MetaCognitions | A Response

A bit back, blogger Benjamin David Steele posted this comment at this URL: 

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/12/09/clearing-away-the-rubbish/comment-page-1/#comment-40872/, and linked it to this blog entry on the Call. What follows is my response to what appears to be his main point:

“The challenge is that no one has sole rights to skepticism. Those defending the status quo often claim to be the skeptics and they simultaneously often have the most influence over public perception of how views are perceived. The most skeptical voices sometimes get portrayed as the complete opposite for anyone who advocates an alternative view is easily painted as an ideologue, whereas those defending mainstream ideology are of course merely being reasonable or that is how they perceive themselves. To understand genuine skepticism requires taking the long view. Also, it’s important that we be skeptical, even of our own self-identified skepticism. Skepticism isn’t a single position but a contested battleground. And the fight isn’t always fair. Future generations will probably be better judges of this.”

First, no serious publicly known skeptic I’m aware of has made the claim that skepticism is an exclusive right (We call those “privileges,” btw). For one thing, it’s bad for outreach. For another, it’s false. My own thinking is that skepticism ought to be for everyone, I believe a position about as anti-elitist as one can get. None of us are immune to confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, or the Dunning-Kruger effect, among many other biases and heuristics. No one. 

Further, skepticism is not a contested battleground, but the word “skeptic” is, as the label has often been hijacked by ideologues of all stripes and cranks of all sorts eager to cash in on its value as a rhetorical tool, muddying the intellectual waters of the Internet. Words can have power, especially when appropriated by those not bound by a desire or a respect for intellectual honesty. 

Nobody speaks for all skeptics, including me, and since skepticism is not a definable set of claims, it cannot be a single position on any matter. That’s because it’s not the sort of thing that can be a single position. We ought to avoid making such category mistakes in our thinking. Modern organized skepticism is a hellish amalgam of diverse views and perspectives on many different issues. 

A skeptic, as in scientific skeptic, regardless of identification, is a science-minded critical thinker. This may take many forms, with many different views. But the core idea is the same. Not all such thinkers identify as skeptics, with some avoiding or rejecting the label outright for their own reasons. And not all who claim to be skeptics are science-minded critical thinkers. Some are merely ideologues who defend a desired position through misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and rhetorically loaded language.

Skepticism requires a lot of diligence and practice to do well, like any learned skill. But skepticism is not rocket science, nor does everyone who claims to be a skeptic really put in the hours of practice and dedication to be effective skeptics. Skepticism is hard, and skeptical thinking is very energy-intensive to put in the effort to do well for long periods of time.

We ought, I think, to be skeptical, not of our skepticism, self-identified or not, but to our own biases, memory fallacies, misperceptions, and failures of good reasoning. We are all prone to these, no matter how much we kid ourselves otherwise. The more we convince ourselves that we are smart, rational people immune to being fooled, the more we can be easily fooled, the more vulnerable we become, to fraud, lies, deception, and our own well-documented flawed thinking. Clever con artists can tweak our dials to fool anyone of us, even me, even you, by playing upon our psychological weaknesses, which they are quite good at figuring out. And we all have them. 

Having studied, learned, and practiced over the past thirteen years, I think I know a thing or two about how useful, and how difficult, skepticism is, as well as what it is, and what it is not, after an ongoing programme of intellectual growth. I’m neither a Pollyanna nor a naive skeptic. I’m well aware of the real problems within organized skepticism, and of the occasional drama and divisiveness that happens. Skeptics tend to herd about as well as cats.

The consistent skeptic is as common as lightning-breathing three-headed alien dragons and rainbow-farting pink unicorns, as nearly all of us have sacred cows, those ideas that we think are absolutely true, and which we guard close to our hearts as parts of our identity, ideas which are often lacking in good reasons for holding them.

The so-called failures of science, including the replication crisis, which I’ve been aware of for some time, do not impress me as somehow being a strike against it. Science builds on its failures in a bottom-up self-correction process built into its mechanisms. The replication crisis is a blow to our complacency, to our credulity, and to our naïveté, not to the trustworthiness of the scientific enterprise, or to  the value of critical thinking. Science can be tedious to do, can be used unwisely with unfortunate consequences like any domain of human activity, and requires the use of specialized language to communicate difficult concepts to other researchers without ambiguity, but neither science, nor mainstream medicine, nor organized skepticism are hiveminds or hotbeds of nefarious scheming debunkery. 

I think I should point out here that postulating ebil conspiraciez when criticised, assertions about vested interests or claims of who has power over whom, amount to ad hominem attacks and if not demonstrably true may even constitute genuine libel or defamation. It’s bad practice, and reflects poorly on those who do it. Conspiracy theories, as opposed to demonstrably real conspiracies for which there’s good evidence, are unscientific and impossible to definitively disprove: evidence against the conspiracy can always be twisted to serve as evidence for it. They are also pure poison to any discussion they are smuggled into, involving reasoning that is fallacious at best and not even wrong at worst. 

The mainstream of any field of expertise is not necessarily wrong for being the mainstream. Often, the accepted view is still accepted because it has the best grasp of the facts, the best track record of success, until demonstrated otherwise by those with the knowledge and competence to do so. Not always, but often enough. Alternative ideas are not always right. There exist, and will continue to exist, far more bad ideas than good ones. Most of those that can possibly be conceived are at least wrong if not untestable and so not even wrong. Often, they remain alternative because they fail when put into practice, not because of any diabolical plot to make them fail, but because they do not comport to the reality of the world outside of our heads no matter how appealing they seem to proponents. Many alternative ideas do indeed work, and these become incorporated into the mainstream. For example, much of alternative medicine remains alternative because it has either been shown not to work, or it has not been shown to work. Those alternative modalities that have been shown to work have historically become part of the mainstream of medical practice. 

A couple of brief anecdotes of my own: science saved my mind in one instance, and in another, my life: the former after my diagnosis in my early twenties and subsequent treatment plan to maintain my mental health and keep me functional enough to persevere in life. The latter was in 2007 after a pedestrian accident in which the admirable skill and competence of emergency medical technicians, doctors, and physical therapists saved my face and my right arm, allowing almost full functionality after months of recovery and permitting me to see myself in a mirror again without looking away in horror. I still have some of the scars, though those have faded with time. 

If there existed anything better than science in doing its job, in furthering our understanding of the natural world, for better or worse, anything more powerful, more reliable, and more inspiring in its contributions to applied knowledge, then I would happily support that instead. So far, there are no other spheres of human achievement that have come even close to that. 

So, for what it’s worth, I’m still waiting impatiently for my Mainstream Science & Skepticism™ shill cheque to arrive in the mail…. 

Commenting below. No spam or trolling, or my cats will be angry.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.