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.