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Posted by on Aug 5, 2013 in Philosophy, Science | 0 comments

On being skeptical (Part 1)

As I discussed in my talk at TAM2013, I take contemporary scientific skepticism to be a certain resistance to – cum suspicion of, cum tendency to scrutinise harshly – claims about the reality of phenomena that would be anomalous within our developing scientific worldview. The scientific skeptic movement is a collective and somewhat organised version of this attitude.

For example, scientific skeptics will take a resistant/suspicious/harshly scrutinising attitude to the claim that reincarnation is a real phenomenon. The justification for this is that reincarnation does not readily fit within the picture of the world built up by science. If the evidence for it became so compelling that we concluded it must be a real phenomenon, we would need to overturn and revise much of our scientific understanding of how the world works. Putting this in another way, the whole extraordinary (from, say, a 15th-century perspective) record of science in building its world picture through evidence stands in the balance against the reality of reincarnation.

That is not a reason to close our minds completely against reincarnation claims. But it is a reason to regard such claims, in current circumstances, as remotely unlikely to turn out to be true. Given the total evidence supporting the current scientific picture, reincarnation claims should be given a prior assessment as highly implausible and improbable. We should treat them as extraordinary and ask for exceptionally powerful evidence before we believe them.

Not all claims that we should now regard as extraordinary are anomalous in this strong sense – i.e. that our whole scientific picture would have to be revised if they were true – but many at least run up against well-established scientific findings, the evidence for which thus stands as evidence against them. Others run up against well-established findings from empirical disciplines outside of what is usually regarded as “science” in English-speaking countries, such as history. For example, we should regard the claims of Holocaust denialists as extraordinary, even though resistance to them may not be central to the mission of scientific skepticism. Because of the close analogy, scientific skeptics should find these sorts of claims troubling and be interested in what happens when they are scrutinised.

There is no real doubt that the Holocaust, much as it is usually described, including the murders of almost 6 million Jews, actually took place. We might once have had reason to doubt this, given the sheer scale and horror of the crimes involved, as well as historical experience with atrocity propaganda. However, we actually have the extensive and compelling evidence in this case. What about other cases where we do not have it?

As a generalisation, it remains true that atrocity stories are often exaggerated, false, or even fraudulent – and we would always do well to be suspicious of atrocity stories that are employed by our political leaders as justifications to go to war (or continue fighting a war). Sometimes these stories have an element of truth, but sometimes they collapse entirely under investigation. Given the human tendency to believe such stories about supposed enemies, the ease with which they can be fabricated and spread, the motivation for very powerful players (such as governments) to do exactly that, and the difficulty in investigating these stories, we should be suspicious of them. Extending this reasoning beyond atrocities in the strict sense, these considerations also apply to such claims as that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction at the time of the last Gulf War.

Moreover, many strong claims made by social scientists and humanities scholars, even perfectly reputable ones, may have nothing like the empirical backing possessed by say, heliocentric theory in astronomy, evolutionary theory in biology, or the knowledge of the Holocaust possessed by historians. These disciplines are often rife with contested findings, heavily divided along political lines, and in a state that is, at best, pre-scientific (with no established and generally agreed theoretical paradigm yet prevailing). That is not a reason for excessive skepticism – clearly much honest, brilliant, and rigorous work goes on in all these fields – but it is certainly a reason for some suspicion when we are confronted with findings that appear to run up against common experience or where the data presented are open to multiple interpretations.

It seems to me that there is scope for much reflection about how far scientific skepticism, or something analogous to it, should apply to claims that run counter to current fashion in academic economics, say, or in academic literary criticism. These fields doubtless do produce robust, powerfully evidenced knowledge. But they also produce much that is deservedly controversial or even worthy of suspicion. Entire schools of, say, economic thought, with numerous adherents, may be open to legitimate doubt.

Tomorrow, I want to explore another aspect of all this. In many situations, the evidence for and against certain claims is just very murky – getting to the truth seems difficult, perhaps requiring settling the truth of numerous other claims first before we can even know what the evidence really amounts to one way or the other. Given our limited resources, as individuals and collectively, it may often be almost impossible to establish the truth in any way that we could be confident about if we were entirely honest. In some circumstances, critical evidence may be lost or unobtainable. Thus, although there will be some truth as to which claims correspond to reality, there may be no investigative approach that can tell us decisively, or even with a high degree of confidence, what the truth actually is. How should rational and reasonable people respond in these situations, which may be more common, or even typical, than we’d like to believe?