Why Skeptics Are Wrong

March 2, 2011 at 12:31 am 22 comments

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.

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22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chew  |  March 2, 2011 at 2:45 am

    Too bad you didn’t cover the straw man and non sequitur logical fallacies. Your article is full of them. And yes, I do apply my skepticism to my own personal experience.

    Godwin’s law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

    • 2. andrewclunn  |  March 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm

      Please. Point them out for me. Also, I used a variation of Godwin’s Law (The Godwin’s Law rule) to show how a sound rule for argument will have exceptions and should not be taken as an absolute, unless it in fact is an absolute. It was an illustration of what I was talking about. I was not implying that this was one of Skepticism’s logical fallacies.

      • 3. Chew  |  March 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm

        This is a non sequitur: “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” Shortcuts leads to group-think? That does not logically follow.
        This is a straw man: “(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)” The Straw man fallacy uses an example brought to a ridiculous conclusion.

      • 4. andrewclunn  |  March 3, 2011 at 12:19 am

        The Skeptics not applying logical fallacies to defend Scientology was tongue in cheek, and yeah that’s definitely a bad argument. I shouldn’t have said ‘any’ and should have said ‘many.’ You’re dead on with that one.

        I do believe that shared heuristics within a group, that self-identifies as a group, will lead to “group-thought.” While It’s probably true that I couldn’t produce enough evidence to satisfy you that this is true, I could certainly produce numerous examples. This is therefore only a bad argument if you believe that personal observations are not valid evidence when making an argument, which is one of the two main contentions that I have with Skepticism (and has been stated in this article). So I believe we won’t be able to agree on that one.

  • 5. PANTS!  |  March 2, 2011 at 3:24 am

    I don’t think you understand the purpose of logical fallacies. They do not preclude the premises ever being right. There merely state, that conclusions based on logical fallacies are not supported by that line of logic. So logical fallacies only show a flawed argument. The point of using them is to say this line of thinking is a moot point and should not be considered further. It also is helpful to identify those who are self-deceiving.

    Also Godwin’s law is not any kind of logically fallacy. It is a rule of usenet, and comes closer to being more of a generalization or even a more of the internet. Calling it a logical fallacy shows a very deep misunderstanding of what they are about, and what they mean.

    You further compound your logical fallacies error by then stating that all (or most) skeptics think this way. This is simply not true. The clear difference between true believers and skeptics is that skeptics only ever claim to get closer and closer to reality – they never claim sheer certainty. Sure, they have concepts that have proven themselves time and again, and as such can be relied upon, but they do not have the luxury of certainty.

    By the same token, they are aware of concepts and world views that have failed to prove themselves time and again. Sure there may be research someday that shows psychics really can contact the dead or that objectivism in practice can do anything but drag down the human condition. But until then such unproven ideas with no shown possible mechanisms of action can and should be held to a higher standard.

    So in short, I don’t know who your blog post is about, but it sure ain’t skeptics. But you really did take those imaginary people to task.

    • 6. andrewclunn  |  March 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm

      I did not state that logical fallacies were about determining the accuracy of a premise. I (thought that I) was very clear that my issue with the logical fallacies is that they do not always apply. That there are situations where an argument will meat the standards for a logical fallacy, but will in fact not necessarily be a bad argument. This was the whole point of my section on the “belief because you want to / argument from final consequences” section.

      I addressed the issue with Godwin’s Law in my response to Chew’s comment above.

      I have no problem with the fact that Skeptics predispose people to rejecting things like psychics (which centuries of effort to prove the existence of have failed). I did not mention that, because I don’t see it as a problem, and this was written about the elements within Skepticism that worry me / I disagree with.

      • 7. thelatinst  |  March 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm

        I don’t know what you mean by “there are situations where an argument will meat the standards for a logical fallacy, but will in fact not necessarily be a bad argument.”

        Logical fallacies by definition invalidate the logic of an argument; they make a false connection between the premises of the argument and the conclusion drawn, making it illogical to draw that conclusion from those premises. Arguments based on logical fallacies are therefore always bad arguments in that they do not prove what they claim to prove. The premises may be true, and the conclusion may in fact be true, but the argument connecting them is invalid.

      • 8. andrewclunn  |  March 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm

        I gave an example of, “Scientology tells people to separate from their families. I love my family. Therefore Scientology is flawed.” And demonstrated how this was in fact an argument from final consequences, but that one could hold the unstated premises of, “Scientology is an ideology. The purpose of an ideology is to aid its practitioners in finding happiness.” If the maker of the argument holds these premises then the argument is in fact valid. These unstated premises may be assumed to be known by the maker of the argument, but rather than ask, “Why is Scientology flawed, just because following it would make you unhappy?” a Skeptic would respond, “Argument from final consequences.” And then they would assume that the implications and use of that statement were understood by the other party. (Now a Skeptic wouldn’t do this because they hate Scientology, but I’m assuming here a perfect Skeptic that doesn’t selectively apply logical fallacies).

        Furthermore, rather than getting at the unstated premises, to further allow people to understand where their disagreements actually lie, the approach of logical fallacies shuts down discussion, and does not actually lead to conflict resolution, any learning by either party, and are very easy to selectively apply.

      • 9. PANTS!  |  March 2, 2011 at 9:45 pm

        You arn’t listening. I never said logical fallacies destroy the conclusion. They merely preclude a line of though as valid support for an argument. Now if at the end you only have conclusions based on logical fallacies then in effect you are on shaky ground because you have not presented any evidence. If you still think your conclusions are valid without any evidence, this again is not an issue with logical fallacies, its an issue with you and your fellow cultists.

        Perhaps your objection to the use of logical fallacies is based on your lack of understanding.

      • 10. andrewclunn  |  March 2, 2011 at 9:51 pm

        The first personal dig. I am very much listening, and I’m under no illusions that because a single argument is flawed, that the conclusion is therefore proven untrue. Perhaps you could try clarifying why you think I am under that impression, ask a direct question, or make another point. Preferably without the accusations of cult driven ideological blinders this time.

  • 11. mikekoz68  |  March 2, 2011 at 11:57 am

    You have no idea who skeptics are and what skepticism is about.

    • 12. andrewclunn  |  March 2, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      If I am in fact mistaken and:

      – Skeptics openly reject personal observation as unscientific.

      – Skeptics do not openly reject subjective studies by the social sciences.

      – Skeptics use logical fallacies as shortcuts for determining whether an argument is valid.

      – The Skeptical logical fallacies have exceptions.

      … any of those is not the case, then feel free to correct me.

  • 13. Moewicus  |  March 3, 2011 at 4:04 am

    The point of this post is confused. Is it “Why some skeptics are wrong” or “Why skepticism itself is wrong”? It seems be the former, and your post is in fact a work of skepticism. However the title suggests you think that the latter is the case, or that you think that all skeptics are wrong. Yes, everybody has cognitive flaws. Yes, some studies in the social sciences are better than others (dismissing all of them outright, as you seem to do, is silly. I’ve seen skeptics point out the flaws you mention plenty of times. Other times they fail to do this.). Yes, we all try to justify our beliefs, sometimes or often at the expense of truth. No, pointing out a logical fallacy is not the end of an argument (this doesn’t mean there are exceptions to logic) and yes, some skeptics are mistaken in thinking it does.

    You don’t seem to have a clear view of exactly what you’re criticizing.

    • 14. andrewclunn  |  March 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      The remarks about Skeptics not being consistent about applying the logical fallacies is an aside (This is merely how they avoid seeing the flaws in certain logical fallacies). My criticism is of the Skeptical process itself. Namely in its inconsistency concerning the value of subjective personal experience, and the acceptance of general rules that are usually true as being always true (In the form of the logical fallacies).

      • 15. burpy  |  March 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm

        If you you can find a skeptic who does not apply skepticism to her own personal experiences, then that does not invalidate skepticism, it just means that she is is being inconsistent in her skepticism. That said, this article is a valiant first attempt at being skeptical.

  • 16. andrewclunn  |  March 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    For anyone interested, a thread regarding this post has cropped up on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe forums: It can be found here.

  • 17. Kyle From Silverton  |  March 12, 2011 at 10:12 am

    From what I have seen on forums and BB;

    Skepticism is almost it’s own religion like the way Jehova Witnesses try to push it down your throats and discourage one from believing their own personal experiences with the universe unless it meets their set of rules.

    I personally believe that Skeptics hated church when they were little so they decided to become bitter and rebelled against mommy and daddy’s religion.

    Now that they are adults/young adults and no longer live with Mommy and Daddy they take their revenge out to the adult world thinking they can get away with it like in High School where the majority agrees BUT little do they realize they set themselves up for powerful opposition.

  • 18. Kyle From Silverton  |  March 12, 2011 at 10:15 am

    As the law of attraction states:
    You attract who you are and they skeptics attract people that are equal but opposite and will continue with this attraction (with strong variety in frequency of course) untill they remove their inner problem about non skeptics.

    Now that these skeptics are no longer backed by their social group in High School they are no longer behind their sheep clothing.

    There really is a difference of attitude in skeptics of the 1950s vs today as I know a lot of older people who are wary of UFO talk but they aren’t bitter like on here who try to grill on you and make you feel guilty for your personal experience of a UFO.

  • 19. Kyle From Silverton  |  March 12, 2011 at 10:16 am

    The Skeptics might as well have their own Skeptic God.

    God of Logic that all must worship with the subcoinsounce mind and submit to the laws of science.

    • 20. Eternally Learning  |  March 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      So are you saying that your god is not logical? Well, you go ahead and follow your gut and I’ll follow the systematic examination of our universe which has enabled us to have this virtual conversation. Honestly though, with your posts, you’re sounding pretty bitter yourself. Don’t be so quick to “cast the first stone.”

  • 21. TomH  |  March 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    ” 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.”

    I lose money on every sale, but I make it up with volume.

    This post is right down my alley.

    If you look at how research is really done, even in the “hard” sciences, there’s an awful lot of appeal to authority, trust, and unwarranted assumptions.

    Surely, there has been a lot of study of the reliability of witnesses. However, there have also been some biiiiig assumptions about the reliability of epistemic methods in those studies. Generally, there’s an assumption of omniscience right off the bat. And why should we believe that there haven’t been major errors in those studies, since they likely rely on witnesses (i.e., research assistants or the main researcher) themselves? It’s not an easy topic to deal with.

  • 22. bracehare  |  August 16, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Your blog has evolved a lot. This is a great article.


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