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How to fail as a skeptic December 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in religion, science, societal commentary.
Tags: , , ,

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience attending an atheist meeting.  If you don’t want to read it, I basically spent most of the time dealing with an argumentative jerk.  On the other hand, I expected that going in.

Part of the reason I expected that is because there is a large amount of cross-over between the atheist and skeptic community, and I’m slightly more familiar with the skeptic community.  My husband has been a member of CSI before it was called that, and we regularly get into conversations about articles we read in Skeptical Inquirer.  I also used to follow a lot of skeptical bloggers.  Frankly, the more I read and interact with skeptics, the less impressed I am.

My latest interaction with a skeptic just reinforced much of what I already felt (and commented on at the atheist meeting).  There is a sense among most skeptics that they are well-educated and rational and therefore whatever they happen to believe MUST hold up under scientific scrutiny, whether or not those facts have actually been researched.  If you come across one who has done the research, it’s likely they’ve done it in a way that has fallen victim to massive amounts of confirmation bias: choose the studies you like and discredit the ones you don’t.  Many atheists and skeptics don’t realize that confirmation bias occurs regardless of IQ and therefore they are just as prone to it as the folks they like to condemn as stupid.

If you try to argue the actual studies and data, you get responses like this:

Sounds like you only want to make certain subjects taboo–perhaps for personal reasons. That’s not a scientific attitude. So please take your ideological attitude elsewhere. And your bald opinions carry no credibility.

I am particularly amused when such comments come from non-scientists.

The quote above comes from someone who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, and while it wasn’t aimed at me, it was directed at someone who has better scientific credentials than the person who wrote that comment.  In another conversation with this person, similar comments were directed at me.

The crux of the matter is that this person simply would not hear any interpretations of data other than the one they wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that’s not skepticism.  Questioning data (on both sides) is a useful exercise to help you understand the limitations of such data, and it’s good to understand where data is useful and not.  However, being a skeptic does not mean you can throw it out if you don’t like it.  That means you’re a denier, even if you do have some scientific evidence for your viewpoint.

It’s interesting that CSI recently posted an article complaining about how the media misuses the term skeptic when it really means denier.  (Deniers are not Skeptics)  I agree with the sentiment, it also is a bit ironic because so many of the people I’ve interacted with really are better described as deniers.

One of the hallmarks of scientific thinking is supposed to be comfort with ambiguity.  It’s learning to say that one cannot extrapolate beyond the data one has, and drawing large-scale conclusions based on a handful of studies is really not scientific.  I’m not talking about things like climate science which has been extensively studied for decades and has a wealth of data (and believe me, I get frustrated enough myself dealing with deniers on that topic): I’m talking about a lot of other topics which have not been as extensively studied and suffer from shifting understanding.  Taking studies from even 20 years ago can be problematic in some areas because the basic assumptions and approaches may have shifted as new data comes out.  And in a lot of areas, particularly with those dealing with people, studies may not always have data giving a clear and decisive answer to one view or another.  (Confirmation bias can also mean that people will take ambiguous data as backing their own viewpoint.)

This lack of comfort with ambiguity and the notion that one’s reasoning trumps the data means that having a conversation with these folks is more like a wrestling match: it’s not really a discussion or exchange of ideas but an argument where there is a winner or a loser.  Any one who tries to recognize nuance in the data or discrepancies is said to have lost the argument or not understand science and how it works.  Frankly, I’ve had more fruitful conversations with fundamentalists.

If you want to call yourself a skeptic, that’s fine.  But if you use it as a bludgeon to convince yourself and everyone around you that your view is always right…well, don’t be surprised if I’m a little skeptical.



1. nicoleandmaggie - December 16, 2014

I had noticed that as well. I haven’t gotten the Skeptical Inquirer since I was in high school. At some point I realized it was predominately a combination of dogmatic and stupid, substituting rhetoric for proof. (And the skeptic community doesn’t have a great reputation as being even a safe place for women, which should be a bare minimum.)

Plus, how many articles can one write taking down homeopathy or alien encounters?

Still, I ❤ the late Martin Gardner.


mareserinitatis - December 17, 2014

I suppose you could write a lot, but I don’t imagine it’s having the desired effect. If you’re always preaching to the choir, you’re probably only polarizing the situation and not convincing most people on the other side that there are some serious gaps in their belief.

I’d say that in every magazine, there are a couple of really good articles that make you think and question, but the rest are, as you said, very dogmatic. I guess it’s disappointing because I try to view discussions on most topics as an exercise in learning: there are so many people who know a lot more about so many things than I do, and it’s good to ask questions and expand your learning. I naively assumed that a lot of other people interested in science and skepticism were the same way. As I’ve interacted with them, however, it’s become increasingly clear that they’re okay with ambiguity if it’s something they don’t care about personally (i.e. the nature of the universe). If you get into a topic that’s somewhat personal, it’s all black and white from there, and the discussion is usually pointless except as a way for them to air their dogmatism and be pretty condescending.


nicoleandmaggie - December 17, 2014

It’s also a pretty expensive magazine subscription, IIRC.

I think if you’re really interested in skepticism, the thing to do is get a PhD! But even PhDs can put blinders on and ignore empirical evidence on things like gender or race or anything that they think their own personal experience trumps anybody else’s reality.


mareserinitatis - December 17, 2014

To get a PhD, you have to be technically competent and a) have an awesome advisor or b) have an amazing ability to deal with BS. I’m guessing you’ll find more skeptics in the second group than the first. 🙂 (Of course, maybe I’m confusing skeptical and cynical…)


2. Doug LeQuire - December 16, 2014

This post confirms what I feel is one of the greatest strengths of the agnostic position. A true agnostic is willing to admit that s/he does not know everything there is to know about the universe. By the same token, an agnostic has to be willing to take flak from both theists and atheists, but that’s just part of the fun ;).


mareserinitatis - December 17, 2014

I think there’s a corresponding saying: a wise man knows what he doesn’t know and a fool doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Or something like that. 🙂


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