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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, September 16, 2011

What, exactly, should "Skeptics" (with a capital "S" and a "k") be sceptical about?

I'm just going to throw this open. It opens up issues about what we want from the Skeptic movement, including issues of whether the movement is worthwhile if it doesn't deal with important subjects, such as scepticism about religion, scepticism about popular understandings of morality, etc.

E.g., I'm fascinated by stories about Bigfoot and Nessie. On the other hand, these stories are unlikely to be true. On the gripping hand, does it really matter compared to, say, the Catholic Church's claim to exercise a God-established, God-guided moral authority? Aren't there more important things - many of them, indeed - to be sceptical about than tales of weird creatures such as Bigfoot, Nessie, and super-gigantic anacondas?



Tom Clark said...

"Aren't there more important things - many of them, indeed - to be sceptical about than tales of weird creatures such as Bigfoot, Nessie, and super-gigantic anacondas?"

Indeed there are, which is why I've been on the skeptical community's case to take up the issue of contra-causal free will (CCFW). A few skeptics have done some work debunking it, but a lot more needs to be done given the harms done by this belief and the personal and social ramifications of seeing that we're not causal exceptions to nature, http://www.naturalism.org/skepticism.htm

Belief in CCFW is just out and out weird, but some skeptics like Penn and Teller and Michael Shermer have libertarian leanings that prevent them, I think, from taking this on full bore.

Chrys Stevenson said...

I've thought for some time, there's a real need for someone (not me!) to take on the women's magazines. They are so full of psychic woo, astrology and alt med. It really would be great if the skeptical community started to put some pressure on them.

Women's magazines may seem trivial, but this is what young women are reading - and many are not seeing anything which challenges the content.

March Hare said...

I call on a boycott of all Newspapers that carry horoscopes.

Realistically, a Skeptical movement should be about verifiable truth and hence everything should be in its line of fire. Otherwise it's making value judgements on what's important, and that is something we should be sceptical of.

Oft ignored topics: CCFW, objective morality (or morality full stop), political claims, economic claims, pharmaceutical claims, advertisements, pseudo-religious social movements (e.g. recycling, carbon footprint, benefits of banning tungsten light bulbs, Malthusian overpopulation etc. etc.), national pride, weight classes in sport, gender classes in sport, sports fanatics, risk of terrorism, risks in general (especially in elevators :) ).

@blamer said...

Doesn't being a "movement" imply pushing for social or political changes?

Broadly I think that Skeptics want changes where we see public policies or public opinion are lagging way behind academia.

Wherever the science is settled, we need ways to persuade non-experts. If philosophy departments have antiquated an idea, again we need compelling arguments.

Skeptics may be experts in their field, but when they put on their Skeptic cap then they're trying to convince layman.

And how we attempt to do this should be based - not on "enlightened" tradition - but on what the best evidence tells us really works.

Damion said...

I'd second the call for skeptical inquiry into CCFW and it's most harmful social manifestations, such as punitive sentencing for victimless crimes. I'd also like to see more skeptical attempts to bring the results of critical scholarship on holy texts to those outside of the seminaries. Finally, I'd like to see skeptics following Chris Rodda and Rob Boston and other scholars who attempt to rebut commonly held myths about the founding of the American republic.

DEEN said...

As long as skepticism doesn't devolve into either cynicism or denialism, I can't think of anything that would be off-limits to skepticism.

As to what the "Skeptic Movement" (as far as it exist) should focus on, or should give priority, I would personally indeed not put Bigfoot or Nessie very high on the list. Promoting good science and fighting pseudoscience and denialism should be up there, of course. Especially the usual suspects, like alt med, climate science, evolution etc. I don't think many people would disagree.

But in addition, I think skepticism should also talk about economics and policy. Like religion, this is something that skepticism tends to shy away from. Because, like religion, talking about politics is often not considered a proper topic for polite discussion. But in my view, that is exactly something Skepticism should attempt to change.

Darrick Lim said...

Skepticism: The higher the stakes, the greater the need for it.

Jambe said...

Hm. I don't think the movement is so small/insular that that a deliberate direction is necessary (let alone possible).

Nonetheless, I think one thing above all others merits attention: the education of our young people. If we don't (or indeed can't) reliably communicate to future generations the practical and social benefits of skeptical worldviews, they're more or less damned to the credulity of their forebears, aren't they?


Lippard said...

Skeptics should be skeptical of everything, including their own skepticism.

Skeptical organizations with missions like CSI and JREF, however, should probably stick to (a) empirically testable questions where (b) they can make a unique contribution that other dedicated groups aren't already addressing, which (c) promote the tools of critical thinking and skepticism to a wide audience and (d) giving priority to issues that cause real harm. So combatting things like quack cancer cures and other scams that endanger health and life should be high on the list, as should some of the more obvious cases that don't necessarily cause harm but are good examples for teaching critical thinking tools to people who can then figure out for themselves how to apply them in different contexts.

Alex said...

Quoting Steve Novella: "Skepticism is the process by which we separate ideas we want to be true from ideas that actually are true."

Ie. Science. And the answer to your question is, unfortunately, "everything" which makes it hard to focus.

I guess you're right in pointing out that skepticism about religious beliefs are more important (ie. has bigger impact on human lives throughout the world) than Bigfoot and the like (which affect only a tiny circle of cranks and kooks).

But we can go further. I'm reading "The logic of chance", a biology (mostly) book by Koonin, and he states in the intro: "I'm inclined to to reword the famous dictum [...] 'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution' [...] in an even more straight-forward manner: Biology is evolution."

I like the focus of science in every-day conversations, commenting on statements of others with "doesn't sound scientific", "is that tested?", "sounds biased", and so on, successfully (I think most of the time) refocusing people to faulty reasoning and bias. Just like we shouldn't talk about evolution being separate from biology, there's no real difference between skeptics and scientists (except, arguably, education). Let's stop saying "do you think so?" after people have made some claim. Say, "have you tested this?", "have you checked it?", "how can I verify this?" People *should* be held accountable for claims they make, crank, kook or not.

Russell Blackford said...

Mind you, I find studies of Bigfoot, etc., interesting. I wouldn't want them to stop.

I guess I'm wondering, though, whether a much larger range of claims should be addressed by the Skeptic movement.

Above, March Hare makes a point about misconceptions of risk. Even leaving aside the specific (and recently popular) issue of the risk of rape in elevators, the public's perceptions of what is risky and what isn't are dramatically out of line with statistics on accidents, crime rates, etc., and there's a lot of popular material that fuels those false perceptions.

Again, how often do we see the claim made that last century was the most violent one ever? It came up again in the atheism debate last week, and there was no time (or real need) to rebut it. Yet, by obvious measures such as number of people who suffered violent deaths, the claim is simply not true.

We could probably find many widely-held misconceptions that distort people's worldviews while flying in the face of the facts. This is even before we get to big philosophical questions about God, free will, morality, and the like.

Anonymous said...

There are many important things for Skeptics to investigate, as mentioned here. But I firmly believe skepticism is only half the programme that I suspect you want to achieve.

Skepticism works best as a critical approach, applying the tools of reason to scrutinise dubious claims. But I don't feel it segues well into promoting a positive worldview.

It's more the policing arm of a broadly rational and secular worldview - yet it still requires that worldview to be advocated. And I, for one, wouldn't want the police teaching civics.

I'd prefer to see rationalism, secularism, humanism - whatever rational, empirically-informed worldviews - promoted in a positive sense, leaving skepticism to do what it does best.

As folk more closely associated with skepticism than I, how do you feel about the critical/positive aspects of skepticism? They fit well? Any reservations?

Alex said...

Well, yes, you make a good point. We could bring up the whole boat-people debate in here. I think the Australian public would do well to read some statistics on immigration, asylum seekers, boats vs. planes, and so on.

I kinda feel it's business as usual, though, and that skeptics can't focus on any one thing but just be skeptical about everything.

You say you like Bigfoot stuff. I don't. I used to, but now I find it pretentious and tedious, probably because there's so many *real* problems in the world in need of attention I find it selfish and stupid of these people to waste so much time and effort on what by all accounts is nonsense.

They say ignorance is bliss, but that is only true in isolation of people's minds, never as a society in which we spend most of our daily lives.

Oh, and Australian politics. that's an area in deep, serious need of skeptics. Even Australian politicians don't take Australian politics seriously.

JoshJ said...

>I guess I'm wondering, though, whether a much larger range of claims should be addressed by the Skeptic movement.

Russel, the Skeptic movement isn't just about bigfoot or conspiracy theories. "Skeptic" in the context of the Skeptic movement is basically synonymous with critical thinker, and that means science and philosophy directly intersect with the movement. For example, Massimo Pigliucci has been published several times in Skeptic magazine. This includes his critique of Sam Harris' science of morality and other philosophical topics.

You're also mistaken when you imply that religion isn't taken seriously within the Skeptic movement. Micheal Shermer and James Randi (both predominant leaders in the movement) have been fairly strong in their own critiques of religion. However, there are some within the movement that want to avoid alienating religious people, and so they compartmentalize their skepticism from religion. There was a debate about this a while back (google "Phil Plait don't be a dick").

However, most people in the movement do apply their skepticism to religion. It's just that it might not be the most interesting topic for them. Anyway, we have the New Atheists for that. Also, the Skeptic movement is significantly more diverse than you seem to think it is. There are many skeptical niches, and they vary in popularity and interest. For instance, there are philosophical, feminist, epidemiological, economic, corporate, and political skeptics (ask for examples). And, to counter your claim, I think you'd agree that these are important subjects. You also may be wondering what these niches have in common. Basically, they avoid value judgements while applying a variable mix of empiricism and rationality to discover some agreeable concept of truth. By the way, skepticism as applied to science and supernatural claims is definitely the most popular niche, and this is probably where you've gotten your view of the Skeptic movement (it's the most fun for the casual Skeptic).

Russell Blackford said...

Eid, you sound a bit defensive.
I'm not making any strong claims in criticism of the movement, just throwing open a question for discussion. I'm not even against fun topics such as Nessie and Bigfoot.

Perhaps the movement is as diverse as you say, but there are certainly controversies about this issue, current priorities, topics that at least some people think should be out of bounds, etc. So it seems like a good issue, or set of issues, for discussion: what sorts of things should the Skeptic movement look at, what should be its priorities, what should be out of bounds for one reason or another, what is best handled elsewhere? I'm open to the view that some things should be handled elsewhere if a good argument is put for it.

Lippard said...

Russell--a year after 9/11, Skeptical Inquirer published this article on risk perception:


Russell Blackford said...

Thanks for that, Jim - I'll have a look.

JoshJ said...

Russel, I didn't mean to come across as defensive. I wasn't even slightly offended. I was just responding to what seemed to be several misconceptions concerning the Skeptic movement. But, given your response it seems you had different intentions for discussion from what I inferred.

So, personally, I think the Skeptic movement's priority should be in teaching people how to be rational. Currently, most Skeptics learn a few logical fallacies and some good reasons for trusting expert consensus. I don't think that's enough to generate rational thinkers (e.g., the Elevatorgate malarkey). Consequently, I think Skeptics with philosophical and scientific training should develop a framework of knowledge for the Skeptic movement. Basically, something like what the lesswrong community has done but significantly more mainstream and simplified.

(Also, the following is a sample of the diversity of the skeptical community. Bad Science, Point of Inquiry, Skepchick, Rationally Speaking, Science-Based Medicine, Bad Astronomy, QuackCast, Infidel Guy, RationalWiki, The Skeptic's Dictionary)

Michael said...

As many have said, I don't find a need to prioritize because everything falls under the proscription "skeptic". And more importantly, I don't ever run into a situation where I'm forced to decide if I'll combat horroscopes instead of anti-vax nonsense. While it's perfectly clear that anti-vax has far more practical importance, I'm never in a situation where I think my time rebutting some random persons assertion "I knew you were a Cancer!", is taking time from combating anti-vax nonsense. Just as I don't think combatting anti-vax keeps me from combatting creationism.

So heres what I'm wondering about your question. Is there a specific example of a person, group or corporation that spends too much of it's important intellectual capital fighting trivial things (ie horoscopes) instead of something important like anti- stem cell arguments?

March Hare said...

We should be exceptionally sceptical about new reporting too. Papers and TV channels have owners who have agendas and even if the story is accurate we must ask why that story was chosen over others, is that story being presented in a biased way, is there an agenda being pushed, is the talking head making a factual point or is it simply his view?

e.g. When The Guardian or the BBC do stories on climate change they generally get the science right, then make questionable claims about the actual impact of climate change (speculation) and often refer to what has to be done to combat it (opinion).

Russell Blackford said...

According to the thread so far, not everyone believes astrology is an unimportant problem.

Michael said...

"Unimportant" is not the same as "trivial in comparison to other issues". No doubt nonsense should be met at every turn, but, is your question concerning we as individuals? Or groups and corporations? Otherwise, the the gist of your post has been answered many times over. Everything is the purview of the skeptic. How could it not be?

Again, I'm really just asking what you're after. I have many thoughts, but I'm just wondering what the point of view is.

March Hare said...

And people who "touch wood" for luck, or cross their fingers, or who talk about "jinxing" things - we should bring back hanging for those people.

Sorry, thought I'd go on a mini rant.

Svlad Cjelli said...

The things are the same thing.

Russell Blackford said...

Well sure, Michael, here's a practical example of what I'm getting at ... but bear in mind that it's a question. What topics and what sorts of speakers should be chosen at major Skeptic conventions?

E.g., would it be appropriate or not for Sam Harris or Jerry Coyne or Susan Blackmore or Tom Clark, say, to give a speech attempting to debunk free will, or some conception of it? Would it be appropriate for someone to try to debunk commonsense concepts of moral realism? What about widely-favoured substantive moral positions that might be vulnerable to criticism, such as, oh, I don't know, let's say the alleged evil of taking hallucinogenic drugs, or the moral acceptability of using imprisonment as a common punishment? What about the loopier kinds of post-structuralist theory and literary deconstruction? What about the loopier kinds of political ideologies, whether of the Right (Randian views perhaps) or the Left (certain kinds of communism, maybe)? There are many widely believed ideas that we can be sceptical about with some prospect that reason is on our side.

Notice that I say "some prospect" because I'm not ruling out that some of these things that I've mentioned might be defensible, in which case there could even be debates.

I'm open to an answer such as, "Conventions don't all have to be the same."

There's no particular ulterior motive behind this question (though there may be lots of converging considerations). I'm not even sure just what inspired me last night to bring this up again. But it does seem like a perennial issue.

Does that make clearer what I'm getting at? As I say, there's no specific agenda here. I'm not arguing that the next big convention should have a debate about the merits of Ayn Rand or a session from me talking about moral error theory or even, say, a session from Richard Dawkins arguing in favour of atheism. Perhaps it should have those on its program, but perhaps it shouldn't; I'm only raising a general question.

March Hare said...

Russell said: "Conventions don't all have to be the same."

Was that intentional? I quite like it.

Back on topic I think that while Skeptics should be sceptical about everything, the movement, such as it is, should be focussed on those things that cost the most money, lives and damage, so, in order(ish):

Risk Assessment: would allow us to get back to normal routines and stop mis-spending money on anti-terrorism and actually on things that save lives. This would also counter any of the anti-vax claims that have the slightest grain of truth to them.

Religion: Stopping religion mistreating and mis-educating children is a benefit in and of itself. Stopping it having a respected voice in the public sphere will allow for birth control, stem cell research and a whole raft of benefits to people in all countries, even those where religion still holds sway.

CCFW: This will allow us to re-evaluate our justice system and rehabilitate criminals rather than seek to punish them. It will also, hopefully, help remove all victimless crimes.

Politics: Calling BS on politicians and educating the public (see next one) on why what they say is wrong will make for more honest politicians and better policies.

Economics: We need to be able to evaluate various policies and let the citizens decide how their money is best spent and stop the misuse of funds for projects with no economic benefits.

Russell Blackford said...

lol, no - I hadn't meant to be funny.

I suppose someone might say that the Skeptic movement has a heart - it's about scepticism about sort of low-level superstitions (not religious doctrines) and faux-science. Hence the interest in debunking Bigfoot, ghosts, UFOs, zombies, homoeopathy, and psychic powers. It should (according to such an argument) deal with issues bearing a family resemblance to these and let others deal with religion, bad political ideologies, and all the other things that merit small-c (or k)scepticism.

I'd be quite happy to hear and consider an argument along those lines. If it's convincing, it will suggest that the Skeptic movement isn't as important as it might otherwise seem, since it has a confined set of interests, but I'd like to see all the arguments hashed out. What kind of contribution can the movement make? What kind of contribution can we/should we try to make to it if we have only a limited interest in the things in the previous paragraph?

Tom Clark said...

I'm wondering if there's a set of epistemic best practices that skeptics can agree on which could be brought to bear in debunking dubious beliefs, and whether it would be much different than good scientific practice. This might make an interesting conference session for philosophical types but probably wouldn't be a big draw for rank and file skeptics, who perhaps aren't that interested in examining their own cognitive biases. It took Shermer a while to realize that his skepticism about global warming was itself dubious. Session title: "Skeptic, doubt thyself!"

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I suppose someone might say that the Skeptic movement has a heart - it's about scepticism about sort of low-level superstitions (not religious doctrines) and faux-science."

I wouldn't say that's the heart of the Skeptic movement. Rather, the heart is learning to do critical thinking, and the topics that skeptics traditionally have covered, e.g. Bigfoot, UFOs, etc. are good choices for illustrating critical thinking. Most people aren't emotionally invested in such topics, so a discussion of the problems that lead to people to believe in such things is less likely to trigger defensive reactions and prevent one from absorbing the lessons of how people learn to believe in "weird" things. Once those lessons are learned, they can be applied more broadly to other, more important things, including religion, of course -- but the lessons have to be learned first.

I'd say that, in general, the skeptic movement is primarily about illustrating and popularizing critical thinking. (Mythbusters would be one such popularization.) Other movements, then, can apply that critical thinking to more controversial or difficult topics.

March Hare said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Thanks for clarifying Russell! It just so happens that this became the conversation over dinner last night with friends. The group seemed to decide that a "low level" skeptic focus didn't interest anyone. In fact if "skeptics" didn't tackle major social issues of the day, then no one really cared to be apart of a group with that label. Also, the hypothetical convention that you came up with was universally supported (granted there were only 6 of us) and we'd all like a ticket to it.

Oddly, free will itself wasn't that high on the list. However, that may be because it doesn't get a lot focus! I guess to encapsulate the discussion at dinner, our opinion was that skeptics should be interested in the issues strongly effecting society at large. Gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, politics and government, foreign wars etc etc. A rational, skeptical mindset is gravely needed in all these very practical matters and I'd love to hear more skeptics step out more from the known areas (religion, superstition) and take on a more general public intellectual-esque stance.