Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A few comments on the nature and scope of skepticism

Of late there has been a lot of debate about the nature, scope, and role of skepticism. Does skepticism imply atheism? Are "climate change skeptics" skeptics? Must skeptics defer to scientific consensus or experts? Should skepticism as a movement or skeptical organizations restrict themselves to paranormal claims, or avoid religious or political claims?

I think "skepticism" can refer to multiple different things, and my answers to the above questions differ in some cases depending on how the term is being used. It can refer to philosophical skepticism, to scientific skepticism, to "skeptical inquiry," to "doubt" broadly speaking, to the "skeptical movement," to skeptical organizations, and to members of the class of people who identify themselves as skeptics.

My quick answers to the above questions, then, are:

Does skepticism imply atheism? No, regardless of which definition you choose. It is reasonable to argue that proper application of philosophical skepticism should lead to atheism, and to argue that scientific skepticism should include methodological naturalism, but I prefer to identify skepticism with a commitment to a methodology rather than its outputs. That still involves a set of beliefs--which are themselves subject to reflection, criticism, and evaluation--but it is both a more minimal set than the outputs of skepticism and involves commitment to values as well as what is scientifically testable. My main opposition to defining skepticism by its outputs is that that is a set of beliefs that can change over time with access to new and better information, and shouldn't be held dogmatically.

Are "climate change skeptics" skeptics? I would say that some are, and some aren't--some are outright "deniers" who are allowing ideology to trump science and failing to dig into the evidence. Others are digging into the evidence and just coming to (in my opinion) erroneous conclusions, but that doesn't preclude them from being skeptics so long as they're still willing to engage and look at contrary evidence, as well as admit to mistakes and errors when they make them--like relying on organizations and individuals who are demonstrably not reliable. As you'll see below, I agree we should to try to save the term "skeptic" from being equated with denial.

Must skeptics defer to scientific consensus or experts? I think skeptical organizations and their leaders should defer to experts on topics outside of their own fields of expertise on pragmatic and ethical grounds, but individual skeptics need not necessarily do so.

Should skepticism as a movement or skeptical organizations restrict themselves to paranormal claims, or avoid religious or political claims? I think skepticism as a movement, broadly speaking, is centered on organizations that promote scientific skepticism and focus on paranormal claims, but also promote science and critical thinking, including with some overlap with religious and public policy claims, where the scientific evidence is relevant. At its fringes, though, it also includes some atheist and rationalist groups that take a broader view of skeptical inquiry. I think those central groups (like CSI, JREF, and the Skeptics Society) should keep their focus, but not as narrowly as Daniel Loxton suggests in his "Where Do We Go From Here?" (PDF) essay.

Here are a few of my comments, on these same topics, from other blogs.

on Michael De Dora, "Why Skeptics Should be Atheists," at the Gotham Skeptic blog:

Scientific skepticism (as opposed to philosophical skepticism) no more necessitates atheism than it does amoralism. Your argument would seem to suggest that skeptics shouldn’t hold any positions that can’t be established by empirical science, which would seem to limit skeptics to descriptive, rather than normative, positions on morality and basic (as opposed to instrumental) values.

“Skepticism” does have the sort of inherent ambiguity that “science” does, in that it can refer to process, product, or institution. I favor a methodological view of skepticism as a process, rather than defining it by its outputs. Organizations, however, seem to coalesce around sets of agreed-upon beliefs that are outputs of methodology, not just beliefs about appropriate/effective methodology; historically that set of agreed-upon beliefs has been that there is no good scientific support for paranormal and fringe science claims. As the scope of skeptical inquiry that skeptical organizations address has broadened, that leads to more conflict over issues in the sphere of politics and religion, where empirical science yields less conclusive results.

I’d rather see skeptical organizations share some basic epistemic and ethical values that are supportive of the use of science than a commitment to a set of beliefs about the outputs of skeptical methodology. The latter seems more likely to result in dogmatism.

Comment on Daniel Loxton, "What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?" at SkepticBlog:

While I think the picture Daniel presents offers some good heuristics, I can’t help but note that this is really proffered normative advice about the proper relationship between the layman and the expert, which is a question that is itself a subject of research in multiple domains of expertise including philosophy of science, science and technology studies, and the law. A picture much like the one argued for here is defended by some, such as philosopher John Hardwig (”Epistemic Dependence,” Journal of Philosophy 82(1985):335-349), but criticized by others, such as philosopher Don Ihde (”Why Not Science Critics?”, International Studies in Philosophy 29(1997):45-54). There are epistemological, ethical, and political issues regarding deference to experts that are sidestepped by the above discussion. Not only is there a possibility of meta-expertise about evaluating experts, there are cases of what Harry Collins and Robert Evans call “interactional expertise” (”The Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience,” Social Studies of Science 32:2(2002):235-196) where non-certified experts attain sufficient knowledge to interact at a deep level with certified experts, and challenge their practices and results (this is discussed in Evan Selanger and John Mix, “On Interactional Expertise: Pragmatic and Ontological Considerations,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3:2(2004):145-163); Steven Epstein’s book Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge, 1996, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, discusses how AIDS activists developed such expertise and successfully made changes to AIDS drug research and approval processes.

The above discussion also doesn’t discuss context–are these proposed normative rules for skeptics in any circumstance, or only for those speaking on behalf of skeptical organizations? I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that skeptics, speaking for themselves, should be limited about questioning anything. The legal system is an example of a case where experts should be challenged and questioned–it’s a responsibility of the judge, under both the Frye and Daubert rules, to make judgments about the relevance and admissibility of expert testimony, and of laymen on the jury to decide who is more credible. (This itself raises enormous issues, which are discussed at some length by philosopher and law professor Scott Brewer, “Scientific Expert Testimony and Intellectual Due Process,” The Yale Law Journal vol. 107, 1535-1681.) Similar considerations apply to the realm of politics in a democratic society (cf. Ihde’s article).

All of the papers I’ve cited are reprinted in the volume The Philosophy of Expertise, edited by Evan Selinger and Robert P. Crease, 2006, N.Y.: Columbia University Press.

Comment on jdc325's "The Trouble With Skeptics" at the Stuff And Nonsense blog:
@AndyD I’d say that it’s possible for a skeptic to believe individual items on your list (though not the ones phrased like “the entirety of CAM”), so long as they do so because they have legitimately studied them in some depth and think that the weight of the scientific evidence supports them, or if they admit that it’s something they buy into irrationally, perhaps for the entertainment it brings or to be part of a social group. If, however, they believe in a whole bunch of such things, that’s probably evidence that they’re not quite getting the point of critical thinking and skepticism somewhere. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean that you’re always correct (as per the above comment on Skeptic Fail #7), and I don’t think it necessarily means you’re always in accord with mainstream science, either.

Skeptic fail #6 is a pretty common one. For example, I don’t think most skeptics have a sufficient knowledge of the parapsychology literature to offer a qualified opinion, as opposed to simply repeat the positions of some of the few skeptics (like Ray Hyman and Susan Blackmore) who do.
Comments (one and two) on "Open Thread #17" at Tamino's Open Mind blog:

Ray Ladbury: I think you’re in a similar position as those who want to preserve “hacker” for those who aren’t engaged in criminal activity. I understand and appreciate the sentiment, but I think “skeptic” already has (and, unlike “hacker,” has actually always had) common currency in a much broader sense as one who doubts, for whatever reason.

I also think that there are many skeptics involved in the organized and disorganized skeptical movement in the U.S. (the one started by CSICOP) who don’t meet your criteria of “sufficiently knowledgeable about the evidence and theory to render an educated opinion” even with respect to many paranormal and pseudoscience claims, let alone with respect to climate science. There’s an unfortunately large subset of “skeptics” in the CSICOP/JREF/Skeptics Society sense who are also climate change skeptics or deniers, as can be seen from the comments on James Randi’s brief-but-retracted semi-endorsement of the Oregon Petition Project at the JREF Swift Blog and on the posts about climate science at

Ray: You make a persuasive argument for attempting to preserve “skeptic.” Since I’ve just been defending against the colloquial misuse of “begs the question,” I think I can likewise endorse a defense of “skeptic” against “pseudoskeptic.” However, I think I will continue to be about as reserved in my use of “denier” as I am in my use of “liar.” I don’t make accusations of lying unless I have evidence not just that a person is uttering falsehoods, but that they’ve been presented with good evidence that they are uttering falsehoods, and continue to do so anyway.

On another subject, I’d love to see an equivalent of the Talk Origins Archive (, and in particular Mark Isaak’s “Index to Creationist Claims” ( for climate science (and its denial). Do they already exist?

Some previous posts at this blog on this subject may be found under the "skepticism" label, including:

"Massimo Pigliucci on the scope of skeptical inquiry"
(October 21, 2009)
"Skepticism, belief revision, and science" (October 21, 2009)

Also, back in 1993 I wrote a post to the sci.skeptic Usenet group that gave a somewhat oversimplified view of "the proper role of skeptical organizations" which was subsequently summarized in Michael Epstein's "The Skeptical Viewpoint," Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 7, no. 3, Fall 1993, pp. 311-315.

UPDATE (January 7, 2010): Skepdude has taken issue with a couple of points above, and offers his contrary arguments at his blog. First, he says that skeptics need to defer to scientific consensus with the "possible exception" of cases where "the person is also an expert on said field." I think that case is a definite, rather than a possible exception, but would go farther--it's possible to be an expert (or even just a well-informed amateur) in a field that has direct bearing on premises or inferences used by experts in another field where one is not expert. That can give a foothold for challenging a consensus in a field where one is not expert. For example, philosophers, mathematicians, and statisticians can spot errors of conceptual confusion, fallacious reasoning, invalid inferences, mathematical errors, and misuse of statistics. It's possible for an entire field to have an erroneous consensus, such as that rocks cannot fall from the sky or continents cannot move. I suspect an argument can be made that erroneous consensus is more likely to occur in a field with a high degree of specialization that doesn't have good input from generalists and related fields.

I also am uncomfortable with talk of "deference" to experts without scope or context, as it can be taken to imply the illegitimacy of questioning or demanding evidence and explanation in support of the consensus, which to my mind should always be legitimate.

The second point is one which Skepdude and I have gone back and forth on before, both at his blog (here, here, and here -- I could have used these comments as well in the above post) and via Twitter, which is about whether skepticism implies (or inevitably leads) to atheism. It's a position which I addressed above in my comments on Michael De Dora and on the "Stuff and Nonsense" blog, though he doesn't directly respond to those. He writes:
I fail to see the distinction between skepticism implying atheism and proper application of skepticism leading to atheism. I regard the two as saying the same thing, that skepticism, if consistently applied should lead to atheism. I am not sure what Jim means by philosophical skepticism, and maybe that’s where he draws the difference, but I refrain from using qualifiers in front of the word skepticism, be it philosophical or scientific. Skepticism is skepticism, we evaluate if a given claim is supported by the evidence.
There is most definitely a distinction between "skepticism implies atheism" and "proper application of skepticism leads to atheism." The former is a logical claim that says atheism is derivable from skepticism, or that it's necessarily the case that the use of skepticism (regardless of inputs?) yields atheism. The latter is a contingent claim that's dependent upon the inputs and the result of the inquiry. If skepticism is defined as a method, the former claim would mean in essence that the game is rigged to produce a particular result for an existence claim necessarily, which would seem to me to be a serious flaw in the method, unless you thought that atheism was logically necessary. But I'm not aware of any atheists who hold that, and I know that Skepdude doesn't, since he prefers to define atheism as mere lack of belief and has argued that there is no case to be made for positive atheism/strong atheism.

If we take skepticism defined as a product, as a set of output beliefs, there's the question of which output beliefs we use. Some idealized set of beliefs that would be output from the application of skeptical processes? If so, based on which set of inputs? In what historical context? The sets of inputs, the methods, and the outputs all have changed over time, and there is also disagreement about what counts as appropriately well-established inputs and the scope of the methods. The advocate of scientific skepticism is going to place more constraints on what is available as input to the process and the scope of what the process can deal with (in such a way that the process cannot be used even to fully evaluate reasons for being a skeptic, which likely involve values and commitments that are axiomatic or a priori). Methodological naturalism is likely to be part of the definition of the process, which means that theism cannot be an output belief--I think this is probably what Skepdude means when he says that atheism defined as a lack of belief is a product of skepticism. But note that the set of output beliefs from this process is a subset of what it is reasonable to believe, unless the advocate of this view wants to assert that the commitment to skepticism itself is not reasonable to believe--in virtue of the fact that it is not subject to a complete evaluation by the process. (As an aside, I think that it is possible for the process of skepticism thus defined to yield a conclusion of its own inadequacy to address certain questions, and in fact, that if we were to observe certain things, to yield the conclusion that methodological naturalism should be rejected.)

If we look at skepticism more broadly, where philosophical arguments more generally are acceptable as input or method, atheism (in the positive or strong form) then becomes a possible output. As an atheist, I think that use of the best available evidence and arguments and the best available methodology does lead to a conclusion of atheism (and 69.7% of philosophy faculty and Ph.D.s agree), that still doesn't mean that everyone's going to get there (as 69.3% of philosophy faculty and Ph.D.s specializing in philosophy of religion don't) or that anyone who doesn't has necessarily done anything irrational in the process, but for a different reason than in the prior case. That reason is that we don't function by embodying this skeptical process, taking all of our input data, running it through the process, and believing only what comes out the other side. That's not consistent with how we engage in initial learning or can practically proceed in our daily lives. Rather, we have a vast web of beliefs that we accumulate over our lifetimes, and selectively focus our attention and use skeptical processes on subsets of our beliefs. The practical demands of our daily lives, of our professions, of our social communities, and so forth place constraints on us (see my answers to questions in "Skepticism, belief revision, and science"). And even with unlimited resources, I think there are reasons that we wouldn't want everyone to apply skeptical methods to everything they believed--there is value to false belief in generating new hypotheses, avoiding Type I errors, keeping true beliefs from becoming "dead dogma," and so forth (which I discussed in my SkeptiCamp Phoenix presentation last year, "Positive side-effects of misinformation").

UPDATE (January 16, 2009): Skepdude responds here.


badrescher said...

Well said.

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

Does skepticism imply a-homeopathism? Well, no! Skepticism gives me a methodology for thinking about homeopathy, not an answer to its truth or falsity.

Lippard said...

Jivlain: That's sort of the direction I favor for skepticism, but I can't entirely dispose of the "as a product" sense of the term for skepticism or science. That's because I have to agree with Stephen Jay Gould, in "Evolution as Fact and Theory," that "In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."

The critique that Steven Novella and Kimball Atwood have made of evidence-based medicine for trying to be purely methodological, with no constraints on prior plausibility for inputs to the process, is a good one--and one which directly addresses your example of homeopathy.

In philosophy of science, I think Thomas Nickles has had a lot to say about inputs to the scientific process in the form of using prior work to generate new hypotheses.

Joel said...

That's not to say that we cannot include prior plausibility in the methodology, such as in Michael Shermer's version of the Baloney Detection Kit.

I don't think think that science-based medicine necessarily removes the notion a methodology, but it does (reasonably) criticise EBM as not taking all the inputs into account. You can apply the same sort of Bayes' theorem-informed thinking to skepticism as in SBM. The JREF million-dollar challenge, for example, the final test uses a strong p-value - obviously if you're going to test a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of various implausible claims, you don't want 5% of your applicants walking away with a large check.

(I'm Jivlain from above, btw, I've modified my Blogger profile between posts)

Lippard said...

Joel: You're absolutely correct that SBM doesn't *remove* the methodology, it just says you need something more.

It seems to me that adding prior plausibility to the methodology is essentially the same thing as placing a constraint on inputs on the basis of past outputs.

This all gets a lot more complicated when you ask the question of whose inputs and outputs? We really have to look social groups and institutions rather than individuals, since none of us can really get off the ground from a position of Cartesian doubt (or even truly get into such a position, for we still retain conceptual schemes that we've picked up from our initial learning).

badrescher said...

In the literature on the subject of critical thinking, the most widely accepted definition of "rational" is not purely methodological. It includes holding a set of beliefs which are not inconsistent with knowledge. This definition may not exclude religion, but it certainly excludes belief in Big Foot, telepathy, and homeopathy given that the individual knows that those claims have failed repeated tests.

Regardless, what I am more interested in the discussion here is some something less discussed elsewhere, and that is tolerance of diversity in views and approaches. As you've expressed here, we are a community of individuals. The culture of that community forms itself, but it does not do so around the views of an individual unless those views are shared by all.

While we may talk about what we wish and hope the movement and the individuals within it would do/be, it is presumptuous to assume that one's opinion about that is "the one true view".

Personally, I am turned off by sweeping statements about the way people should behave, whether I agree with the substance of statements or not, when they are framed as dictates rather than opinions. There is a way to criticize things (e.g., voicing irrational views) without pretension: present an argument addressing the specific "offense" in an open forum.

Lippard said...

badrescher: I agree.

My personal experience has sometimes involved clashes with skeptical organizations and individuals, and I might have considered myself to be outside of the "organized skeptical movement" had it not been for support from leaders of local groups and the rise of competitive national groups like the Skeptics Society and JREF (and now a huge proliferation of them online). I'm rather wary of the possibilities of groupthink and the conversion of a set of output beliefs into "dead dogma" that becomes immune to further application of skeptical methodology--that drives my emphasis of methodology over output, though I think Joel's point shows that I shouldn't push that too far.

You mention "sweeping statements about the way people should behave"--I think I'm willing to put more constraints on behavior than I am on belief. I've found that I better enjoy conversations with some believers than with some skeptics or atheists, where the former are open-minded and familiar with the skeptical arguments and know the subject matter in detail, and where the latter are just repeating what they've read or heard from the skeptical or atheist literature. I'd rather be challenged and have an opportunity to learn.

Kevan Hashemi said...

Jim said, "I've found that I better enjoy conversations with some believers..." I have had the same experience. I have been doing bible study with my aunt, and enjoying it. But I'm a second-generation atheist. I shared an office with a Christian Fundamentalist, and then a Christian Scientist. I enjoyed many discussions with both. But when it comes to climate science, many people don't control their behavior in the way they would during a debate about religion, and the result is unpleasant.

As to definitions of valid "skepticism", I find your definition unsatisfying. For example, "commitment to values as well as what is scientifically testable" rests upon a clear definition of scientific method, as do other similar statements you make. But without a solution for the New Riddle of Induction, any effort to define science is dead on arrival, and so it seems to me that entire argument collapses because it has no solid foundation.

Lippard said...

Keven: I think that "method" has to be pluralistic rather than singular--there is no single universal scientific method.

Do you think that there are no solutions to Goodman's "new riddle of induction"? (For that matter, what about Hempel's paradox and Hume's fork?)

How about John D. Norton's 2006 _Synthese_ paper (PDF here)? He argues that there are asymmetries between "green" and "grue" that can be exploited to account for a difference in projectibility of terms in all but contrived circumstances, and in the contrived circumstances, "green" and "grue" are variant descriptions of the same physical facts with only ineffable differences.

Kevan Hashemi said...

Jim: I like your idea that there are different versions of scientific method. That would put us on a level with people of different religions, each confident in their own, but respectful of the others in debate.

I don't like any existing solutions to the New Riddle of Induction, other than my own, which have enjoyed for the past thirteen years. I looked at the one you pointed to (thank you for that), and I'd say it begs the question. Who is to judge what is a contrived circumstance? And the real contention about what's scientific and what's not would be hard to address with that solution. For example, it scientific to fit a twenty-parameter model to sixteen data points, and say your model is a valid scientific theorem? If not, why not?

I'm interested in your suggestion that a skeptic need not be an atheist. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that we can put on our skeptical hat and talk about gravity, and then take it off again and talk about religion, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm inclined to agree with you.

Unless, of course, we apply skepticism to the idea that we will benefit from taking off our skeptical hat. And at that point, the trouble starts.

Lippard said...

Keven: Got any pointers to your solution? Have you read Stalnaker's book, _Grue_?

I think the different versions of methodology are not merely subjective fashions, but applicable to different fields and questions.

"If I understand you correctly, you are saying that we can put on our skeptical hat and talk about gravity, and then take it off again and talk about religion, and there's nothing wrong with that." That's not quite what I had in mind, though I agree that we can do that and there's not *necessarily* anything wrong with it (at least, if we're just talking, as opposed to, say, making public policy). Rather, I see "scientific skepticism" as having a somewhat restricted scope. Although I favor the "naturalistic turn" in philosophy, it seems to me there's always a residue of philosophy that doesn't end up as subject matter of science (though even that residual philosophy should be informed by science). And, even given the broader notion of skepticism that includes doing philosophy, I think as a simple practical matter we can't subject everything we believe to skeptical evaluation, at least not at the individual level.

Kevan Hashemi said...

Jim, I did look at the book Grue about ten years ago (or so it seems). I did not see any solutions that appealed to me, although I enjoyed looking at them. You will find my solution here. Please note that I did not come to your site to peddle my ideas, but rather to understand yours.

When I read your essay, I was looking for you to describe a rule you might use to determine when it's okay not to be skeptical, or the converse. (I apologize if I missed your point.) I want to better understand people who accept some things on faith, and yet who also show ample skepticism on other subjects. I know, for example, a high energy physicist who believes the world is only five thousand years old. Can you propose a system for selecting subjects about which we will be skeptical, on a day-to-day basis? I have no answer to that question myself, other than "always be skeptical", which is, as you know, rather tiring.

Lippard said...

Keven: I'm afraid I don't have a rule to suggest. Each of us has competing values and preferences on a day-to-day basis, some of which include getting along with other people who have different views, behaving ethically, and (at least for most of us) not being an arrogant ass--so even if we're *being* skeptical, we may not *express* that skepticism at all times. There are also forms of social activity which don't involve intellectual commitments, where skepticism may not be valuable (e.g., enjoying a work of fiction).

Kevan Hashemi said...

Well, how about we say that we will never punish anyone for being skeptical?

Lippard said...

That's probably too strong for a general rule (depending on what you mean by "punish"), since skepticism can indicate an insulting lack of trust or be unwarranted in the face of overwhelming evidence (like the kid who keeps asking "why?" just to be annoying). It's appropriate to treat certain expressions of skepticism as rudeness, denial, specious reasoning, etc.

Kevan Hashemi said...

I'm prepared to accept anyone being skeptical, so long as they don't insult me for my beliefs. As to people denial, I'd have to prove that the person knows that what they believe in is untrue, but is trying to convince themselves otherwise. I'd have to assume someone was innocent of such behavior until proven guilty. So I don't see any practical problem with accepting skepticism. Perhaps you can give me an example where a person declining to share one of your beliefs would necessarily be rude, and then I'll reconsider.

Lippard said...

Keven: Here's someone being rude by refusing to accept ordinary assertions:

Me: The other day, I was driving home and ...

Jerk: You can drive? Do you even have a car?

Me: Yes, I've been driving since I was 16. As I was saying, I was driving home and I saw a billboard for a product that was hilariously bad ...

Jerk: I don't believe it. Where would you have seen a billboard? And you still haven't proven that you can drive.

Me: Look, here's my driver's license, and that's my car right out there in the parking lot. How about letting me finish my story?

Note that it's not the lack of acceptance that's rude, it's the expression of rejection in the given context.

I would also define "denial" somewhat broader than you in that it doesn't have to involve conscious deception. One can be in denial by a process of self-deception that involves refusing to treat evidence with comparable standards, effectively having blinders by following confirmation bias and not seeking disconfirming sources, etc.