Did you see PZ Myers’s recent blog posting about the problems with skepticism? It was an interesting read, and one that seemed to reflect criticism I have myself received on more than one occasion. In sum, Myers disapproves of skepticism because it does not generate new knowledge and instead suggests that the positive knowledge generation of science is the most effective weapons against falsehood. He uses the example of Bigfoot:
Skepticism is all about taking apart case by case, demonstrating fakery or error, and demolishing the stories of the Bigfoot frauds. That’s useful — in fact, skepticism is most useful in dealing with malicious intent and human fakery — but it doesn’t advance our knowledge significantly. The scientific approach would involve actually studying forest ecology, understanding how the ecosystem works, and getting a handle on what lives in the forest…and at the end, you’re left with something informative about the nature of the habitat, as well as a recognition that a giant ape isn’t part of the puzzle
This reflects much of the criticism I receive from my more thoughtful readers—as opposed to the angry adherents of alternative ideas: They complain that debunking ancient astronauts, Atlantis, Templar conspiracies and the like is all too negative. One reader demanded to know why I don’t come up with my own alternative explanations to explain what really happened in the past.
The most obvious reason for that is that I am not a trained historian. I have to rely on the expertise of those who have done the hard work of combing through archives and assembling the big picture of history. It takes hard work to come up with an explanation for history, and when I have ventured to do so, it was the result of years of research—as in my books, The Cult of Alien Gods, Knowing Fear, and Jason and the Argonauts. I wouldn’t give away the results of all that research for free! Moreover, fringe history thrives by holding itself as an equal and opposite alternative to mainstream history; only by explaining in great detail what is wrong with a faulty fringe history claim does it become possible to show that it is not an equal alternative.
But here is where I depart from Myers because he wants to conflate the act of skepticism with what he calls “movement” skepticism, that is to say the series of conferences, meetings, and forums revolving around the Center for Inquiry, JREF, and the Skeptics Society. These, in turn, he conflates with anyone who says something negative about anything.
Unfortunately, the current doctrines of organized skepticism open the doors to pathology, because they so poorly define the proper domain of skepticism, and what they do say are inconsistent and incoherent. What we’re stuck with is a schema that tolerates motivated reasoning, as long as it looks like debunking. […] Also…hyperskepticism. Some people take their skepticism to such pathological extremes that they become conspiracy theorists or fanatical denialists of simple human behavior.
We seem to have reached an epistemological impasse, for Myers would count climate change deniers as skeptics, the same as those who debunk psychics. Under that definition, Scott Wolter becomes a “skeptic” for doubting the teachings of the Catholic Church, and Giorgio Tsoukalos a skeptic for doubting archaeology. Indeed, many fringe thinkers have claimed they are skeptics—of academia, of the government, of science.
Myers also takes movement skepticism to task for its misogyny, which is not something I can comment on since I am not involved in movement skepticism and have never attended one of their conferences. But the human failures of an organization make no claim upon the value of doubt in search of truth.
But this was the line that was perhaps the most challenging:
When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak.
The first clause I think is unfair; skepticism in theory is about evaluating claims rather than planning to reject them. However, a claim that is supported by evidence isn’t really worth publishing on since there is little to say except in agreement; and if a claim is supported by evidence it ceases to be a fringe claim once that evidence is proved true. The second clause, however, is the one that is the hardest: Myers wants skeptics to focus on bigger, more mainstream targets rather than fringe claimants. But someone has to say something about the odd ideas that creep in at the fringes of rational discourse. One of the failures of the academy was to ignore fringe archaeology as unworthy of public rebuttal—don’t we have better things to do? Jeremiads calling on archaeologists to do more date back a century, but the response was always the same: It isn’t a big enough issue to care about. And today we have a world where surveys find untold millions hold illogical or fringe beliefs about archaeology. Fringe ideas seem small, but they have a funny way of growing.
The last clause is the most disturbing, the idea that skeptics would pick on the weak in the name of asserting their superiority. This strikes me as a question of how the so-called “movement” utilizes its resources, not a question of whether skepticism is invalid just because the proponent of a false claim is impecunious or has a small audience. Heaven’s Gate had just 39 members when they committed mass suicide to meet up with aliens on a passing UFO.
I understand Myers’s point, but I think he errs in confusing JREF, CFI, etc. with the value of doubt. Negative knowledge is still knowledge, and knowing what is untrue can be as valuable as know what is true. If nothing else, it saves time and energy by avoiding costly errors.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.