Rational Scientific Theories from Theism
Myths of Skepticism
by Michael Sofka
December 16, 1997
This is a long overdue rewrite and expansion of my Myths of Skepticism paper presented the Capital District Humanist Society, January 14, 1996, and the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York (http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/) on June 5th, 1996. For those of you who saw the talk, or read an earlier form, I have expanded on the myths of belief and corrected some of the spelling and grammar (remember, this was a talk, and posted online after-the-fact). I also removed the comments on Higher Superstition, which didn't belong here in the first place. This is still a work in progress.
I would like to thank Taner Edis, Michael Koopman, and the members of CDHS for their helpful comments on earlier versions, Paul DeFrancisco for the invitation to speak to CDHS, which provided the push I needed to put my thoughts into words. Copyright (c) 1995, 1996, 1997 by Michael D. Sofka
A slightly different version of this article was published in Skeptiker: Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft und kritisches Denken, Jahrgang 13, 2000, Heft 1, S. 18--28, published by Gesellschaft zur Wissenschaftlicken Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP). My appreciation to the editors of Skeptiker for the opportunity to finally publish "Myths..." and particularly to Stephen Mathiesen for his editorial comments, translation efforts and seemingly bottomless patience.
Comments appreciated. Please send them to email@example.com. I noticed this article is included in a collection of articles critical of skeptics. While this article is critical of some of the epistemology of some skeptics, it is by no means critical of skepticism as a whole. Quite the contrary. Skeptics are a diverse group of people. That some are less given to quiet meditation than others is hardly a reason to condemn rational inquiry or attempts to spread some common sense. Much the same can be said of some of the other articles included in that same list. That skeptics can be self-critical examine their own motivation is a sign of strength.
How do we know what we know? How do we evaluate claims to knowledge, and assign to them some level of credibility? How do we incorporate them into our belief structure? What is belief? These are questions of central concern to skeptics, and yet they are questions for which skeptics often provide inadequate answers. Why is this?
To begin, we have to ask what a skeptics is. The answer depends more then a little bit on who you ask. Some definitions I've encountered are that skeptics are:
These are definitions that many skeptics, especially what I'll call traditional skeptics (such as those associated with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal---CSICOP) would agree with. Some definitions, usually expressed by CSICOP's critics are:
Paul Kurtz, however, has correctly points out that this approach is somewhat difficult to maintain in practice. We are always making judgments just to get on with our lives.1 There comes a point where the evidence (or lack of evidence) is such that a judgment is warranted.
My favorite, however, is:
In this paper, however, I am less concerned with how others define skeptics than how skeptics define themselves, science and others. Reading the above definitions, two things stand out: defending rationalism, and application of science. So for example, if you read Skeptical Inquirer or books by Randi, Nickel, or Gardner you may find passages similar to this composite:
Skeptics are defending science and reason against a raising tide of the irrationality. They are the champions not only of science, but also of the uninformed public who are being mislead and robbed of their health and hard earned money by unscrupulous charlatans and flim-flam artists. Skeptics apply the scientific method to ''debunk'' claims of pseudo-science and the paranormal, bringing the cold eye of reason, to bear on primitive superstition and nonsense.
I've been reading skeptic literature for thirteen years, and prior to about five years ago I might have agreed with these sentiments.
You'll note that science figures prominently in the above composite, and indeed in skepticism. But, it is a particularly skeptic-like definition of science that is found in many of their writings. So, a skeptic might might define science this way:
Science is our best method of gaining objective knowledge. It is a self correcting system that applies logic and empirical methods to test theories of nature against the observable data. All theories are given a fair shake by the scientific method, but if they are not up to muster, if they fail the tests, then they should be abandoned. Science doesn't prove its theories, they are all accepted only tentatively. A scientist is always willing to throw out even the most successful of theories if new data comes in. But, to overthrow a successful theory requires extraordinary evidence.
Besides containing purple prose, these passages exhibit a number of errors and fallacies regarding science, the scientific method and of believers in the paranormal. These are what I'm calling ''myth-perceptions'' of skepticism. That is, they are myths that many skeptics believe.
I think that myth is the exact word to describe these beliefs. My copy of Merriam-Webster 9th Collegiate Dictionary gives as the second definition of myth: ''a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone, esp. embodying the ideas and institutions of a segment of society.'' These myths also contain a kernel of truth. That is, they are incorrect only in their simplistic form. The purpose of this talk is to point out the weakness of the simple versions of these myths, and provide guidelines for a stronger, more general and robust version of the same ''ideas and institutions'' embodied in the original myth.
To help organize these myths, they are divided into four fuzzy categories: myths about science and the scientific method, myths about problem solving and decision making, myths about belief systems, and myths about skeptics. Some of the myths, however, overlap categories, and others represent incorrect or incomplete conclusions drawn from earlier myths. I will attempt to avoid repetition where possible.
Myths about Science and the Scientific Method.
It is no surprise to skeptics that the general public has a poor understanding of science. It may be more of a surprise that while skeptics have a better understanding of science, it is frequently a naïve and idealized version of science. Once which few scientists even hold.
But, science is central to the questions of how we know what we know and don't know, and, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Gilovich, how do we know what isn't so?3 If, as skeptics, we invoke science to understand nature it is important that we know just what the strengths and weaknesses of science are. The myths in this category attempt fill in some of the gaps.4
Myth #1: Theories cannot be proved, they can only be disproved.
Corollary: If the data do not match the predictions, the theory should be abandoned.
Corollary: In this way we converge to the truth.
This is what I will call naïve falsification. It, along with its corollaries, is a common myth among skeptics and one that should be put to rest.
Falsification is usually attributed to philosopher Karl Popper.5 Popper did indeed place a strong emphasis on falsification in his proscription for science, but he did not believe that this is the way scientists actually work. Instead, Popper proposed falsification as a way of eliminating mistakes. Some theories have little to say, and vulnerability is a scientific virtue.
The basis of falsification is that Theories predict Data. That is, they have observational consequences. If the theory T is true, and it makes the prediction D, then we should expect to see the data D. Otherwise T is false. Note that it is a logical fallacy to assume the theory T from the data D. This is because multiple theories could predict the same data.
The problem is that theories are never tested in isolation. Instead, they are tested in bundles that include:
If you don't find the the expected data predicted by your hypothesis, you are logically justified in maintaining belief in the hypothesis and assuming the mapping or auxiliary assumptions were wrong. An example may help clarify.6
With Newtonian mechanics, and the appropriate mapping assumptions (how ellipses, foci, and differential equations relate to planets and stars) you can derive predictions about the orbits of the planets. The problem was, it didn't quite work. Newtonian physics failed to account for the orbit of first Saturn, and later Uranus. Astronomers at first assumed their orbital measurements were inaccurate (bad mapping assumption). Later, as orbital measurements improved an auxiliary hypothesis in the form of a conjectured new planet was introduced. This auxiliary hypothesis was tested, and found to be correct in what stands as one of the most spectacular predictions ever made by a scientific theory.
Simply put, Newtonian mechanics it failed in an early prediction. It had clear unambiguous observational consequences, and they were not observed. By naïve falsification it should have been abandoned. Obviously, it wasn't, but not because passed all tests or solved all outstanding problems. In fact, as Kuhn and others have pointed out,7 when it came to the formation of the solar system, Newton initially predicted less than competing theories. Newtonian mechanics succeeded, however, because it was very good at solving many problems, and it proposed a uniform way in which many more problems could be solved. In short, it was a good, general theory with wide potential application.
The lesson is, we are never testing just one hypothesis, and assuming the simple view of falsification would disallow a lot of what is considered good science. A point is reached, however, when continued failure does contribute to rejecting theories. After all, a theory that makes few correct predictions will find little support in the long run.8
In addition to rejecting theories which we accept as science, naïve falsification would accept theories that are without a doubt bad science. Another example (also paraphrased from Kitcher):
A mystic gives his theory as: ''Quietness is the wholeness in the center of stillness.'' This is his central theory, it is core to his view of the world.
''But,'' you object, ''the theory has no observational consequences, and hence cannot be refuted. As such, it is not a scientific theory.''
''Nonsense,'' replies the mystic. ''There are plenty of observational consequences of my theory. For example, If quietness is the wholeness in the center of stillness, then flowers blume in the spring, bees gather pollen, and narrow minded nay-sayers reject my theory. As you can see all of these observations are true, so my theory is not refuted. If, someday, flowers stop blooming in the spring, or you accept my theory it would fail this prediction.''
What happens now? Since any statement can be tacked on as a observational consequences to any other statement. There has to be more then testable observational consequences in a good theory. Some propose that a theory must have strong observational consequences. That is, nothing in particular attaches the mystics consequences to his central theory. This, however, assumes that our accepted view of causation, and particularly the seasons and evolution are correct. We are, in short, applying our own auxiliary hypothesis to the mystic's theory. Why is this justified over him applying his own auxiliary (some might say ad hoc) hypothesis to our theories. No, this just leaves us flailing our arms around wanting to say ''but, that's not a theory!'' Well, why isn't it?
Finally, there is a problem with the notion of converging closer to the correct theory via a process of elimination. We only ever have a finite number of observations supporting any given theory. Newtonian mechanics may have a potentially infinite number of observational consequence, but, at any given time, we have only tested a finite number. As a result, there are a great number (potentially an infinite number) of theories that can predict the same data set.9 We cannot possibly eliminate them all. Since infinity - N is still infinity we are not logically justified in claiming convergence.
Note however, that Newtonian mechanics does have an infinite number of observational consequences. This makes it a very powerful theory. Further, the more observational consequence found, the greater our confidence in the theory. While it is a simple task to create theories which account for our present set of data supporting Newton, it would be a very difficult task to create an alternative theory that accounts for our current data set, and any future data sets. In addition, Newtonian mechanics is a good theory by other criterion (see myths 3, 4 and 5, below).
Myth #2: Science is a self-correcting system.
Corollary: An integral part of this self-correcting system is the peer review process.
Scrutiny by a critical community is no doubt an important part of science, and peer review is an important part of this process. So this is not so much a myth, as a caution against placing blind faith in peer review.
Consider this study by Michael Mahoney.10 He prepared two papers that were identical in methodology, but different in which theory the results supported. He sent these papers out for review by reviewers who had earlier expressed support for either the theory supported by the experimental results, or the theory refuted by the experimental results.
Mahoney found two things: First, reviewers were more likely to reject papers that did not support the theory they favored. This is an expected, if disappointing, result. Second, he found that reviewers were more critical of the methodology in the papers that did not support their views---even though the methodologies were identical.
Peer review also begs the question of who are peers? Should a journal of UFO studies be reviewed by fellow UFOlogists? A parapsychology journal by para-psychologists? One could argue, based on Mahoney's results, that for the best criticism reviewers should be strong critics, since they will find more errors. Imagine the the difficulty, however, of getting tenure should this method be widely employed in the sciences. It would be tantamount to not publishing until consensus is reached---a stifling practice if there ever was one.
Peer review does serve as a minimal quality-control system, but it is not a silver bullet argument for validating a position. At the least, you must also consider how much you trust the community of reviewers.11
Myth #3: The data speaks for itself.
This is the ''just the facts Madame'' view of science. That the scientist dispassionately seeks objective data, and lets the chips fall where they may. In fact, a charge frequently leveled at science by some of its more eccentric critics is that they are not willing to just 'look at my data.'
The problem is the data doesn't speak for itself, and refuting this claim is the meat and potatoes of the school of philosophy known as cognitive relativism.12 We decide what data to look for based on theory, we select our methods of measurement based on theory, and we use theory to organize and present our data.
It is often said that seeing is believing, but believing is also to an extent seeing. It is much easier to find something if you know where to look, and good theories help us to look in the right place. Who, for example, would have looked for the top quark without a theory telling us it should be there.
I want to emphasis that despite what cognitive relativist might claim, we do have reliable checks on theories. Some observations are more robust or ''fact-like'' then others. Some observations rely on well established theories (such as optics). Others depend on weaker theories (such as measures of aggression). It is important, however, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Relativism should be viewed as a precaution to watch out for our own biases, use the best objective methods at our disposal, and be aware of when our data is subject to interpretation.13
It is not difficult, however, to find examples in science where the data does not speak for itself. For example, there has been a great deal of attention given to race and IQ studies which claim to show that blacks are less intelligent than whites. This is a revenant that for some reason just won't stay dead. Likewise, studies of gender differences in behavior and cognitive abilities often make claims that go way beyond the tentative, or even non-existent, data. One is tempted to ask why we continue to look for elusive difference where none might exist.14
Myth #4: Extraordinary hypothesis require extraordinary evidence.
This is a myth that, as myths go, isn't all that bad. All things being equal, a more extraordinary claim, or a claim that makes predictions which contradict those of well established theories does require better evidence. But, all things are usually not equal, and a skeptic would do well to gain a deeper understanding of this slogan, and what it implies.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence:
To summarize Schick, the rule does not give a sufficient condition for sufficient evidence. In practice, it is usually better to avoid saying ''Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'' in specific arguments---it is not a fait accompli. Instead, ask what evidence the claimant has, or suggest what is lacking in the evidence presented and suggest what would be more convincing evidence. Take the time to explain what well established theories are being contradicted. This doesn't always help, but it usually doesn't hurt.
Myth #5: There is one universal scientific method.
Reference is often made to ''The Scientific Method'' as though it were one, well established, universal problem solving tool. The truth is, we do not have a good description of what scientist actually do, and we are not even close to universally prescriptions for what they should be doing.16
Instead of a universal method we have a collections of suggestions and techniques, rules of thumb, and guesses. A couple of these, taken from From Lauden (1990), Kitcher (1982) and Schick (1995) are:
How are these rules to be applied? When do we prefer the simplest theory and when the theory with greater scope? If few people accept, and work on a new theory, how do we know what its potential is? Is the simplest theory UFOs? To some people, UFOs explain abductions, sightings in the sky, the behavior of government and military officials? But, they explain very little else, and other theories exist (in perceptual and cognitive psychology, in sociology, and in political science) that explain the same phenomena and more.
In short, these rules do not define an algorithm guaranteed to provide success. Do these count as ''The Scientific Method?'' I think not. Instead, they are part of the methods scientist use to evaluate theories, but there is more to doing good science then applying these rules. What that something is, will depend on the field of science, and the particular problems they face.
Myth #6: Science is our best method of acquiring knowledge.
Is science our best method of acquiring knowledge? I don't dispute this claim, but it does need some critical evaluation. I think the claim has a lot to do with what kind of knowledge one is attempting to aquire, and what counts as success. There are many important, practical problems that affect us everyday for which empiricism is impractical, or impossible. We usually make important decisions about society, law, ethics and æsthetics based on no empirical observations whatever, and no hope of ever getting any.
Can science eventually help with these problems? Maybe, but for many problems I doubt it. We may use science to try and understand, for example, what characteristics good art shares, but not why those characteristics represent good art. Personally, I'm not too bothered by unsolvable problems. There are many such problems in mathematics, and there is no reason to doubt that there are unsolvable problems in society.
Myths of Problem Solving and Decision Making.
Skeptics are usually more aware then the general public about studies showing the fallibility of human reasoning, problem solving, and memory, They are usually not aware, however, of similar studies showing the same reasoning problems among scientist, and some act as though they themselves were somehow immune to the same limitations.
Myth #7: Scientist are more intelligent then average, and better then average problem solvers.
Corollary: Scientists in the ''hard'' sciences such as physics are smarter then those in the ''soft'' social sciences.
The realty is somewhat different. Scientist are first and foremost human beings, and human beings are not very good at decision making when given complex tasks---even with training. In fact, many of the methods of science are designed to take the decision making power away from humans and instead use objective---if limited---mechanical methods.
This last result isn't surprising. In General expertise is very domain limited. In other words, an expert knows a lot about a little. Once outside of their domain, however, the experts' performance drops to normal. Multivariate designs using statistical reasoning are within the psychologist domain of expertise. Such findings can also help explain why psychologist are much less likely to believe in ESP then other college professors.22
Which leads us to our next myth:
Myth #8: People may not be perfect reasoners, but training in the use of formal methods of reasoning, and particularly knowledge of science improves that reasoning.
There are many demonstrations that even when the expert does have the domain knowledge, they do not always apply it in everyday reasoning, or even in professional settings where it is applicable.
I think the solution is a greater emphasis on formal methods such as meta-analysis and baysian analysis. Not as replacements to the informal methods, but as a supplement to them. Likewise, the application of computers to help organize, visualize, and check the consistency of claims should be encouraged. Science studies difficult problems, and there are cognitive limits to what humans (even scientist) can do. We need more and better tools to overcome these limits, and more importantly we need to apply the tools where appropriate.
Myth #9: Skepticism makes one less vulnerable to errors of reasoning or illogic.
I think anybody who reads sci.skeptic or other online forums will quickly disabuse themselves of this belief. There are many ''hot button'' issues such as global warming, population, economic systems, atheism vs. agnosticism, etc. which result in seemingly pointless debate far removed from the data (unless you agree with my view, in which care your data is acceptable). Many issues are complex and the data is subject to interpretation. My own informal observation is that skeptics, qua skeptics are no better at making sense of this data than the average person. Note, many skeptics (especially those online) are scientists and they do have expertise in particular fields. But, are their knowledge and reasoning skills better than the typical expert in the same field?
Occasionally you will find a person who claims to be more rational because they are skeptics, pure and simple. For example, we once had a member of ISUNY (The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York) who is about as skeptical as they come. He is an atheist, and believes that you cannot be a true skeptic without being an atheist (seem myth 14 below). He would tell stories of challenging a dowser double or nothing to divert water from his basement. He took community classes just to hassle the instructors. He and his wife showed up at our second meeting wearing ''number one skeptic'' and ''number two skeptic'' badges. He also believes the holocaust is a myth created by a Zionists conspiracy, and perpetuated by the state of Israel for the purpose of extorting money from the German government. He eventually quite ISUNY---I guess we were not skeptical enough for his sensibilities.
Myths about Belief Systems.
There are many published cases of skeptics expressing opinions about those who ''believe.'' How accurate, how scientific, are these opinions?
Myth #10: Believers in the paranormal are thinking in primitive, childish, misguided and uninformed ways.
People who hold a paranormal or non-empirical belief my simple be expressing a cultural, personal or spiritual view, and nothing more. This does not mean they are less intelligent, more primive, childish or irrational. They are capable of applying rational and intelligent thought to a wide variety of everyday situations---when it matters, and no doubt do this without a second thought.
Personal, pre-scientific beliefs may be closer to folk-theories in that they make use of the rules of: sympathetic magic; a sort of naive empiricism and folk-psychology, but the attitude expressed by this myths is simplistic, antagonistic and condescending. At best it is bad science, at the worst it is self-defeating to a professed goal of skeptics---to educate and inform the public.
Myth #11: Believers in the paranormal just don't want to give up their comfortable belief system. They are afraid to think independently and need the security blanket that all such belief systems provide.
Corollary: Promoters of the paranormal are manipulative and un-ethical charlatans. These flim-flam artists take advantage of people's ''need to believe'' to bilk them of their money and health.
These myth are suspect. What is so comforting about the belief in hell? What is comforting about a religions which encourages self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, or for self improvement. How are ''New Age'' environmental beliefs a security blanket? I would think quite the opposite, that blind faith in the ability of science and industry to solve all our problems is a comfortable security blanket.
Also, while that may be true of some promoters in the paranormal are in it only for the profit, this is in no way an accurate characterization of, for example, chiropractors or naturalpaths. Many practitioners and promoters of alternative medicine or spiritual beliefs act out of concern and compasion.
Myth #12: Failure to accept the findings of science, or a general tendency to believe in paranormal or fringe claims is a sign of intellectual weakness, mental illness or sloppy thinking.
If you want people to accept the scientific method when evaluating claims, you have to understand why they hold their beliefs in the first place. For example, Taylor, Eve and Harrold28 found evidence of two different avenues of beliefs among Creationists and New Age followers. The latter is associated with rejection of traditional religion and science. That is, a rejection of traditional authorities. As scientists, skeptics, humanists, and agnostics29 (among others)---who also at times reject traditional authorities---can we pause, and ask ourselves at which point rejection of authority becomes a pathology?
Regarding the mental health of believers, much has been made lately of Fantasy Prone Personality (FPP) as an ''explanation'' of alien abductions.30 The problem is, the data is tenuous and the interpretation suspect. Spanos, et.al, for example, found that among abductees those who meet the criterion of a FPPs told more vivid stories---which is what you would expect. The rate of FPP amoung abductees, however, was no higher than in the population at large.31 This has not stopped some, however, from promoting FPP as a catchall explanation of this complex social and psychological phenomena.32
Myths about Skeptics.
Finally, there are myths that skeptics hold about themselves; what they believe, and what skeptics do or should do.
Myth #13: Just show me the data and I'll believe it.
The problem with this is that skeptics are very often ''shown the data'' and very often don't believe it. Instead, they unpack the studies and look for the errors. This is known as doing good science. When a result contradicts accepted theory, or a fundamental assumption of natural science a good researcher, a good skeptic, will give it more than glancing attention.
As an example, the PEAR or auto-ganzfield results are by any stretch of the imaginatino extraordinary studies.33 They are large meta-studies incorporating hundreds of separate experiments. They are the ''proof'' of psi-effects for skeptics, and everybody else to see. I have read those studies and remain unconvinced. I would be convinced, however, by the same level of data for a variety of other effects. In what way has PEAR not met its burden of proof?
I remain unconvinced partly because of what I consider procedural and statistical problems with the meta-studies, or the collection of experiments that make up the mata-studies. I also remain unconvinced because I cannot see what belief would provide me? What theory drives the belief in psi? How will it help bring together other data, or generate new ideas? What phenomena (besides these meta-studies) would be explained by the psi-hypothesis?
It is simply that a-priori beliefs affect our acceptance of the data. (Remember the relativist claim that all observation is theory laden.) I could argue that skeptics such as Gardner, Klass and Nickell are good skeptics because of their prior beliefs. They know going into an investigation that there is a prosaic explanation, and by god they're going to find it. What's wrong with that? Well, it can (and has in some cases) lead to incorrect or premature conclusions.34 It also doesn't do much for skepticism reputation when a researcher goes in (falsely, and obviously so) proclaiming neutrality. Why not just be honest and say: ''I don't believe it. It is possible to convince me, but I don't think that is going to happen because in my experience, the world doesn't work that way.''
Myth #14: A skeptic should also be an atheist, or at least agnostic, since belief in a diety is incompatible with the truly skeptical mind.
Oh, we get this a lot (both on the Internet, and at local meetings). And, from what I've heard, ISUNY is not alone. First, to be honest a larger than average number of skeptics are agnostic.35 But, not all, or even a majority, of the members of local skeptical groups are agnostic, and there is a very strong commitment on the part of local groups to not exclude believers.36
As to whether being an atheist is a necessary precursor to being a true skeptic, I have already provided one counter example (the skeptical atheist who is also a holocaust revisionist). So clearly, being an atheist does not make one a good skeptic, why should should being a good skeptic make one an atheist? There are a variety of attitudes and opinions regarding matters of personal faith expressed in the skeptical community. There are also a variety of ways people reconcile their faiths with science, society and politics. We should no more expect skeptics to be atheist than republican, or libertarian, or whatever your favorite ''rational'' political stance is.
We should also not not underestimate theism as a motivator for a skeptical attitude. Bainbridge and Stark, for example, found a strong tendency for fundamentalist to reject occult and pseudoscience beliefs.37 And, the claims of Mike Warnke that he was in a satanic cult were ''debunked'' by Hertenstein and Trott for Cornerstone magazine---an evangelical publication.38 Mainstream religions are also natural allies with skeptics in opposing creationist attempts to teach their brand of religion in science class.
Besides, issues of gods and dæmons are none of the business of a skeptics group for good, practical reasons. And, there is nothing more frustrating to those who work hard to build a local skeptics group than to have atheists come in and drive away members by attempting to convert them.
Myth #15: Being a good skeptic means being a debunker.
Some people are really gun-ho to debunk. Why? I can understand a desire to ''protect'' people from charlatans, but that characterization of believers, and promoters of the paranormal is, to me suspect. It is also a very aggressive approach to skepticism, very confrontational, and makes many people uncomfortable. (And is, perhaps one of the reason there are so few women in skeptics organizations.)
If there is good evidence of fraud, there are law enforcement and regulatory agencies to handle this. If they are not doing their job to your satisfaction, there is a government open to lobbying (perhaps too open, according to some, but that's a topic for a different talk.)
Myth #16: Skeptics are defending science and reason from a rising tide of irrationality.
Corollary: There is a rising tide of irrationality.
This is one of my favorites. It is in almost every CSICOP fundraising requests, it is repeated in Skeptical Inquirer, and taken as something of a matter of faith. And, faith is what it is, because so far I can find no evidence of an increase in irrationality or superstition. Even the polls published over the years in Skeptical Inquirer indicate at most a shift in emphasis as one belief replaces another in the popular imagination.
Worse for proponents of this myth, to the extent that polls have been done we find church attendance dropping, and people shifting religions to the less formal and less organized.39 In many ways, our society is more secular then at any time in its history.
There is, no doubt, a increased will on the part of the religious right to assert itself politically, but is this a matter for skeptics? The religious left has also asserted itself at times, and was responsible for such acts of religious activism as: the abolition movement, the civil rights movement, the harboring of El Salvador refugees in defiance of immigration laws, the protesting of nuclear policy, and so on. Remember, do not underestimate belief as a motivator.
On the whole I suspect that irrationality, belief, and credulity are at about the same level as they have always been, just distributed in different ways. I further suspect that the term used to describe the belief of others has more to do with how new versus established that belief is in society. When skeptics attack the New Age qua New Age, I always have this uncomforable feeling that their religion is being singled out. Somebody makes a testable health claim? Ok, test it. Somebody professes belief in a one-ness of life? Let them get on with their own life, and find another hobby for yourself.
Where are We Now?
Where are we? What is skepticism and what is science? I hope that I've convinced you they are not what was characterized in the opening descriptions. But, it would be nice to have some definitions to put in their place. Some description we can offer our grandparents when they ask about our hobby.
I personally would describe skepticism as:
Skeptics attempt to understand the aims, methods, values and claims of of belief systems. They apply critical reasoning methods, including but not limited to the methods of science, to the paranormal; to fringe-science; and to the fashions of society. They also investigate those claims from mainstream science that are most subject to researcher bias, and which affect, or are affected by the views of society at large.
I think that this view would be shared by many readers of Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic, although maybe not the majority. It is also a view that many non-organized skeptics would likely agree to.
Science is still central to this view, and it was the simplistic view of science and the scientific method that I spent more time debunking. What replaces it? A definition that would be in accord with what is often referred to as the pragmatist school of philosophy might go something like:
Science is that application of formal and informal reasoning methods to understand and predict the natural and artificial worlds in which humans live. Central to science is a belief that the natural world is ordered; that it can be understood; and that it can be explained via natural processes without resorting to special causes, or the interventions of the supernatural. Science also places a very high priority on what can be observed and measured. The theories of science should be fruitful, inclusive, simple, and, to the degree possible, independently tested.
This is in accord with my own view of science. It is the view implicit in many post-Kuhnian writings on the history and philosophy of science. I do not claim that all philosophers or historians of science would agree with it. You can no more get a group of philosophers to agree on what science is then you can get a group of scientist to agree on what science is.
These passages, however, are much less certain then those they replace. They are in some way, quite frankly, less satisfactory. It seems to me that skeptics and scientist, like everybody else, would like to have some certainty in their world views. They want some area that they can grasp onto and find comfort in, and to a degree what I've attempted to do is to take some of that away, or at least show that the picture is not so clear as you might have assumed.
I believe that in the long run, however, these definitions are better. The questions raised by the relativist are good. I don't agree with their answer, but science and society is not as simple as the view expressed by some of their critics. There is unlikely to be a simple and effective method of knowing the truthfulness of any given claim, but we do have a multitude of criteria to apply, and a collection of simple and complex tools that can help us evaluate claims. We should use them.
2 For example, Philip Klass and James Oberg---who are critical of UFO claims---are regularly accused of participating in a government campaign to cover up and discredit UFOs. The same charge was leveled against Carl Sagan, even going so far as a bitter post to alt.alien.visitors to night of Sagan's death.
7 Kuhn, T. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1976; Lauden, L. Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science, University of Chicago Press, 1990
12 The term postmodernist is frequently used instead of cognitive relativist. While postmodernist may draw on the theories of cognitive relativist the two are not the same. Specifically, the views of postmodernist draw more from literature and art movements, while cognitive relativists are philosophers of science, and probably as perplexed by postmodern art as the rest of us.
14 See Tavris, C., Skeptic, 3(2), 1995 and Halpern, D., Skeptic, 3(3), 1995 for critiques of race and IQ studies. Fausto-Sterling, A. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men, Basic Books, 1985 and Tavris, C. The Mismeasure of Women: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex, 1993 for critiques of gender difference studies.
It is both encouraging and discouraging to see Skeptic magazine publish these thoughts piecemeal, as expressed by other writers. Encouraging because it indicates I'm not a lone lunatic shouting in the night. Discouraging because I never seem to have the time to write this up properly and get it in print. Well, I suppose if I wait long enough I won't have to (attach emoticons as needed).
20 There is, in fact, a long literature studying people's ability to solve logic problems that involve refutation. A review of much of this research is in Johnson-Laird, P.N. & Wason, P.C., eds., Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
22 Wagner, M.W. & Monnet, M., Attitude of College Professors Towards Extra-Sensory Perception, Zetetic Scholar, 5, 1979, pp. 7--16. Padgett, V.R., Benassi, V.A. & Singer, B., Belief in ESP Among Psychologist. In Frazier, K. (ed.), Paranormal Borderlands of Science, 1981, pp. 66--67.
27 For example, Chapman, L.J & Chapman, J.P. Genesis of popular but erroneous psychodiagnostic observations. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 72, 193--204, 1967. Chapman, J.P., Illusory correlation as an obstacle to the use of valid psychodiagnostic signs. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 74, 271--280, 1969. Mitroff, I. The subjective side of science, Amsterdam, Elsevier Scientific Publishing, 1974.
Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena. In Imagery, Current Theory, Research and Application, ed. by Anees A. Sheikh, New York: Wiley, pp. 340-390.
32 Nickel, Joe., 1986, A Study of Fantasy Proneness in the Thirteen Cases of Alleged Encounters in John Mack's Abduction, Skeptical Inquirer, 20(3). This study suffers from massive selection effects in both the subject population, and the application of FPP criterion. It can at best be considered a suggestive observation, but it is so at odds with better controlled studies it is unlikely it could pass peer review.
35 A pole taken by Skeptic magazine (reference??) found that 31% of their readership professed strong atheism, 18.5% weak atheism, and 21.3% agnosticism. This is, however, a highly self-selected sample. That is, these people are self-identified skeptics, and not just skeptical people. They are also interested enough to not only read Skeptical Inquirer, but Skeptic magazine---which has more articles of a philosophical and humanist nature.
36 This sentiment was nearly unanimous at a gathering of East Coast skeptic leaders in Buffalo. Emotions ran strong during the discussion as it was repeatedly emphasized to attendant humanist that skeptics are not humanists, and take no stand regarding matters of faith.