Ubi dubium… | Credulity, Skepticism, Cynicism, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

A while back, Steven Novella [Here] had posted some really good thoughts on the difference between effective, intellectually honest skepticism and cheap, lazy, cynical denialism, and on the importance of cultivating the former and avoiding the latter.

In the past, I’ve attempted to describe a belief spectrum from absolute credulity to definitive denial, but I currently think that’s an erroneous concept.

For as has often been pointed out by Stephanie Zvan, except for some rare cases of neurological dysfunction, nobody is totally credulous or completely cynical about everything, but somewhere between them in more of a rock-strewn landscape of belief with surer, safer footing nearer the center than at the edges, to paraphrase her analogy.

But in the comment thread of Steve’s post, one of the commenters [Starting Here] tries very hard to prove the very thesis of cynicism the post addresses in a classic and blatant display of the Dunning-Kruger effect, by conspiracy mongering, in dishonestly ignoring or dismissing all counterarguments, attempting to assert intellectual superiority by evading questions and repeating the same talking points using glaring errors in reasoning apparent to nearly everyone else in the thread, and especially obvious to Dr. Novella.

Despite suggestions from the others, and better arguments offered by same, at no point does the offending commenter get a clue as to his own incompetence in reasoning, and repeatedly sticks to 20-30 years out-of-date books and documentaries as proof positive of his claims of evil government conspiracies in a manner that seems a bit too uncritically cynical, arrogant, and condescending for one claiming to be the better skeptic.

Exactly what was described in Steve’s main post. To a tee.

The commenter is content to claim the moral and intellectual high-ground, and not once does he note the irony of his factual errors, illogical statements and attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the other commenters, thinking his own arguments absolutely steel-girded and views flawlessly correct.

I’m going to say something I rarely feel a need to: Incompetence leads to more of the same. Some people are too clueless to notice or too resentful to acknowledge their own lack of ability and project it onto others to protect their fragile egos and rice-paper thin skins.

I for one am skeptical of his claims, as I hear the same sort of absurd arguments from people whose only criticisms of science are based upon casting aspersions of motive and vested interest, thus showing quite nicely that they really don’t understand science.

As noted with the Dunning-Kruger effect, There’s an enormous difference between self-reporting how well-informed one is about something, and really being as well-informed as one claims: It’s an inverse relationship between how unduly confident one is about their understanding and how much they actually understand, ego and self-esteem aside.

People who really do know more probably tend to be more introspective and self-critical thinkers and are more aware of their own intellectual shortcomings and biases than incurious types who don’t think deeply enough to question the limits of their understanding and of their own subjective but real weaknesses.

Ubi Dubium… | The Three Faces of Skepticism

Rather than go into a single definition of what modern skepticism is, already done in great detail on this blog’s Media Guide to Skepticism page by Sharon Hill, I’d like to discuss those aspects, those three faces, that to my understanding make it up.
What are those faces of skepticism? They are:
  1. Skepticism is a set of values, both intellectual and ethical: Skepticism favors intellectual honesty, sincerity, integrity, and a high value on the truth of whatever matter we look into. It is to have little patience with those who deceive, save those ‘honest liars,’ professional conjurors who are forthright about the inherently deceptive nature of their trade. Those who knowingly defraud, harm, or manipulate others are fair game for skeptical scrutiny and critiquing. Skepticism acknowledges and respects the limits of human perception, understanding and reasoning. It tells us about and arms us against our biases. It tells us that “I don’t know,” is a better answer to a question than an answer that is not only demonstrably false, but isn’t even worthy of being wrong. If a skeptic is in error, or is knowingly dishonest, they can be and ought to be be corrected, or exposed, by others who are not. Whatever their personal inclinations, if they are not honest, other skeptics will be, and they will be found out.
  2. Skepticism is a set of methods, a way of evaluating arguments and evidence to determine the likely factual status of claims. These are the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry. Skepticism lets us know when someone’s trying to put us on, or putting others on, and that’s the first step to exposing them. Skepticism lets us distinguish sound claims from unsound and good argument from bad. It lets us know, when we are careful, when our prejudices are being pandered to, giving us the first line of defense against fraud and chicanery. These methods assume scientific literacy, scientific thinking, and an understanding of how we deceive ourselves and others through biases and motivated reasoning.
  3. The values and methods of skepticism assume a particular approach to reality. It assumes that there are such things as facts and truth. It assumes the world is knowable and that it is possible to tell truth from falsehood. It assumes that the world is real, regardless of the nature of that reality, it exists, and that it must for anything at all to be meaningfully true, false, or even possible. It assumes that the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry are valid, useful, and powerful ways of knowing reality. It assumes in its methods that solid, reliable and effective ways of knowing are preferable to those that not only lead to error, but are neither self-correcting nor concerned with the actual truth of a matter. While it doesn’t necessarily assume philosophical naturalism, it does assume naturalistic methods, and so eschews resorting to unobservable or unfalsifiable ‘explanations’ for phenomena. But it has no trouble investigating anything that is knowably real and open to objective inquiry.
These are the three faces and together they form the core of my understanding of skepticism as an endeavor, whatever the state of organized skepticism at any time.

Ubi Dubium… | Toward a Better Understanding of the Schizophrenias


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Welp, this is an interesting development. We now have a considerably clearer understanding of one of the mechanisms behind schizophrenia, as a recent study published in Nature reveals. The authors of this large-scale study bringing together several lines of research, have identified a set of genes, particularly a variant of gene C4, C4A, involved in the culling, or pruning, of synaptic connections in the brain, and the findings were remarkable.

Particularly between the late teens and early twenties, the development of a normal brain involves some level of synaptic pruning as a means of increasing the efficiency of the brain’s operation, especially those neuronal connections that are seldom used.

I find this research particularly interesting because of my own personal history of schizophrenia. Anything that improves my understanding of this disorder, or more accurately, this class of disorders, is in my view a good thing. Insight and understanding have been two of the main tools in my ongoing recovery.

So, back to the study.

This particular gene variant results in an extraordinary rate of pruning of neuronal connections, in which synapses are so heavily deleted that many of the necessary connections in the adult brain are simply never established, resulting not just in delusional thinking and (in my case) hallucinations, but the cognitive issues many of us with the disorder experience.

I’m eager to see what direction further research will take.

It’s a monumental step nonetheless in understanding the process by which the illness develops. Schizophrenia is a complex family of disorders involving a interplay of mechanisms, with a strong genetic component, and it is highly heritable. It’s a class of illnesses that we now have a clearer understanding of. But I’m not pinning any (likely false) hopes on a cure from this.

To quote one of the collaborators of the study, neurology professor Beth Stevens of Boston Children’s Hospital,

“Now we have a path forward. We want to better understand how it’s working.”

 Ubi Dubium… gets its title from a Latin proverb, and the current tagline for this blog. It is a limited series of posts dealing with science, scientific skepticism, and the unruly twin dragons of pseudoscience and antiscience. Join me, if you will, on an exploration of science and reason, their borderlands, wastelands, and why a good understanding of both is crucial to living in this age of science and technology.

Ubi dubium… | Inaugural Installment: Consoling Atheists

A map of the world, showing the major religion...

A map of the world, showing the major religions distributed in the world as of today. A different type of map which views only the religion as a whole excluding denominations or sects of the religions, and is colored by how the religions are distributed not by main religion of country etc. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m an atheist, of course, though not particularly anti-religion. Let others believe as they will, so long as what they believe does not negatively affect me or mine. I do criticise the excesses of Fundamentalist sects, as with the excesses of any ideology. I believe that no idea is or ought to be beyond critique, though I recognize that religion, like any human enterprise, can lead others to do great good as well as great harm. I find religion fascinating, though I do not believe in mysticism or in any religious doctrines. Of particular interest to me are the great religions of India.

In two recent episodes of the podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Ep. 536, and Ep. 537, the issue came up of what to say to religious nonbelievers when they lose a loved one or friend, what sort of condolences one should and shouldn’t offer to those who do not practice or believe in a religion.

To those interested in the sorts of consolation appropriate for atheists, there’s the book Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God, by Greta Christina.

Why mention that? Well…

Being immersed in a religious culture can make it difficult to recognize that immersion, and hinder empathy to those of not part of it or part of some other religious culture. So some religious consolations can seem awkward to nonbelievers, or believers of other religions, even empty. Being told that my loved one is in a better place, or residing, say, with Jesus, or in Paradise, or in Valhalla, or in the fields of Elysium, brings no comfort to me.

But I have no objections to being sincerely told that I or mine are being prayed for, or being offered blessings and other well-wishes from a believer, as it’s the caring that counts.

So, it is best not to assume that others necessarily share your beliefs, especially in a pluralistic society with those of many religions and of none, and to be aware of and understand the beliefs or non-belief of others outside of your particular religious culture or faith group.

We all grieve, we all lose someone close to us, and for most of us, it hurts like nothing else. In considering the belief-systems of others and their particular approach to existential questions at the end of life, the grief you console may be that of your closest friend or dearest loved one.

Ubi dubium… gets its title from a Latin proverb, and the current tagline for this blog. It is a limited series of posts of 160 installments dealing with science, secular issues, scientific skepticism, atheism, and the unruly twin dragons of pseudoscience and antiscience. Join me, if you will, on an exploration of science and reason, their borderlands, and why a good understanding of both is crucial to living in this age so dependent on science and technology.