Skepticism and Informed Consensus

A discussion in the comments section of the recent Skeptics’ Circle reminded me of something I learned only after years in the skeptical movement.

A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.

This may sound really unsatisfying and self-contradictory at first. Isn’t skepticism about critical thinking? About being open to any idea (or none) as long as it survives rational deliberation? Doesn’t this consensus thing mean that the whole movement is actually just kowtowing to white-coated authority? Well, yes and no.

To begin with, let’s remember that there are many people who are strongly skeptical of certain ideas, but who are not counted as part of the skeptical movement. Take Holocaust skeptics, global warming skeptics and evolution skeptics. In the skeptical community, we call them denialists. Why? Because their views go against scientific consensus.

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.

I’ve never studied the historical or archaeological record of the Holocaust. I know nothing about climatology. I have only high-school biology training. Yet I trust that thousands of hard-working scholars in these fields are not conspiring to trick me when they tell me that they have arrived at consensus. I’m a full-time research scholar myself, and I think you’re more likely to get reasonable information about Scandinavian prehistory from me than from, say, a professional homeopath dabbling in archaeoastronomy.

On many issues, of course, there is no scientific consensus. Here, skeptics have every reason to exercise critical thinking and arrive at an opinion of their own. Or to reserve judgement. Also, skeptics have an important mission to fill in publicly debunking claims and publications that are so far out that nobody working professionally in that scientific field pays them any attention.

So, to outskeptic a skeptic, you don’t take a panskeptical position and disbelieve everything you hear. The best skeptics are the most well-read, well-informed ones, who follow science and scholarship. By reading science blogs, for instance.

Update 27 December: Orac has responded with a long thoughtful post (his always are). He states that he doesn’t agree entirely with me, but I think that may just be because I haven’t gotten my point across very well to him. I agree with what he says. Skeptics only endorse the scientific consensus position when there is unambiguously such a position to endorse.

Update 1 January: A number of comments have opened my eyes to something I need to clarify on this issue, even though it may be deduced from what I’ve written above. When I speak about skeptics and professional scientists, I assume that they are two different groups. Professional scientists decide a consensus among themselves on any given scientific issue. Members of the skeptical movement relate to this from outside. A professional in one discipline will of course count among other skeptical amateurs when it comes to issues outside their area of expertise.

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85 thoughts on “Skepticism and Informed Consensus

  1. It’s hilarious to see people claiming that a “real” skeptic won’t be skeptical about issues on which there is a scientific consensus.

    Hilarious? I think it’s terrifying.

    Especially since one of them is a chairman of a ‘skeptical’ organization.

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  2. Bob K., I think you’re getting the opinions of individual scientists and their collective consensus mixed up.

    I’m not saying I shouldn’t be skeptical of individual people’s opinions. I’m saying that if there is informed consensus in a field, and I’m not a specialist in that field, then there is no reason for me to question the consensus view.

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  3. The original piece seems to have some odd consequences. It claims that the “true skeptic” will follow the scientific consensus on any issue on which such a consensus exists and of which he isn’t an expert and accept that any contradictory views he may have are likely to be wrong and should be suppressed.

    If that’s really the claim, it implies that the TS doesn’t actually need any knowledge whatsoever of the issue on which he is to follow the consensus. In fact, it seems that complete ignorance is preferable because with a little knowledge the skeptic might come to a contrary view and then be in the uncomfortable position of claiming to follow the consensus while not genuinely believing it.

    So it seems the TS favours ignorance over being partially informed. He then has the meta-difficulty of assessing the quality of the experts making up the consensus. After all, since he knows nothing of their field of expertise, he can’t judge their excellence. By the logic of the piece, he must seek a further consensus to vouch for the first consensus.

    The TS shivers at the prospect of an infinite regress but recovers in time to realise that the ability of the experts is guaranteed not by a higher level of consensus but by those very same experts, who are the only ones qualified to judge one another. Unfortunately TS has escaped infinite regress only to fall into circular reasoning.

    How does the author propose to resolve such conflicts?

    I suggest that on any relevant issue he either tries to think for himself or withholds his opinion. To follow the consensus while by one’s own admission being unable to understand it, is to risk being taken for a fool by opponents of the consensus and a stooge by its proponents; both being fair judgements on the “true skeptic” of the piece.

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  4. any contradictory views he may have are likely to be wrong and should be suppressed

    Likely to be wrong, yes, but I’m not suggesting that anybpdy’s free speech should be suppressed. I’m just saying that if you see me speak out against scientific consensus in molecular biology or national economics or the history of Asian music, then you’d better just ignore me. Because I don’t know shit about those subjects.

    the TS doesn’t actually need any knowledge whatsoever of the issue on which he is to follow the consensus … it seems the TS favours ignorance over being partially informed

    No, in order to even discover whether there is a consensus or not, a skeptic has to do a lot of reading.

    the meta-difficulty of assessing the quality of the experts making up the consensus. After all, since he knows nothing of their field of expertise, he can’t judge their excellence.

    Peer-reviewed research. And, of course, the assumption that there is no conspiracy among scientists to trick the public.

    To follow the consensus while by one’s own admission being unable to understand it, is to risk being taken for a fool by opponents of the consensus and a stooge by its proponents; both being fair judgements on the “true skeptic” of the piece.

    Who cares if Holocaust deniers and antivaxers think you’re a fool? It comes with being a skeptic.

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  5. I’m saying that if there is informed consensus in a field, and I’m not a specialist in that field, then there is no reason for me to question the consensus view.

    Sure there is. It’s called ‘critical thinking’, and it’s one of the foundational concepts of skepticism.

    The problem here is that you don’t seem to be a skeptic, Martin R, yet you’re claiming that title and the respect due skeptics.

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  6. Hi Martin

    Rather than respond in detail to your answer to my post, I’ll try and establish some common ground.

    I believe we agree that a “true skeptic” follows the evidence. Often – probably mostly – that evidence leads the skeptic to the consensus view. That’s the case even if the skeptic isn’t an expert in a field but nonetheless takes the time to understand the salient evidence and analysis. So skeptic follows evidence, looks up and finds himself with the consensus is hardly contentious.

    The difficulty comes when said skeptic follows evidence, looks up and finds himself against the consensus. What should he do?

    A genuine skeptic will follow one of two paths. One possibility is that he believes he has fully understood the salient arguments. He should then stick to his guns until either vindicated or else convinced by some new argument or evidence that the consensus is correct.

    I think we’ll agree that in this case if he were to do otherwise and publicly go along with consensus despite his private disagreement he’d be acting in bad faith.

    The second possibility is that he’s unable to understand some aspect of the argument or evidence. He may not be technically competent and may not have the time to become so.

    My view is that a genuine skeptic accepts in this case that he doesn’t know and reserves judgement.

    Your view (I think) is that he should defer to authority and accept the consensus.

    In practice, I wonder whether these approaches differ in their effects. In the first case, the skeptic remains silent. In the second case, he says he doesn’t follow the arguments but nonetheless agrees with the consensus. Such an opinion would rightly not be listened to because it adds nothing. Neither approach has any effect on the debate.

    However, there is an effect on the skeptic’s reputation. In the first case, we know we’re dealing with someone who is unwilling to give an opinion on a subject of which he has inadequate knowledge. In the second case, we have someone who’s quite prepared to give an opinion despite his inadequate knowledge.

    Which one do you find yourself inclined to trust?

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  7. skeptic follows evidence … finds himself against the consensus. … One possibility is that he
    believes he has fully understood the salient arguments. He should then stick to his guns

    Indeed he should. Though you and I, Simon, will pay this skeptical bus driver’s opinions no attention unless we happen to share his obsession with the particular issue at hand.

    second possibility … he’s unable to understand some aspect … may not be technically competent and may not have the time to become so. My view is that a genuine skeptic accepts in this case that he doesn’t know and reserves judgement.

    If everybody followed your suggestion, there would be no skeptical movement. Science is complicated, far beyond the 17th century level when country parsons could publish recipes for horse medications in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Most skeptics do not have detailed technical knowledge of the issues the movement likes to take on. But nor do their adversaries in altie meds, creationism etc.

    Which one do you find yourself inclined to trust?

    In the many areas where I have no expert knowledge, I am inclined to trust the consensus among scientific specialists. When a non-specialist skeptic makes pronouncements about scientific issues, I evaluate his claims on the strength of the specialist literature he quotes. I may only be able to understand the abstract of the paper, or it may be a popular account written by a specialist, but it will still lead me to at least provisional acceptance, not to agnosticism.

    Finally, one clarification. In my blog entry, when I said “A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” I wasn’t making a recommendation. I was making an empirical observation, or perhaps setting forth a definition. Unskilled people who question scientific consensus are not in my opinion real skeptics in the CSI / JREF / VoF sense.

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  8. I’m not sure you’ve really thought this through or at any rate you don’t seem to have followed the evidence.

    You say:

    “…you and I, Simon, will pay this skeptical bus driver’s opinions no attention unless we happen to share his obsession with the particular issue at hand.”

    You also say: “A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.”

    I’ll leave aside the condescension dripping from your words (it wasn’t there in your earlier posts and when it appears it’s usually a sign that the author is becoming aware of the weakness of his position) and instead mention the following few of the more obvious examples of people in the sciences who apparently aren’t in your view “real skeptics”:

    Einstein – ether doesn’t exist; scientific consensus – ether does exist.
    Wegener – continents drift; SC – no they don’t.
    Margulis – modern cells are the result of invasion/symbiosis; SC – no they aren’t.

    None of these was, in your dismissive description, a 17th century country parson, nor, in your still more insulting phrase “obsessed bus drivers” . Also, none of them was, according to your definition a “real skeptic” as none of them sided with the scientific consensus.

    You also say:

    “Most skeptics do not have detailed technical knowledge of the issues the movement likes to take on.”

    Now perhaps you’ll claim that the above examples don’t correspond to your version of a skeptic as each was expert in their field. But this is only true in hindsight. Einstein, most famously, had no professional standing whatsoever. Margulis was a junior faculty member. Wegener was a minor academic who dabbled in different areas. None of them spoke from authority (or, fortunately, deferred to it as you would have your “true skeptics” behave). All of them questioned the prevailing consensus in profound ways from positions of inexperience and considerable ignorance of much of their fields. You would apparently have had them hold their tongues and bend their knees to the prevailing consensus.

    If your view of skepticism was taken seriously there would be no progress. Fortunately it doesn’t correspond to reality, as the above examples illustrate (and I’m sure you can think of many others if you give yourself time).

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  9. When I speak about skeptics and professional scientists, I assume that they are two different groups.

    All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles…

    Professional or not makes no difference whatsoever: scientists MUST be skeptics. Critical thinking is part of the definition of science.

    This “Scientists said it. I accept it. That settles it.” attitude has no place in skepticism or science.

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  10. Well, I’m trying to keep up with this slithering definition of “skeptic”.

    If I understand correctly you are now claiming that a “professional” in some field can’t be a skeptic in his own field (Does he have to be paid for current work in the field or just for work he’s done in the past or maybe for work he’ll do in the future? Or does he just have to have a qualification in the field even if he’s never worked in it? And what level of qualification would you decree?).

    Thus (I assume) you hope to deal with the otherwise difficult cases I mentioned above (Einstein, Wegener and Margulis – all skeptical of then current orthodoxy and none well-established in their fields).

    So now your claim is that a “true skeptic” has to be an outsider (unqualified? untenured? unemployed?) from the field of which he is skeptical and he must also agree with the consensus in that field.

    And for consistency, it must also be your contention that anyone who comes from outside, lacking qualifications, tenure or employment in a field who questions the prevailing consensus is – what? A heretic, a fool, an imposter, an “obsessive bus driver”? In any case, such a person is, according to your current definition, not a “true skeptic”. I assume you think such people can safely be ignored as they have nothing of value to contribute to a field.

    It would take only one counter example to refute your view and show the value of a skeptic from outside a field who disgrees with the field’s consensus and yet makes a significant contribution. After a minute’s thought, here are three:

    Physicist Luis Alvarez argued that an asteroid was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs while the consensus among geologists was that volcanism was the cause.

    Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle argued for life arriving on Earth from elsewhere while the consensus among biologists is that its origin was local.

    Physicist Tom Gold argued for the abiogenic origin of petroleum while the consensus among geologists is that its origin is decayed vegetation.

    It doesn’t matter whether Alvarez, Hoyle and Gold turn out to be right or not. The point is that they were skeptical outsiders who followed the evidence, found that it could plausibly lead in a different direction to the consensus and stimulated further work in the field.

    I suspect you may now be tempted to revise further your definition of “skeptic” or to attempt to decry the work of the people I mentioned. For the sake of your credibility you’d be wise not to yield.

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  11. Yes, I assume that all working scientists apply skeptical reasoning within their field by default and that their consensus will thus be the best available knowledge. They don’t need to organise in off-campus skeptical societies.

    As for whose opinions should be taken into account when scientific consensus is established, I believe peer-reviewed publishing to be a good metric.

    I don’t believe I’ve used the words “true skeptic”. What I’m discussing is the skeptical movement, which is largely made up of people who are not working scientists. Those members who are scientists are of course often consulted on issues where they have expertise, but their skeptical activities usually aren’t confined to that area.

    anyone who comes from outside, lacking qualifications, tenure or employment in a field who questions the prevailing consensus is – what?

    Is someone who should try to get his work published in a respected peer-reviewed journal before I’ll take much notice of it. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what real scientists are doing.

    Of the three men you mention, Alvarez is the only one who has to my knowledge changed a consensus. Being neither geologist nor palaeontologist, I’m happy to change my mind when the pros do, regardless of who originally came up with the idea.

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  12. I assume… that their consensus will thus be the best available knowledge

    As we have been so patiently trying to explain to you, that assumption is invalid.

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  13. I said:

    “I suspect you may now be tempted to revise further your definition of “skeptic” or to attempt to decry the work of the people I mentioned. For the sake of your credibility you’d be wise not to yield.”

    You said:

    “I don’t believe I’ve used the words “true skeptic”. What I’m discussing is the skeptical movement, which is largely made up of people who are not working scientists.”

    and

    “Of the three men you mention, Alvarez is the only one who has to my knowledge changed a consensus. Being neither geologist nor palaeontologist, I’m happy to change my mind when the pros do, regardless of who originally came up with the idea.”

    I’m almost invariably surprised when my predictions are correct, particularly so quickly.

    As I pointed out, it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution. An important aspect of science is good criticism for it exposes weaknesses and obliges those who hold the criticized view to hone their arguments and evidence. It also takes time and the accumulation of evidence for any consensus to be overturned, often because of the reluctance of the members of the consensus to admit that they were wrong.

    Nonetheless you’ve now accepted that at least one outsider skeptic (one without experience or qualification in a field) – Alvarez – has overturned a consensus. Unless you want now to impose some further condition on a “real skeptic”, you should gracefully concede that your view is wrong.

    In fact I think your view is far more profoundly wrong and dangerous than this concession allows. An illustrative example of the disastrous results of following your prescription occurred in plant biology in the Soviet Union during the middle of the 20th century when the prevailing consensus – Lysenkoism – held that crop development should proceed by Marxist/Lamarckian principles. The result, as I’m sure you know, was widespread starvation.

    If you find it difficult to concede that there is no merit in following a consensus simply because it is the consensus – you may for example respond that Soviet scientists were following the “wrong consensus” or that dissent was suppressed more rigorously than you intend, or attempt some other wriggling – it would be best to remain silent.

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  14. it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution

    Be that as it may, the above blog entry is about the attitude of skeptics to scientific consensus. In the scientific journal I co-edit, we often publish contributions by part-time or amateur scholars. Their work rarely takes the form of a challenge to an established consensus, being instead contributions to on-going debates that will one day hopefully lead to such consensus.

    Do you believe that scientific consensus can only be established within the borders of a state or a language area? Lysenkoism was a minority view in the global perspective of biology. Science is universal. There’s a new Chinese dinosaur in every issue of Nature.

    I must say that your repeated references to Alvarez’s important contribution remind me of the common evocation of Galileo among cranks. An amateur who challenges scientific consensus is usually not a Galileo, but a Lysenko or a Luskin. The skeptical movement should in my opinion not aspire to be either Galileo or Lysenko.

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  15. You really do find it difficult to accept when you are wrong, I wonder whether science is the right career for you. It seems you would be happiest finding a consensus to which you could belong.

    The examples I gave refuted your argument. You now concede that “it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution”.

    Hoyle and Gold have done that: in particular, several of Hoyle’s predictions on the presence of complex molecules on comets have been verified. Gold’s predictions that living creatures would be found deep below the Earth’s surface have also been verified. These are important discoveries; neither was part of the consensus, both came from outsider-skeptics. You have therefore conceded that these two examples again demonstrate the importance of the outsider-skeptic in disputing a consensus.

    You say:

    “In the scientific journal I co-edit, we often publish contributions by part-time or amateur scholars. Their work rarely takes the form of a challenge to an established consensus, being instead contributions to on-going debates that will one day hopefully lead to such consensus.”

    Well that’s just fine, but entirely beside the point. The issue is how to deal with outsider-skeptics who in some way challenge the consensus.

    You say:

    “I must say that your repeated references to Alvarez’s important contribution remind me of the common evocation of Galileo among cranks.”

    Ah, the old “tar with the crank label” ploy. I’ve mentioned Alvarez precisely twice – once to refute your original claim and the second time in response to a remark of yours about – Alvarez. As you first mention Galileo and then say that he’s commonly evoked by cranks, your argumentative tactics are shameful as well as almost comically weak.

    You ask (in reference to Lysenkoism):

    “Do you believe that scientific consensus can only be established within the borders of a state or a language area? ”

    In my earlier post I’d suggested:

    “you may for example respond that Soviet scientists were following the “wrong consensus” ”

    Perhaps the point was too subtle as you seem to have stumbled into the elephant trap; I’ll try to make it plain. Consensus whether local or global can be enforced gently or forcefully. It is in the vested interests of those who hold the consensus to do so. If you believe otherwise then your naivety is touching. Attitudes such as yours where you jeer at or deny a platform to dissenters while insisting that you favour free speech are welcomed by the encumbent consensus.

    In the Soviet Union it was very difficult to hear scientific opinions from outside their consensus. Had they been able to do so, their opinions might have changed (although I doubt it: the important thing for an ideology is imposition of a “consensus”, not truth). Yet your attitude is precisely to deny this possibility to the holders of current consensuses. You say you do this when the consensuses are “universal”, missing the glaringly obvious point that universally held opinions have time and again turned out to be wrong.

    You say:

    “An amateur who challenges scientific consensus is usually not a Galileo, but a Lysenko or a Luskin.”

    Again, so what? You throw out the baby with the bath water. The scientific method, critical thinking in general, when properly applied distinguishes gold and dross. Of course there are very few “Galileos” (that’s why he keeps getting evoked in discussions like this) and one must be careful not to crush them when they appear, unless of course one is part of the established consensus.

    You say:

    “The skeptical movement should in my opinion not aspire to be either Galileo or Lysenko.”

    Perhaps here, and in your other references to the “skeptical movement”, is the heart of your difficulty. You want skepticism to be part of a movement which has its own consensus on how to be skeptical. Surely you see the startling irony (it’s jumping up and down and shouting look at me)? Or perhaps you haven’t yet understood what skepticism means.

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  16. Simon, are you aware that your latest comment is nearly twice as long as the original blog entry you’ve appended it to? You clearly have material enough for a blog in its own right! Please just try to be a little nicer. You’re being almost as rude as Caledonian, which is quite a feat!

    You now concede that “it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution”.

    Actually, I said that amateur scholars can make valuable contributions to a discussion. If such a contribution challenges a consensus, the professional community will decide, in time, whether there is reason to modify the consensus. Usually, however, such contributions will not even make it past peer review.

    Consensus whether local or global can be enforced gently or forcefully.

    An enforced consensus is of course anti-scientific.

    missing the glaringly obvious point that universally held opinions have time and again turned out to be wrong.

    Sure, but the ones best equipped to spot any weaknesses in a scientific consensus (they are, after all, always provisional) are professional scientists, not amateurs.

    there are very few “Galileos” […] and one must be careful not to crush them when they appear, unless of course one is part of the established consensus.

    Galileo was pressured into recanting his work by the Church of Rome, not by scientific colleagues, a tenure board or peer review. The world has changed. The Galileos of our time aren’t being crushed, they direct labs at Harvard and Oxford.

    I think you have a highly romantic idea about the quality of amateur scholars. In my field, most of them are good ground workers, a few are absolutely bonkers, and none is likely to produce any startlingly good work if they were given a chair of archaeology.

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  17. You’re being almost as rude as Caledonian, which is quite a feat!

    Given the excruciating stupidity he’s trying to correct, I’d say he’s been remarkably patient.

    This is not necessarily a virtue on his part, of course.

    An enforced consensus is of course anti-scientific.

    So is an unquestioned consensus! If we change the definition of ‘skeptic’ so that they cannot apply critical thinking processes to scientists’ claims, we revoke the capacity to actually perform science. Scientists are not priests and they are not prophets – their proclamations are not unassailable dogmas which cannot be questioned.

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  18. Although I’m skeptical about the prospects for contributing positively to this discussion, I think it worthwhile to note that the “default” position for a skeptic is to withhold assent to both positive and negative assertions. As soon as one accepts some proposition, one has ceased to be a skeptic, at least so far as that proposition is concerned. Skeptics, in fact, are well known for arguing that even the most rigorous sorts of evidence-based reasoning lack a rational basis. So claims that “real” skeptics will embrace a scientific consensus represents, at best, a misappropriation of the name.

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  19. Well Martin, I’ll try to keep this post brief. At the risk of being again as rude as Caledonian, you share a characteristic with many politicians: you make a brave fight of it but you’ve essentially conceded or failed to mount a defence against all the points I’ve argued for, yet without ever actually saying so.

    You remind me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Though parted from his arms and legs by King Arthur’s sword, he still has the gumption to threaten the king with a nasty bite. King Arthur however has other things to do; and so, with some regret, do I. Perhaps I’ll return another day.

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  20. Yeah, Simon, you’re definitely King Arthur… Who knows, that may not just be something you declare unilaterally — maybe there’s even an informed consensus among the skeptical readers that you’re right.

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  21. Perhaps here, and in your other references to the “skeptical movement”, is the heart of your difficulty. You want skepticism to be part of a movement which has its own consensus on how to be skeptical.

    Perhaps I did not understand correctly, but it sounded for a moment like you were denying the existence of a skeptical movement. The skeptical movement has existed for several decades. If you haven’t heard of CSI, JREF or VoF (which were mentioned several times by Martin), you should look them up.

    And no, it is not necessary that skeptics agree on absolutely everything. Some, like yourself for example, disagree that we should always follow scientific consensus. But this disagreement is based on a few hypothetical situations that I contend are impossible. There are no skeptics who are actually disagreeing with the scientific consensus (or did I miss a counterexample somewhere?).

    Simon Anthony’s hypothetical:

    The difficulty comes when said skeptic follows evidence, looks up and finds himself against the consensus. What should he do?

    You cannot be an amateur with respect to a field of science and simultaneously understand the full field of evidence out there. Practically speaking, it is impossible. Modern science is far more complicated than can be covered in popular accounts. If you find a science that can be fully understood by amateurs, than I’d say you found an exception to the rule, and then I’d agree that skeptics need not follow the consensus in that situation.

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  22. Simon and Caledonian, I’m tired of your uncouth behaviour. You are free to disagree with myself or commenters on this blog, but unless you clean up your acts and make an effort at being civil, you will be entered into the spam filter’s keyword list for automatic junking. I know that Caledonian, at least, is familiar with this procedure from other blogs.

    I am sending this message to your e-mail addresses as well.

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  23. About the “skeptical movement” — this is about skepticism with respect to particular issues; notably religion, spiritualism, new ageism, medical woo, alien abduction, etc., etc. It’s not about a general skeptical attitude. Hence Martin’s claims about “real” skeptics. A paradox arises, though, since there are a few people who take skepticism farther than the “movement” is able to follow, who won’t be counted as “real” skeptics. This is odd, to say the least.

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  24. Well, Bob, creationists and neo-Nazis are highly skeptical in certain areas of inquiry. I’m sure you and I wouldn’t feel very comfortable in their company.

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  25. But this disagreement is based on a few hypothetical situations that I contend are impossible.

    Impossible? Not only are they logically possible, they are known to be quite common in scientific practice. The scientific consensus is not infinitely responsive to new data, scientists can be inflexible in their views, and as been famously remarked, sometimes the only way to get progress in a science is to let the old generation die off and open-minded newcomers take their place.

    Minority views often overturn consensus, and this happens only because small groups of scientists assert their positions against the consensus. Often they are wrong, and sometimes they recognize this eventually. Sometimes they are right, and their views are eventually adopted – but not without a long and difficult struggle.

    You are implicitly assuming that 1) scientists are ideally rational beings, basing their positions completely on impersonal reasoning and the totality of evidence, and that 2) the evidence can never lead us down an incorrect line of hypotheses.

    We know the first assumption is wrong simply because scientists are human. If we need further confirmation we need only look at the actual practice and history of science for examples.

    We know the second is wrong on logical grounds as well as empirical ones. If skeptics were truly never to go against the consensus, when they collected data contrary to that consensus, they would have to conclude that the data was invalid and discard it.

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  26. Caledonian, I agree to a great extent, and I am glad that you now accept that the scientific method does not produce truth in isolation from the scientists involved.

    As I’ve said before, though, I believe you’re disregarding an important distinction between the larger movement of skeptical amateurs on one hand, and working scientists on the other. Because since it is in the nature of science that all ideas may be challenged, the one thing that separates skeptical amateurs from denialists is their respect for scientific consensus. (Not a veneration of any single individual in a lab coat.)

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  27. Martin – You’re correct that creationists and neo-Nazis are not the sort of company I enjoy, but so what? When did the term “skeptic” come to mean “someone who travels in the same social circles as I do”?

    If creationists are skeptical about evolution, and neo-Nazis are skeptical about the holocaust, well, then they’re skeptics (of a sort). So from their perspective, I suppose members in good standing of your “skeptical movement” aren’t “real” skeptics. This talk of “real skeptics” becomes just a matter of which club one belongs to, and the term has lost it’s connection to concerns about what sort of epistemic warrant attaches to knowledge claims.

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  28. Bob, I think you misunderstand me. I am, as I’ve said before, aware of the dictionary meaning of the word skeptic.

    I’m replying to your interesting comment in a separate blog post.

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  29. Caledonian, I agree to a great extent, and I am glad that you now accept that the scientific method does not produce truth in isolation from the scientists involved.

    ‘Now accept’? I think you’d better double-check the previous arguments, and who had made them.

    I believe you’re disregarding an important distinction between the larger movement of skeptical amateurs on one hand, and working scientists on the other.

    I KNOW that you’re disregarding the difference between ‘skeptic’ and ‘follower of the skeptic movement’. The skeptic movement or anyone belonging to it is not necessarily skeptical, just as ‘professional scientists’ do not necessarily follow the scientific method.

    Not only is going against the scientific not only possible but sometimes necessary for professional scientists in a field, the same holds for professional scientists outside of that field, non-professional scientists, and non-scientific skeptics. All of these possibilities are subsumed under the category of ‘skeptic’.

    Even if we accepted your redefinition of ‘skeptic’ to refer to followers of a movement, your claim would still be wrong; as it is, you’re doubly-wrong.

    Like

  30. Martin, it seems the conversation has grown since I last checked! I hope you will appreciate the shaky ground you trod upon when you set out to corner the definition of a term.

    Like

  31. I added this to another thread, but it could usefully go here too…

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

    Like

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