My recent post “The War Over ‘Nice’” (describing the blogosphere’s reaction to Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech) has topped out at more than 200 comments. That’s a lot by Skepticblog’s standards. In addition, many further responses have reached me through Twitter, blog posts, email, and direct conversation.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about all that. Certainly I expected some controversy. (After all, I was writing about a controversy.) But quite a few of the critical responses take up a theme that seems… well, kind of strange to me. Many readers appear to object (some strenuously) to the very ideas of discussing best practices, seeking evidence of efficacy for skeptical outreach, matching strategies to goals, or encouraging some methods over others. Some seem to express anger that a discussion of best practices would be attempted at all.
No Right or Wrong Way?
The milder forms of these objections run along these lines:
- “Everyone should do their own thing.”
- “Skepticism needs all kinds of approaches.”
- “There’s no right or wrong way to do skepticism.”
- “Why are we wasting time on these abstract meta-conversations?”
In a few cases, this laissez faire theme rings sort of hollow. (It seems to me that some who make this argument themselves promote certain approaches over others.) Let’s leave that aside.
More critical, in my opinion, is the implication that skeptical research and communication happens in an ethical vacuum. That just isn’t true. Indeed, it is dangerous for a field which promotes and attacks medical treatments, accuses people of crimes, opines about law enforcement practices, offers consumer advice, and undertakes educational projects to pretend that it is free from ethical implications — or obligations.
Before we talk about that, let’s first get this out of the way. No, there is no monolithic “one true way to do skepticism.” No, the skeptical world does not break down to nice skeptics who get everything right, and mean skeptics who get everything wrong. (I’m reminded of a quote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) No one has all the answers. Certainly I don’t, and neither does Phil Plait. Nor has anyone actually proposed a uniform, lockstep approach to skepticism. (No one has any ability to enforce such a thing, in any event.)
However, none of that implies that all approaches to skepticism are equally valid, useful, or good. As in other fields, various skeptical practices do more or less good, cause greater or lesser harm, or generate various combinations of both at the same time. For that reason, skeptics should strive to find ways to talk seriously about the practices and the ethics of our field. Skepticism has blossomed into something that touches a lot of lives — and yet it is an emerging field, only starting to come into its potential. We need to be able to talk about that potential, and about the pitfalls too.
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.
I am often asked if skeptics and skeptical organizations should undertake first-hand investigations. Of course, it depends upon what your goals are. But I think the question can be re-phrased to mean – is there any value or benefit to first hand investigation, and to this the answer is a definite “yes.”
But this is not to denigrate the value of skeptical review from the comfort of your computer chair. This kind of activity has sometimes been referred to as “armchair skepticism” – meant to be derogatory. While I see the value in going out into the field, armchair skepticism has a valuable and complementary role to play.
In fact, these two activities mirror what real scientists do, and are roughly analogous to peer-review vs experimental replication.
The community of scientists keep each other honest, and keep the process of science grinding forward, in various ways – only one of which is going into the lab to replicate a study or do follow up research. When a colleague publishes a paper, or presents a paper at a meeting, his colleagues provide analysis and criticism. Ideas are examined for logic, internal consistency, and plausibility. Other options, perhaps neglected by the researcher, are explored. And existing research, perhaps not taken into account by the researcher, is brought up and discussed.
This feedback is provided without ever doing any actual investigation. When skeptics perform the exact same service to paranormal or fringe claims, this should not be denigrated at all, but seen as providing in our area of expertise the same kind of analysis that scientists provide in theirs.
This “peer-review” takes several forms. First, the term “peer-review” is often used to refer to the formal process of reviewing a paper that has been submitted for publication. I am not referring to this formal peer-review (which I do not think has any analogy in skeptical activity), but rather to the informal peer-review that collectively refers to all the efforts of the scientific community to hammer errors and flaws out of scientific thinking.
As many skeptics know by now, legendary skeptical trailblazer James Randi set off a firestorm last week with two Swift blog posts about global warming. His first post carried his strong suspicion that consensus science on climate change is incorrect, while his followup post wondered “whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences.”
Skeptical bloggers were swift to respond. Critics (including PZ Myers, Orac, Sean Carroll, and James Hrynyshyn) chastised Randi for speaking outside his domain expertise; for dissenting from current consensus science; and for lending his name to the disreputable “Oregon Petition Project.” Others, like Phil Plait, corrected Randi while sensibly reminding us that “anyone, everyone, is capable of making mistakes.” And, inevitably, global warming deniers seized upon the event. (One headline, at Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk, gleefully crowed “James Randi forced to recant by Warmist thugs for showing wrong kind of scepticism.”)
But, of the many posts to respond to Randi, two in particular caught my attention. SkeptiCamp pioneer Reed Esau asked,
So what happens now? That uneasy feeling you are now experiencing may be the implications of the situation setting in. … Most of us are laymen who don’t have the professional experience and analytical skills to properly evaluate the data and the methods. To pretend we do (or to reject it on a hunch) separates us from the very scientific enterprise we skeptics purport to value.
Similarly, according to Skeptical Inquirer columnist Massimo Pigliucci, “we need to pause and think carefully about the entire skeptical movement in light of episodes like this one.”
So, What Happens Now?
I’ve long argued that our patchy and lukewarm acceptance of mainstream climate science is skepticism’s greatest failure. I’ll return to that argument in future posts, but today I’d like to concentrate on the general question raised by Esau and Pigliucci: what is skepticism’s appropriate relationship to consensus science? What — if anything — may skeptics responsibly say on mainstream science subjects?
Organized skepticism has always talked about science. Certainly, we use science-informed arguments when critiquing paranormal claims. We use techniques from science (and from other investigatory disciplines, such as history and journalism) when digging into strange stuff. The promotion of scientific literacy is also a core part of our traditional mandate (as I argued in the essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”).
Nonetheless, it’s my opinion that there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus. As Esau puts it,
That consistency is essential, because without it people like myself will ask “So, what’s the point?” To waver from that consistency risks calling the entire enterprise into question.
Dear Skepfeeds readers. I am very happy to announce that I have reached my goal of achieving 50 regular subscribers. I want to thank all of you that have signed up to my RSS and have made this happen.
Now my goal is to try and double my regular readership by 12/31/2009. Your homework is the following: plug Skepfeeds on Facebook, Twitter or other similar websites and urge your friends to subscribe to my RSS. Furthermore, if you have a blog of your own, write a two line entry telling your readers what, if anything, you like about Skepfeeds and why they should subscribe as well.
As an incentive to you, anyone that goes ahead and does this will be the lucky recipient of positive vibes which I will be sending your way telepathically.