Monday, August 27, 2012

Skepticism vs boasting

Skepticism is cool and all, but if you identify as a skeptic, isn't that just like saying "I'm good at critical thinking"?  It's like boasting of your own intelligence--it doesn't actually demonstrate that you are intelligent, it just demonstrates that you are boastful.

Even people who are actively involved in skepticism have said that skepticism has this weakness.  From Pharyngula:
Ultimately, [this talk] just reaffirmed my regret that “skepticism” has become a label for the timid almost-skeptical, who like to reassure each other that they’re all truly the very best critical thinkers, now let the believers among us close their eyes and pray.
And Natalie Reed:
The skepticism I believed in wasn’t about some little club for people to get together and tell each other how smart they all are for not believing in incredibly silly things like UFOs, Bigfoot, psychics, ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster…
Both Pharyngula and Natalie criticize a particular attitude within skepticism.  Let's call this attitude skeptical boasting.

Now, you may believe that skeptical boasting is rare, or you may believe it is common.  It's hard to say, since all we have are our personal impressions.  Skeptics aren't exactly going to say outright, "You should believe me because I identify as a skeptic and I'm better than everyone else", so we'd have to rely on our own judgment to determine whether this is a person's underlying attitude.

But regardless of whether skeptical boasting is rare or common, it's good to talk about the alternative to skeptical boasting.  Is there a way to identify as a skeptic without boasting?  What is the point of the label if it's not boasting?

Skepticism as a constraint

If we have two people arguing with each other, and one of those people is a skeptic, should we be inclined to agree with them?  No, we should not.  All we know is that they identify as a skeptic.  Whether they fulfill skeptical ideals is another matter.

Furthermore, if we were inclined to agree with the skeptic, then we this creates perverse incentives: identify as a skeptic and more people will automatically agree with you!

But if identifying as a skeptic doesn't win debates, what good is it?  I propose that winning debates is not what we should be striving for.  I want to win the debates where I'm right, and lose the debates where I'm wrong.  This is the difference between critical thinking skills and debate skills--Debate skills help you win, while critical thinking skills help you win when you're right, and lose when you're wrong.

When I identify as a skeptic, it's not a winning strategy, it's a constraint.  I am not asking you to respect my opinion, I am asking you to scrutinize it by skeptical standards.  If I ever veered off into a profoundly non-skeptical territory (for instance, by writing anything resembling a syndicated opinion column), you can call me a hypocrite, and cite skeptical arguments in support of this view.  As far as I'm concerned, it's good for readers to have this power, because it means that I will lose more of the arguments I deserve to lose.

It's worth noting that I also open myself up to a certain set of misconceptions about skeptics.  For example, skeptics don't believe anything, they're closed-minded, they're just cynics, etc.   But I still find it worthwhile despite this disadvantage.

Of course, that's just the personal significance of identifying as a skeptic, which is only half the story.  The other half is the skeptical community.

A movement you can disagree with

Skepticism is often defined as a method of thought rather than a set of beliefs.  It's a method of thought that mixes critical thinking, empiricism, and experimentation.  But the problem with this is that critical thinking is such a common value.  Nearly everyone agrees that critical thinking is good, and purports to use it.  So if skepticism is simply an expression of the value of critical thinking, surely this can go without saying.  Calling yourself a skeptic just seems like skeptical boasting.

But in truth, skepticism is more than just skeptical thought.  This can be illustrated by the many people who value skeptical thought, but who don't identify with skepticism.  Why don't they identify with skepticism?

One of people's top reasons is that they don't associate with the skeptical community.  They don't read skeptical books, magazines, or blogs.  They don't go to skeptical meetings or participate in skeptical organizations.  They don't talk about critical thinking in any active way with other people who are enthusiastic about the subject.  So they sensibly disidentify with skepticism.

There are so many reasons why a person might not associate with the skeptical community--they're uninterested in skeptical discussion, they don't have access to skeptical discussion, the skeptical community doesn't do enough to welcome their minority group, they're preoccupied with some other movement, they had drama with the local discussion group, and so on.  None of these reasons impugn the person's aptitude for skeptical thought.

There are also some views held by skeptics that are definitely not held by everyone.  Here they are, skeptical beliefs you can disagree with:
  1. Non-skeptical and anti-scientific thought is prevalent, and leads to wrong beliefs.
  2. These beliefs lead to harm.
  3. It is possible to counter this problem.
  4. It is worth it to me to do what I can to counter this problem, or at least associate with other people who do so.
Note that (1), (2), and (3) are claims about the external world.  They could be true or false.  For instance, some people have told me that if we debunk one belief, it will just get replaced with another (against (3)).  Other people have said that the beliefs that skeptics focus on are mostly fringe ideas that cause little harm (against (1) and (2)).  I think (1), (2), and (3) are all true, but they are broad enough claims that we might reasonably disagree on the point. 

(4) is a subjective claim.  If it is worth it to me, that does not necessarily mean it's worth it to you.  We are different people and we can be interested in different things or have different priorities.

When skepticism is just about valuing critical thinking, it seems the only point of identifying as a skeptic is skeptical boasting.  But in reality, skepticism is more than that.  A skeptic associates with the skeptical community, actively discussing skeptical thinking and its applications.  Furthermore, they believe that skeptical thinking is worthwhile because it solves problems.  It is possible to agree with the value of skeptical thinking without associating with the skeptical community.  It is possible to be skeptical without making skepticism a personal priority.  This does not make a person a poorer thinker in any way.


Deralterchemiker said...

"If I ever veered off into a profoundly non-skeptical territory (for instance, by writing anything resembling a syndicated opinion column), you can call me a hypocrite, and cite skeptical arguments in support of this view." Are you saying that a syndicated opinion column can not be written by a skeptic? Discuss this with respect to Michael Shermer.

miller said...

I was thinking more along the lines of the syndicated columns I see in Newsweek, but point taken.