Rational vs. Prejudicial Skepticism
My biographical narrative declares disciplined skepticism to be a close ally of reason. I expatiated only briefly in the following note, adding that the subject warranted its own module:
Rational skepticism is the systematic testing of theories. First, examples in support of the theory must be found. Then, examples contradicting the theory must be sought with diligence. If so much as one example is found, the theory isn’t necessarily dead, but does need more work. If the theory can’t be recast to include the contradiction, then it is dead.
The old saw has it that “the exception proves the rule.” I have yet to meet one person who quotes that cliché who doesn’t also have its meaning backwards. “Prove” once meant “test” or “put to the test.” Meanings modify: sometimes reverse. In modern English the phrase should be “the exception
disproves the rule.” Or: the exception proves the rule to be false, automatically demoting it to a mere generalization. (There are links to alternate arguments in my piece on Proof above.)
I met a woman last year who told me that she was “skeptical.” She wanted to hear “both sides,” then make up her mind. Most issues have far more than two sides. But this particular point at issue could well be seen in that binary light: one side was in harmony with fact and theory; the other, a populous anger at fact and theory. She sided with the latter. That, my dear, is not skepticism. That is stubbornness. Credulity. What Ursula K. LeGuin has termed “a will to incredulity.” Parading under the false mask of seeming reasonableness.
Since then I’ve added more on all those points. Once I’ve made better headway with Macroinformation [will link soon], I’ll return and dedicate myself to this important subject. In the meantime I’ll only say that rational skepticism must be distinguished from other skepticisms. Rational skepticism is an essential ingredient of the scientific method. Other skepticisms are essential ingredients of superstition, kleptocracy …
I offer only this brief hint toward illustration. Galileo learned of the possibility of telescopes, Galileo made a telescope, Galileo observed moons around Jupiter. Both his fellow “scientists” and the Church were skeptical: Church tradition (and therefore intellectual tradition) said only the Earth has satellites. The experts were so skeptical of Galileo’s evidence that they wouldn’t look at it. That is not rational skepticism, that is just plain homeostasis.
Mistrusting both opinion and testimony is legitimate skepticism. (Reason requires evidence and evidence-compatible theory together with a diligent search for flaws in both the evidence and the theory.) Refusing to consider the evidence or to hear the theory is NOT skepticism: it’s stubborn stupidity; it’s prejudice (possibly mixed with hostility); it’s being pig-headed.
Both types of skepticism are of course survival strategies. The latter are characterized by being typically unconscious; conscious reasons typically rationalizations, irrelevant. But that is a subject that should have its own indexed file.
Since writing the preceding I have had the most delicious time with Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising in which, prefatorily to reprising Leary’s Eight Circuit model of mentality, Wilson presents the human mind as containing a Thinker and a Prover: and “Whatever the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.”
Such minds, Wilson continues, can “prove” that the poorest Jew in 1930 Berlin is secretly a millionaire usurer. (As with other labels he uses for the eight circuits, the terms are mislabelings: “the Thinker” has no competence with thinking and “the Prover” is unacquainted with both scientific and mathematical “proof”.
Any faith system can “refute” any amount of evidence simply by being aggressively “skeptical” about it.
Galileo saw satellites around Jupiter. Not possible said the Church and fellow astronomers with their eyes closed.
Cheap versus Expensive Skepticism
In other words there’s cheap skepticism and there’s expensive skepticism. The smoker hears that tobacco is harmful, especially where burning paper raises the temperature of the smoke, especially when the companies juice the narcotic effect. I don’t believe it, says the smoker: without learning the evidence, without learning how to interpret it, without checking any facts. That’s cheap: in the short run at least: free for the moment, maybe fatal eventually.
Then there’s the expensive kind: where you do have to develop skill with some thinking tools, tune up your epistemology, do some checking. There’s no limit to how expensive good skepticism can become. (In some cases it can render one anti-social, unemployable … Hermits can choose their hermitage, or hermits’ isolation can be enforced.) (Trouble is in such cases, it doesn’t do anyone any good. If intelligence isn’t contagious, honesty may be: people avoid catching it. No one listens to a mental leper (till sometimes centuries after they’re dead).
@ K. 1999
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