A Skeptic (strictly, a scientific skeptic,
as opposed to a philosophical skeptic) can be understood as a person whose
framing belief system presupposes the existence and validity of a truth value
system such as ‘true, false and meaningless’ and who vigorously attempts to
determine the truth values of all propositions they encounter. This effort to
determine what is ‘true’ and ‘false’ is peculiar to each individual Skeptic,
but as a social group Skeptics manage to
achieve a high degree of consistency in their beliefs (although only if these
beliefs are compared at the same historical point, as Skeptics of different
eras believe radically different things).
One way of looking at the driving force
behind Skeptical beliefs is to imagine that its goal is to mimimise the number
of false positives in the individual’s belief system, without any concern for
the number of false negatives. This is to say, a typical Skeptic is resolute
that they will not accidentally believe in the truth of a false proposition,
but they do not seem to mind whether they believe in the falsehood of a true
proposition (future evidence, they may presume, will eventually correct any such error).
From a philosophical vantage point,
Skepticism involves as big a leap of faith as most religions, requiring as it
does the absolute belief in a value system containing ‘true’ and ‘false’, and the capacity to reliably ascertain these truth values.
People raised in Western society are often culturally conditioned to these
assumptions, which makes it easier to follow this particular belief. Indeed,
individual Skeptics often attempt to deny that there is any role for faith in
their belief system: this can be likened to the process that occurs when
religious individuals deny that their belief system is a religion, preferring
to call it a ‘way of life’.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Skeptics are atheists. In fact, atheism is a relatively young movement for Skepticism, although in the twentieth century it began to become the norm. (Christianity used to be the most common religion for Skeptics). This is not to say that Skeptics do not follow religions: indeed, many Skeptics identify as humanists. A few, such as Martin Gardner, have a theistic outlook. There need not be a conflict between Skepticism and religion, since by definition questions dependent purely on faith (such as religious belief) are untestable propositions and therefore outside of the remit of Skepticism.
In practice, Skeptics get into the most
trouble when they attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance caused by encountering
people who believe in untestable or ‘false’ propositions (from the perspective
of the Skeptic). Untestable propositions are obviously outside of the capacity
of Skeptics to express a definitive opinion, being by definition immune to a
truth value system; a few Skeptics attempt to relieve their internal mental
discord by assuming that untestable propositions
are false. This is all well and good for an individual Skeptic (whose belief
system, after all, comprises only of those entities which can be confidently
assigned the truth value ‘true’) but can become problematic if the Skeptic
tries to enforce their beliefs on others (this indeed is a problem for all
Skeptics are most valuable in the sciences, where they can serve as a source of resistance to new ideas, constantly examining experimental protocols for possible sources of error, and challenging assumptions. In doing so, Skeptics have contributed to revealing a systematic problem in the sciences which has yet to be resolved, namely that individual beliefs cannot be eliminated in the interpretation of scientific results. For instance, a famous experiment (the Ganzfeld) has gradually had its experimental method tightened to the point where it has been contended that the only remaining objection to the experiment’s results is fraud. (I make no claim as to the interpretation of the results of this experiment; I remain agnostic). But if one can use accusations of fraud to dispute experimental evidence, then all science is reduced to belief. This may be an inevitable and inescapable problem for science, and we have the diligence of Skeptics to thank for bringing it into clear focus.
When one suspects that there is ‘a logical explanation’ for something, Skeptics are a superb source of interpretations. The Skeptics Dictionary, written and maintained by Robert T. Carroll, a devout Skeptic, summarises hundreds of down-to-earth explanations for various phenomena. Some of these explanations will doubtless seem quaint and amusing to future generations, but in keeping with the suggestion that a Skeptic’s goal is to mimimise false positives in their own belief system, this body of work is essentially flawless. (People who are not Skeptics should maintain a sense of humour when examining such material, however).
The scientific neutrality of Skeptics cannot be assumed, however. The Amazing Randi (James Randi) is a stage musician turned vigilant Skeptic; he offers a one million dollar prize to anyone offering evidence for paranormal or supernatural effects under agreed test conditions. I am somewhat doubtful that anyone can claim to be unbiased when one million dollars are on the line; I would not trust experimental results from someone who stood to accrue heavy costs in one outcome and not the other. Mr. Randi’s protestations that he would be delighted to find evidence of paranormal effects do not strike me as especially convincing, although I accept that he does believe in his own claims and that his intentions are honourable.
Another area where Skeptics are invaluable is in debunking fraudulence and chicanery. Skeptics work hard to reveal when innocent people are being swindled by con artists and the like. However, here a certain caution is required: one must be careful to distinguish between an intent to defraud, which most people agree is worthy of exposing, and an intent to entertain. Some Skeptics believe they must expose all instances of people asserting a ‘false’ belief. Putting aside the issue of whether the Skeptic’s assertion of ‘falsehood’ is sufficient grounds for such an attack, using one’s own belief system to police what is or is not acceptable entertainment is behaviour on highly suspect moral ground. We would not tolerate such belligerent behaviour from religious groups, and we should be equally careful to protect against it when it originates from non-religious groups.
Similar caution must be taken in the context of medicine. It is appropriate to raise concerns when research indicates an alternative therapy has deleterious effects on health, but a lack of evidence for the benefits of such treatments is insufficient for any significant conclusion. I urge Skeptics to remember that the placebo effect is a powerful treatment effective against almost all illnesses (probably excluding schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder) and that Beecher’s research in 1955 demonstrated that the effect could generate objectively measurable improvements in pain management for as many as a quarter of patients thus treated. Khan’s study of antidepressants in 2000 showed a 30% reduction in suicide attempts for placebo, and 40% reduction for those treated with drugs. In this light, I personally feel it is pharmaceutical treatments which warrant the greater scrutiny, since they often achieve just a few percentile points improvement over the placebo effect but at considerable economic costs, and usually with significantly negative side effects. Perhaps there should be more debate in this area.
Lovers of evidence, logic and testability,
Skeptics can be a valuable addition to any culture, but as with any belief
system it is important to ensure there is balance. Any belief system causes
problems when it tends to extremism, as arguably happened with Skepticism in
the case of Wilhelm Reich, whose books were burned in 1956 by the FDA in the
In terms of the number of entities that
exist in an individual’s belief system, Skeptics have the 'smallest' realities of
almost any belief system. Only those solipsists who believe themselves
to be the one thing they can have any confidence in existing have definitively
‘smaller’ realities. To the Skeptic, this 'tiny' reality is a great comfort, as they firmly
believe all ‘false’ entities have been removed. Conversely, many people find
that ‘false’ or untestable propositions enrich their life or their happiness.
For instance, studies repeatedly show that those with a religious belief system are happier
people on average than those with no such aspect to their belief system.
Skeptics are the friction that keeps science from advancing too rapidly in random directions, and the watchdog that endeavours to keep the experimental method honest. They protect innocent people from being duped by unscrupulous swindlers, and provide logical (albeit dry) explanations for all manner of phenomena. As a part of culture, they are inescapably valuable – but as with any belief system, we must remain vigilant against extremist and fascist tendencies. No single belief system should be empowered to enforce its views against the wishes of others.
The opening image is The Skeptic, by Robert Hall. I found it here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.