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On the fallability of skepticism

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 15, 2010

No one is infallible. Not I, not Plaitt, not Randi, no one! We all make mistakes sooner or later. I am sure that in my years of blogging I have made many errors, committed logical fallacies, reported or commented on something too soon, based on insufficient evidence etc. That’s because we are human; we all come with baggage, biases, emotions that, try as we might, we cannot completely isolate or stop from affecting our thinking.

Today was a great day for skepticism. Simon Singh emerges victorious from his libel suit against the BCA. I am very happy, but that event brought something into my mind. For the past few days I have been engaged in the arrest-the-pope saga, specifically in the “should organized skepticism get involved” side of it. Many prominent names in skepticism have voiced their opinions, and they range from “not our job” to “could be our job depending on the defence the Church uses” approaches. Since the beginning, I had a strong feeling that yes skepticism should get involved, but that was a gut feeling, I coud not quite articulate properly why. Could be due to an inherent bias, the fact that I strongly believe that skepticism, properly applied to the god hypothesis, should lead to atheism. Maybe that is why I feel that the Church, the “enemy” must be held accountable. Perhaps!

But then, the Singh news brought it all into perspective. Because, you see, the Libel Law Reform case, that the whole of organized skepticism got behind, is not a purely skeptical issue either. The BCA made no claims that fall within the skeptic’s sphere when they sued Simon Singh. They said he had defamed them and proceeded to sue him. THAT is not a skeptical issue, anymore than the arrest -the-pope issue is. Yet, we, the skeptics, got behind Simon and endorsed and loudly advocated for reform in the British Libel Laws. AS WE SHOULD!

However, how is the libel law case different from the pope/church case? They are both legal issues, neither of them falls within the skeptical sphere of expertise; yet we support one but remain silent on the other? Why? Because, someone may say, the libel laws are being used, or can be used, to silence skeptics. Hmmm, interesting, but if the church is left to its method, doesn’t that mean that it can continue practices that can lead to a child of skeptical parents being molested? Would it then become something we can get behind? I find that excuse unsatisfactory. Clearly, the skeptical world has, and still can, get behind causes that do not fall within its area of expertise; the Simon Singh case proves that. Then the question becomes: how do we choose which causes we’ll get involved in? That’s a more interesting question, but we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Either we stay “pure” and do not get involved in anything that cannot be examined skeptically, or we do; but we cannot, at the same time,  claim to only want to get involved in “skeptical issues” and, as a movement, support Simon Singh’s battle, a purely legal issue! If I have to choose, I choose to support Simon, but that implies that we should be open to support other issues as well, if logic so demands. If we do not, when we do not, we only prove that skepticism isn’t immune from fallibility either.


4 Responses

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  1. Fujaro said, on April 15, 2010 at 1:45 PM

    As stated earlier, there is no confinement of skepticism to certain truth claims but a self chosen confinement. The issue at hand with the Vatican is that its behaviour can be traced to a claim of absolute moral authority. That can and should perfectly be challenged by skepticism in given circumstances. Fact is, large groups of christians have become skeptical about this. In Germany several thousand roman catholics have left the church. This also shows another thing: skepticism is not the privilige of atheists and atheism is not a precondition for skepticism. The divide between a skeptic movement and the “others” is fictitious, a delusion so to speak. Probably it is a result of evolution selecting for group identification in humans 😉

    • Skepdude said, on April 15, 2010 at 3:19 PM

      I know; i get frustrated myself at times at this attitude. I agree that we shouldn’t weigh in with authority on issues about which we are not authorities, but since when is expressing an opinion such a taboo? Why can’t a skeptical organization support that which all people find morally right? Why can’t a skeptical organization say that they are on the side of the victimized children, regardless who was perpetrating the crime without being accused of “stepping out of bounds”. It’s an OPINION, and ENDORSMENT not a scientific theory!

  2. Joseph G. Mitzen said, on April 15, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    “The issue at hand with the Vatican is that its behaviour can be traced to a claim of absolute moral authority.”

    The behavior can not be traced to a claim of absolute moral authority. That some people kept silent could be traced to their own belief in the Church’s moral authority, but that’s something else. It has been said that whatever its intended purpose, once an organization is created its primary goal becomes its own continued existence. The internal documentation that has been revealed demonstrates no decisions being made based on morality, absolute or otherwise. The decisions were being made solely on how to help the organization save face. In that sense, its behavior was in no way different from many other organizations, corporations and governments when faced with scandal.

    Skepdude – CSICOP/CSI, for example, could support children the same way it could support finding a cure for breast cancer or aiding people in Haiti. You are correct. On the flip side, any type of official critique/analysis would make little more sense than a lengthy position paper on the topic being published by the Culinary Institute of America.

    • Skepdude said, on April 15, 2010 at 10:11 PM


      Maybe so, although I doubt anything having to do with the Culinary Institute would be of as much interest as the priestly child rape, but nevertheless I am dismayed by the loud objections I read about ANY statement in regards to this issue, by skeptical orgs. I think some causes are worth supporting, even if one is not an expert in the issue. I don’t think endorsement requires expertise, yet all arguments seem to come back to “it’s not a skeptical issue”, which I have accepted myself. I find it hard to envision a movement that is completely removed from values and human interest stories, to the extent that even speaking against child rape is considered “hurtful” to the movement.

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