative non-precognitive explanation, that there was existing apprehension over the safety of the mine during rain storms, so it might have been subconscious anxiety.

    Fair enough, this would leave us with the cause of the dream being underdetermined by the evidence. What those in the skeptic movement do next is apply Occam’s Razor to this scenario and say subconscious anxiety is the better explanation. This is done under the assumption and unstated position of materialism because of course, precognition would muddle up cause and effect. Next thing you know they’ve “proved*” precognition doesn’t exist.

    *ahem

    This is when I find it’s time to give up with skeptics. They reject precognition because it breaks the laws of causality which is based upon materialism when in fact, precognition is the evidence that consciousness is probably not material because it doesn’t adhere to the laws of causality.

    I’d rather call Dr. Laura for advice.

  11. Michael Horn said, on February 22, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Editor: In considering my comment, please refer to this one,a s I see that teh other one got messed up:
    I have had numerous encounters with the professional skeptics over the past dozen years, since I represent the Billy Meier UFO case in Switzerland. Among those I’ve confronted are James Randi, Phil Plait, Michael Shermer, Stephen Novella and Stuart Robbins.

    Robbins has tried to debunk Meier’s information on his blogs and ran into a bit of a problem, one that resulted in his repeatedly removing the following link I attempted to post:

    http://www.theyfly.com/skeptical-challenge/confirming-meier’s-jupiter-information-and-debunking-incorrect-debunkers-…-again

    I have said for a long time that if one can call themselves a scientist there’s absolutely no need to dilute their credibility by referring to themselves as a skeptic.

    While I’m not here to promote my work per se, anyone who is actually interested in the skeptic-stumping, scientifically solid Meier case (even to challenge it, etc.) is certainly welcome to contact me.

  12. Jason Wingate said, on May 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    For what it’s worth CJ, you never appeared to me to be a “skeptic” anyway. I was fresh from the Somme of the Skeptiko forum when I discovered your writing. You were actually interested in coming to conclusions based on evidence. You could not have been a skeptic. Then you wrote about lots of that evidence, having sought it out, and the conclusions you reached were sound. I didn’t realise you identified as skeptical until much later on.

    I always recall the vast difference in tone between the way Sheldrake talks of Chris French, and the way he talks of Dawkins. The new improved genius idea of Dawkins was — “I know, let’s be rude! We haven’t tried that!” As Karla says there is a strong dehumanising element. It’s that dehumanising, not the faith itself, that troubles me. Anyone can have any faith they like as far as I’m concerned.

    I ran “A Priori Skepticism” through an anagram generator and… let’s stop there. :)

  13. SocraticGadfly said, on May 7, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    I’ll add reason No. 5 to your list of reasons. Money/fame is why skeptics still insist on being separate.

    Per your point, shouldn’t those who call themselves “scientific skeptics” instead seek to create fields of study within mainstream science?

    Ahh, but the crusading glamor, the conventions, the swag, the money, would all dry up. After all, who’s ever heard of a James Randi of geology?

    • SocraticGadfly said, on May 7, 2013 at 5:52 pm

      And, here’s a few thoughts I’ve developed on the “tar baby” between some Gnu Atheists and some Skeptics(TM)

    • Michael Horn said, on May 8, 2013 at 3:09 am

      I invite the people who are participating here to discover the so-called “hoax” that James Randi and the rest of the skeptics will no longer call such, having either retracted their claims, or been defeated by the…evidence.

      http://www.theyfly.com

      http://www.theyflyblog.com

      The actual proof in this case rests on our internationally respected, irrefutable, legal standard…copyrights.

  14. PatrickSMcNally said, on September 20, 2013 at 1:53 am

    One should distinguish between “skeptic” versus “debunker” here. Those words are often used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be. Being a professional debunker is the inverse image of being a professional conspiratologist. If someone tries to make a profession out of spinning conspiracy yarns all the time then they are bound to overstep themselves in many places, even when it is true that real conspiracies can sometimes occur. Likewise anyone who tries to make a profession of debunking will either be forced to avoid questions where the answer is not obvious enough to allow for an easy debunking or else they will end up stretching evidence beyond reasonable limits. But a good skeptic will be naturally distrustful of the Bush claims that Saddam Hussein was beyond 911 while still agreeing that just shouting “high school physics” is not a sustainable argument for a controlled demolition hypothesis.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,104 other followers

%d bloggers like this: