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A morbid fascination with human credulity

PZ has some thoughts on skepticism. He starts with a continuum of belief, with the very gullible at one end and conspiracy theorists at the other.

And then, somewhere in the middle lie science and skepticism. People readily conflate those two, unfortunately, and I think that’s wrong. Science is all about following the evidence. If a bit of evidence supports a hypothesis, you willingly accept it tentatively, and follow where it leads, strengthening or discarding your initial ideas appropriately with the quality of the evidence. You end up with theories that are held provisionally, as long as they provide fruitful guidance in digging deeper. It is ultimately a positive approach that winnows out bad ideas ruthlessly, but all in the cause of advancing our knowledge. I am far more comfortable with science then skepticism, because I’d rather be working towards a goal.

Skepticism is the flip side. It’s all about falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals. I think it is the wrong approach.

Consider one classic example: Bigfoot. Skepticism is all about taking apart case by case, demonstrating fakery or error, and demolishing the stories of the Bigfoot frauds. That’s useful — in fact, skepticism is most useful in dealing with malicious intent and human fakery — but it doesn’t advance our knowledge significantly. The scientific approach would involve actually studying forest ecology, understanding how the ecosystem works, and getting a handle on what lives in the forest…and at the end, you’re left with something informative about the nature of the habitat, as well as a recognition that a giant ape isn’t part of the puzzle.

I still have a morbid fascination with human credulity, but I also think that’s all it really is: just a gossippy, aren’t humans weird, hobbyish kind of interest. I don’t think it’s useful enough or profound enough to be the kind of thing that Movements can be built around. Skepticism’s pretensions to being a movement increasingly seem a little infatuated to me, although that could be because so much of the US branch of that movement is so very full of smug narcissistic shits.

So we get skeptics who argue against the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke, or anthropogenic climate change— it’s OK, because they’re being critical — and these same skeptical entertainers are lauded for berating an MD and throwing him out of a party, because he had criticized their pandering to a quack…and also their climate change denialism. Do I even need to get into their contemptible sexism or their Libertarian bullshit?

And then the movement as a whole has been wracked with this bizarre denial of sexual harassment, and refusal to deal with the issue. I think part of it has to be a culture of dealing with complications by rejecting them — that the movement is full of individuals whose favored approach to the deplorable messiness of human interactions and the existence of malefactors is by retreating into a Spock-like insistence that the problem does not compute, and therefore can be ignored. It’s a culture of explaining away, rather than explaining.

Yes; those are the ones I can’t stand: the ones who label everything that’s not empirical as “ideology” and treat it as an illegal alien.

PZ ends with a hilarious/disgusting example of obsessive hyperskepticism about…a letter that PZ got from a teenage fan. Yes really. People are weird.

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    One of the things I’ve noticed about organized septicism, that I’ve been beating into the ground? The same people who are bad at being decent human beings are also really bad at thinking. Maybe that’s part and parcel with the hero worship garbage, because the bad-thinking septics are really proud of themselves for repeating catchphrases rather than actually engaging their brains and working up a little thinky-sweat.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    I believe that there is value to debunking, because it denies false models the veneer of acceptability they count on in marketing their woo-wares to the unwary. Like how Dr. Oz got publicly taken down for his woo-mongering. That is a very valuable public service, and we need more.

    If these were harmless hobbies that people simply enjoyed as a pastime, there would be no real purpose to refuting them, and in that case, I would agree with PZ’s opinion that such an approach would be wrong. For example, a lot of people *like* believing they have an immortal “soul”. So what? But when they start passing around urban legends about how much a “soul” weighs etc., essentially hijacking the legitimacy of scientific attributes and plastering them onto their fantasy, well, that warrants stout refuting, because not only does it give a useless imaginary idea support it has not earned and does not deserve, but it debases the science as well. And that should never be allowed.

  3. John Morales says

    Improbable Joe @1,

    One of the things I’ve noticed about organized septicism, that I’ve been beating into the ground? The same people who are bad at being decent human beings are also really bad at thinking.

    Well-poisoning ain’t nice, Joe, and that’s what you’re doing typifying those who partake of organised scepticism as being bad at being decent human beings.

  4. Stacy says

    One of the things I’ve noticed about organized septicism, that I’ve been beating into the ground? The same people who are bad at being decent human beings are also really bad at thinking.

    Well-poisoning ain’t nice, Joe, and that’s what you’re doing typifying those who partake of organised scepticism as being bad at being decent human beings

    Misrepresenting people’s arguments also isn’t nice, John Morales. Improbable Joe referred to

    the bad-thinking septics [sic]

    –which means he was referring to a subset of skeptics–those bad at being decent human beings–not poisoning the well against all “those who partake of organized skepticism.”

  5. John Morales says

    Stacy @5, leaving aside that the generalisation “The same people who are bad at being decent human beings are also really bad at thinking.” is unsupportable, he was referring to the category of organised scepticism, not to a subset thereof.

    I do not believe I have misrepresented his claim; look at the form: “One of the things I’ve noticed about X, that I’ve been beating into the ground? Y.”

    In short: I cannot but see that as a prejudicial claim about X.

    (Consider this claim: “One of the things I’ve noticed about feminism, that I’ve been beating into the ground? The same people who are bad at being decent human beings are also really bad at thinking.”)

  6. quixote says

    I respect PZ Myers as a scientist, but that involves doing. What science is doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.

    Science belongs nowhere on the continuum from gullible to hypersuspicious. Everything on that line involves thinking (or lack thereof) without evidence. And, yes, that does include the skeptics of the #UpForDebate variety. Disbelieving the weight of the evidence is no more evidence-based than ignoring it.

    The essence of science is restraint. Restraining the untrained human tendency to jump to conclusions, waiting for the evidence, restraining the desire to see what one wants in the evidence, restraining the desire to reject a conclusion one doesn’t like when the evidence favors, restraining the desire to consider something settled when new evidence says it isn’t.nn

    None of that is part of the gullible-suspicious continuum.

  7. Ed says

    I’ve noticed a wide range of quality in skeptical literature. My experiences are mostly with the magazines The Skeptical Inquirer and The Skeptic(though it’s now becoming impossible to support Shermer in good conscience and I mainly read it while having a drink at a bookstore/cafe without buying it).

    The Skeptical Inquirer is better on average anyway, has more overlap with the broader humanist and atheist movements and its writers tend to have more genuine scientific interest.

    Skepticism can fall into the trap of crude hyper-empiricism, mainly going over in minute detail some claim about a particular haunting or Bigfoot sighting and correctly coming to the conclusion that there isn’t enough evidence to accept the story as true. But then the believers only have to say that OK, maybe this one was iffy, but what about all the ones the skeptics didn’t study.

    This is good as far as it goes, but better skeptical writing puts claims an d doubts within the context of established science–ideas about the nature of reality accepted because they are in line with the interconnected discoveries and observations of a worldwide community of researchers.

    A species of large primates or huge aquatic creatures living in lakes or rivers are unlikely to be able to “hide” forever. There would have to be to be a large enough population to successfully breed. Even if they were elusive, their feeding and migration patterns would have a noticeable effect on their ecosystem. When individuals died, their remains would be found. At least some decent photographs and video would be taken with so many people searching every corner of their habitat. Animals have to live in their environments in certain ways.

    Claims about ghosts, demons and psychic powers are similaly questionable not just because the people making the claims failed some test by James Randi, but because of the premises behind the accounts (mind/body dualism, entities that act within our universe while being immune to its laws). There are also fairly convincing social and psychological explanations as to how sane people could come to honestly believe that they have had such an experience.

  8. says

    quixote:

    Science belongs nowhere on the continuum from gullible to hypersuspicious. Everything on that line involves thinking (or lack thereof) without evidence.

    Bollocks. Have you looked at the things believed by the gullible and the conspiratorial? They have all sorts of evidence. Tons of it. The gullible just have shitty, low-quality evidence; the conspiratorial might have good evidence, but they’ve twisted and cherry-picked it to fit a pre-existing unfalsifiable narrative. Science, as you say, is about restraint: restraining oneself from accepting poor-quality evidence, and restraining oneself from twisting the facts to fit the theory. Almost like it’s between those extremes.

  9. Artor says

    Quixote @8, thanks for clarifying that. From the start, I felt there was something not quite kosher about PZ’s position on science, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Yes, science is not on the continuum of belief/skepticism, but it is rather a discipline designed specifically to avoid that spectrum and the subjective interpretation of reality.

  10. palmettobug says

    I started to smell a rat a few years ago when I spotted a poorly-written and poorly reasoned article in Skeptical Inquirer that was pure teacher bashing and union bashing, but stated with that haughty we-know-better-than-everybody tone that is common with some so called skeptics. There was no attempt at balance, it was basically making the argument that unions make education more expensive, so they hurt education. QED. There was no due consideration of pro union arguments (better training, happy teachers will teach better, or that unions might ensure that teachers’ good ideas are given due consideration, insurance against bad management practices that can cost more than the slight difference in pay, etc.). Also, some of the highest ranked U.S states in terms of education are also unionized, whereas ritght-to-work states are at the bottom.

    I see the skeptical movement as highly influenced or essentially run by a few who see it as a way to try to borrow credibility from Science in order to serve a conservative agenda: bashing feminists, labor, environmentalists, and other targets. It’s unfortunate that a lot of well-meaning people who like science are unwittingly being used In this way by bad actors with a nefarious agenda. It’s also interesting that they accuse FTB, etc of having an agenda. Classic projection.

  11. Blanche Quizno says

    @9 Ed: Well spoken, sir/madam. All I would add is to the final paragraph, as follows:

    Claims about ghosts, demons and psychic powers are similaly questionable not just because the people making the claims failed some test by James Randi, but because of the premises behind the accounts (mind/body dualism, entities that act within our universe while being immune to its laws, actions whose results are independent of defined/definable mechanisms and without any possible explanation as to the process by which they are able to occur). There are also fairly convincing social and psychological explanations as to how sane people could come to honestly believe that they have had such an experience.

    I would add the bolded part because you initially identified “ghosts, demons, and psychic powers” but you only provided premises for the ghosts and the demons. You left out the objection to the “psychic powers”, good sir/madam, which makes PEDANT SMASH!!!

  12. yahweh says

    “If a bit of evidence supports a hypothesis, you willingly accept it tentatively, and follow where it leads, strengthening or discarding your initial ideas appropriately with the quality of the evidence. You end up with theories that are held provisionally, as long as they provide fruitful guidance in digging deeper.”

    This, to me, is a pretty good operational definition of scepticism.

    Over the years I’ve had arguments, mostly with believers, who cannot get their heads round this idea and confuse it with disbelief. They think its about “falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals.”

    Maybe it is time to rebadge it as ‘scientific thinking’ and leave the word scepticism to the ignorant.

  13. Bjarte Foshaug says

    On one side lie the extremely gullible; people who drift with the wind, and believe anything a sufficiently charismatic guru tells them, no matter how absurd. Far to the other side are the conspiracy theorists. These are people who believe fervently in something, who have a fixed ideology and will happily twist the evidence to support it, and are therefore completely refractory to reason and empiricism.

    I don’t actually think true believers and denialists/conspiracy theorists represent opposite ends of the spectrum at all. If you look at how both groups arrive at their views in the first place, the similarities seem to me far more important than the differences. Both start from a desired conclusion and rationalize it through flawed methodology, cherry picking of data, distortion of the facts, logical fallacies etc. The fact that the desired conclusion, in the case of deniers, is a negative one is irrelevant irrelevant with respect to the deeper methodological problem.

    The last thing that can be said about conspiracy theorists etc. it that they’re too unwilling to believe in the absence of evidence (“The lack of evidence only confirms that powerful interests are working to hide the truth, therefore the conspiracy is real!”). In the case of evolution deniers, climate change deniers etc. much of the motivation to deny the science ultimately comes from a desire to defend a positive belief (in God, the infallibility of the market etc.).

    And then, somewhere in the middle lie science and skepticism. People readily conflate those two, unfortunately, and I think that’s wrong. Science is all about following the evidence.

    True as far as it goes, but fails to take into account the fact that “following the evidence” requires more experience and background knowledge than anyone but the experts actually possess. Life’s too short, and our brains are too limited, to derive all of science (and logic, mathematics etc.) from first principles by actually doing all the cognitive and empirical work for ourselves. In fact, my main objection to Skepticism™ is the idea that “just following the evidence” is indeed a workable option or that “letting the evidence speak for itself” is a thing at all. Movement Skeptics seem to be among the most deluded by the Dunning Kruger effect in this respect.

    At least those of us who aspire to become* critical thinkers (as opposed to Skeptics™) know that we have to take shortcuts, rely on second hand information and tentatively trust conclusions that we’re not personally able to verify, which encourages humility rather than arrogance. Also a critical thinker is mainly concerned with examining and improving his/her own thinking rather than scoring points against their rivals. There is nothing wrong per se with challenging or criticizing the unjustified beliefs of others but unless you’re even more concerned with challenging your own, you may be a Skeptic™, but you haven’t even gotten to critical thinking 101 yet.
    _______________________________________________________
    * A critical thinker is something you’re perpetually working to become, never something you are.

  14. John Morales says

    yahweh @14,

    Maybe it is time to rebadge it as ‘scientific thinking’ and leave the word scepticism to the ignorant.

    I don’t think so; scientific thinking requires scepticism + empiricism + rationalism.

    (Or: I think PZ’s grievance is with movement scepticism, not with scepticism per se)

  15. says

    On the credulity of people:

    “…it has occurred to me that calling ourselves Homo sapiens has always contained the suggestion that, deep down, we have certain reservations, reservations amounting to serious doubt, about exactly what wisdom our species is supposed to have. And then again, calling ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens (as we often do now-a-days to distinguish ourselves from that close cousin—you know the one we never invite to family get-togethers—Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) has definite shades of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” about it.
     
    (As a probably unwise aside: did you know that the ‘doth’ version of that quote is only in the second Quarto of Hamlet, the First Quarto and the otherwise authoritative First Folio are rather more modern and leave out the ‘doth’ but “the lady protests too much” ain’t Shakespearian enough for us, so, in a sort of ‘play-it-again-Sammy’ move, we go with the better quote rather than what might well be the real one. Perhaps we do that unwisely if not particularly well.
    And I really must stop doing all these silly asides, however Shakespearian they may be.)

     
     
    And anyway it seems a much more honest, not to mention wise, move to forget about all that sapient stuff, take a good look at ourselves and change our Linnæan binomial to Homo credentis, ‘gullible Man’, rather than that totally unbelievable ‘wise Man’. Or, as I sometimes think might be more appropriate, even change it to Homo pontesbrooklyniensisemptor—‘Man the buyer of Brooklyn Bridges’, …”
                               Sappy Sapientes

  16. Ed says

    Blanche Q–(#13)

    Good edit of my post! :)

    On the usefulness of the concept of Skepticism discussed in several other posts:

    I partially agree but we need to look at the context in which those of us who grew up in the 70s or 80s were bombarded by respectable media and publishing pushing the “true stories” behind The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, the idea that psychic abilities have been well documented in the lab, that Satanic cults are everywhere, to mention but a few of these things.

    People from both earlier and later generations had the benefit of either maturing before the “occult explosion” or growing up in a world where these types of ideas (still very widespread) already had more visible competition thanks in part to the skeptical movements.

    Skeptical literature was an awakening for me with not just the amateur debunkers(who have their uses, but drag skepticism down when they dominate it) but people like Asimov, Gardner, Gould , Sagan and Dawkins presenting alternate explanations and more importantly a better if not perfect worldview in easy to access and understand writings. I hate to think what the culture would be like without this infusion of reason into the public sphere. Since many skeptics are also humanists, these publications could serve as a bridge to the humanist community.

  17. says

    (TLDR warning/shameless self-promotion warning) — did a thing just now on what I thought was a kinda ‘skepticism done right’ thing heard on the radio this morning:

    http://accidentalweblog.org/index.php?itemid=2048

    .. it’s also a bit orthogonal to some of this stuff, but I really did think: this was a healthy attitude, among those I’ve heard, with apologies that I don’t actually have a link to the audio yet.

  18. says

    It’s a morbid fascination I share. Why we do what we do and why we believe what we do is endlessly fascinating and reveals a lot about general human behavior.

    The dichotomy [gullible conspiracy theorist] is a bit awkward, but feels close to something that represents a genuine area of polarization of human behavior. Gullible is being willing to be persuaded easily, while conspiracy theorists are strongly convinced of their conclusions.
    But it may break down outside of specific frames through which we can use this model because there may be more than one variable that changes between the two ends. “Ability to be persuaded” is one, but “ability to be persuaded by observations alone” versus “ability to be persuaded by others” may also be different variables here. “Ability to be convinced of new conclusions” versus “ability to be convinced by contradictory conclusions” may also be different.
    If we just consider “reasons for coming to conclusions” and “ability to test one’s potential conclusions” I think it works well enough.

    Hyper-skepticism refers to the conspiracy theorist’s inappropriately high resistance to anything that challenges their conclusions. I see it as prematurely coming to a negative conclusion consistent with what we want to believe without rationally assessing the actual probabilities for the thing being concluded about.
    If we did not have a natural resistance to being wrong that would probably be bad for long term survival, but clearly that is a cognitive feature with different intensity. But hyper-skepticism also probably represents sets of social behaviors with specific uses as well. A person that fells strongly about something that they are not very good at defending my resort to hyper-skepticism as a defense mechanism since it looks aggressive (and is emotionally satisfying) and some people are persuaded by that sort of thing. This is also a means of persuasion as political activity because a hyper-skeptical attack on something that the Skeptic does not like is meant to convince others with similar desires to believe the conclusion that it’s not true, and hopefully summon fellow doubters.

    Rationality is a tool that makes skepticism work properly. There are reasons for when, why and how skepticism should be applied. Was that person raped or sexually harassed? According the the statistics rapes and harassment happen, often. Any person hearing about a rape or harassment should be willing to let the situation play out in terms of investigations and evidence without reading their personal experience into it since our personal experience often is not representative of reality. But too often I see people act skeptical about a claim like that and actively choose to come to a conclusion about it based on some other person and how they remember them, or what the people like them are saying. Only the facts of that case matter.

    The scientific method is the other tool that makes skepticism work properly. This gets at the inability of some hyper-skeptics to defend their ideas absent emotion and repetition. If (rational or irrational) skepticism leads to a conclusions, one should be able to test that conclusion by finding other meaningful things in reality that are consistent with it. That letter analysis is not meaningful without data considering what other similar people tend to do (controls), and handwriting analysis can be full of motivated reasoning as the history section of forensic science classes will demonstrate with notorious examples (best methods, independent confirmation). Practicing the scientific method gets one used to coming to rational conclusions, removing one’s conclusions that are inconsistent with reality (probably a learned skill), and defending conclusions that one can be sure are based on something solid.
    It also lets you know when to apply skepticism. Being practiced in the scientific method makes you willing to consider contradictory conclusions for the sake of argument because you learn to recognize that the underlying support of a conclusion is where skepticism should be applied when you are familiar with different evidence. The skepticism is applied to both your evidence and theirs simultaneously. It also makes one better able to recognize likely and unlikely conclusions in general because you get used to actually looking up what we know about the world (though we should still always be willing to consider an argument, at best you get to fight off another bit of unreality, at worst you learn something new about the world and make your internal filters more accurate).

  19. says

    One thing I think does need to be said… having a conspiracy theory background myself, particularly the New World Order, (I once did in fact believe the New World Order crap and all that… including a conspiracy around JFK’s murder), there’s a logic in it. As Tom Foss @#10 says, there’s evidence here (for example… the Bilderberg Group does indeed exist… though conspiracy theorists tends to twist and occasionally lie about who actually attends).

    And I know for a fact that Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have been like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and God all rolled up into one (well… two) for conspiracy theorists everywhere. I promise you, when the Snowden leaks started, Alex Jones got on his roof with the loudest bullhorn he could get and shouted “I TOLD YOU SO” as loud as he could, and other conspiracy theorists did the exact same thing. I actually had conspiracy theorists I’ve debated with in the past offline do that very thing to me (“you see? We told you! We were right! Here it is! You have no rights! Your every move is being watched!” blah blah blah). It is actually a good time to be a conspiracy theorist right now, at least in the US…

    Granted, it’s largely cherry-picked and twisted to support bullshit conclusions (some world leaders might like the idea of a New World Order, but as of right now, the only NWO this world ever saw was a WCW heel wrestling outfit led by Hollywood Hulk Hogan), but still…

  20. Martin Cohen says

    I applied for membership to the Bilderberg Group, but they haven’t replied yet.

    Anybody know where I can contact the International Zionist Conspiracy? I really would like to help rule the world. I’m sure I could do better than the current group.

  21. Smokey Dusty says

    I think we need to spell out that PZ’s continuum is domain dependent. We’re each of us capable of credulity, conspiracy theory and anything in between depending on the issue at hand.

    I like PZ’s ‘explaining away’ point too. We’re good at rationalization, not always good at reason.

  22. Stacy says

    –Ahem. I’m sorry. Let me try that again.

    I still have a morbid fascination with human credulity, but I also think that’s all it really is: just a gossippy, aren’t humans weird, hobbyish kind of interest. I don’t think it’s useful enough or profound enough to be the kind of thing that Movements can be built around. Skepticism’s pretensions to being a movement increasingly seem a little infatuated to me, although that could be because so much of the US branch of that movement is so very full of smug narcissistic shits

    I used to think–until embarrassingly recently, actually, I thought–Skepticism was a movement about epistemology. Skepticism was gonna spread critical thinking and a basic understanding of the scientific method(s) and people everywhere would be better equipped to evaluate the barrage of information and propaganda–advertisements, political theory and propaganda, claims of all kinds–we all encounter daily.

    PZ put it well, I think. If skepticism were about what in my naivete I thought it was, it wouldn’t confine itself to debunking claims one by one. It certainly wouldn’t declare some areas off limits (libertarianism, religion, social justice concerns.) It would be about changing how people think. Those “tools” Skeptics prate about aren’t meant to be kept in the toolbox, to be brought out only for the latest Nessie sighting or “true” haunting story. Skeptics would be using them, and encouraging others to use them, to parse serious issues (global warming, anyone?) It would be fighting to get critical thinking taught in school, beginning at the elementary level.

    Instead we’ve got Skepticism. It will never be a mass movement now–they’ve alienated everyone who could’ve told them a thing or two about how to grow one of those. Instead it will remain what it’s been for fifty years–a hobby, a niche interest for middle class mostly white mostly guys.

  23. johnthedrunkard says

    The absence of religious belief does NOT guarantee a workable rationalism in its place. A lot of anti-Atheist prejudice and resistance is left over from the Cold War, when the most visible body of atheists were Communist Party members. Not exactly role models for rigorous inquiry and intellectual integrity. Especially after the Lysenko business surfaced in the late 40s and intellectuals (who had no excuse for not knowing better) lined up to assert along with Uncle Joe that two and two made 5, and would continue to do so until the Party declared otherwise.

    The ‘skeptical’ movement, to the extent that there is A movement, is still tainted by association with Libertarianism/Randroidism. Shermer, Jillette, etc. what do they have in common? A current or past commitment to what Shermer himself has called ‘the unlikeliest cult.’

    Objectivists may disclaim belief in any gods, but they are still rigidly committed to a belief system as pernicious, and as insulated against criticism, as any of the Abrahamic classics. A refusal to consider the danger of tobacco is a dead giveaway. Rand smoked herself to death while her followers slavishly insisted that addiction doesn’t exist…because Will.

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