Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Skepticism

What is the skeptic’s option? The author asserts,
Skepticism is looking something directly in the eye and stating for everyone to hear that you don’t believe it.
No.

The author has an excellent point: The internet is indeed set up to make skepticism vastly more difficult, more difficult than it already is. But skepticism is not just open disbelief. Were that so, then we should consider evolution and global warming deniers skeptics in good standing.

Skepticism is believing or disbelieving on the basis of evidence and evidence alone. When a skeptic says that she's skeptical about this or that, she is not saying she doesn't believe it, she's saying, "Show me the evidence." I will abandon my most cherished belief if the evidence is against it, but more importantly I will adopt the most bizarre believe if the evidence supports it: if I'll believe quantum mechanics, I'll believe anything.

(Skepticism is not a belief formation mechanism; it is a filter, and an expensive filter at that. It is impractical to hold only those beliefs that have survived a rigorous skeptical filter; even the best skeptic holds a huge number of beliefs just because everyone else believes them. But when a belief becomes controversial or untenable, a skeptic is someone who exercises the discipline and will to look to the evidence and adopt, reject or suspend belief on the basis of the evidence and only the evidence.)

I was talking to an atheist the other day about economics (my favorite hobbyhorse). He's trying to be skeptical about economics: he says (paraphrasing from memory) that he looks at what both sides have to say, and believes the side that's more plausible. At least he's looking, and good for him, but that still isn't skepticism. The whole point of skepticism is believing ideas that sound intuitively implausible because the evidence supports them.

The idea that fundamental particles are in a near-infinitely dimensional superposition of states and in a sense aren't even there when no one is looking ought to boggle the mind. That the complexity of organisms and ecosystems evolved over hundreds of millions of years by mechanisms no more complicated than random variation and natural selection is ridiculous. That the "rock solid" Earth is whizzing and whirling around space at unimaginable speeds is ludicrous.

Without the massive amounts of evidence and enough methodological knowledge to evaluate that evidence, all of modern science is completely unbelievable. I personally know that quantum mechanics, evolution and heliocentricity are true because I do have enough methodological knowledge and I can evaluate the evidence more or less directly. I know that much of modern economic theory is complete bullshit because I've studied the subject directly and I can look at the evidence.

You don't need enough knowledge to do original work in a field: you just need enough knowledge to evaluate claims on their own merits. But even this limited knowledge takes discipline, hard work and most of all time to acquire. But the work is indispensable: without it, you cannot have an informed opinion.

I myself am suspicious of evolutionary psychology, but I cannot be skeptical of it: I haven't done the work to evaluate the claims directly. It sounds like bullshit (and I think I have a pretty good intuitive bullshit detector), but I don't know it's bullshit. All I can really say is that there are scientists I respect, scientists who could evaluate the evidence directly, who are indeed skeptical. Experts' controversy a little bit of evidence, albeit indirect, that I can evaluate myself, but it's just not enough: every new idea, good and bad, justly faces the skepticism of established experts: that's their job. The best I can do is acknowledge my suspicions and suspend judgment.

The author is correct: The internet — especially "social media" — is not conducive to skeptical examination: it is not conducive to the evaluation of beliefs on the basis of evidence and evidence alone. On the other hand, the internet makes the fundamental process of learning enough of the fundamentals of any science and discovering the evidence on which to base a skeptical decision easier than ever before. You can, if you are so inclined, learn enough about just about anything to make an informed judgment, and learn it for no more than the cost of a computer and broadband connection... plus your time.

1 comment:

  1. "I myself am suspicious of evolutionary psychology, but I cannot be skeptical of it: I haven't done the work to evaluate the claims directly. It sounds like bullshit (and I think I have a pretty good intuitive bullshit detector), but I don't know it's bullshit."

    I am right there with you when it comes to evolutionary psych, since all too often its practitioners make HUGE claims that aren't exactly based on any empirical reality. One of the main issues is that they try to understand ALL BEHAVIORS in terms of evolution and reproduction, and they often forget about silly little things like social context, history, and culture.

    Anyway, I'm glad I found your site (via Maxine Udall), and that you have opened up your comments section again.

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