Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Failures of Organized Skepticism

I recently read this article on the failures of organized skepticism (link from the JREF Forums), and figured it merited some discussion, as it brings up a pertinent point. Skeptics aren't always perfect paragons of logic and truth, and can often be wrong. Skeptics often disagree with one another on many issues, and if the diversity of religion has taught us anything, it's that everyone can't be right. I was reminded of this on Saturday, when a good skeptical friend of mine and I got embroiled in a debate over global climate change (I was saying it's largely anthropogenic and a serious issue - he begged to differ). Also, a skeptic is first and foremost a human being, and is thus susceptible to confirmation biases, self-justification, wishful thinking, cognitive dissonance, group thinking, and - yes - even the occasional reliance on faith.

The article, written by Jim Lippard for The Arizona Skeptic and posted on Free Inquiry's website, highlights some cases in which skeptics have not thoroughly researched a claim, or grossly misrepresented a creationism debate to confirm their own biases. There are other historical examples of skeptical fudging - creationists often point to Ernst Haeckel's falsified drawings of embryos, which were intended as evidence that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in his book God's Debris (available free online), offers a somewhat comical description of "The Skeptic's Disease" in an imagined conversation between a delivery worker and an old man who knows everything. I will reproduce the entire chapter here:

“I have some friends who are skeptics,” I said. “They’re in that Skeptics Society. I think they’d tear you apart.”
“Skeptics,” he said, “suffer from the skeptics’ disease— the problem of being right too often.”
“How’s that bad?” I asked.
“If you are proven to be right a hundred times in a row, no amount of evidence will convince you that you are mistaken in the hundred-and-first case. You will be seduced by your own apparent infallibility. Remember that all scientific experiments are performed by human beings and the results are subject to human interpretation. The human mind is a delusion generator, not a window to truth. Everyone, including skeptics, will generate delusions that match their views. That is how a normal and healthy brain works. Skeptics are not exempt from self-delusion.”
“Skeptics know that human perceptions are faulty,” I argued. “That’s why they have a scientific process and they insist on repeating experiments to see if results are consistent. Their scientific method virtually eliminates subjectivity.”
“The scientific approach also makes people think and act in groups,” he countered. “They form skeptical societies and create skeptical publications. They breathe each other’s fumes and they demonize those who do not share their scientific methods. Because skeptics’ views are at odds with the majority of the world, they become emotionally and intellectually isolated. That sort of environment is a recipe for cult thinking and behavior. Skeptics are not exempt from normal human brain functions. It is a human tendency to become what you attack. Skeptics attack irrational thinkers and in the process become irrational.”

The important distinction of skepticism is that it involves a constant refinement process that makes us aware of our weaknesses and limitations, and encourages others to point out the flaws in our arguments and demand proof. If we are good and honest skeptics, we should be eager to learn where we have gone wrong, and make admission for our mistakes. It is notable that the errors of skeptics are usually detected and publicized (as in the article linked above) by other skeptics using the tools of skepticism. The approach is not perfect, but it's the best method we've got in pursuing truth.


Jim Lippard said...


I'm glad to see my article provoking some commentary, by you and at the JREF Forums. I ended up writing a number of closely related articles criticizing some specific bad examples of skeptical inquiry, all of which can be found in the "Critiques" section of my Skeptical Links site.

The JREF thread was a fascinating display of some of the types of tendency that I've criticized in skeptics--dismissing Truzzi as a believer rather than looking at the content of his work (he was a fence-sitter to the extreme, which often made him a more persuasive skeptic to believers; he was an *exhaustively* thorough documenter of his data, unlike Randi who frequently makes off-the-cuff remarks which are sometimes in error), questioning what "organized skepticism" is, and so forth--yet nobody bothered to address the most egregious examples in the article, where groups of skeptics circled the wagons and attacked the critics to protect the group rather than admit error and correct themselves. Check out my "How Not to Argue with Creationists" and "How Not to Respond to Criticism" for more.

It's rather flippant to say (as someone did in the JREF thread) that CSI (formerly CSICOP) corrected itself and moved on regarding the "Mars effect"--it took many years of internal and external criticism to get the group to do the right thing, and have still from time-to-time displayed some of the same tendencies.

Jim Lippard said...

That last sentence should have said "and *they* have still ..."