Out of the Cave
Beware of Cats!


Skepticimage11 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 belief systems). 

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 United States. Some people, such as Robert Anton Wilson, accuse the Skeptically-biased Committee for the Scientific Investigation into Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) of effectively being responsible for Reich’s death. I suggest interested individuals investigate this matter in their own time and draw their own conclusions.

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.


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Hell, I'd try some orgone therapy, sounds good to me.

Being raised in a religion where a cracker was supposed to be the flesh of a 2000 year old dead guy who is also the son of god and, simultaneously, the living incarnation of god really left me open to a big worldview. Not that I don't practice skepticism occasionally, but I apply another layer of reasoning that filters the skepticism, preventing me from appyling that thought process unless it seems to be worthwhile or nessecary.

(Chuckle). Let's examine an instance.

Am I a Skeptic if I assign truth values ranging from "reproducible enough that I'm not going to keep expending the effort in testing" (the current value of "if I take a step forward on apparently solid ground the ground doesn't give way") through "I have no way of telling, but haven't seen any evidence for it so far" (the current value of "the Judao-Christian God exists") to "false by definition given the conventional axioms" (the current value of "1 + 1 = 3")? If not, what am I?

I am, indeed, a lover of evidence, logic and testability - see previous comments re Popper and a philosophy you seem to be leery of. I certainly investigate the truth values of propositions I encounter, but the range of such values is somewhat wider than the black-and-white picture you paint.

Aside: Randi's agreed conditions are vicious. For example, I have demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I can successfully dowse for variations in the amount of water near/below me - no idea how it works, but it appears to work well enough to find previusly unknown routes of central heating pipes under floors. I occasionally tinker with this to find out what I can and cannot detect. Check Randi's criteria for dowsing sometime - you have (had, I've not checked recently) to be able to pick out small quantities of all sorts of substances against a very noisy background before he'd consider it a success. That's a very high level of evidence.

Heh, you've phrased the essay in a way that the only way to disagree with you would be to say something brutally extreme either one way or the other.

The only thing I strongly disagree with is your position on medical flummery. When a situation is such that a placebo (or even a mildly effective herb) helps, your position is fine.

The problem is in the huge numbers of people who take placebos and unreliable/insufficient medical treatment instead of scientific medical treatment. For example, people who believe AIDS only affects unbelievers, or people who believe that their failing liver can be cured by drinking water laced with with insignificant toxins. This sort of thing happens WAY more often than you might believe - in the places I've worked, it's been around 5% of the employees trying to solve very real medical problems with crystals and meditation.

Worse, many of the "new age cures" are actually bad for you, at least in large doses. Ginseng, for example, comes in about half a dozen different varieties (usually based on where it was grown), each of which has a somewhat different chemical makeup. All varieties contain some amount of chemicals which actually cause an effect, but the chemicals (and the effect) vary from variety to variety. But that's not on the label. Given, the effect is minor, but some people consume a truly astonishing amount of ginseng.

This is to say nothing of the more extreme cult behavior. Which I would guess you are not endorsing.

Anyhow, skeptics feel dry because we're busy being fascinated by real phenomina. Fake phenomina are kind of dull - after the eighth fiddly little protest that the moon landing was a hoax, you get sick of it. It's a routine debunking and it adds nothing to the universe.

Dear everyone,

Thank you for your comments! I was, I confess, nervous about posting this. I knew that even though I'd found a positive spin to put on Skepticism, I'd fallen short of my original goal with this post since it is layered in with barely veiled accusations. Thankfully, everyone has decided to engage me within the same framework, and for this I am truly thankful.

Patrick: I reckon you'd try *anything* if you thought it'd be fun. :D

Peter: I purposefully tried to avoid giving a firm definition; this is more of a 'for the purposes of this post' kind of situation, hence the choice of phrases such as "can be understood" and "one way of looking". One is definitively a Skeptic under one condition: you choose to identify as a Skeptic. You might also be accused of being a Skeptic by others, but I try to restrain myself to people's self-identification except in psychiatry and so forth. :)

Of course, there are many more truth value systems than the old fashioned one I present here. Hence the use of "such as" to preface it. I hope this post makes it clear that there's nothing wrong with testing propositions against truth value systems, but that this process requires a belief step.

And I am delighted that, coming from Popper's camp, you end your comment with a self-report of a phenomena most Skeptics would reject as being inconsistent with theory or a priori false. :) Although I bit my tongue here, Randi and his ilk have a nasty tendency to forget to test propositions. :) And yes, Randi's terms and conditions manage to exceed all rational sense as far as I can tell. I really don't think he wants to pay up that million dollars, which makes his claim to neutrality utterly bankrupt in my eyes.

(By the way, I'm not really anti-Popper, certainly not as much as Feyerabend - they *loathed* each other! But I do prefer Kuhn's interpretation of science. :D Popper opposed Logical Positivism, for this, he has my full support!)

Take care!

Craig: Since you only strongly disagree with me on one point, this makes me feel much better about the whole piece. I feared an outbreak of ontological warfare! :D

Regarding your medical issue, I fully accept the point you raise here. But I find it hard to be concerned about this problem when I stack it up to the pharmaceutical problem which is both more widespread and has much worse health consequences. I don't want to dig into this too deeply here as it's too large an aside, but the West has adopted a culture where drug prescriptions are so widespread that none of the scientific testing that has been conducted is sufficient to ensure the safety of patients - especially once they are on multiple drugs in parallel (which is now the norm). Add to this doctors with shares in the companies whose drugs they prescribe and we have a potential moral and health crisis of unprecedented proportions. Do you have no concern about this? I'm genuinally curious.

On the subject of the moon landings, there was an excellent show recently on the subject which inadvertently showed that every major moon landing "sceptic" was alive during the moon landings and hence now very old indeed. Their arguments seem increasingly like an expression of their inability to adapt, and not a case against the landings at all. :) The Skeptic who defended the moon landings was a joy to listen to. I hope we get more Skeptics like him and fewer like Dawkins and Randi!

And lastly (and with a certain amount of tongue in cheek), "Fake" phenomena may be dull, but 'false' and untestable phenomena - such as spirituality, mythology, most politics, ghost stories, myriad kinds of magic, God, gods, angels, demons, astrophysical cosmology, quantum interpretations, possible world theory, sociobiology, neuro-linguistic programming, sex-enhancing rituals, many evolutionary theories, origin theories, teleology (both religious and scientific), aesthetics, art, fiction, culture, echatonism, futurism, morality, ethics and love - these are far from dull in my eyes. :)

When I look at Skeptics, I admire their dedication, but too often I see people having markedly less fun than the rest of humanity. But to each their own.

Best wishes!

"And I am delighted that, coming from Popper's camp, you end your comment with a self-report of a phenomena most Skeptics would reject as being inconsistent with theory or a priori false. :)"

I must be missing something here (too early in the morning, no coffee, and my head in a bucket of ice water to deal with some code for actuarial calculations). Here I have a reproducible (within limits) experiment that's on the edge of current understanding, I can hand the apparatus to others and see how they perform (it would appear that 80%-90% of the people I've tested get results broadly consistent with mine, although sensitivity varies and hence that result should be taken with a large pinch of salt). I am quite willing to believe that there are phenomena worthy of investigation that are currently labelled 'supernatural' or 'paranormal' and I want to bring them into our understanding. It's interesting, and I'm a scientist as well as having at least one foot in the Skeptic camp. Why wouldn't I report it and research on it to find out limits, limitations and reproducibility?

(Experimental aside: one experiment I'd love to do but never have due to cost is to find a two-floor building where both floors are reasonably open, drag some victims onto the upper floor, then perch a paddling pool full of water at a random point on the lower floor, supported by a scaffolding tower so that it's close enough. Then ask 'em to dowse for it. There's no obvious visual difference in the target area, they haven't seen it on the way into the experiment and, if the pool can be moved sufficiently quietly, the experiment can be repeated in different positions. Lower hurdle than Randi, but an interesting test...)

Peter: the point I was trying to make was that I wish there were more Skeptics like you, and fewer like James Randi. Take care!

I didn't mean to say that our current medical system is perfect! Gah, I never say ANYTHING is perfect. But it is better to be treated by someone with a bias than someone who is actively not helping. Especially since it is getting easier and easier to do some research to double-check your doctor or ask for other medical opinions.

I found "untestable" phenomina to be interesting, mostly as to the insights they provide into the human mind. But I haven't found anything new in quite a while: it's just the same old recycled stuff. Every time you go to see it, the effect never happens or it's an obvious fake.

Oh, no mistake, the human brain is an incredible organ. Some "supernatural effects" are probably partially true, because science currently radically underestimates the computational power of the brain. For example: dowsing is on the verge of being reasonable. Your nose is sensitive to moisture, and while in the normal course of a day your brain would ignore that level of variation, with concentration it could allow that "statistical noise" to propagate into a fair detection method.

I'm not saying that's how it happens - if dowsing can detect pipes, it would have to use another method. Perhaps a knowledge of how houses are built that you didn't even know you had. The brain can do an astonishing amount of detail processing on details we didn't even know we picked up.

But that part is the interesting part to me, not the mythology that surrounds it.

You haven't fully investigated Randi's terms, and consequently have jumped to an entirely unwarranted conclusion about his objectivity. Most of it is not Randi's money. He carried around a $10,000 check for years, ready to pay out, until he had the idea of asking for pledges from other skeptics to raise the incentive to be tested. Money poured in. Penn & Teller have put up a whopping sum.

Randi's conditions are necessarily rigorous. They require that any possibility of cheating be precluded (fair enough, with so much on the line), and no chance of a spurious positive (such as HEARING the water in the pipes), and, of course, reproduceability.

Your language suggests that your reaction to Randi is an emotional one rather than based on criticism of his methodology, and by introducing Randi's motives into it you seem unwilling to accept a scientific test. A subject either succeeds or fails at the test. The tests are rigidly objective, with no judgement calls required. Randi's motives do not change the outcome.

Actually, Ernest, my personal opinion of James Randi has little to do with the terms of his investigation and everything to do with the numerous hours of screentime in which I have watched him and listened to him speak (mostly on documentaries). This is the basis upon which I say I wish there were more Skeptics like Peter and less like James Randi. Why should a statement such as this not be based on emotion? Especially since Peter is a friend of mine from University. :)

As to your assertion that the tests are 'rigidly objective', please see the recent post about Feyerabend's philosophy ('Farewell to Reason') for further context on the problems with "objectivity", if you are at all interested.

Thanks for clarification as to the source of the million dollar fund! I did wonder how a stage magician has a cool million to front for such an endeavour. :)

Chris> Thanks for counting me as a friend. We *still* need to meet up for $beverage_of_choice sometime!


"I did wonder how a stage magician has a cool million"

Quote from interviewer to Debbie McGee, assistant and wife of stage magician Paul Daniels: "So, Debbie, what initially attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?"

Hum. Randi has spent a great deal of time wrestling with charlatans who bilk millions out of people suffering from incurable diseases by offering them false hope (while at the same time encouraging them to throw away the only medicines that do any good). Randi deals with the cruel realities of the faith healers every day -- and the ignorant and cowardly politicians who won't take a stand against them. I think he's entitled to be a little testy about it all.

Feyerabend never bet a million dollars of his or anyone else's money that he was right. Nor did he bet anyone's life. I think the space shuttle astronauts have reason to be glad that the engineers at Morton Thiokol, et al, didn't take "Against Method" too literally.

Philosophy is great fun, but I prefer engineering for getting things done and done right. If it don't work, it don't work -- and it ought to be a crime to sell it to people claiming that it do work.

Ernest, just an innocent question: outside engineering and in the realms of (say) medicine, mental health and politics, what tests can someone (or some group) do to verify that "it" (whatever the "it" of the day is - let's say "it" is a cure for depression) "works" (for some definition of "works")?

I'm also an engineer - software engineer in my case. In my trade, I can write tests, I can see inside what I'm doing... but I'm aware that few areas of life are like that.

I'm curious as to what "belief system" you propose using which doesn't have truth values? Our understanding of the universe rests upon logic, without it everything becomes noise with no rhyme or reason and we might as well go back to climbing trees and flinging shit at each other. While agree with you sentiment that no one should ever force their beliefs on others, I don't see any skeptics doing that, in fact it tends to be the religious folks who are more often guilty of that.

I hope this isn't coming off as an attack, I'm just trying to add to the discussion and am truely curious. Your essay tends to be part definition of skepticism and part criticism of it, but has not meat in terms of what the alternative is.

I'm a skeptic, but I also do realize that some things are very difficult to distill down into a sterile lab environment. I also recognize also that many things simply don't garner enough attention of serious scientists such that they would be willing to divert research funding and time into such "fringe" things. There very well maybe something to be said for the likes of ESP, etc. But to go in the opposite direction and assume that something is true (or possible, etc) until we have good reason to believe so is intellectual sloth in my opinion. It's also a fallacy; God of Gaps, etc.

Isaac: thanks for your comment! This is an old post, but I have linked to more recent posts that expand on the key points in my reply.

"I'm curious as to what 'belief system' you propose using which doesn't have truth values?"

Belief systems don't have to be based on this rather ancient Platonic assumption that there is a "True" world, and that a proposition is True if and only if it corresponds to the "True" world. There are many other ways one can take this - for instance, one can take a system that uses a relative truth value system; that is, propositions are only ever true or false relative to a particular framing set of assumptions. This may seem similar to the Platonic system, but in such a system there is never any assumption of a "True world". See also Nietzsche's thoughts on truth, although that post is also about Nietzsche's attacks on Christianity and God.

I personally feel this old Platonic model has been out of step with scientific thinking since the early twentieth century - both relativity and quantum physics undermined Platonic logic quite substantially.

"Our understanding of the universe rests upon logic"

Here, you seem to be presupposing that the purpose of a belief system is understanding the universe. But most belief systems are not so much concerned with this - this is mostly a concern for scientists, sceptics and materialists of various flavours. But, for instance, a Zen Buddhist belief system is not about knowledge, but in fact about undermining the assumptions that form knowledge with an eye towards personal liberation from existential pain. I'll have to leave this as an "exercise for the interested reader", however, as I don't have time to expand upon this point here.

"While agree with you sentiment that no one should ever force their beliefs on others, I don't see any skeptics doing that, in fact it tends to be the religious folks who are more often guilty of that."

Here, your personal bias as a skeptic might possibly be in play - it's easy to miss the problems in one's own "camp", because of partisan factors (such is the nature of being human). I suggest this piece on the Ethics of Metaphysics for further discussion on this point. As far as I can tell, there are abuses on both side of the coin here - but it's worth remembering that in both cases we are dealing with a minority of the people in question.

"I also recognize also that many things simply don't garner enough attention of serious scientists such that they would be willing to divert research funding and time into such "fringe" things."

Here, I suppose I would ask whether science can hold onto its neutrality if the entire research effort is dominated by commercial forces (which is currently the case). Revolutions in science often blindside scientists because they have predicated their models and thus excluded avenues for enquiry (as happened, for instance, with continental drift among other things). I personally feel the scientific endeavour has been hopelessly compromised in the last fifty years, but this is perhaps beyond the scope of this discussion.

"But to go in the opposite direction and assume that something is true (or possible, etc) until we have good reason to believe so is intellectual sloth in my opinion."

As a skeptic, is is practically your duty to believe this, and I am certainly glad to have a population of skeptics to "defend the epistemological borders" in this way. :)

But let me turn this on its head: given that we now know that a placebo is effective against almost all medical conditions, and that belief is a prerequisite for the placebo effect, why shouldn't people believe in things that lack scientific grounding, especially if they can gain health benefits from doing so? Why should "truth" be more valuable than utility? See also the Nietzsche link earlier in this reply.

I hope you'll look into the other posts I linked to for some expansion on this points.

Thanks for taking an interest!

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