An argument that I have heard a number of earnest skeptics make is that skepticism and values are like oil and water: they don’t mix, or that they shouldn’t even if they could.
I disagree. I’d argue that the fact/value distinction in the philosophy of science is rather unlike the skepticism/value distinction that some well-meaning skeptics marshall. Skepticism is itself a value, and human values strongly motivate the work of the skeptic, and cannot — indeed, must not — be separated from the skeptical enterprise.
I made the case when I gave the keynote address at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism last year that “Skepticism is a Humanism.” I argued in that speech that skepticism is about important moral values that matter to us. A number of other skeptic leaders make the same kind of case, including Tim Farley’s WhatsTheHarm.net and Robert Lancaster’s StopSylviaBrown.com, Randi in his books, and Carl Sagan. As skeptics, we want to expose the harm of unfounded belief to public scrutiny, and we want to stop celebrity psychics like Sylvia Brown, James Van Praagh and their ilk, precisely because our ethics motivate us to challenge harmful belief, not just because we happen to think they are merely factually incorrect about the claims they make.
Skepticism is more than you think
Skepticism is not just about rejecting other people’s false or unwarranted beliefs, even though for most people, that’s about all that it amounts to: “I’m skeptical of your claim; I’m a skeptic and I’m right — you’re not a skeptic and you’re wrong,” whether you’re talking about ghosts or UFOs or Bigfoot or CAM or any of the myriad other claims that attract skeptics’ attention.
The definition of skepticism as merely the rejection of others' false beliefs doesn’t go far enough for me. I think skepticism is best when it is self-applied, and when it is not just used as a weapon to bonk others in the head. The method of skepticism — a method of finding out the truth by using reason and and looking at evidence — should be widely applied, and not just be restricted to a limited set of spooky claims. When seen in this way, skepticism is continuous with critical thinking, and is an important way of practicing a kind of intellectual self-defense. As an example, think of going car shopping. Smart and savvy people will get a mechanic to take a look at a used car before buying it, or at least lift the hood and kick the tires themselves to make sure it is a good deal. So if it is smart to use critical thinking and skepticism when buying something like a car, why not also use it to take a very close, skeptical look before buying someone else’s opinion, in order to make sure that it is also worthwhile, and that it holds up under scrutiny? In this sense, skepticism is the kind of practice that works for everybody, and not just the science-minded Capital S “Skeptic.” The real point here is that it should be widely applied in one's life, and not just exclusively in one area like the paranormal. It is true that at the JREF we focus on the paranormal and pseudoscience — that's our unique and important mission — but I think everyone benefits when they apply skepticism and critical thinking to all the claims they hear on a daily basis, whether they come from the paranormalists, the media, politicians, religionists or the corporations.
But I submit that the most important way of thinking about skepticism is to explore the values question that some folks want to remove from discussions of the skeptical enterprise. What brings self-identified skeptics together in this fledgling but growing worldwide movement is not just a shared commitment to a method of inquiry that is based on evidence. Skeptics come together to organize because there are real problems in the world resulting from undue credulity — and these are the problems that we are trying to fix. Through our skepticism (call this “movement skepticism”), we are trying to make the world a better place. We are responding to an ethical imperative that most all of us feel — its something we express when we rage against a huckster or a charlatan. This ethical imperative to do something about all these harmful nonsense beliefs is certainly not divorced from our skepticism. Instead, these ethical motivations actually seem to fuel most of our activity in skepticism.
Skepticism Is All About Human Values
Skepticism is about what is right and what is wrong in the moral sense, not just in the epistemological sense. Some examples:
When we get riled up as skeptics because a huckster is peddling quack medicine, it is because quack medicine harms people and we know that that is wrong. If the majority of people believe in the ability of a TV preacher to supernaturally heal their illnesses, there are potentially real-world disastrous consequences: the believers don't go to medical doctors, and can get sicker or die as a result, not to mention that they get swindled from their money and are often the least able to afford such huckstering.
The same is true for unfounded belief in homeopathy, or the belief that vaccines should be avoided because they are dangerous — there is absolutely no scientific evidence for these beliefs, and if you assent to them, you could be harmed. We know it is morally wrong to peddle quackery and supernatural belief that results in believers getting sick or dying.
If military officials believe that the ADE 651, which is nothing more than a glorified dowsing rod, actually detects bombs, and the device is used in Iraq or other theaters of war, it isn't only the fact that some fraudster gets rich by selling a fake product to the tune of over $90 million that enrages us as skeptics, but the fact that real people can die as a result of putting faith in these fake bomb detectors. We know it is wrong to let people die because of a scam.
If people believe a psychic medium is talking to their deceased loved-ones, when instead the psychic is just using old magician methods of cold-reading to beguile their customers, or “hot-reading” by being pumped information about their clients through an earpiece or headset and then claiming it came from a supernatural or occult source, skeptics get riled not just because the fake psychic is bilking the gullible public out of their money dishonestly, but because the believers experience other real harm as a result: they get stuck in their grief, and often refuse to go through the healthy but hard process of dealing with the loss of a loved-one. As skeptics, we know that it is morally wrong to inspire belief in clients that they are talking to their deceased relatives.
Skeptics care about these issues precisely because of our values, and not at all because skepticism is divorced from human values.
Randi is the perfect example in this regard. Early on in his life, it was Randi’s moral intuitions (maybe it is better to think in terms of his righteous indignation) that motivated his skepticism. When, as a teenager, he busted a minister who was using a magic trick during a Spiritualist church service in Toronto, it was because Randi knew the scam was morally wrong. When, years later, he exposed the televangelist Peter Popoff cheating his congregation by using a magic trick (a wireless earpiece) to make it seem like the Holy Spirit was revealing hidden details of their lives, when it was in fact his wife feeding him the information from backstage, Randi was not motivated merely to correct something that was untrue, but was motivated to right a wrong. What such cheats do hurts people, and that harm motivates Randi to help. It motivates Randi because his skepticism is fueled by his values, and they certainly aren’t separate.
Randi’s skepticism is all about the morality of these issues. For him, skepticism is as much about right versus wrong as it is about true and false. And I think it is the same for the rest of us, mostly.
D.J. Grothe is President of the James Randi Educational Foundation.