Why Skeptics Are Wrong
Serious, and watch out, this will not be an easy read.
I previously made a post similar to this, but I feel it deserves a revisit. For starters, there is a movement out there known as the Skepticism (Scepticism if you’re European). Rather than merely meaning “doubting” or some other colloquial use of the term, modern Skepticism has become a set of rules for discerning what constitutes valid evidence and good argument. As I see it there are two fundamental flaws with Skepticism, one related to its criteria for evidence, and another regarding how it judges the soundness of an argument.
The first flaw with Skepticism has to do with the weight given to non-causal studies and the lack of significance given to personal observation. The demarcation problem is by no means a solved issue, but Skepticism is far too open to correlation-only studies being used as proof. Skepticism also dismisses personal experience as being fundamentally flawed (And justifies this largely with neuroscience showing cognitive errors such as flawed memory, and biases and heuristics such as pareidolia). Now recognizing that in the absence of causation, that corollary evidence is an acceptable stand in (at least until causality can be established), Skepticism does not make a clear distinction between the two. If (for example) I know that car accidents are more common in Winter, that is a corollary statement. If I know that car accidents are more prevalent during rain storms, then that is also a corollary statement. Now, taken at face value these two things seem almost contradictory, as rain is less frequent in the winter and yet car accidents are more common both in the winter and during rain storms. By identifying what actually causes the increased accidents (less traction and reduced visibility) we can then reconcile this otherwise apparent contradiction, and have a much better understanding of the nature of car accidents.
Because of how corollary relationships work, studies on them (no matter how scientific in nature) can only prove that something does not cause something else; it cannot prove that it in fact is the cause. While it’s true that one could take this to an extreme, and say that all biological causes are really a collection of chemical causes, which are in turn physical causes, etc… is only peripherally important. If a general corollary model is the best we can do at the moment to explain a process, then so be it. However, if the process can be completely explained at a more basic level, then that is the level we should use to describe it, and if the process is shown to exist only for a subset of scenarios based on assumed variables at a lower level, then those assumptions should be made to be explicitly stated aspects of the process.
On the subject of Skepticism rejecting personal observation, you would think that studies that reflect subjective views would be, by extension, dismissed as well. And therefore surveys and and social science depending on voluntary reporting or unverifiable data (such as sociology or macro-economics) would be outright dismissed. However this is not the case. The rule appears to be that one should dismiss their own personal observations, even if unrelated to prevalent cognitive biases and faults, but accept the very same conclusions when made by others en mass. Other than the apparent hypocrisy of such a stance it should give you pause as to whether Skepticism will lead its practitioners towards group-thought built around consensus premises.
Now if you’re a Skeptic, then the final part of my last statement probably set of an alarm. More specifically the, “argument from final consequences logical fallacy!” alarm. I did this on purpose of course in order to segue into the second real error in Skepticism, the logical fallacies. Now what constitutes a good argument? Let’s put aside the notice of premises and facts (my issue with how Skepticism determines what is good evidence has already been covered), so we’re not concerned with showing whether A or B is true or not (A and B are just representations of statements here). We’re concerned with an argument. If I say A therefore B, and you can show me an instance where A is true, but B is not, then I have made a poor argument. If I then go back and see that A means B unless C (So that if A is true and C is not true then B is true), I can then come back and make a more specific argument. I know this is dull and boring, but argument is about taking statements of fact and following them to their conclusions. Here’s a clearer example:
“You don’t want to get wet. An umbrella will keep you dry. It’s raining outside. If you go outside when it’s raining, you will get wet. You need to go outside. So you should take an umbrella.” That’s an argument. If somebody comes back and says, “But you don’t have an umbrella,” then they have found an unstated premise in my argument, and found that my assumption (that you have an umbrella) was false. Now they could point out that I’m assuming that you have an umbrella, even when you do, but that is entirely unnecessary, unless of course I was unaware that I was making that assumption.
So there are really only three fundamental flaws in arguments:
1) A flawed premise (You say it’s raining, when it’s not).
2) An opposite relationship (You say that B is true whenever A is, when in fact B is only true when A is not true)
3) An assumed variable (You might think that y = a + b, but it’s really y = a + b + c, and you just haven’t dealt with situations where c was anything other than 0)
These could further be reduced to 1 flaw:
1) Saying something that isn’t true.
Now obviously these aren’t practical for easy use in conversation. Skepticism attempts to make the process of figuring out when an argument is flawed with a short list of common errors, known as logical fallacies. Now these are simply abstractions, general short hand rules for identifying the core errors listed above, but they’re not presented that way. Skeptics have developed their own heuristics based on these logical fallacies that are just not correct. Take the joke rule of Godwin’s Law. It states that in an online argument, whoever calls the other a Nazi or compares them to Hitler first, loses. This came about because comparing people to the Nazis is a trademark underhanded debate tactic, meant to illicit emotional responses without actually having to make a real claim. That said, even though it’s a incredibly useful rule it is by no means a basic rule of argument. If it were then neo-Nazis would always win every argument that had online. They would (rightly) be called Nazis and then the other party would lose because of Godwin’s Law. This is a silly illustration, but it points out a fundamental shortcoming in teaching abstracted, generally true rules as truths. As I said before, when we cannot drill any deeper, then fine, but if something is based on more simplified rules, which are fully understood, then people should be taught that.
Now let’s look at the notion of an argument from final consequences. “If there is no God, then there’s likely no afterlife. You want there to be an afterlife. Therefore there must be a God.” That’s about as classic a case as they come. The real flaw here of course is the view that one’s desire for result must dictate the premises used to get there. “I am hungry. Stealing will get me food. Therefore stealing is okay.” It’s working backwards, and adjusting one’s premises to fit a prejudiced result. But now let’s see how skeptics might use it improperly. “Scientology tells people to separate from their families. I love my family. Therefore Scientology is flawed.” Now this is an argument from final consequences (not that any Skeptic would point that out because they almost universally despise Scientology and love to selectively apply their logical fallacies, but that’s an issue of execution of Skepticism, not the process itself). It concludes that Scientology is flawed based on fulfilling the desires of the individual. This argument can be saved however, when one reveals the unstated premises that Scientology is an ideology, the purpose of an ideology is to aid its practitioners in finding happiness, and that removing me from my family will make me unhappy. Now, one could state that the God argument could be saved as well, if the unstated premises of that I’m going to believe whatever makes them happy, and I can’t be happy without believing in an afterlife. And it’s true that there wouldn’t be a flaw in the argument then, of course it would become entirely unconvincing to anyone else, so I doubt you’ll ever hear a theologian use it.
This notion of identifying unstated premises is not native to Skepticism and by not digging deeper into the reasoning behind why an argument is bad, it runs the risk of unessesaryilly dumbing-down the process. This isn’t to say that an individual Skeptic couldn’t discern the underlying basis for a logical fallacy, but Skepticism seems primarily concerned with reaching a wider audience. It is an excellent introduction to logical analysis for adults who missed out on hard math and logical analysis as children, but it’s a simplification, a collection of shortcuts. And while shortcuts are useful, when any group comes to share the same mental shortcuts (which are not always accurate) and are convinced that they are tools for discerning what is true and what isn’t, it does invariably lead to group-thought (see, I actually stated it that time). So Skeptics, be aware that what you’re being fed isn’t the final word (You’re induction is being polluted by inconsistencies in evidence evaluation and your deduction is being overly simplified). Do you apply your dismissal of personal experience to your own? I didn’t think so. Do you gladly use studies from social sciences that reinforce your world view, while looking for legitimate reasons to dismiss those that disagree with it? In my experience you do, but then again, that’s just a personal anecdote, so you can just ignore it.
Entry filed under: Good.