The Skeptic Delusion?
As skeptics, we take pride in our allegiance to evidence; we take pride in applying the skeptical method to various claims in order to figure out if there is any truth behind the claim or not. “Be skeptical; look at the evidence, defer to scientific consensus; look it up for yourself” are usual phrases that we throw around. Yet, the question must be asked: how realistic are those tenets? How honest is it to claim that, for every position we take in our skeptical activities, we’ve done the research? That we’ve found out what the scientific consensus is? That we’ve looked it up, ourselves?
This latest rambling is inspired thanks to a tweet by Daniel Loxton who pointed to a comment on, what else, a commentary on Phil Plait’s now famous, DBaD (a.k.a. Don’t be a Dick) TAM8 speech. Here is the comment by Red Pill Junkie, in its entirety:
Another thing I liked about Phil’s speech was in his telling the anecdote of how he chose to argue with a young Creationist; when she wanted to discuss things about dinosaurs and evolution, he quickly admitted he is not a Biologist, and hence wasn’t qualified enough to give her the answers to such questions.
That is an important message. Obviously a person with such a passion for science like Phil is perfectly entitled to have a layman’s opinion on fields that stand aside of his particular expertise; people should have many fields of interest, not just the stuff you studied as an undergraduate —Hell, that’s why you’re here reading this, ain’t it? :)
But one of the main problems with skeptics as a “movement”, is that the moment they acquire the term —and the methods of acquiring vary greatly from person to person, although more fall into simply “not believing in God, aliens and fairies” and be (very) vocal about it— they tend to erect themselves as experts in *EVERYTHING*; they feel entitled to give an “expert” skeptic opinion about everything they come across —UFOs, ghosts, Atlantis, reincarnation, 9/11, etc etc.
But this is not just their fault, since the Larry Kings of the media world always love to use the age-old formula of inviting an expert in some paranormal field —someone like Stan Friedman, who has spent decades researching the UFO phenomenon— and then inviting another “expert”: an official skeptic. The results are often …disastrous.
So yeah: part of not-being a dick is admitting you don’t have a diploma in Everything-ology ;)
It is important to pay special attention to that last sentence. No one is an expert in Everything-ology. It is simply impossible for any skeptic to have the time, or resources, to do an exhaustive search into every claim that we as skeptics express opinions on. Think about this for a moment: how readily do skeptical activists jump on any claim involving ghosts hauntings? How, quickly do we pull out the staple explanations to explain away that haunted house? Yet, how many of us have gone on just one haunted house investigation? The answer, I suspect, will be that not many of us, myself included, have taken part in such an activity.
Let’s look at something like global warming. How many of us have read at least a substantial portion of the science about global warming? Again, I suspect the answer will be that only a small fraction of us have. When we go around proclaiming that the scientific consensus supports the view, are we really basing that on our survey of the science, or are we basing that on what we heard some acclaimed skeptic say in her podcast, or write in his blog? Honestly, how many of us have read the IPCC synthesis report, all 52 pages of it?
Now, I’m not writing all this to belittle grassroots skeptics; I am myself one. The point is that, as the comment above says, we have to be very careful to first have it clear in our head, and also to make it clear to whoever we’re talking to, that in most cases what we’re expressing is an opinion, and that most of us are not an authority in any sense of the word about most things we’re expressing such opinions about. We have to know our limitations, and knowing our limitations doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought not to form or express opinions, but it does mean that we have to be more flexible than the believer in the opinions we hold. We have to know that we are fallible, that we are most likely forming an opinion based on incomplete information; that we are utilizing an argument from authority when we’re repeating arguments heard on a podcast, or read on a blog without taking the time to “check it out for ourselves”.
Checking it out for oneself is impossible to apply to everything, so we have to rely on others; we have to rely on Joe Nickell’s expertise when it comes to investigating haunted houses; we have to rely on the IPCCs expertise when it comes to summarizing climate science, but we do so with a grain of salt, beacause we did not do the skeptical thing and check these things out for ourselves. And that grain of salt must grow, the further away the commenter, on whose words we’re basing our opinion, moves from his/her area of expertise. That is why the grain of salt would be small when relying on the IPCC report, bigger when relying on Phil Plait’s comments on evolution, and even bigger if you’re relying on my comments about vaccines at my spanking new, and wonderfully informative vaccination blog, Vaccine Central.