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Scope of skepticism revisited

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on January 15, 2010

A little while ago I wrote an entry as a reply to Jim Lippard’s entry on the scope of skepticism at The Lippard blog. Jim has updated his original entry to include a reply to my arguments, and he makes a few good corrections that I grant I should have spelled out on my own. For example he points out that:

Skepdude has taken issue with a couple of points above, and offers his contrary arguments at his blog. First, he says that skeptics need to defer to scientific consensus with the “possible exception” of cases where “the person is also an expert on said field.” I think that case is a definite, rather than a possible exception, but would go farther–it’s possible to be an expert (or even just a well-informed amateur) in a field that has direct bearing on premises or inferences used by experts in another field where one is not expert. That can give a foothold for challenging a consensus in a field where one is not expert. For example, philosophers, mathematicians, and statisticians can spot errors of conceptual confusion, fallacious reasoning, invalid inferences, mathematical errors, and misuse of statistics. It’s possible for an entire field to have an erroneous consensus, such as that rocks cannot fall from the sky or continents cannot move. I suspect an argument can be made that erroneous consensus is more likely to occur in a field with a high degree of specialization that doesn’t have good input from generalists and related fields.

All of which is right of course. The case of the expert skeptic is a definite case, I grant that. Furthermore,  we can imagine cases when a quote-unquote non-expert may be able to spot errors in a field based on the non-expert’s own field of expertise, as the examples Jim gives show, even though I’d think that the cases when a whole field would be based on bad statistics or wrong math would be quite rare, but possible nevertheless. However, these are exceptions to the rule. As skeptics we deal with many varied issues, and one not being an expert in everything, must still, in my opinion, defer to the experts’ consensus, for that offers a higher probability of being the best interpretation of the evidence than a novice can ever hope to achieve. Jim is a bit weary of deferring to the experts however:

I also am uncomfortable with talk of “deference” to experts without scope or context, as it can be taken to imply the illegitimacy of questioning or demanding evidence and explanation in support of the consensus, which to my mind should always be legitimate.

The context is clear in my mind: whenever consensus exists.  As I said previously, if the experts themselves are fighting it out we can’t take sides, but if scientific consensus exists I don’t see the point of demanding evidence, especially if we are not equipped to evaluate this evidence. Jim is right that we ought to be careful not to imply that this inquisitive attitude is to be suppressed, but I think that there is little point for a non-expert to question the experts’ consensus. We should have access to the science, but we also ought to be mindful of the argument from personal incredulity. I don’t think skeptics need to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch with every claim. We must accept some things and I can hardly find anything more trustworthy than scientific consensus. That said, I’m not implying that science or consensus can’t be wrong; let us be clear: my claim is that in matter of scientific consensus versus lone non-expert skeptic the odds are overwhelmingly in the favor of the consensus.

Next we move to our real point of contention the skepticism and atheism issue. Jim says:

There is most definitely a distinction between “skepticism implies atheism” and “proper application of skepticism leads to atheism.” The former is a logical claim that says atheism is derivable from skepticism, or that it’s necessarily the case that the use of skepticism (regardless of inputs?) yields atheism. The latter is a contingent claim that’s dependent upon the inputs and the result of the inquiry. If skepticism is defined as a method, the former claim would mean in essence that the game is rigged to produce a particular result for an existence claim necessarily, which would seem to me to be a serious flaw in the method, unless you thought that atheism was logically necessary. But I’m not aware of any atheists who hold that, and I know that Skepdude doesn’t, since he prefers to define atheism as mere lack of belief and has argued that there is no case to be made for positive atheism/strong atheism.

And this is where our agreement starts to fall apart. I tend to take a less philosophical look at the issue, and in the process it appears I’m making certain assumptions that Jim is not. Yes, skepticism is best understood as a method of inquiry, not a set of beliefs, nevertheless this method of inquiry must lead to certain conclusions, based on the same inputs. So, yes I am assuming that there are inputs, thus both statements are equivalent in my mind. As I have said before, a religious skeptic either isn’t applying skepticism properly or he/she has access to evidence/inputs that withstand skeptical inquiry and support the god hypothesis. As such I think atheism is derivable from skepticism, but not regardless of the inputs, which I refer to as evidence. The conclusion is flexible based on such inputs. My point is that a religious skeptic, is not applying skepticism properly. If they are, then they must have access to inputs I am not considering and that’s what I’m waiting to see. New inputs/evidence may lead to  a new conclusion. However, so long as all we have is holy books, supposed miracles and pareidolia I maintain that the skeptical method applied to these inputs must lead one to lack of belief, thus atheism. I do not think that the “game is rigged” to produce atheism; I think that given the evidence presented so far, atheism is the unavoidable conclusion of the skeptical methodology.

I do not think that skepticism should be defined as a set of beliefs or outputs, because that suggest that these outputs can’t change, and that’s the opposite of what skepticism is all about. What I am saying though, is that at any point in time, the skeptical method should lead to a set of conclusions, based on the evidence presented. Such outputs however cannot be considered final since new evidence may change the conclusions all the while the methodology remains the same. So I agree with Jim that skepticism is best understood as a methodology, but that doesn’t mean that this methodology doesn’t demand a certain conclusion based on the inputs at a certain point in time. My thought is that given the god hypothesis, and given what we have been presented with as evidence so far, the skeptical methodology must lead one to reject the hypothesis, just like we reject homeopathy and astrology. Thus atheism. Thus skepticism must lead to atheism.

If we look at skepticism more broadly, where philosophical arguments more generally are acceptable as input or method, atheism (in the positive or strong form) then becomes a possible output. As an atheist, I think that use of the best available evidence and arguments and the best available methodology does lead to a conclusion of atheism (and 69.7% of philosophy faculty and Ph.D.s agree), that still doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to get there (as 69.3% of philosophy faculty and Ph.D.s specializing in philosophy of religion don’t) or that anyone who doesn’t has necessarily done anything irrational in the process, but for a different reason than in the prior case. That reason is that we don’t function by embodying this skeptical process, taking all of our input data, running it through the process, and believing only what comes out the other side. That’s not consistent with how we engage in initial learning or can practically proceed in our daily lives. Rather, we have a vast web of beliefs that we accumulate over our lifetimes, and selectively focus our attention and use skeptical processes on subsets of our beliefs. The practical demands of our daily lives, of our professions, of our social communities, and so forth place constraints on us (see my answers to questions in “Skepticism, belief revision, and science”). And even with unlimited resources, I think there are reasons that we wouldn’t want everyone to apply skeptical methods to everything they believed–there is value to false belief in generating new hypotheses, avoiding Type I errors, keeping true beliefs from becoming “dead dogma,” and so forth (which I discussed in my SkeptiCamp Phoenix presentation last year, “Positive side-effects of misinformation”).

And that seems to validate my point that the religious skeptics are not applying skepticism to their faith.  Jim says “we don’t function by embodying this skeptical process, taking all of our input data, running it through the process, and believing only what comes out the other side. That’s not consistent with how we engage in initial learning or can practically proceed in our daily lives. Rather, we have a vast web of beliefs that we accumulate over our lifetimes, and selectively focus our attention and use skeptical processes on subsets of our beliefs” which is exactly what I am saying. We do not apply skepticism to all areas of our lives, and some skeptics do not apply skepticism to their faith, but I’m not claiming that they are. What I am saying is that if they did they’d have to get to atheism, but they choose not to,so they don’t have to make the choice, thus they are both religious and skeptic (except for religion that is). Not everyone does that, and most likely it is not a conscious effort either; I can see how people can sincerely think that religion and skepticism have nothing to do with each other; that god is beyond skepticism. I just happen not to agree with that view. The above paragraph also supports my point about deferring to expert consensus, precisely because “the practical demands of our daily lives, of our professions, of our social communities, and so forth place constraints on us (see my answers to questions in “Skepticism, belief revision, and science”).” Absolutely so, we cannot possibly be skeptical about everything, thus this supports my view that we must defer to experts’ consensus wherever such consensus exists.

Now to quickly touch on Jim’s reply to Michael DeMora, I just have this to say. I do not think that skepticism has anything to say about morality. Should one go with Kant or Mill? Should one be good for goodness sake or try to increase happiness for the largest number of people? Some a priory axioms are necessary in order to be able to derive one’s ethics, and I don’t think such things can be evaluated via the skeptical method. So no, skepticism doesn’t have anything to say about ethics; we skeptics must rely on other things in order to develop our sense of morality and that is perfectly fine, because skeptic is only part of what we are, only part of our personality.

Jim also says:

I’d rather see skeptical organizations share some basic epistemic and ethical values that are supportive of the use of science than a commitment to a set of beliefs about the outputs of skeptical methodology. The latter seems more likely to result in dogmatism.

I don’t know exactly which skeptical organizations Jim is referring to. If what he says is true, then why would the JREF keep testing dowsers after countless failed tests in the past? I do not believe that, at least the major, skeptical organizations are committed to a set of beliefs rather than the skeptical methodology. That seems like quite a big charge to make which needs to be supported by some evidence. Yes skeptics reject astrology, but the important thing is why we do so, not that we do so! It is precisely because it has failed the skeptical methodology over and over, and the moment it doesn’t fail it we’ll stand up and pay attention to it.

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4 Responses

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  1. Jim Lippard said, on January 16, 2010 at 2:08 PM

    I think we’re not too far apart. Your further remarks on experts and consensus show a fair amount of agreement, but I think we still do disagree on the legitimacy of non-expert challenge to consensus, though we both agree expert consensus can be wrong. The history of science is full of examples of that.

    Your point that “As I have said before, a religious skeptic either isn’t applying skepticism properly or he/she has access to evidence/inputs that withstand skeptical inquiry and support the god hypothesis” is one I agree with–and the second fork of the dilemma you propose is one that I think needs to be taken seriously. To my mind, we need a well-developed scientific study of religion–of the sort that Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, David Sloan Wilson, and Rodney Stark have contributed to, and Daniel Dennett has popularized–to ultimately defeat that horn of the dilemma. I think it’s also important to note that there is a plurality of methods, and that they themselves evolve over time.

    Your comment on morality is one that I largely agree with, but I’m not sure on what grounds you don’t take the same position with respect to religion as you do on morality–what justifies the asymmetric treatment, in your opinion? It seems to me that they are on quite similar footing.

    On the final point, there are a number of events in the history of skeptical organizations (most notably with CSI, formerly CSICOP, though also with some other groups) where they’ve tended to dogmatism and failed to live up to skeptical ideals. I’ve written articles about a few of them (e.g., “Some Failures of Organized Skepticism,” “How Not to Argue with Creationists,” and a few other articles).

    • Skepdude said, on January 19, 2010 at 12:59 PM


      Just to clarify, I don’t think we disagree on the legitimacy of non-expert challenge to consensus. I think that the default position of the non-expert skeptic ought to be to side with the scientific consensus. That nevertheless should not be interpreted to mean that skeptics should never look into/criticize the consensus. They should be able to and go through that exercise if they feel like it. My thought is that the odds are overwhelmingly on the side of the consensus, and given the lack of resources we have available we ought to concentrate on other issues such as antivaccination and other kinds of woo.

      So the “side with the consensus” attitude should only be a default position on the part of the skeptics, but one that can and should be looked at when a skeptic is not convinced by the consensus. I just dont’ want us to go around questioning everything just for the sake of questioning. But on the other hand I don’t want us to have a sacred cow either, even if that sacred cow happens to be science.

      As far as the morality religion thing goes, I see a big difference. Moral theory makes claims about how things ought to be and how they ought to work out. That’s the gist I got from my limited study of Moral Philosophy. On the other hand religion offers, besides oughts, also how things are. It makes claims about how things happened, how they work and how the future will unfold, in other words claims that are potentially testable (such as the god hypothesis), and it is precisely these “IS” claims that bring it, in my opinion, within the realm of skepticism. Furthermore, I am strictly limiting this to the god hypothesis, which I think is entirely within the realm of skepticism by virtue of being an existence claim. I find existence claims to be perfectly amenable to the skeptical method.

      I will check out the articles you’re mentioning, if I can find them through a Google search to see exactly what you’re referring to. I wouldn’t be surprised if CSICOP had gone dogmatic; they’re human after all, but my main objection to your comment is that you seem to cast a very wide net; it reads as if you think that most skeptical organizations are doing this; as if you think that’s become the rule and not the exception. I’d be very disheartened if you turn out to be right on that charge.

  2. Jim Lippard said, on January 19, 2010 at 1:50 PM

    So if I understand you correctly, the distinction you draw between morality and religion is a normative vs. descriptive distinction. I think there’s something to that–religions certainly do make descriptive claims about the way things are–but there’s also a lot more to religion than that, which includes also normative, aesthetic, and emotional content, social support networks, and so forth, which don’t necessarily involve claims about the way the world is, or even have propositional content at all.

    You shouldn’t have any problem finding my articles with Google–if you do, I have a “publications” web page that lists just about everything I’ve ever published ( I don’t think such problems are the rule in the sense that it’s the primary mode of action by skeptical groups–I think it’s relatively rare. But I do think they are the rule in the sense that once you create a formal organization or group, it’s very likely there will occur issues where group cohesion, loyalty to leadership and celebrity or high-status group members, politics, groupthink, and so forth are dominant social factors over commitment to principles. I think it’s just a characteristic of human social groups.

    • Skepdude said, on January 19, 2010 at 2:13 PM

      Yep to both paragraphs.

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