Monday, July 25, 2011

Skeptical Skepticism for Skeptics

Yesterday, blogging friend Gumby did a post on the issue that's been causing a huge uproar in the Skeptical Community - the horribly named "Elevatorgate".  I think Gumby did a very good job discussing the situation so I don't really have anything of substance to add here.  I agree with his assessment and I don't think it's worthwhile reiterating the entire thing on my blog.  Seems to me that everything worth saying has already been said regarding "elevatorgate" (who thought up this name?!) and I have nothing original to add.  OK, well maybe one thing.  Can we, as a society, please stop adding "gate" to words to describe a scandal?  Pretty please?  The Watergate scandal was called that because it happened at the Watergate Hotel.  It had nothing to do with either water or gates.  Adding "gate" to a word to denote scandal is just stupid and it makes no effing sense!  Now that I have that off my chest...

I think the fact that the issue of sexism and how women are treated in the Skeptical Community stirred up such a nest of hornets is worth looking into.  It made me think of that really dumb antiquestion* believers often ask of skeptics - "if you're so skeptical, why aren't you skeptical of skepticism?"  Obviously it's an incredibly stupid question - or is it?  In the way the people who say it usually mean it of course yes, it's incredibly stupid.  But I don't think it's entirely stupid to suggest that perhaps skeptics should perhaps be a little more skeptical about their own skepticism.  Hear me out.

I am not saying there is a problem with skepticism.  Healthy skepticism is good (also, healthy).  The scientific method, logic and evidence based reasoning - while not perfect - are by far the best tools we have to separate fact from fallacy.  No, skepticism is not the problem here, skeptics are.  Skeptics are human beings.  Human beings are terribly unreliable at observing and correctly interpreting reality.  The human brain seems to be wired for belief and our minds are riddled with cognitive biases making us easy to fool.  A human being can easily believe stupid things for bad reasons and thanks to our built in proclivity for confirmation bias we find it incredibly difficult to part with cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Despite our best intentions its always easier to believe a true sounding falsehood than a difficult truth.  That is why we need science, why we only started to really make progress when we started using the scientific method.  The truth is often counter-intuitive, facts are not always self evident.  Skepticism does not come naturally to us, reason and logic are alien to our minds.  We have to learn these things and constantly practice them to become proficient at it and even then there will be no guarantees that we will get it right every time.  That is why good science requires peer review - anyone can be mistaken so the more minds, the more tests, the more evidence the better.  Skepticism is not a state of existence one can attain which will magically transform every corner of ones being into a bastion of reason.  Instead it requires a daily commitment to reason and evidence and a willingness to seek the truth wherever it may lead you.  None of that comes naturally to human beings.

And yet, it becomes tempting after a while to tell yourself that it does - to you at least.  That skepticism is something you can attain and that once you have, your every thought and attitude will be a reasonable one.  Its only human after all.  So little wonder that so many feathers get ruffled when someone tries to address sexism and/or racism in the Skeptical Community.  Once the idea that your every thought and reasoning is logical and sound has taken hold then any suggestion that you may be just as wrong as those sheepish non-skeptics about something seems terribly insulting!

I think this is a very good thing.  I don't know that any of us have the self awareness necessary to know every dark corner of our minds and the bad thought patterns that may be hiding out there.  I know this all too well, being new to skepticism myself.  For most of my life I was massively credulous so learning to be skeptical and applying sound reason is sometimes a bit of an uphill battle for me.  Situations like this, I have found, tend to bring everything up to the surface - which is where it needs to be if it's to be properly dealt with.  So bring it on, the arguments for and against, the anger, the reasoning, the overreactions, bring it all.  Here is a chance for everyone to learn something about themselves and about others, a chance to become better skeptics and better human beings.

So yes, if you are a skeptic you should be skeptical about your skepticism.  For skepticism is something you can have but not hold.  The day you stop pursuing it is the day it slips from your grasp.  You can seek it, you can find it but you cannot possess it because for better or worse, you are human.


*A question is something you ask in order to learn something, an antiquestion is something you pretend to ask in order to reinforce your own ignorance.  Other examples include "If you're so into tolerance why won't you tolerate my intolerance" and of course, that creotard classic "Were you there?! Huh? Huh? Were you? Were you there?"


GumbyTheCat said...

Nicely said. We should all examine our skepticism on a regular basis! "Now turn your head and cough..."

I love that Ken Ham-inspired creotard line you referenced - "that creotard classic "Were you there?! Huh? Huh? Were you? Were you there?"

That, from people who believe magic stories from thousands of years ago. They never get it when that question is turned back on them. "So, were you there when Christ resurrected?" It's like they never see it coming...

Thank you, Ken Ham. Your contributions to the world of comedy are greatly appreciated.

Eugene said...

Ah but see that's the thing, it's not only an antiquestion it's also a trick question. They actually want you to try to turn that question back on them. Check out a Hovind seminar one day if you can manage. The very purpose of that question is to level the playing field. If you turn it back on them they admit that theirs is a faith based position and since you just equated the two, so is yours! Therefore creationism and evolution are totally equal options and you can debate them as such. Never underestimate the sneakiness of these people.

GumbyTheCat said...

That's a great point! None of the fundies I've seen have played that trick though. I must get some dumb fundies in my forums!

Eugene said...

Clearly! This encapsulates the whole strategy of Creation Science - pretend the two sides are completely equal, that both are basically "faith based" beliefs because everyone is looking at the same evidence only interpreting them through different "worldviews".

digapigmy said...

Taking a bad argument and then turning it around on the other person is not as much you being clever as you using a bad argument. Always good to keep that in mind.

That being said, not nearly everyone who claims to be part of the athiest/skeptic group is particularly skeptical, intelligent, or logical. I can easily point out several members of the sizeable subgroup of this movement that simply ride the coattails of reason and logic, but are just as stupid and dogmatic as the "soldier fundie" that just regurgitates talking points and has no thoughts of their own. Simply being on the right side of an argument does not make you, personally, right.