Massimo Pigliucci Advocates for Virtue Epistemology in Skepticism, Seems to Accidentally Justify Using Ad Hominem Attacks
Since I discussed some of the articles on skepticism in the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer yesterday, I thought it was worthwhile to mention one more, which I saved for a separate post because, while it is on a similar topic, its approach is very different. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has a piece on virtue ethics in skepticism and asks whether skeptics should be experts in the topics they discuss. It’s an interesting argument, and I think one that skeptics as a group need to come to terms with, but which Pigliucci fails to take to its logical conclusions in a couple of different directions.
In his piece, Pigliucci makes the case that skepticism can be divided into three broad areas of increasing complexity. The first he calls “classic” skepticism, and it is what the rest of us think of as the bizarre, the outré, the pseudoscientific, and the paranormal. You know: Bigfoot, UFOs, ancient aliens, etc. As you know, I am biased toward preferring these topics to the other two categories. The second category is “science denialism,” dealing with issues related to creationism, vaccines, climate change, and other areas where denial of science is used to forward a political agenda. The third category is skepticism toward academic research methods, such as doubts about experimental psychology methods, proof of string theory, and the utility of philosophy. Pigliucci claims that skeptics as a whole are experts in the first category and can speak without reservation. They are not equipped to speak to the second category without recourse to scientific literature, he says, and therefore are essentially mediators between scientists and the public. In the third case, which not coincidentally covers Pigliucci’s own academic subject area, “the proper attitude is simply not to open one’s mouth and let the experts sort this out.” He concludes that skeptics must demonstrate “humility and competence” before weighing in.
He clearly missed the better conclusion, which is that skeptical organizations need to have experts. That is to say, the people who serve as skeptics should have detailed knowledge and expertise in their fields, and qualifications in them when possible, in order to evaluate claims with the same or greater expertise than the advocates. Thus, the answer isn’t to sit down and shut up but to become an expert who can speak knowledgably about problems. To do so, one must specialize. “None of us is an expert in everything,” Pigliucci said. Over the past 15 years I like to think that I’ve developed expertise in my area. There is no reason that skeptics can’t specialize in areas except that many of the high-ranking skeptics in the field prefer to portray themselves as jacks of all trades who can go into battle over any subject armed with only Occam’s Razor as a weapon. But just as reporters have beats, developing a narrower field of expertise provides more knowledge and depth and better results.
Instead, Pigliucci recommends the application of Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the subfield of virtue epistemology, which is an area I’ve never been entirely comfortable with. I am no philosopher (as Pigliucci would undoubtedly note), but my brother has a philosophy degree, and I have heard more than my share of philosophical discourses. Virtue ethics asks us to make value judgments about moral actions by considering whether the moral agent (the person making the decision) possesses positive character traits. As you can imagine, this opens the field to cultural biases since what one defines as a “virtue” is dependent on one’s culture. For example, in many East Asian cultures deference to authority is typically a virtue, while in Western cultures it smacks of passivity. The reverse is true for individualism. Similarly, virtue epistemology asks us to evaluate a claimant by examining whether he or she possesses “the kind of practices that make it possible for her to arrive at the best approximation to the truth,” as Pigliucci puts it.
Pigliucci frames this in a positive sense, by imagining the obligations of the skeptic when attempting to evaluate a claim. He cites, for example, the skeptics who offered implausible and evidence-free solutions to UFO sightings without doing the legwork. “The a priori ‘knowledge’ of some skeptics (that the phenomenon couldn’t possibly be what it was purported to be) led to rather unvirtuous, completely unfounded in facts, ‘explanations’….” In his framework, promoting epistemic virtues (honesty, humility, objectivity, etc.) would prevent this type of off-the-cuff pseudo-explanation. But the problem, as I think you can see, is that while it might inspire researchers to work harder (as, say, adherence to the scientific method would as well), it personalizes the argument by placing the moral fault not on the lack of evidence but on the claimant’s lack of virtue in approaching the problem. For him, the bad explanations are bad not because they are objectively wrong but because the skeptic was being arrogant and presumptuous in proposing evidence-free, objectively false explanations. In practice, this means that the argument could be turned around quite easily, and we would be justified in launching an ad hominem attack on a complicated claim, or a bad explanation, by arguing that the claimant possesses “epistemic vices” such as gullibility or dogmatism that render his or her claim unsound. It also has the effect of freeing us from the need to challenge bad claims by evidence. The risk of fallacious argumentation seems to be to be too great to make this a useful method of skeptical inquiry.
But don’t take my word for it: A whole group of philosophers actually argues that ad hominem arguments aren’t just legitimate but can be defended even beyond the system of virtue ethics. Apparently, there is now an entire field of argumentation that seeks to rehabilitate ad hominem attacks as an appropriate and logically sound approach to argumentation by appeal to virtue ethics. Isn’t it a wonderful time to be alive? It is a dangerous path for skeptics of extraordinary claims to remove the field of contest from an evaluation of evidence to the character of the claimant and skeptic alike. It is, however, entirely in keeping with our era to imagine that a person’s moral virtue, judged as it is by culturally specific values, sometimes limited to those shared by the person’s immediate subculture, should impact whether we see a claim as true or false. As far as I can tell, even bad people can sometimes make good points, and all the imaginary virtues and vices in the world won’t have anything to say about whether space aliens and Bigfoot are really out there.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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