The Limits of Skepticism

John Smith—12/2002
In our current climate of new ideas and alternatives to traditional thinking, there is a predictable intellectual backlash of scepticism. Whilst discernment is always an essential quality, hard-nosed skepticism can be a cover for the fearful denial of new ideas. In fact, scepticism is ultimately as subjective as the worldviews it rejects, and it is still an essential defence against those who wish to control us.

ASKEPTIC, according to the Oxford English dictionary, is "a person inclined to doubt all accepted opinions". Skepticism has long been central to several systems of knowledge including modern science and core Buddhism. These systems of knowledge must fit reality (whether external or internal) very well as they are roadmaps to a destination, and imaginary roads and footpaths are a waste of time at best and dangerous mirages at worst, no matter how many "authorities" assure us they are there! Skepticism is, therefore, a useful intellectual quality if you are journeying in reality — if you have a specific place that you wish to go, whether that place is outside or inside. Opinions should be questioned because only by undertaking that questioning process can we find, for ourselves, the limits of intellectual knowledge. This frees our minds not only from unnecessary clutter that obscures clarity, but also from the effort of chasing after areas of understanding that are unmappable by the intellect.

All skeptics believe some body of knowledge is accurate (or as accurate as it can be) — they have to in order to have a reference by which they can judge whether a particular opinion or belief measures up. Whereas religious people can be skeptical — the Creationists for example reject Darwinian evolution — this is not true skepticism as it is merely the rejection of a particular set of opinions because it happens to contradict another set of opinions. A true skeptic constantly questions his or her own basic premises, something that a religious adherent is not supposed to do for it is likely to lead to a crisis of faith. So any system of knowledge which doubts itself is a candidate for a skeptic's foundation beliefs. This short article will focus on scientific skepticism.

Scientific skepticism is, of course, an ideal. In reality, scientists, like the rest of us, blindly accept a whole host of beliefs, opinions and deductions on the assumption that others have verified them. A physics undergraduate needs to suspend much of her doubt whilst she is being indoctrinated into the reality of this particular science because there is just too much material for her to check all by herself. And even if she does check some aspects of it, how does she or indeed anyone know that reality follows theory every time and in every circumstance? We cannot know this, and so this is an important limit to skepticism: it can never categorically dismiss an anomalous event; it can only state rather nebulously that it is unlikely to have happened.

Another serious problem with skepticism is that the quality and quantity of doubt is subjective — the level of "proof" we require to accept a particular opinion or belief is itself an opinion or belief. Strictly speaking, this renders skepticism as subjective as many of the "kooky" beliefs it decries. Skepticism, therefore, is not the high precision scientific tool many skeptics present it as, but just a useful rule of thumb for making sure we don't take too much of our roadmaps for granted. We have to agree approximately the burden of proof is necessary for an anomalous event or process before we are willing to revise our worldview. This should be fairly consistent across the board, but in reality, scientists are likely to ask for almost impossible amounts of corroborating evidence for events or experiences that challenge their current world view, whilst setting the hurdle quite low for anything that already fits into their belief system. Although it is understandable and very human to have a strong bias towards your own particular worldview, logically it should be absent from the process of skepticism.

In medicine, for example, a drug only has to show an effect of just a few statistical percentage points above that of a placebo to convince a board of doctors to classify it as a proven and effective drug. Those same doctors, however, would no doubt require a much higher burden of proof for an alternative remedy such as homeopathy (or, God forbid, spiritual healing… which would probably require a personal testimony from the Good Lord Himself, corroborated of course by His Entourage of Heavenly Hosts). The reason for this is that scientists are not cold logical computers, but human beings with feelings and emotions which they naturally bring into the scientific process. Human beings, when confronted by something that could undermine their status, worldview and job, are likely to put up vehement resistance (often, unconsciously). That resistance masquerades as skepticism, when in fact it hides an unpleasant emotional response… fear.

A classic example of this is when James (The Un-Incredible) Randy challenged Uri Geller's psychic powers that included spoon-bending. Randy's basic premise was (and is) that psychic powers do not exist as they cannot be described by our current laws of physics. Geller must therefore, by definition (not by experiment or observation), be faking his demonstrations. The result was that Randy came up with the most idiotic, facile and preposterous explanations of how Geller could perpetrate this hoax. (In fact, many of his theories take as much believing as the existence of the psychic phenomena themselves!) This is NOT scepticism, because he is not prepared to doubt the basic premises of science itself in light of new experience. Geller satisfied scientists at Stanford University that his psychic powers were real by being able to statistically alter the results of random physical processes which could not be influenced otherwise. Randy, of course, could not accept this because he is too emotionally involved in retaining the scientific status quo and his career as a professional debunker. He does not have a healthy scepticism towards accepted scientific belief, but rather accepts it on faith in much the same way that a Creationist will not deviate from his belief that the universe started on Sunday, 23rd October, 4004 BC. Randy, like any fanatical preacher, has set the burden of proof for anything that would challenge his worldview impossibly high, and in this way cocoons himself from any potential paradigm shift that would sweep away everything that brings him a personal sense of security.

What is ironic, however, is that the very science that someone like Randi is so desperate to protect is a product, many times over, of such major paradigm shifts. Science has undergone several enormous changes in the past in which it has had to reevaluate everything, and no doubt this will happen again in the future. That change is not continuous but, as is the case with evolution, happens in sudden spurts followed by large periods of relative calm. These revolutions were instigated by great scientists and true skeptics who had the courage to open-mindedly examine anomalous data and then trust their gut instinct in reformulating the foundation of science. This change is generally painful for most other scientists because they have not gone through the same creative processes, and cannot mitigate the blow to their egos of realizing that they have been wrong by at least being the person who invented the new theory. Whilst true scepticism is important — there are a lot of kooky things going on out there that are easy to spot if you are vigilant — it can also presents a serious impediment to experience and scientific observation.

Doubt, as any psychologist or spiritual seeker knows, can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Even quantum physics tells us that the mind of the observer has an effect on what is observed. Sometimes, therefore, we are in a position whereby "seeing is not believing", but "believing is seeing". We have to believe in something before we can experience it. This is especially true for those areas which involve greater participation from our minds — such as health, spirituality, psychic phenomena, psychology and sociology. Scepticism, therefore, is not a complete tool (and may well be counter-productive) in these highly subjective areas and so should be used with caution. In healing, for example, the placebo effect is very different for different remedies, in different situations and for different people (sometimes the effect is enormous… much larger than orthodox medicine would like to admit) and so, rather than trying to eliminate it using standard double blind trials, researchers should concern themselves with methods to maximise it (after all, proven medications don't always work for everybody, every time, either).

Of course, if you are merely using scepticism to cover up your fear and insecurity concerning the unpredictability, undefinability and/or uncontrollability of reality, then these are precisely the areas at which you will take pot shots, for they challenge your security the most. They are also the easiest to intellectually dismiss from a materialist point of view because they contain a large subjective element. Take out that "mind" element, in the name of science of course, and you effectively dismember these phenomena. So if you are narrow-minded, conceited and fearful (because you have conveniently projected your shadow on these "dangerous" alternatives), then becoming a blanket "dismisser" of all forms of alternative health, psychic powers and spiritual belief is the easiest way for you to allay some of your immediate fears. Some might even believe that you are intelligent for doing so. (But it certainly isn't a long term solution!)

If you ever have a chance, try to have an interaction with a leading sceptic. You will be surprised to find that they generally have the same manner and fanaticism of a southern state preacher; they are far from the rational Spock-like scientist they believe themselves to be. I recently had an exchange with a Stephen Barrett at QuackWatch who I chided for dismissing a particular treatment program on the strength of just one recommendation that included organic food, and another regime that was not even followed (so the fact that the patient died was immaterial). Barrett's reply to this was that he had a file "a foot thick" on this clinic and that I should basically take his "learned" word on this one. (For him to come up with this astonishing weak critique on the basis of "a foot thick" file, is actually a strong ratification for this alternative treatment!) Astonishingly, all he could conclude was that "I have the information that I need to conclude that [so and so] is not trustworthy." As he is not a true sceptic, he can only express personal sentiments rather than a response based on proper reason.

In actuality, personal sentiment or feeling is an increasingly important mode of discernment in these mind-ful areas. So in an amusing way, Barrett is very honest in presenting his reasons as as pure sentiment when rationally pinned to the wall (an honesty I am sure he would deny!). Discernment is still essential in these subjective areas, but the discernment itself needs to become somewhat subjective to match, and so becomes less objectively meaningful. In other words, our discernment in matters such as health, psychic powers, psychology and spirituality applies primarily to ourselves. We are, therefore, the best judge as to the course of treatment we should take, which is why any good doctor leaves all difficult decisions up to the patient or uses a form of kinesiology to find what the patient himself really wants. It is difficult to judge or comment upon another person's decisions in these areas for we are not in their skin.

We should, therefore, be very sceptical at any attempt by individuals to objectively lay down rules, laws and perspectives on ourselves or a group in these subjective areas because to do so invalidates individual discernment — our own process of scepticism. People are often afraid to assert their own discernment because it might lead to expulsion from the group or dire physical, mental or spiritual consequences (manufactured no doubt to prevent desertion). It is important, therefore, to be as sceptical as we can about religions, cults, and psychological systems (such as Landmark, Scientology, scientific fundamentalism etc.) which attempt to eradicate members' sceptical inquiry by defining doubt itself as a pathological element. Doubt is natural and healthy, and provided that it is not used as an avoidance mechanism to open-mindedness, can be a useful and loyal ally.