Saturday, February 11, 2012

I'm a skeptic

What is skepticism? In casual use, being skeptical means that you have doubts, or even that you disbelieve. But skeptics don't automatically disbelieve everything.

Being a skeptic simply means that you want to have good reasons backing up what you believe. A skeptic isn't a cynic, but a critical thinker. That's the goal, at least. We're human, so we make mistakes. We understand our own fallibility. But what does that imply?

It doesn't imply that we can't know anything, but it does imply that we can never be absolutely certain. Do you think the Earth is round? Me, too. In fact, I'm pretty sure of that. But we could be wrong. There are any number of ways in which we could be wrong about that - very implausible ways, certainly, but not absolutely impossible.

By definition, an omnipotent god could do anything, including convince the whole human race that our flat Earth is round. Why would he do that? I don't know. God works in mysterious ways, right? Or maybe we're all living in a computer simulation run by technologically advanced aliens. Or maybe I'm just a brain in a bottle, hallucinating all this. Or maybe this is some kind of Truman Show, some massive conspiracy by everyone I know to convince me the world is different than it really is, just for their own amusement.

Well, you get the point. I'd probably have to be crazy to believe any of those things, but that doesn't make them completely impossible. I don't believe any of those alternatives to a round Earth, because there's no evidence backing them up. But, in principle, I can't entirely rule them out.

I can rule them out in practice, though, at least for now, because of the lack of evidence. If new evidence becomes available, I can always rethink my position. Granting the fact that we probably can't know anything for sure, it's still true that we can be pretty confident about some things. But we need to understand why we believe what we do. And we need to apportion our belief to the evidence.

I wrote about this, when I first started my blog, in How to Think Rationally. And I continue to add to that, in various posts tagged as skepticism. But I'm going to try to summarize my thinking here, so I can link to this post in my profile.

First, as a skeptic, I value the truth. That might seem nonsensical. Doesn't everyone value the truth? But no, sadly, that's not the case. Some people value their comfort over the truth. Some people want to believe what they want to believe. The truth is only embraced by those people when it happens to coincide with what they already believe.

I've had people tell me, usually in matters of religion, that they didn't care if their beliefs were true or not, that they still wanted to believe them. Of course, they quickly assure me that they do think their beliefs are true. But they admit that the truth isn't that important to them. Well, the truth is important to me!

For all human beings, it's easy to believe what we want to believe, and we skeptics are just as human as everyone else. We recognize that. We know that we, too, find it easy to believe what confirms our existing beliefs and biases. We are no different from anyone else in that respect.

So we try to think critically about why we believe. We try to ensure that we've got good reasons for what we believe. And one of the ways we do that is by encouraging criticism. Yesterday, I told you that I wanted you to tell me when you think I'm wrong. It's not that I think I am wrong, but that I value the truth, so I want my beliefs to be challenged.

The best thing you could do for me is to convince me that I'm wrong about something. Because I don't want to believe in a falsehood. Like everyone else, I want my beliefs to be true. But since I'm a skeptic, I value the truth more than I value my existing beliefs. So I'm not just willing to change my beliefs, if you convince me that I'm wrong, I'll actually be very grateful for it.

OK, I probably won't be too happy if it happens very often. I'm human, too, you know. But I'll be unhappy at myself, for believing an  untruth in the first place. I'll kick myself (figuratively) for not getting it right the first time. But better late than never. I'm a skeptic. I value the truth, so I want to have my beliefs challenged.

But all this is easier said than done. The devil is in the details. For one thing, we can't all be experts about everything. It's hard enough to become an expert in anything. And time constraints alone make it impossible for us to research every single issue.

In some cases, though, there are shortcuts. If you understand the scientific method, you'll understand that science has this same skeptical point of view. Science is not about proof, but about evidence. And the scientific method is designed specifically to determine the demonstrable truth.

Individual scientists are still human and still prone to the same errors as all of us. But the scientific method compensates for that. And eventually, science comes to a consensus. Unlike religions and other faith-based institutions, there's just one science, worldwide.

Not every scientist will accept the consensus, necessarily - it's hard to get every human being to agree on anything - but the scientific consensus will tend to be the same in England, in Iraq, in China, in India,... everywhere. That's because science isn't based on how you were brought up, but on the clear evidence.

So as a layman, I can accept, provisionally - as all science is provisional - the scientific consensus. I don't have to be an expert in geology to accept that the Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. I don't have to be an expert in biology to accept evolution. I don't have to be an expert in climatology to accept global warming.

All I need is to understand science, to understand why the scientific method is the best way we've ever discovered to determine the truth, and to distinguish reality from wishful thinking. And then, I just need to know what the scientific consensus is.

There is no consensus on some things, not yet. Science doesn't know everything (obviously, since there'd be no reason for science if it did). Science is a continuing process. At the cutting edge of science, there are usually a lot of hypotheses, but not enough evidence for a consensus. No problem. I don't have to believe in string theory, or to disbelieve it, either. I can just reserve judgment.

"I don't know" is often a perfectly respectable answer. Frequently, it's the only true answer. But to say that we don't know now doesn't mean that we won't ever know. Science advances. We've known that the Earth was round for centuries. Evolution has been the scientific consensus for more than a hundred years. Global warming has been the consensus only for decades, if that long. We advance.

So, when it comes to questions of science, it's pretty easy for us skeptics. We accept the scientific consensus, if there is one. If not, we reserve judgment. (Specifically, we don't believe in a claim, unless there's a clear consensus. That doesn't mean we believe the claim is false, but only that the claim doesn't have the standard of evidence we need to accept it. Until there's a scientific consensus, we wouldn't believe a claim of the opposite, either.)

That makes things relatively easy when it comes to science (not easy for scientists, necessarily, but easy for us laymen). But what about questions which aren't scientific? What about politics or economics or history?

Well, those are harder. The basic idea is still the same, that we should depend on reason and evidence, but it's not so simple. In general, the experts know more than we do about their field of expertise, so if there's a consensus among economists or historians, we can have confidence in that. But often, even the experts don't come to a consensus. Well, it's hard to do controlled experiments in economics (at least at the national or international level), and especially experiments which are independently duplicable by other economists.

Still, I'd listen to the historians. I'd listen to the economists. I'd listen to the sociologists. They'll know more about their field of expertise than some random politician. And if they disagree, listen to both sides. Listen to diverse viewpoints. Often, there's more than just two sides. Try to see who uses both reason and evidence to make their case.

But as I say, that's not nearly as simple as accepting the scientific consensus. Well, that's the way it is. And if you don't know, you don't know. Did you think you were going to know everything?

Here in this blog, I express my opinions. I try to have good reasons for my beliefs, but I can be wrong. Frequently, I quote other people whom I respect - or just people who sound reasonable at the time. I might rely on a news article that later turns out to be inaccurate. (I've certainly had to change my mind for that reason, in the past.)

I'm a skeptic. I value the truth, and I try to think critically. But I also know I could be wrong. It's not just me - no one is infallible. But there are ways to help us be right more often than not. That's what we skeptics are all about.


Nuno Salgueiro said...

It's been my opinion for many years that to be able to say "I was wrong" and change one's view about something is the mark of a truly mature intellect. Thank you for this excellent article.

WCG said...

Thanks, Nuno! I appreciate that.

I must admit that it's easier to accept, theoretically, that this is the right thing to do than it is to actually do it. :)

But I do try.