Oct 23 2012

Martin S Pribble on “The Hyper-Skeptic Problem”

Sorry. It’s shaping up to be another one of those weeks. Seems a lot of us around these parts are being struck with Real Life all at once. I don’t have it as bad as some, certainly, but I’m pretty swamped out at the moment. So I’m more than happy to spread around what few hits I can direct to others who are out there taking and throwing the punches that I wish I could be.

Like Martin S. Pribble, and his fantastic treatise on the “hyperskepticism problem” that I’ve touched on myself a number of times.

Hyper-skeptical viewpoints give rise to conspiracy theories, paranoid delusions, and, surprisingly enough, misinformation. The hyper-skeptical mind will not accept facts, much in the same way a religious mind cannot accept facts. The hyper-skeptic is so deeply entrenched in the idea of “not believing in anything” that the world becomes a huge bully, just trying to feed them falsehoods in order to make them “part of the system”.

It’s difficult to know how someone can arrive at a hyper-skeptical viewpoint. Could it be that there is no way to “know” anything, as all information is presented from information from another human mind (which could also be a delusional mind)? Added to this is the concept of “irreducible complexity”, one where a person may look at a situation, and step-by-step, ask questions that are increasingly out of the realm or scope of the original question or statement. Bill O’Reilly is famous for such questions, able to flippantly throw aside all claims by asking “But how did it get there?” when talking of unrelated topics such as tides.

The main point here is a concept known as “reasonable doubt”. It is an evidentiary concept, used both in courts of law (“A standard of proof that must be surpassed to convict an accused in a criminal proceeding”) and in scientific discovery (where enough evidence is presented that doubt is diminished beyond consideration). It is the standard of evidence to which we must hold all claims in order to evaluate their efficacy.

It applies in a lot of ways to the internecine warfare we experience in our atheist and skeptic communities. Every time one of us employs a sociologically sound and evidence-based scientific concept that conflicts with someone’s dearly-held point of view about some topic or another, you couldn’t hit the buttons on a stopwatch fast enough to measure how long it takes before the person presenting the concept is decried as dogmatic, shrill, or some other pejorative term that amounts to a shorthand for “they disagree with me, therefore they’re being mean to me, therefore they’re wrong”. The main examples that spring to mind immediately are the so-called “race realists”, the climate “skeptics”, and (yes, definitely) the anti-feminists and MRAs and misogyny-apologists.

While we call them “trolls” as shorthand, they certainly don’t think of themselves as such. Sure, they use troll tactics to derail and damage conversation, but they really, truly believe that there’s a scientific reason to be racist, that the evidence for global warming isn’t overwhelming, that Schrodinger’s Rapist and the concept of privilege are dogmatic and the real problem with gender. So while there’s no “for the lulz” aspect, these people are definitely trolls in the exact same way as the average conspiracy nutter with tin foil hats demanding that Obama prove he’s not a Bigfoot reptiloid from the alien planet of Kenya.

At any rate, go read Martin’s post. It’s top-notch.


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  1. 1
    Bjarte Foshaug

    I wouldn’t say that hyper-skeptic are “deeply entrenched in the idea of ‘not believing in anything’,” because they are often among the most credulous people on the planet. They are committed to not believing certain things precisely because they conflict with the things they desperately want to believe.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    Hyper-skeptical viewpoints give rise to conspiracy theories, paranoid delusions, and, surprisingly enough, misinformation.

    Is he really using the right word here? What he calls “hyperskepticism” (which is actually PHONY skepticism most times) we normally call “paranoid delusion.” The latter phrase is more descriptive, so I think we should stick to it.

    So while there’s no “for the lulz” aspect…

    Are you sure about that? I suspect a lot of these trolls spend so much time repeatedly spouting their nonsense precisely because it makes them feel good to do so. They really seem to care more about hogging attention and monopolizing a conversation than they do about making a convincing point.

  3. 3
    Eamon Knight

    Some years ago I coined a term (though I won’t claim to be the first) for what he’s calling “hyper-skepticism”: contrarian pseudo-skepticism. It’s *pretending* to be a critical examiner of evidence when the real criterion in play is “not believing the Official Story”. The motivation may be some vested interest, or it may just be the rush of feeling oneself to be wiser than the average person (the “sheeple”), and part of an elite who are privy to Hidden Truth.

  4. 4
    Raging Bee

    Eamon: I would clarify that “contrarian pseudo-skepticism” is when someone is either knowinly lying or just being silly. But if someone actually believes the nonsense and gets himself stuck in an alternative reality, that’s sliding into paranoid delusion. The boundary is extremely fuzzy and very hard to discern, but there is a difference, even if it’s only meaningful to mental health professionals.

  5. 5

    I agree with the other comments. This is conspiracy nuttyness masquerading as hyper-skepticism. They know conspiracy theory is looked down on. So they use words that skeptics use, and think they are being skeptical.

    This has a lot of parallels with things like intelligent design. They use words that scientists use and really, honestly, think they are doing science. They will address you as if they are doing science. And they will scoff if you imply their stances are well supported.

    They’ve lost the battle on their own turf. So they redecorated their turf to look like something they think will be more respected. The trouble is that they, generally, actually believe they are being skeptical/scientific.

  6. 6
    John-Henry Beck

    My experience with the anti-feminist types is that they sincerely think the feminists are dogmatic, extreme, and not being skeptical. They usually don’t even consider themselves anti-feminist, just against the extreme idealogues. Of course their examples of extreme, dogmatic idealogues turn out to be people like Rebecca Watson or Greta Christina. So…something is broken there.

    At least the ones I’ve tended to have experience with think of themselves as rational skeptics. They’re just coming at it from an angle that ‘hyper skepticism’ seems like an apt name for. They don’t see the problems, or they think the feminists are blaming the wrong people, are relying on mere anecdotes, and so on. So they keep demanding more hard data before being willing to listen. And generally being real nitpicky on suggestions too, like worrying about the phrasing of harassment policies in an almost paranoid way.

    Not that I have any idea how to deal with it. But the hyper skepticism does seem to be like some kind of defense mechanism for dealing with (perceived) criticism. Maybe a little paranoia thrown in to feel like they’re under attack.

  7. 7

    I’ve heard it called ‘Uncritical Supercriticality’.

  8. 8

    For those who are interested, yesterday i followed up that article with one about “hyper-belief” which you may enjoy.


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