Shouldn’t Skeptics Know What They Are Talking
about When They Are Talking about It?
Professor of Philosophy
CUNY-City College, New York, USA
What is a skepticism? And how should a good skeptic approach her commitment to the field? These are crucial questions that most of us take for granted but that – I think – are worth pause to ponder and reevaluate from time to time. Which is what I intend to do in this article, introducing readers to an approach called “virtue epistemology,” which has much to say of relevance to the conscientious skeptic.
The ethos of the modern skeptical movement, the one that traces its origins to Paul Kurtz and others in the 1970s, is perhaps best encapsulated by the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” popularized by Carl Sagan but first articulated by Marcello Truzzi as “an extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary proof.” Both versions, in turn, owe much two illustrious antecedents: Pierre-Simon Laplace, who in 1812 wrote: “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness,” and David Hume, who said in 1748: “A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.”
Skepticism has evolved over the past several decades, expanding the circle of its concerns and therefore the type of claims it considers “ extraordinary” and thus in need of proportional evidence in order to be verified. Moreover, skepticism has developed nationally and internationally as a powerful grassroots movement for the advocacy of science and critical thinking more generally, Broadly speaking, we can distinguish between those areas of inquiry that fall under “classic” skepticism – which include astrology, UFOlogy, psychics, paranormal experiences, ghosts, Bigfoot, and the like – and those additional issues that have contributed to evolve contemporary skepticism: intelligent design creationism, vaccine denialism, climate change denialism, and so forth. Some skeptics have even ventured into criticism of areas of academic research and scholarship, such as the replicability issue in psychology and the social sciences, the debate about the value of string theory in physics, and the general usefulness of philosophy.
There are important differences among the three sets of topics I have just identified insofar as our average skeptical practitioner is concerned. When it comes to the first group (astrology, UFOlogy, etc.), skeptics have developed expertise of their own, arguably superior to that of your average scientist. It is more likely that a Joe Nickell or a James Randi will identify the problem with an alleged claim of paranormal activity than a scientist who is unfamiliar with fringe literature, the methodology of tricksters, or the unconscious biases that lead perfectly honest people to convince themselves that they have had an extraordinary experience.
The second group of topics (including especially the various forms of modern “denialism”) is trickier, as it requires a significantly deeper understanding of the underlying science. Here the skeptic can, at most, play a mediation role between the technical literature and the general public, but not really contribute directly herself to the research, unless of course she happens to be a medical researcher or an atmospheric physicist, for example.
The final group of topics (issues in psychological research, fundamental physics, philosophy) is, I maintain, so far outside of the realm of expertise of the average skeptic (unless, again, she happens to be a research psychologist, a particle physicist, or a philosopher) that the proper attitude is simply not to open one’s mouth and to let the experts sort it out. This may sound harsh and unpalatable, but we need to be honest with both ourselves and the public at large: none of us is an expert on everything, and knowing one’s own limitations is the beginning of wisdom, as Socrates famously reminded us. It also does a lot to enhance our credibility.
Humility and competence, then, are virtues that ought to be cultivated by any skeptic who wishes to intelligently comment or any of the three groups of issues I’ve outlined here. That is why skepticism would benefit enormously by a dip into the field of virtue epistemology. Let me explain.
Epistemic Virtues Epistemic Vices
(principle of charity)
Virtue Epistemology 101
Epistemology, of course, is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge and provides the criteria for evidential warrant – it tells us when it is, in fact, rational to believe or disbelieve a given notion. Virtue epistemology is a particular approach within the field of epistemology, which takes its inspiration from virtue ethics. The latter is a general way to think about ethics that goes back to Aristotle and other ancient Greek and Roman thinkers.
Briefly, virtue ethics shifts that e focus from questions such as “Is this action right/wrong?” to “Is the character of this agent virtuous or not?” The idea is that morality is a human attribute, which has the purpose of improving our lives as individuals embedded in a broader society. As such, it does not yield itself to universal analyses that take a god’s eye-view of things, but rather starts with the individual as moral agent.
Skepticism has evolved over the past several decades, expanding the circle of its concerns and therefore the typeof claims it considers “extraordinary” and thus in need of
proportional evidence in order to be verified.
Similarly with science: contrary to widespread belief (even among skeptics and scientists), science cannot aspire to a completely neutral view from nowhere, because it is by its own nature a human activity and is therefore bound by the limits (epistemic and otherwise) that characterize human intelligence and agency.
The best way to think about this is that science irreducibly depends on specific human perspectives and provides us therefore only limited access to the world-in-itself. We can observe and explore the world with increasingly sophisticated tools, but we will always have a partial view of reality and a distorted understanding of it.
That’s why both the scientist and the skeptic can benefit from a virtue epistemological way of thinking since scientific knowledge is irreducibly human, our focus should be on the human agent and the kind of practices that make it possible for her to arrive at the best approximation to the truth that is accessible to our species.
This, of course, is much easier said than done, something that Aristotle – a good connoisseur of human psychology – understood very well. Which is why he said that virtue begins with understanding what one ought or ought not to do but becomes entrenched only with much practice and endless corrections, allowing us to internalize its precepts.
A checklist for the Virtuous Skeptic
The problem is that skepticism shares its core values with science, and such values include intellectual honesty, epistemic humility, and a number of other virtues. What is supposed to separate us from creationists, climate change deniers, and all the rest is not that we happen to be (mostly, often) right and they aren’t.
It is that we really seek the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. This means we do the hard work of carrying out research; we don’t just sit on a collective arse and pontificate.
To make sure of this, I suggest two things: First, a push toward a peer review system within the skeptic community modeled on the one used by scientists. Peer review has its own shortcomings (ask the psychological and medical communities), but having one’s work checked by someone else is a first step toward improving the quality of what we publish. Second, here is a handy checklist for the aspiring virtuous skeptic to keep in mind whenever we are debunking the (alleged) nonsense du jour.
• Did I carefully consider my opponents’ arguments without dismissing them out of hand?
• Did I interpret what my opponent said in the most charitable way possible before mounting a response?
• Did I seriously entertain the possibility that I may be wrong? Or am I too blinded by my own preconceptions?
• Am I an expert on this matter? If not, did I consult experts, or did I just conjure my own unfounded opinion out of thin air?
• Did I check the reliability of my own sources or just Google whatever was convenient to throw at my opponent?
• After having done my research, do I actually know what I’m talking about, or am I simply repeating someone else’s opinion?
Virtue ethics is supposed to focus us on improving ourselves as moral agents. So most of all, let us strive to live by Aristotle’s own words: “Humility requires us to honor truth above our friends.”
– The excerpts of the article, published in Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 41 No.2