Becoming Skeptical of Skepticism

I think that most skeptics have wrestled with the dilemma of authority at some point. We at the same time urge people to be skeptical of authority and readily extol the views of Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins or the scientific consensus. While this is not an immediate problem for skepticism, as we will get to below, it surely can rattle even the most skeptical of cages.


"Question Authority" graffiti
--Doesn't this include authority?

I will state the problem in the form of a question that I found while surfing the skeptic subreddit:

 

"I'm becoming skeptical of skepticism. I'm starting to overthink everything and it's slowly driving me insane.

I don't have the time to learn about evolution so I default to the opinions of Stephen Jay Gould. I don't have the time to learn about the cosmos so I default to Neil deGrasse Tyson. I don't have time to learn about Global Warming so I default to the opinions of NAS, NOAA, and NASA. I don't have time to learn about the truth of vaccines so I listen to biologists like Richard Dawkins.

But if I do this am I just appealing to authority? Am I giving others too much credit because I'm unable or unwilling to do research on my own? I love learning. I think the pursuit of knowledge is one of the greatest things a person can do with their life. But it is mentally exhausting trying to research and find the truth in today's multi-media age. Between my job, family, and friends, it's almost impossible to thoroughly research every piece of evidence and "expert" in support or denial of a controversial claim.

So, who should I trust? Who do you trust for answers? And why do you trust them?"


We can take this question as a rebuttal to the modern skeptical movement. If, like many of us, you do not have time to do your own research or find good information yourself, can you be a good skeptic by putting your trust in our skeptical "leaders" or scientific "experts"?

Authority and Skepticism

A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable.

— Carl Sagan: Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millenium (1998)

While this rebuttal against how many of us practice our skepticism is not to be taken lightly, I think that there is a difference between the logical fallacy of appeal to authority, and what we as a skeptical movement engage in.

 

As a refresher, the appeal to authority logical fallacy is when you argue that a conclusion is correct simply because a known authority said so. For example, you might argue that global warming is indeed happening because the majority of climate scientists agree with that conclusion. There is an important distinction to be made here. If you argue that global warming is happening because most relevant scientists think so, that is a logical fallacy. However, if you argue that global warming is happening and most relevant scientists agree with that conclusion based upon the evidence, this separation between scientific skepticism and appeal to authority becomes more clear.

 

As skeptics, I believe that we put our trust in experts and scientists because they represent the evidence. Experts are then vassals of knowledge, public manifestations of the evidence science uncovers. It is much easier to point to someone like Richard Dawkins, who can explain evolution so eloquently, than to go through all of the lines of evidence yourself. This is admittedly due to a lack of time, full understanding, or effort, etc., but it is certainly useful. We wouldn't be skeptical for explaining the fact of evolution through solely the support from Dawkins, but we could use his explanation as a way interpret the evidence for it.

 

Furthermore, although skeptics value expert opinion, it is important to note that if this was truly a fallacy the whole movement was committing, we would never see any expert admonished for their position. I do not believe this is how modern skepticism operates. If a beloved skeptic came out tomorrow in full favor of crop circles, creationism, and cryptozoology, we would certainly change our views of his or her "authority" pretty quickly.

It is not the authority of the figure that we trust as skeptics, it is their interpretation of science, the scientific method, and evidence that we trust, and even this is open to revision.

Once an expert falls out of line with the science, any additional credibility that was conferred by their PhD (or experience) is thrown out the window. Modern skepticism has seen this many times and it is important to remember there is no degree in critical thinking. In this view, the authority status of any source that we decide to use is then just icing on the cake if their interpretation of the science is solid. The reason why we idolize people like Neil deGrasse Tyson is not because he has a degree in astrophysics, it is because he can explain the science so wonderfully, science that we already know is sound.

 

In fields where we do not have any skeptical heroes, I would guess that we typically do not pick out a random researcher and say "she/he says it's true, so there." With no one to critically evaluate the evidence and voice that evaluation to the public, we do it ourselves. This is the hallmark of good skepticism; like good scientific research, we build on others' ideas when they are sturdy and build our own when others' ideas are on shaky ground.

Experts

Even if we put our trust into someone's interpretation of evidence, we still are assuming that their interpretations are correct. Beyond studying the science ourselves, in the many cases where we cannot there are good reasons to value expert interpretation.

 

Experts build a lifetime of knowledge, not in isolation but in concordance with other scientists. As was said before, trusting the opinion of someone who accurately represents the preponderance of evidence is not an appeal to authority, it is using an expert by proxy to state a position on the evidence. Surely not everyone has the time to research all of the topics themselves in science and skepticism. Personally, I have downloaded free lecture courses from iTunes just for that very reason. But if you know nothing of the topic in question beyond the fact that some relevant expert has an opinion on it, you probably shouldn't be arguing about that topic anyway.

 

Explaining the science or evidence is a much more important requisite for skeptical inquiry. In my experience, I have not once heard a skeptic say something like "Electrons act as both particles and (probability) waves because Niels Bohr said so." Rather, He or she would point to something like the double slit experiment, and explain the science behind it. Again, the conferral from experts only bolsters this evidence.

 

Unfortunately, it is just not enough to say that creationism is bogus because of P.Z. Meyers' frequent lambasting of Young Earthers, for example, you should have an idea why something is or is not true. It would be hard to learn all of the ins and outs of evolution if that was not your field or if you do not have the time, but knowing the basic facts and the weight of evidence behind evolution is enough to state your case. Not everyone can know everything, but there is a level of education that is required for proper skeptical scrutiny. Many helpful books, websites, blogs, etc., are ready and willing to aid any deficiency. A skeptic who is worth her salt should, despite time restrictions, be curious enough to know the fundamentals of science (or a particular topic). Support from scientists and experts is then only a bonus.

Not everyone has to be a scholar. If you know the fundamentals of science, you can figure out even when supposed experts are wrong.

Skepticism would then mean placing reasonable trust in experts when they align with what you think the evidence says, and removing that trust when they do not. Expert testimony is a powerful addition to the weight of evidence, but clear understanding without it is as, if not more, persuasive.

 

Kyle Hill is the newly appointed JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here .