Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Gold Standard

As I have been reconfiguring this blog, I have also begun to explore more widely what I've started to call The Skeptics' Corner of the blogosphere.  Some things I read this evening have converged with a few other threads that have been running through my thinking of late concerning the character of skepticism, all pointing to questions that require some sort of answer.

Here I am, ranging through human experience, subjecting beliefs and assumptions to the acid of doubt.  But what standard should I apply when I scrutinize beliefs and assumptions?  On what basis should I say this belief is faulty, but that belief is all right?

And then: To what end am I doing all this?

In the broader, mainstream skeptical community, the answer to the first two questions is clear and, apparently, straightforward: scientific research is the gold standard.  We must bring our beliefs and assumptions about the natural world - including our own, all-natural hearts and minds - to the test of rigorous, "objective" scientific testing.  Only that way can we sort out fact from fantasy.

Consider this, from the "Skeptic's Manifesto," an extended excerpt from Michael Shermer's book, Why People Believe Weird Things, posted on the website of The Skeptics Society
Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.
This is okay, as far as it goes, but it strikes me as still too narrow, too prone to slip into a kind of dogmatic, naturalistic orthodoxy on the model of positivism: there's science, and there's hooey . . . and there's no middle ground.  This seems to rule out in advance any possibility of a critical engagement with the questions of ethics, political theory, epistemology (including philosophy of science), and other domains of human experience that is not based on the blithe assumption of their reducibility to or "consilience" with physics . . . and with naturalistic metaphysics.

I would suggest instead - taking a cue from both European phenomenology and American pragmatism - that the natural sciences are themselves a (very significant) part of a broader human enterprise: critical intersubjective inquiry.

This is my gold standard: critical inquiry in all domains of human experience, where claims are supported by reasoned argument, where claims and arguments together are offered up to the scrutiny of others.  This is science in an older, broader sense, akin to the German term Wissenschaft, which encompasses both nature and culture.

I'll have to develop this further, but I would insist that the question of the relationship between the natural sciences and the "human sciences" is itself open to inquiry.  I freely acknowledge the importance and the power of the natural sciences, and the authority of the community of scientific inquiry in addressing questions of how nature works.  I relish the work of mainstream skeptics in debunking myth and distortion in that domain.

However, I am unwilling to assume consilience, unwilling to assume that ethics, for example, or political theory must ultimately bow to physics, or even to evolutionary biology.  This is not to say the two modes of inquiry - roughly, the "two cultures" identified by C.P. Snow - are entirely independent of one another.  It is to say that the relationship between them is problematic, and we should keep our options open.  If anything, the two modes of inquiry intertwine in all sorts of curious ways, each by turns supporting and undermining the claims of the other.

Then there's the question of the purpose of all this.  Why engage in this kind of inquiry at all, where every assumption is thrown open to scrutiny?

In a recent post to Skepticblog, Brian Dunning (a.k.a. the Skeptoid), took to task a blogger who had criticized him on some point or other.  Dunning withheld the details, it would seem, to keep all this from getting personal.  However, he seemed to think the criticism was misguided and overblown and, worse, that it would do real harm to "the skeptical movement."  He writes:
I liken the drivers of the critical thinking movement to paddlers in a giant canoe. Some are more influential and paddle hard, others less so. But we’re all paddling. Every little bit helps. We’re paddling because what we’re doing is important and we believe in it. I welcome everyone who comes aboard to help, no matter the size of their paddle.

So it’s frustrating for me when I see people who represent themselves as paddlers, but really all they’re doing is disparaging those who actually do paddle. Oh, occasionally they may stick their paddle into the water and steer or give a little push or two, but every time they stop to lambaste the contributors, they’re dead weight; and when they shout to other boats what horrible paddlers their shipmates are, they are actively counterproductive.
He goes on to recount another instance in which he was critical of something that happened at a meeting of skeptics, but pursued his criticism quietly, by direct communication with the people involved.  He discovered that his misgivings were based on a factual error regarding the circumstances of the alleged occurrence, and the problem was resolved.  Writes Dunning: "We’re still paddling in step."

Leaving aside the disturbing imagery of "climb[ing] on board," closing ranks, and [walking] in [lock-]step, what I picked up on is the idea that everyone should be paddling in the same direction, toward some goal.

Okay.  What's the goal?

As it turns out, the goal of the "skeptical movement" is fairly narrow: to debunk pseudoscience, mysticism, and other kinds of junk knowledge, and to spread critical thinking and foster better understanding of scientific inquiry and its results.

Again, that's all great, as far as it goes. But then, to what end are we doing these things?

Two possibilities spring to mind.  One comes from Aristotle, for whom all the arts and sciences, and every form of inquiry, aimed for the same thing: a good human life in a vibrant and stable political society. The other possibility is a more current idea, Aristotle's vision writ large: the project of human civilization.

But then, why assume that as the goal?  Why assume agreement on what constitutes "human civilization," or even "a good life"?

We'll have to look into that.


Doc Nagel said...

Personally, I have to assume Aristotle was lying.

I suppose there is a destructive, nihilist strain of skepticism, and a constructive, prospective strain. The latter - since you invoke pragmatism - seems aligned with something like what James called "radical empiricism."

As to purpose, the less high-falutin' Aristotelian notion of thriving, clearly problematic and vague, has got to be the right direction. Dewey, for instance, is never more irritatingly agnostic and blithely, blandly 'progressive' than in his tepid statements of the purposes of inquiry. Unfortunately, I think that, too, is the right direction for identifying a purpose for thoroughgoing skepticism.

How, prospectively, can we identify which ideas are truly "junk" - especially in areas like ethics, politics, and epistemology?

Robert Kirkman said...

I grabbed for the term,"junk", when trying to characterize the target at which mainstream skeptics direct their attention . . . another word for hooey. Of course, that already assumes there is such a thing as fact, and that fact may be embraced unproblematically as the pure result of "good science".

What I seem to have been pushing toward recently - in ethics and in politics - is something along the lines suggested by the title of one of Anthony Weston's books in practical ethics: Toward Better Questions.

When we enter into inquiry, we don't have to have some prior notion of which ideas are "good" and which ideas are "junk". It does help to have some sense of what the important questions are, and what questions follow from there. That, on reflection, is what I ended up doing in my investigation of the "912 Project": there are good questions here, things we need to consider very carefully, things on which we may legitimately disagree, but Beck and his fellow travelers aren't even asking those questions . . .

Maybe that's why I've come to the conclusion that Beck's principles are "junk." It's not that they're wrong in any straightforward sense of the term, but that they are the product of really shoddy thinking, a conflation and/or distortion of important questions with uncritical belief. They serve to close off further inquiry.

Come to think of it, I've also identified that as the problem with Intelligent Design theory: it closes off inquiry.

ericzundel said...

Glenn Beck resonates with some listeners in a way I wish I understood better. My hope is that by understanding how the 'logic of Beck' works, I can find some way to have a conversation with my politically polarized friends.

My take on it: it isn't so much whether the ideas are demonstrably true false, its that the ideas resonate with what they already think. Then, just a little stretch makes it in and a more radical idea gets in and eventually things get wacko. But anyway, for someone in that pattern of thought, the criteria of 'junk' is whether or not an idea resonates. If it does, accept it as truth, and repeat to your 400 closest friends, preferably through a one-way method of communication. Other ideas are outside the system and must be vigorously pushed aside so as not to upset the cycle of self reinforcement.

I admit, this 'cycle of Beck' isn't really exclusive to his wing of the conservative movement, its just a pattern they've fallen into. I look for it in my own thoughts all the time, hoping it leads to moderate-ation.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Hmm. I found the link to your blog on ALAS.

"The character of skepticism" is often negative and (to put it bluntly) gleefully mean. I wrote in comments here (linking due to laziness and don't wanna write it all again) about how atheism was once your lovable local uncle, neighbor or grandpa (whom you listened to with respect) and is now the province of unabashedly-elitist snotty guys from Oxford. I think that may be the issue w/skepticism (not just atheism) in general. Skepticism should belong to the people! Until it does, I will tune it out... or rather, I have no choice because I have a preternatural proletarian phobia of elitism and cannot finish whole blog posts and/or articles that proudly exhibit it. Just can't. (That Sweeney Todd trap door opens up and I just CAN'T CONTINUE.) I suspect lots of people are like me but have not analyzed their gut-responses as thoroughly as I have (attributable to copious Maoist criticism/self-criticism sessions in my youth)...

And yeah, what ericzundel said. When skepticism is the territory of the elite, expect pseudo-prole demagogues like Glenn Beck to prosper in an obscene fashion.

DaisyDeadhead said...

And duh, forgot the link referred to above. (see exchange in comments w/atheist friends Meowser and Cracker)

Robert Kirkman said...


I certainly know what you mean about skepticism. It can be mean. It can be elitist.

It wasn't clear to me, though, to what degree your comments were directed at my blog or to the blog on which I'm commenting. If they were directed at my blog, I'd certainly be interested in any constructive feedback you could offer.

I generally try to avoid being either mean or elitist . . . though I can't now help the fact that I'm an academic philosopher with a PhD (even if it isn't from Oxford!)

This is how I think, though, and also how I write. Skepticism drives me to ask all sorts of questions, some of which really demand some philosophical heavy lifting. I offer my reflections, the distinctions I draw, the questions I come to, so others can get from them what they will.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Living in Georgia, you've unavoidably learned good manners, LOL. :)

I have been reading your comments on Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens and very much enjoying your views. I have practically given up on so many in Blogdonia who seem devoted to the 'dualism' (our way or the highway) that you criticize. As a lefty, I don't fit in their nifty little categories... in fact, I find THEM reactionary, for the reasons I have stated.

Very glad to have found your blog!

Jim Lippard said...

Paul Kurtz would probably endorse your version of skepticism--his book _The New Skepticism_ traces the lineage of skepticism through history through the pragmatists, and the version of skepticism he advocates is broadly pragmatist, influenced by Dewey and Hook.

I think a lot of skeptics seem to presuppose that Popper was the last word on philosophy of science and Merton the last word on sociology of science.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, you might be interested in David J. Hess's book, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture, 1993, The University of Wisconsin Press. Hess compares parapsychologists to New Agers to skeptics, and finds interesting parallels.

I'm personally very interested in the question of what's the project of organized skepticism, and how it's changing in the age of the Internet. Here's a blog post I did on looking for the social science literature *about* skeptical organizations: