Guest post: Knowing everything is just not possible


Originally a comment by mildlymagnificent on Or even another Tosh.

My own feeling about the far too many self titled skeptics that I deal with online is that they’ve not really learned to be appropriately skeptical. The first and most important lesson for a real skeptic is to acknowledge that it is no longer possible, if it ever really was, to be a “renaissance man” or a fully rounded autodidact.

There really is a limit to how much of the available knowledge and skill in any given topic a non-expert can acquire. So the first responsibility of being skeptical is as accurate an assessment as possible of one’s own expertise.It really doesn’t matter how clever you are or whether you’ve acquired advanced qualifications of various sorts. Knowing everything is just not possible and you mustn’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you can know everything.

To be thoroughly and conscientiously skeptical, you have to develop the skill needed to judge the value of the baying hordes of people claiming expertise in all sorts of areas. If you prefer to say that you can’t venture an opinion until you’ve worked whatever it is out for yourself, then you’re abrogating your responsibility to stick with properly evidenced positions. You simply cannot check all the work of all the astronomers and microbiologists and road builders and physicists and veterinarians and sociologists and epidemiologists and car mechanics and agricultural hydrographers and your own doctors, you have to pick and choose.

It’s how well you pick and choose the experts you will listen to and how you go about judging the quality of the evidence you rely on that makes you properly skeptical. Not a cynical dismissive waving away of everything you’ve not seen with your own eyes or worked out for yourself from first principles. That’s not skeptical. That’s being arrogant or suspicious or untrusting or fearful or some mixture of any of those.

Comments

  1. says

    The problem is: how do you tell the real experts from the poseurs? I’m not quite sure I can articulate, in general, why I tend to trust the ones I do. Some of it is because the poseurs tend to commit howlers than even a high schooler can see through (which is how I, as such a high schooler, gained my first distrust of creation “scientists”, no matter how many Ph.D.s they could wave around). On the whole, I think that somewhere I picked up the notion of “the company of scholars”, who may quarrel bitterly over the question of their field, but nonetheless (actually: by means of such quarreling, over the decades) have established a solid base of knowledge. So the trick is to get enough of a picture of the field to understand the spectrum from mainstream, through maverick-but-respectable, to crackpot. And to understand that one paper doesn’t overturn everything, to recognize cherry-picking when you see it, and that one voice crying in the wilderness is just as likely to be Bozo the Clown as the next Einstein.

  2. Bjarte Foshaug says

    If you prefer to say that you can’t venture an opinion until you’ve worked whatever it is out for yourself, then you’re abrogating your responsibility to stick with properly evidenced positions. You simply cannot check all the work of all the astronomers and microbiologists and road builders and physicists and veterinarians and sociologists and epidemiologists and car mechanics and agricultural hydrographers and your own doctors, you have to pick and choose.

    That’s a nice way of putting it. Not only is it impossible to know everything, but you cannot evaluate the evidence for every claim on your own. Whenever “skeptics” admonish others to just “follow the facts” or “let the evidence speak for itself” (it doesn’t), they are contributing to this simplistic myth, that “following the evidence where it leads” is a straightforward matter, rather than something that requires vast amounts of training and background knowledge in its own right.

    As I have I previously written elsewhere, I could probably do a fairly decent job in providing a layman’s explanation of the evidence for things like evolution or global warming based on books I have read, but this is already an interpretation and a translation into linguistic form of the evidence itself. I wouldn’t personally be able to extract any useful information about past climates from tree rings or ice cores. I freely admit that my acceptance of the scientific consensus is not actually based “on the evidence” per se, but neither is it entirely based on the authority of individual scientists. It’s more a matter of trusting the scientific process to work more or less the way it’s supposed to most of the time while being open to revise my opinion if the process starts producing different answers. This may seem like an unsatisfactory compromise, but that doesn’t mean any other method that’s ever been tried works better.

    The same thing goes for that other favorite slogan of people who call themselves “skeptics”: “Think for yourself”. Obviously most people could benefit from being more critical of their sources, but neither is there any shortage of people who believe wacky things precisely because they trust their own thinking too much and allow their layman’s understanding to trump the informed consensus of the scientific community. This is practically the definition of the Dunning Krueger Effect.

    Another silly meme that seems to have made its way into skeptical folklore is the idea that “We shouldn’t believe things, but just go with the evidence.” (etc.) Of course we shouldn’t take anything on faith, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold anything to be true (or most likely true) which is what it means to believe something. What’s the point of science, or even skepticism itself, if it’s not to arrive at justified beliefs (i.e. answers we have reason to think are at least approximately true)? The distinction between justified and unjustified beliefs is far more important in science than the one between belief and “knowledge”.

  3. leni says

    And to understand that one paper doesn’t overturn everything, to recognize cherry-picking when you see it, and that one voice crying in the wilderness is just as likely to be Bozo the Clown as the next Einstein.

    I imagine it like a vector field. If most of the research being is pointing in one direction, than what lies in that direction is probably your best bet. That doesn’t mean it’s right, it just means that, as a layperson who has maybe heard conflicting messages, it’s your best bet no matter what direction you like more. The two arrows pointing in the opposite direction might be interesting, but if you are attempting to make what is more or less an educated guess, they are probably not the best choice.

    More data isn’t necessarily better data, but I expect in most cases repeatability and incrementally improved study design make it more likely that direction is the right one, not less.

  4. says

    This paper covers this topic in a lot of depth.
    “Learning autonomy in two or three steps: linking open-ended development, authority, and agency to motivation.”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24155734

    How to make an autonomous person that can successfully interact in the world as it is without having to know everything. You don’t have to know everything, you just have to have a good system for assessing the world and determining what it is independent of yourself, and be able to find best ways of working with it.

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