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Feb 08 2012

The Duality Of Skepticism

For a long while now I’ve been increasingly fascinated by a sort of underlying tension I’ve noticed within skepticism… the community and the movement, in so far as the two can reliably be said to exist, and even the philosophy and set of values. I’ve felt more and more, as I’ve immersed myself deeper into skepticism, that there seem to be two similar but distinct skepticisms, operating in parallel. And I’ve been trying to suss out exactly how to articulate this, what it means, and why we have this tension. Is it as simple as two distinct philosophies that accidentally shared the same word? Is it branching out into different interpretations of a common value? Is it based upon people arriving at a similar set of concepts by differing means and motivations? Am I just imagining it?

And if I’m not imagining it, what can we learn from it, about who we are and where we’re heading?

To try and give a little sketch of what I mean… well, that’s hard. But I started off imagining it as being about difference in motive. I observed a striking difference in the way different skeptics approached different kinds of intellectual problems, and some pretty distinct ways that self-identified skeptics would react to those problems. In conversation, I found that the people who tended to react in one of those ways had very similar motives for their interest in skepticism while the others didn’t, and seemed to be approaching it from a very different place.

That difference, as I initially saw it, was that some of us were coming at it out of the acknowledgment that we’re idiots. Collectively as well as personally. These were mostly folks who, like myself, caught ourselves believing some incredibly silly things at some point in our lives, and our reaction was to build intellectual defenses against that: checks and precautions and brakes and hesitations and pauses and reconsiderations. We were, on a personal level, intimately aware of how irrational and gullible a human being can be, how our own perceptions are not reliable, and skepticism was a reaction, the best possible means we had of coping with the imperfection of a human mind. This was skepticism as an act of intellectual humility.

The other group came from a different approach. They seemed to have an exceptional degree of confidence in their ability to overcome their failings and be rational actors (and also often applied this faith to others as well, as in the case of those who tend towards the libertarian persuasion). I often clashed with these types, and our worldviews seemed very much in conflict. For one thing, the belief that one has managed to overcome irrationality (or ought to aspire towards doing so) and put it behind them directly undermines the goal of working towards the acceptance of irrationality and learning to cope. Can’t fight what you aren’t willing to see. So far as we start to regard ourselves as rational and above the usual mistakes of logical fallacies, cognitive distortion, bias and the influence of the subject position, we stop being careful, we stop checking ourselves, we stop applying skepticism to our own thinking and we start perceiving our irrational beliefs as rational ones. Their’s was skepticism as an act of intellectual confidence.

But I’ve since come to think this original dichotomy I set up wasn’t really all that good. For one thing, it was making enormous assumptions about other people’s motivations which I couldn’t possibly know and distilling a complex range of distinct approaches and values into a really simplistic model. It allowed me to make heuristic predictions about the behaviour and mentality of others based on a clunky, generalized concept (also known as? prejudice), and was way too comfy as an “I’m right, they’re wrong, I’m one of the good ones” attitude to possibly be correct. I just wanted it to be. I was taking limited knowledge and forcing into the little mock-up theory I’d made that allowed me to feel like everyone would be my kind of skeptic if justthey weren’t so foolish. Very very human thing to do that kind of thing, yeah, but also very very silly. And wrong.

You see? I’m an irrational idiot. I use skepticism to cope.

But still, I kept encountering this tension and duality over and over again. There was definitely something going on (this is one of my favourite assertions, because it’s almost always true: something is going on). I didn’t spin the story out of whole cloth just for the sake of temporarily lending myself a sense of vague superiority. I’m not that crazy. My kind of crazy needs material to work from.

I began noticing other generalized dichotomies that seemed to fall along the same blurry line. It seemed partially political, with one camp being left-leaning in a socialist sort of way, the other having the conservative, libertarian streak I mentioned. Some divisions had to do with general areas of interest, with the one exhibiting stronger interest in social issues and things with more observable human consequences like alt-med and theism, and the other tending more strongly towards hard science and “classic” areas of skepticism like aliens, the paranormal, cryptids and such (and often having a not-so-thinly-veiled scorn for soft science, the humanities, and sociology). And some distinctions pertained to issues of diversity, with the one group increasingly interested in the inclusion of diverse voices in the movement with the other regarding this as a distraction without much relevance to the priorities of skepticism, and often associating it with post-modernism (which seems to be seen as the big ultimate bad guy bogeyman in BOTH camps, a trend I’m not too comfortable with myself).

But none of those dichotomies did much to illuminate the real principle at work. They’re each just superficial generalizations based on tendencies, correlations…and inconsistent ones at that… more suggestive of being common consequences of whatever the tension itself was based around. At best it indicated a sort of pattern of “progressive” vs. “traditional” skepticism, but that feels just as inadequate an explanation as anything else (“new wave” vs. “old school”, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, “socially oriented” vs. “phenomenon oriented”. blah blah blah).

Stepping back, though, maybe it’s just an issue of what skepticism actually is?

I’ve remarked before on the nature of “big tents”: groupings, communities and movements that are really only based on certain basic values or questions. I tend to cite skepticism and atheism as touchstones in these arguments, because each are very, very simple premises, and the commonalities and conflicts that emerge mostly just relate to how one goes about expanding or acting upon those premises. Atheism, for instance, doesn’t really mean anything about a person’s beliefs. It just suggests there’s one particular belief they don’t have. So to talk about atheism being “just another religion” or “the worship of science and reason” or “anger at God” or whatever-the-fuck is totally, completely ridiculous.

The fundamental premise of skepticism is simply thinking that critical thought and questioning stuff are good things.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not that simple.

Going back to the original perceptions I had, the first thing I noticed in this duality, we’ve really got two principles at play here.

a) The human mind is not rational, perceptions and assumptions are not reliable. We’re fallible, so caution is a good idea, and doubt and hesitation are very, very useful. Particularly if you want to avoid bad things happening.

b) Rationality and reason are good and beneficial. They allow us to make informed decisions. Empirical truth is more or less achievable, through things like controlled experimentation, careful observation, logic and reason. The world is knowable (albeit very difficult to know), and that knowledge is a noble pursuit.

Those two principles have a great deal in common with one another, but they are NOT the same thing. One is attuned awareness of the irrational. The other is dedicated pursuit of the rational. This is where I think we get our tension. We’ve got people who’ve decided to set as a personal priority the pursuit of one of two different principles, and working from and elaborating upon one of two different premises, who’ve arrived at a common point in the middle: skepticism.

Though the two principles are very compatible with one another, the elaborations, conclusions, priorities and values that progress from them are not necessarily so. Also, it does seem a bit tricky for someone to end up placing the same level of personal importance on each. I’m guessing that drives a whole lot of the frustration and conflict we experience in our accidentally shared community and movement. That’s where I (currently) think this duality comes from.

Or I might just be being silly again, failing to properly hesitate and question myself, and am displaying my human fallibility.

Fun, isn’t it?

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    Fun I don’t know… interesting, certainly.

    So if I get you right these two principles are not poles at each side of a spectrum but rather non-competing principles that people would invest different amounts of commitment in. Does that sentence make sense?

    I don’t want a huge argument about politics here, but as a libertarian I can tell you that human fallibility is one of the main reasons I cleave to the free market. The planners are only all too fallible, and putting all your eggs in one basket seems unwise.

  2. 2
    Sivi

    I’ve commented on this for a while, this sort of emerging dichotomy in the community. Like you say, it’s not strictly political, though it often falls out a bit that way. An SO of mine has seen something similar regarding different kinds of skepticism, as they’ve seen people they regard as acting as though they’ve “accepted rationality into their hearts” and are thus unable to act irrationally or to possess prejudices.

    I agree that it’s more of a tend than anything definite, but I’m curious to see if it becomes more or less of an issue over time.

  3. 3
    Heorrenda

    Having noticed this tendency more so lately than I did before, I’ve been wondering whether it might reflect a recent trend within the movement or instead simply my growing awareness of the diversity within it as I become more involved (or both). I like your suggestions as to the possible underlying causes and they give me something else to think about, since that division sounds to me like something which has been around for a very long time, however it might currently be manifesting itself.

    That said, I thought the real duality was between the skeptics and the sceptics…

  4. 4
    miller

    I think the perceived dichotomy is illusory. Or rather, there are so many distinctions we can draw in skepticism, and there’s nothing particularly special about this one. I mean, the initial motivation for the distinction really comes from skeptics you agreed with vs skeptics you thought were a bit off. If you happened to agree with a slightly different set of skeptics, would you have come up with a different dichotomy?

    I mean, it’s not a totally useless dichotomy. Based on my own experiences, the dichotomy that has been most useful to me is “internally directed” vs “externally directed” skepticism, which isn’t entirely different from what your dichotomy! I would certainly say it’s more useful than the dogmatic/tolerant atheist dichotomy which external observers always seem to come up with.

  5. 5
    Besomyka

    Hrm. Seems more of a difference in how much confidence we put into scientific findings. I’ve found myself on both ends, so to speak, and also accepting both approaches as valid.

    I’ve seen people put so much faith into some scientific paper, that they were unwilling to accept new information.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people so doubt our ability to understand something that they’ve tried to throw doubt into otherwise pretty stable areas of knowledge(think otherwise upstanding skeptics that join in with climate change deniers).

    Personally, I think we are flawed and we can’t always trust our perceptions. But I also think that rationality and scientific method is our best way of mitigating those flaws and discovering real knowledge.

    I wouldn’t hold onto either one of those positions too tightly.

  6. 6
    Sivi

    @Besomyka

    Personally, I think we are flawed and we can’t always trust our perceptions. But I also think that rationality and scientific method is our best way of mitigating those flaws and discovering real knowledge.

    I don’t see the conflict there. I think the dichotomy is between that and “I’m an atheist, therefore I am rational and unprejudiced, therefore my intuitions and pre-existing attitudes must be rational and unprejudiced.”

    1. 6.1
      Anders

      It’s the difference between what Popper characterizes as the Socratic position and the Platonic position. They both use the word philosopher in the sense of ‘lover of wisdom’. But Socrates position is that it is only when you realize how little you know that you can begin to learn. His philosophers are searching for wisdom. Plato’s philosopher-king, on the other hand, possess the keys to the knowledge. They know, they don’t merely have opinion. And this knowledge makes them fit to rule.

      And it’s made more difficult by people’s ability to compartmentalize these opinions. They can be Socratics in some fields and Platonics in others – that’s probably more the rule than the exception.

      1. josh

        Given that Socrates, as we know him, is almost entirely a construction of Plato, this seems like an odd choice of terms for the distinction being drawn.

        1. Anders

          He goes into the Socratic Question in some depth and comes to the conclusion that the dialogues start out as Socratic and grow more Platonic as time goes by. But that’s really not germane to the question at hand. It’s an important distinction and what labels we attach to it is really not crucial.

  7. 7
    Jeff Engel

    I think you’ve put a finger on something here. Surely it’s not the only source of conflict within skepticism – the sorts who cleave mightily to one scientific claim will face off against those who cleave mightily to a contrary one, even though both are representatives of the “science puts knowledge in our hands!” strand. You can also get clashes within the “we all have minds of clay” crowd between those that are suspicious of one basis of knowledge claims and those suspicious of a different one. But emphasizing our vulnerability to error will certainly give a different perspective than emphasizing our just claims to truth.

    I think a healthy skepticism – both for an individual and a community – has to acknowledge and affirm both. Without that, you’ll either be rejecting all knowledge claims or uncritically accepting whatever suits your prejudices and has the shiny gleam of scientific authority.

    I also believe that overcoming irrationality is a matter of coping with it so well that it’s not significantly getting in the way. I don’t think that’s easy, I don’t think it’s hopeless either.

  8. 8
    Evan

    Great post. I think about this a lot as well.

  9. 9
    Berior

    I personaly (personali ? Sorry, not a native english speaker) that it isn’t a matter of duality. Or rather that things aren’t as simple as a duality.

    You have to take into account at least another factor. Blindspots. Peoples have things that they won’t question, no matter how much of a skeptic they are. It is most visible when the thing they won’t question is demonstrably silly or when it clashes with someone who is willing to question that, for lack of a better word, “principle”.

    I believe this to be present in everyone to some degree or another.

    Or, and here is the fun part, you’re failing into the trap of seing patterns where none exist because that’s what evolution hard wired the human brain for. I certainly can’t say who is right on this subject.

  10. 10
    James K

    I think part of it is an attitude that is too easy to develop when you are young, intelligent and contrarian.

    I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that high school can be pretty unpleasant if you don’t fit neatly into the narrow model of “normality”. Combine the resentment that can generate with a perception (in many cases accurate) that you are significantly smarter than just about everyone around you, and you can end up with a very unpleasant combination of personality traits in which you simply dismiss most of humanity as fools unworthy of your consideration. I’m not just pointing fingers either, I recognise some of this in myself and have had to learn to fight it.

    I see some of the same thing in another Internet-friendly groups which I associate myself with (and one that overlaps with sceptics to quite a degree) – libertarians. Among libertarians you have the “I know how the world works and everyone who disagrees with me is an intellectual and moral defective” types (a lot of these end up being fans of Ayn Rand, which makes sense since she was like that herself), and you have the more Hayek-influenced types (I count myself as one of these) who think more in terms of the sheer complexity of a modern society and the incredible difficulty of trying to direct it through government action.

    I bring this up not to start a whole political thing, but simply to point out what I thought was an interesting parallel. There’s something about intelligent people who hold unorthodox ideas that tends to produce “master of the universe” types. I guess the only thing we can do is try to avoid sliding into it ourselves and remember that intelligence is no proof against being wrong, and neither is simply disagreeing with other wrong people – there’s more than one way to be wrong.

    1. 10.1
      Michael Brew

      They called us mad! Mad!! But we’ll show them. We’ll show them all. Muahahahahahahaaaaaaaa!!!

      1. James K

        Yeah, if we lived in a comic book, this is exactly the sort of attitude that would lead one to become a mad scientist.

  11. 11
    hall_of_rage

    Interesting ideas. I particularly like the notions of “awareness of irrationality” and “pursuit of rationality”. I don’t care to group people, though I would analyze styles of discussion along these lines maybe. But it is useful to think in my own life about where I should stop questioning and start thinking and doing, or conversely when I need to step back and think.

  12. 12
    Delictuscoeli

    I’ve also noticed a kind of divide myself, and sometimes think about it as a divide between those whose main interests lie in “debunking” existing views and those whose main interests lie in good epistemology, examining prejudices, and caution in forming new knowledge.

    I don’t think these are mutually exclusive categories, and I think most of us engage in both these pursuits to some degree in our skeptical activities. The major conflicts happen, I think, when someone has too much of the former without enough of the latter.

    Debunking, or mythbusting, or whatever you want to call it, is fun. I think we all agree that there is a lot of satisfaction to be had in disproving cranks and deconstructing fallacious arguments. It can be even more satisfying to deconstruct commonly held beliefs or other societal orthodoxies. This kind of enjoyment can, if one is not careful, lead someone down the path of “debunking” beliefs or orthodoxies they don’t like because of unexamined assumptions, a desire to be contrarian, or a mix of both.

    I think a lot of people in your group b) can end up here if they are not careful, and I would argue that many (but not all) libertarian skeptics fall into this group. The same with climate change “skeptics” or MRAs. In these kinds of cases part of the fun is in being subversive and “debunking” the received wisdom, and it carries with it the side benefit of freeing them from the burden of examining their assumptions or worldview.

    For these types, the epistemological system is a means to an end (dispelling the offending belief) rather than an end in itself. This is why they prefer to stick to more objectively falsifiable claims like Bigfoot and Homeopathy and devalue non-STEM fields in which knowledge production is considerably more complex and difficult to frame in easily falsifiable terms. This leads to your typical “OMG ur feminism is ruining Skepticism!!!1″ kind of rant, because addressing complex social issues through a skeptical intellectual framework doesn’t push the same kind of laugh-at-the-crank buttons that “traditional” skepticism did.

  13. 13
    Ben

    The same division happens in academia in general — it all goes back to C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” thesis. My own field (cognitive science/psychology) draws on both natural science and the humanities, esp. neurobiology and philosophy of mind. All sorts of intellectual snobbery is bandied about in either camp. “Philosophy? Worthless nonsense!” “Those science/computer/engineering types, they never think about the questions that *really* mean something.” Though the split doesn’t even necessarily have to be between natural science and humanities types. Think of, say, a Stephen Jay Gould vs. an E.O. Wilson.

  1. 14
    On Believing Unprovable Things | TRiG's links

    [...] Everyone believes in unprovable things. Rationalisation is part of the human condition. And yes, atheists are human too. Let us not forget that humans are fallible. [...]

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