Epistemology 101

Here’s an explanation for the hard of thinking.

There’s a difference between taking a claim seriously and asserting that it’s true.

There’s a difference between not expressing incredulity about a claim and asserting that it’s true.

There’s a difference between finding claims credible and asserting that they’re true.

There’s a difference between doubting the denials of claims and asserting that the claims are true.

There’s a difference between finding it more likely that a claim is true than it is that a denial of the claim is true, and asserting that the claim is true.

In short there are many possible views about a particular claim that are well short of 1. assuming that they’re true, let alone 2. asserting that they’re true.

I don’t know that the claims about Michael Shermer are true. I know that I don’t know they’re true. I’m not under any illusion that I know they’re true. I know that I can’t know that they’re true, because I’m not in a position to know.

But that doesn’t mean that I know they’re false. I don’t know that. I know that I don’t know that. I know that I can’t know that, because I’m not in a position to know.

But I think it’s more likely that they’re true than it is that they’re false. There are too many of them to think otherwise. James Randi said as much himself, in Mark Oppenheimer’s article.

Randi is no longer involved in his foundation’s daily operations, but he remains its chair, and he is a legend of the movement, famously not fooled by anybody. He seems not to be naïve about Shermer — although he’s not so troubled by him, either.

“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.

“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing … I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Never mind for the moment the multi-layered horribleness of that passage; here I’m just talking about it as a reason to find the claims about Shermer more likely to be true than Shermer’s denials of them. There are reasons to think the claims are true, and fewer reasons to think they’re not.

Another reason is that the women making the claims have nothing to gain from making them, and in fact were very reluctant. Shermer of course has a lot to gain from making his denials. That doesn’t demonstrate that his denials are false, obviously, but it does mean it’s pretty silly for people to say “Shermer says he didn’t!” As Mandy Rice-Davies said, well he would say that, wouldn’t he.

I hope that clears that up. I’ve never said I know, and I’ve never asserted that the claims are true. That’s a bullshit accusation.


  1. Stacy says

    Reason #248 why organized “Skepticism” has so far failed: so many of them seem ignorant of distinctions like this.

    How can they create a movement that offers a better epistemology when most of them are playing at cargo cult critical thinking?

  2. chigau (違う) says

    “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
    -Alan Greenspan
    -Robert McCloskey
    fuck knows
    probably Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain

  3. qwints says

    I get that there is a distinction between saying a claim is probably true and certainly true, but I’m not sure I understand the difference. How would you behave or speak differently if you were certain of the claims rather than just convinced the claims were probably true? Or is this just a response to someone making the inane comment that we can’t be certain?

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    So Shermer claims not to remember his actions while drunk? I suppose its possible that it could be true, in which case, everyone around him should get away quickly once he starts drinking.

    But the accusation makes clear that Shermer was limiting and controlling his intake, AND concealing the fact from his victim as he ‘topped her up.’ This shows a malicious consciousness of the effect of alcohol, and a deliberate exploitation of his victim’s vulnerability.

  5. Scr... Archivist says

    There’s a difference between [X] and asserting that it’s true.

    But, but … that might be true logically, but it isn’t true emotionally. Anything short of decrying these claims as false is a form of disloyalty. And what could be more important than loyalty to the group, and especially to the Big Men?

  6. sailor1031 says

    Wonderful that Mandy Rice-Davies is still relevant after all these years. And I thought it was just the boots! Ah youth; where did it go?

  7. doubtthat says

    @4 qwints

    Among other things, I would say it’t the difference between lawsuits and court cases, attempting to impose punishment or deprive someone of their liberty, and choosing to boycott their products.

    I feel that way about Woody Allen: I’m not certain that he sexually abused his child, but in reading the court case, I’m certain he was a stunning narcissist who caused immense harm to his children in a number of ways. He still has his freedom, but I’m not going to be watching his movies or otherwise supporting his career.

  8. qwints says

    @doubtthat, but we’re not in a court (and even in court, more likely than not would be sufficient for a civil case.) For everyone but the people directly involved, our only choice is whether and how to talk about Shermer and how to treat him, his work and the people who choose to continue to work with him. I’m not sure how anyone should behave differently. Again, I think the context is just pointing out how fatuous the ‘you can’t be sure’ style of counter-argument is, but I wanted to know if there was something else I was missing about this post.

  9. =8)-DX says

    I thought atheists were really good, like to the point of getting in hour-long nit-picking arguments good, with statements like “I’m not absolutely certain of X, that doesn’t make me a believer in not-X.” or “I have a lack of a belief in X, I’m not asserting X is impossible” and last but not least “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, common everyday claims don’t”.

    Apply, young atheist, apply!

  10. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Another reason is that the women making the claims have nothing to gain from making them, and in fact were very reluctant

    Well, we have all those quotes from people saying the victims are in it for the big bucks!!

    They couldn’t say it if it weren’t true right? Right?????

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