Radical Skepticism and Gullibility: Two Sides of a Coin
“Facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” — Philip K. Dick
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”Â — John Adams
Defenders of unscientific ideas use gullibility: “you have to keep an open mind,” and Radical Skepticism: “you can never have absolute certainty.” They use the former when they want to embrace a conclusion that is either known to be false or about which there is inconclusive evidence. They use Radical Skepticism (and often cite conspiracy theories) to avoid a conclusion which has broad scientific acceptance.
Both of these positions are intellectually dishonest, and destructive to the advance of knowledge. They are both a defense mechanism born out of cognitive dissonance and wishful thinking. They also showcase humanity’s abject failure to be able to step outside their own limited perceptual framework.
Here are a few examples:
- The trope of journalistic balance, that there are “two sides to every story.”
- The ad hominem attack “you’ve got your mind made up, you’re just not open to discussion.”
- The argument from popularity “lots of my friends have tried it and they get great results.”
- Accusations of scientific orthodoxy; rebranding science as a fallible and closed-mindedÂ scientism.
- Nietzsche’s famous quote, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”
- Claiming “naive realism” or “materialist literalism” is the same as fundamentalism.
Radical SkepticismÂ must be distinguished from the healthy kind that promotes inquiry. The scientific method is very clear about how you go about proving or disproving a proposition. It’s very clear about the types of questions that cannot be answered scientifically, and the ones which can. The philosophical discipline of epistemology is concerned with the question of what can be addressed under the rubric of human knowledge. Healthy skepticism helps us wait until the facts are in, but it also requires that we accept a conclusion when the facts demand it. To do otherwise is to consign ourselves to being outside of knowledge, living in the shifting sands of our desires. In this desert we find only stagnation and diffidence, medieval “virtues” which have become for many a refuge against change they fear, or ‘dangerous’ knowledge they cannot control.
Radical SkepticismÂ (hereafterÂ RS, which also subsumesÂ gullibility)Â as a mental operating system has produced a generation of postmodern humans who have the dubious “privilege” of living daily lives made rich and comfortable by a discipline whose very premises they deeply reject. As a rhetorical technique, RS allows one person with insufficient qualifications to confront the entire world’s scientific establishment simply by uttering the words “I don’t believe that,” the argument from personal incredulity. Freedom of speech, and a press that has long thrived on controversy means we’re subject to a lot of these professions of personal incredulity. In many cases, they drown out the notoriously PR-shy scientists. RS is quickly causing an existential crisis for humanity as it paralyzes us and hampers our response to climate change.
RS also has bad results in informal settings. A few days ago, D.J. Grothe started a thread by posting the Aldous Huxley quote above. Others added the Dick and Adams quotes. However, RS proponents derailed the discussion immediately into the subjective issue of qualia, how different people might experience a color or music. They claimed that proved there were no objective facts, that experience was the most important. I argued that no matter how the perception of green (the example we were using) changed from person to person, an instrument could measure the color infallibly. Even an alien with a different visual system could be taught that on Earth, the wavelength of 550 nanometers is called “green.” Our visual system is strong in that area because we were looking at a lot of leaves over the course of our evolution. Seems simple enough.
But apparently that idea still bothers some people. RS has convinced them that facts aren’t really facts.
In another discussion on Facebook, someone brought up the dubious New-Age modality of tapping. Which also got way off track with the RS-tainted assertions that it just might work, the promoter was sincere, or there might be some good things to learn from it, and even if none of that were true, it might be more fun than “dry objectivity.” I pointed out that the American Psychological Association calls it pseudoscience, a number of people on the thread still insisted it worked for them. Fine. I cited the placebo effect, and that it might be useful to find out more about how and why that works–to explore more about the mind-body connection–something that would definitely not be happening at a tapping seminar.
But these kinds of feel-good techniques get in the way of really learning about ourselves in the same way that prayer and religion do. And predictably, their promoters don’t want you to investigate them too heavily. “You don’t have to understand it to use it,” says Dr. Mercola on his tapping site (which also includes links to antivax propaganda). Eckhart Tolle says the same thing in The Power of Now. My New-Age cult leader parents used to say “shut down your carnal mind.” It’s all code for “don’t question me.” The naked egotism and authoritarianism of the New Age.
Problem is, when we deny facts and stop questioning, all sorts of bad things happen. Religion itself is a mere subset of that stubborn subjective mentality, which is in the category of solipsism (creating your own reality) or narcissism (imagining the entire world is really how you percieve it). When we get away from empiricism and objectivity, we have no way to evaluate claims of any kind. We have no way to make new discoveries. We become unaccountable, stuck in our own heads. It becomes all about following the formula, the recipe, the ritual.
Now I am woefully fallible in my own limited perceptions, and I’m well aware of it. In no way do I claim to “know everything” or “have all the facts,” as I’ve often been accused. But I do cultivate a basic respect for the structure of what constitutes knowledge and how we decide. Such questions are too important be left up to our flawed perceptions, and even society as a whole. They can only be answered by those who understand how the method works and also submit to rigorous peer review. I’m asking for a bit of humility. I’m asking for the understanding that reality is not up to us, nor can it serve a political or spiritual agenda. The scientific method is what works. It gives us data that come with degrees of uncertainty. We must live with that. But those uncertainties should never prevent us from action or avoidance when the preponderance of evidence demands it. Waiting until we’re 100% sure to act is a recipe for stagnation and crisis, jumping on something that is only supported by anecdotal evidence is a guarantee of boondoggles. We need to apply analysis, calculate probabilities, and take wise, rational action.
Otherwise RS makes us into impetuous children, either blindly shaking our fists at the universe, or trying to cajole it into giving us our way.Â Why can’t ourÂ fevered little egos just acquiesce to those immutable truths which are beyond our control?