Monday, November 26, 2012

What Skepticism Isn't

A woman came up to me and said,
"I'd like to poison your mind,
With wrong ideas that appeal to you,
Though I am not unkind."
  - - - They Might Be Giants, "Whistling in the Dark"
I have recently written a post advocating what I would call skepticism.  In my view, skepticism comprises some fairly basic value judgments, some fundamental skills, and a process or approach to all testable claims.  Skepticism is a necessary component for navigating the minefield of delusion, deception and cognitive dissonance we all must pass through, whether we are scientists or not.  A necessary component yes, but we are learning the hard way it is not sufficient - we also need a set of emotional tools to stay calm, be kind, and to keep from getting lost.  I would like to address how we recognize skepticism and tell it apart from its imitators.

Here's my effort to illustrate skepticism with a simple model.  Like all models, it has its limits and simplifications with respect to the experience of the real thing. At the top is an overarching commitment to live with uncertainty and a willingness to doubt - especially to doubt your own perceptions and ideas.  Subordinate to this are certain values, intuitive responses, skills and approaches that you will need to be a good skeptic.

Note that nothing shown in this figure implies any commitment to a particular belief, or membership in a movement, group or tribe.  There is little or no religious, ideological or dogmatic baggage shown here, and I'd like to keep it that way.  This is why both Penn Jillette and Pamela Gay may both consider themselves skeptics, although they disagree on the existence of God.

Another thing to note is that without the right sense of life and emotional bent, even a well trained scientist may make a poor skeptic.  This could limit the amount of scientific discovery such a person would make, but they could still find a happy niche, buried deep within an established paradigm.

The Skeptical Complex
None of us is a perfect skeptic.  We all have our illusions, blind spots and biases - wetware like ours just can't seem to dispose of them.  We need each other, along with time and lots of work, to find our way past our boneheaded misconceptions.  Skepticism should not be confused for dogmatic stubborness. That is one reason why I list collaboration as a key process to skepticism.  The more people recognize that they need each other to get past their natural failings, the faster we can all move ahead.

When I think of a real skeptic, I think of someone like Susan Blackmore, who looked hard for the truth about psychic phenomena - fully expecting to find evidence of psi - but refused to deceive herself or others by biasing her results or cherry picking data.  When she provided pointed but non-judgmental critiques to one of her colleagues after visiting his lab, she was not invited back.  Pressing on through study after study, she found that tightening the experimental controls made the psi effects disappear.   She also looked hard at Tarot card reading and Near Death Experiences, and was unable to find evidence for anything other than skilled guessing and random chance.  Some might say that she became a skeptic because of her negative results, but I would say the she always was a skeptic, her belief systems aside.  Her beliefs modified, but the underlying approach was consistently skeptical.

So now I think we're ready to make a list.  This is my list of what a good skepticism is not.  It's of course, not complete. I list these things because I wish to identify myself as a skeptic, or at least skeptical, and be able to say: "it doesn't mean I'm like that."

Skepticism is NOT:

  • Cynicism, which is an ugly, ad hominem perversion of doubt, and a path away from honest inquiry.
  • Membership in a club.  If something I might think or say means I have to surrender my Skeptic card, you can have it now.
  • Eye rolling and sighs. Treating people - even people with demonstrably wrong views - with respect is the only way to get them to consider your views.  Save your scorn for the rascals who willfully mislead them to make a buck.
  • A commitment to any particular position on controversial claims.  In fact, as soon as you no longer believe you could possibly be wrong, you are probably in the process of acquiring a blind spot.
  • A commitment to debunk no matter what.  Sure, there is plenty of bunk in the world, but why does that need to be the default assumption?  Many people are sincerely wrong about things, and others yet might have evidence that could threaten your paradigm or damage your world view.  More often, you simply don't know.

I try to keep these things in mind when I conduct investigations.  I lead with uncertainty, curiosity and respect.  Most often I know where a simple explanation lies, but I want to take the witness with me on the journey, to the extent they are willing to go.  It's not about debunking, but learning and educating.

That's enough from me.  What do you think?

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