The Fine Art of Scepticism

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A personal experience

I recently had the curious experience of discovering that my online book Homeopathy in Perspective is listed on a well-known sceptic site under "advocacy". When I pointed out to the webmaster that my stated view in the book is that the benefits of homeopathy are very likely to be due to the placebo effect and other factors unrelated to the remedies, he replied that this was, in his opinion, advocacy. After further email correspondence it became clear to me that the only attitude he was prepared to countenance as not constituting "advocacy" was out-and-out condemnation of homeopathy as charlatanry.

Although I think that most of the claims made for homeopathy are probably invalid, it is only fair to acknowledge that the demands of critics for research evidence have been met, at least to a degree. There is room for disagreement about the validity of this research, but to allege, as some critics do, that the evidence does not exist, is intellectually dishonest. Some people's scepticism is too cheaply purchased. Disbelief needs to be earned.

Ultra-sceptics

The ultra-sceptical view of homeopathy just described illustrates a more general attitude quite common among people who call themselves sceptics. You find it, for example, in many of the publications of CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), including their journal. Skeptical Inquirer, to which I am a subscriber. It puts me in mind of Alice's dog Fury, in Alice in Wonderland:

"I'll be judge, I'll be jury," said cunning old Fury.
"I'll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death."

When you start reading an article in Skeptical Inquirer, you never are in any doubt about what the conclusion will be. Whatever the alleged phenomenon that is being discussed, you know in advance that it will be dismissed as bogus.

My sympathy with the ultra-sceptics

I have to say that for the most part I am in sympathy with this. We need CSICOP and people who hold similar views. There is a huge and ever-increasing amount of nonsense out there. and rationality is in short supply. It is dangerous to give hostages to fortune. For example, if a biologist expresses doubt about any aspect of Darwinism, this is likely to be seized on by advocates of "intelligent design" as evidence that Darwinism is false.

Scientific thinking is under attack from many quarters today. Much of the population has little understanding of science and is willing to lend credence to all kinds of superstition. So-called intellectuals preach cultural relativism and imply that the scientific view of the universe is no more valid than the mythology of the Hopi Indians. I certainly wish to number myself among those who resist all such trends. I would regard myself as a rationalist and a sceptic. But maintaining scepticism is a fine art, and more difficult to practise than many professed sceptics seem to realize.

Scepticism means having doubts, not certainties

What is scepticism, anyway? Dictionaries, of course, are descriptive and not prescriptive, but still it is interesting to see what they have to say on the matter. Webster (1913) has:

The doctrine that no fact or principle can be certainly known; the tenet that all knowledge is uncertain; Pyrrhonism; universal doubt; the position that no fact or truth, however worthy of confidence, can be established on philosophical grounds; critical investigation or inquiry, as opposed to the positive assumption or assertion of certain principles.

And the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (third edition, 1956), defines a sceptic as:

One who … doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever.

So the true meaning of scepticism is doubt, not certainty. But too often, the rationalists sound as certain of their views as do those on the other side.

Throughout my life I have found myself moving constantly from belief to unbelief, and I have also found that the less I am constrained by belief, the better I feel. I think that I am rather unusual in this; most people seem to feel happier if they believe in things firmly, or alternatively if they disbelieve in things equally firmly. And I can sympathize with this, up to a point.

Scepticism applied to the survival question

For example, I would myself prefer to believe unequivocally that death is final and that there is no possibility of any sort of survival. I say this, not because I dislike the idea of surviving, but because non-survival would make for a neater, intellectually tidier, world. And I do indeed think that this is very likely to be the case. However, although the philosophical arguments in favour of any sort of survival amount to no more than what the philosopher C.D. Broad called "philosophical fluff", there are some alleged paranormal phenomena that indicate something different. These suggest to some modern psychologists and philosophers, including Broad, that the matter is not as definitively closed as rationalists would wish to believe.

Even if survival in some form is the case, however, it does not necessarily provide a basis for religion. It could conceivably be part of an expanded concept of the natural world, or it could be explained by supposing that our world is a computer-generated simulation. (For more on these ideas, see The Survival Question and Do We Live in a Simulation?.)

True scepticism, I suggest, is an uncomfortable state of mind for many people, including a good few self-styled sceptics. Ultra-scepticism can become just another belief system, which we adopt as a principle and cling to in the face of any evidence to the contrary. There can be fundamentalism within disbelief, just as there is fundamentalism within religion.

Occasionally we read articles by people who have moved from belief (in religion, the paranormal, or whatever) to disbelief, but their newly found disbelief generally sounds too much like the mirror image of their former belief. Becoming a disbeliever can be like becoming a teetotaller after being a drunkard. It seems to be difficult if not impossible for a recovered alcoholic to drink in moderation, but it should not be impossible for a reformed fundamentalist to examine his or her belief systems critically, without seeking refuge in a new form of fundamentalism.

Susan Blackmore

The point has been well made by Susan Blackmore in her essay "Why I have given up", in Skeptical Odysseys, edited by Paul Kurtz (2001).
Skepticism is the focus of many sceptics' lives. Some have committed their careers to promoting skepticism and to debunking paranormal claims. Would they find it easy to change their minds if good evidence for the paranormal came along? I think not. … there is, so far as I can tell, no good evidence for the paranormal. Nevertheless, some skeptics display just the same reluctance to change, and biased interpretations, as the most ardent believers do. In skeptical books and magazines we can read again and again authors who prefer to accept even the feeblest and least well founded skeptical explanation of a claim, rather than consider the possibility that the claim might be true. Yet if we are going to study psychic claims at all, we must always consider the possibility that they are true. Unlikely as it is, ESP and PK might exist. There could be forces as yet undiscovered. We should accept the best explanation we can find—not the one that we like the most. The lesson we should learn [from the experiment she describes] is not that believers find it hard to be open-minded but that we all do.

Richard Feynman

Among my personal pantheon of intellectual heroes, all, I think, have expressed their adherence to the principle of doubt. To name just a few, Montaigne (with his "pillow of doubt"), David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Feynman were all genuine sceptics. I'll let Feynman have the last word, because I think he gets it absolutely right:

I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything, and many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit, but if I can't figure it out, then I go on to something else. But I don't have to know an answer. I don't have to. … I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me.