Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America

Summary:  In the New America we’re controlled by skillful propaganda. To regain our freedom we must develop greater skepticism. Here’s a good place to start, with an except from Marcello Truzzi’s famous article about the important role of skepticism in science.  His insights can help us better understand many of important public policy debates. For example those about climate, medicine, and nutrition.

“Thus an extraordinary claim requires “extraordinary” (meaning stronger than usual) proof.”

Photo from Buxiness Insider, 7 Dec 2009
Photo from Business Insider, 7 Dec 2009.

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Zetetic Ruminations on Skepticism and Anomalies in Science

by Marcello Truzzi in Zetetic Scholar, August 1987 — Excerpt.

Regretfully, the term “skeptic” today is being used by many who adopt that label for themselves in a misleading way. To many, it is falsely equated with the term “rationalist.” The dictionary meaning of the term indicates that a skeptic is one who raises doubts. Thus the word is meant to reflect nonbelief rather than disbelief. But when we look at those who trumpet that they are skeptics towards claims of anomalies, we find disbelievers and debunkers rather than those who express uncertainty or doubt. The public “skeptics” of today present us with answers rather than questions. As philosopher W.V. Quine (himself, ironically, one among such modern public “skeptics”) neatly made the distinction:

“It is important to distinguish between disbelief and nonbelief– between believing a sentence is false and merely not believing it true. Disbelief is a case of belief; to believe a sentence false is to believe the negation of the sentence true. We disbelieve that there are ghosts; we believe that there are none. Nonbelief is a state of suspended judgement; neither believing the sentence true nor believing it false.”

— “The Web of Belief” by W.V.O. Quine & J.S. Ullian, 1978.

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Of course, none of this is to suggest that disbelief is always in error or that there is not bunk that needs to be debunked. I only point out that disbelief should not be confused with skepticism and nonbelief. This confusion is far from a new problem, and James H. Hyslop — who would probably disagree with Quine about ghosts– noted the confusion when he wrote:

“The average man today thinks he is a sceptic because he does not believe in a given allegation. The fact is that scepticism is not unbelief in the sense of denial nor in the sense of being opposed to a given belief, but it is critical ignorance.

“Few men show this characteristic. They are too much ashamed of denying what they do not know something about. The public has gotten into the attitude of mind which it likes to call scepticism, but which is nothing more or less than dogmatism hiding under false colors. It thinks that belief is the only thing that can be biased and does not dream that denial can be biased, and in fact that the bias of denial is not only less justifiable but far worse than the bias of belief. It has not basis upon which to rest at all except belief.

“But people have come to think that denial or doubt is the mark of intelligence, when in fact true scepticism is much nearer being a mark of ignorance. True scepticism means that we do not know, not that such a thing is not true. To know that a thing is not true is knowledge, not doubt, and hence is subject to bias. It is all the worse when it parades itself as a trustworthy student of truth and in fact is only trying to deny it.

“The average mind assumes that belief disqualifies a man from studying a problem and that the only person who can investigate it is the man who does not believe anything about it. If the doubter has no opinions and is not biased by preconceptions of his own, and if he does not have an interest in an opposing theory, it is true that he may be better qualified than the believer to investigate, but the majority of those who parade as sceptics in the matter usually have some theory of their own to sustain against that which they claim not to believe, and hence are as much biased as the despised believer…. Open-mindedness is the only scepticism that can claim immunity from prejudice.

— “The Bias of Skepticism”, James H. Hyslop, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 3 1909, pp 29-35

… In his now classic discussion of the normative structure of science, Robert K. Merton included organized skepticism along with universalism, communism and disinterestedness among the institutional imperatives of science (The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations by Robert K. Merton, 1973). He referred to this as the “temporary suspension of judgement and the detached scrutiny of beliefs in terms of empirical and logical criteria,” and then pointed out that this practice “may come into conflict with other attitudes toward the same data which have been crystallized and often ritualized by other institutions” (Merton, p277).

I would suggest to you that this conflict also occurs between one part of the scientific community and another. As our scientific institutions have developed, this becomes an internal as well as an external problem. And as these institutions have become integrated into other institutions, vested interests and non-scientific concerns (such as the control of economic resources) develop. And I suggest that as science grows into so called “Big Science,” the norm of organized skepticism begins to conflict frequently with the norm of disinterestedness. This can lead to attempts by defenders of the majority of “orthodox” viewpoint to attempt to merely discredit rather than disprove competitive minority views (especially maverick claims), and this results in what Ray Wyman (1980) has pointed out is a form of “pathological science.”

As Thomas S. Kuhn (The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, 1977) has termed it, there is an “essential tension” within science since it must on the one hand preserve its accumulated knowledge by acting cautiously and conservatively while on the other hand remain an open system ready to take in new and potentially revolutionary data and concepts. This balance is maintained through a number of methodological prescriptions which make it difficult but not impossible for the claimant of an anomaly to obtain acceptance of the claim.

First, science places the burden of proof on the claimant. Second, the proof for a claim must in some sense be commensurate with the character of the claim. Thus, an extraordinary claim requires “extraordinary” (meaning stronger than usual) proof. This latter prescription seems related to the rule of parsimony in science that states that the simpler adequate explanation is the one to accept. {a variant of Occam’s Razor; see Wikipedia}

Now I would call your attention to the fact that these rather conservative rules for evidence of extraordinary claims mean that a claim that is inadequately supported results in a simple nonacceptance of the claim. Evidence is, then, a matter of degree, and not having enough results in a claimant’s not satisfying the burden of proof. It does not mean disconfirmation of the claim. The proof is insubstantial, and the claim is unaccepted rather than refuted. The claimant is, in effect, told either to give up or go back to find stronger evidence and arguments for a possible later day in the court of science.

As a practical matter, an unproved fact is a non-fact. Science assumes the negative about unproved claims; it gives such claims low priority and low probability and ignores them. Since science is essentially descriptive (creating explanations through abstracted generalizations made about ascertained facts), it is not prescriptive (A Short History of Science and Scientific Thought by F. Sherwood Taylor, 1963).

Science can speak of the highly improbable; it can not properly speak of the impossible. But as a practical matter, the highly improbable is treated as though it were impossible. Working on a perpetual motion machine is almost certainly a waste of time, but once we deem it absolutely a waste of time, we close the door on such research and violate the equilibrium of the “essential tension” and disobey Peirce’s injunction by blocking inquiry. The scientist who works on a perpetual motion machine may be playing the longest shot of all, and he may be conducting stupid science, but it is not necessarily false or pseudoscience.

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Marcello Truzzi

About the Author

Marcello Truzzi (1935 – 2003) was a professor of sociology at New College of Florida and later at Eastern Michigan University, founding co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a founder of the Society for Scientific Exploration,and director for the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research.

Truzzi was an investigator of various protosciences and pseudosciences and, as fellow CSICOP cofounder Paul Kurtz dubbed him, “the skeptic’s skeptic.” He is credited with originating the oft-used phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”   {From his Wikipedia entry}

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14 thoughts on “Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America

  1. Good article. I must point out that in later work, Truzzi bascially rejected the ‘extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof’ arguments and also simplistic interpretations of parsimony.

    The problem with ‘extraordinary claims’ is what one means by extraordinary; the theory of telepathy, for example, might be an inevitable outcome of an animistic worldview even if it isn’t for a mechanistic one. So ‘extraordinary’ remains normative.

    As for parsimony, as Bunge points out, theoretical advances actually requires an increase in complexity, not a decrease. I’ve come to believe that Occam’s razor is a useful tool only in restricted and often context-bound circumstances.

    In short, no intellectual tool leads infallibly to truth and needs to be used with flexibility and intelligence.

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  2. The key thing is ‘wisdom’. That, so ignored, capability that so few people seem to have these days, though more could, with the right training (for an excellent ref: read sci fi writer’s John Brunner Shockwave Rider).

    But Matt made a really good point, things like ‘ Occam’s razor” are really good ‘ rules of thumb’, and work in many situations .. but in themselves are not perfect.

    Now I am a skeptic, I think I was born a skeptic. I remember at 5 years of age arguing with other children about ‘God’, ‘”an’t see it, can’t touch it, cant communicate with it . and you believe in this”?

    But skepticism is NOT about ‘believing and accepting nothing’. Rather it is a useful filtering mechanism. When you are dealing with the natural world or the human one there are incredible ‘noise to signal ratios’. In another way: real information is often hidden within lots of bu**s**t.

    To filter out the ‘noise’, to work out the correct signal is difficult. Especially since humans are naturally (many refs to this) bad as statistics and probabilities. Therefore being good at things like formal logic and probability theory are very useful tools.

    But in normal life there is so much stuff happening it is impossible to ‘formally’ work things out, so I recommend some simple basic tools (and I am sure FM and many other commentators here can add more as well):

    1. ‘ Occam’s razor ‘, great first step, but it is not always right.

    2. Use Baysian rules. This is simple. For example: if something comes from a source that has been proven wrong before , then it is unlikely (though not impossible) that it is right now.
    To take a current example, those people who all claimed that Iraq had WMD … totally proven wrong .. now claim Iran has .. then,. as a good rule of thumb’ then they are probably wrong.

    The counterpart, again not perfect, is that information sources that have proved themselves to be correct in the past, it is more probable they will be correct now.

    As an semi-humourous example: The Ward Nerd has been proven to be more right abut western wars ‘of choice’ than all the politicians, Fox news, military commentators .. etc, etc. Therefore, read him first. More serous ones would be Martin Creveld .. etc.

    3. I got this from the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycling’, hold your decisions. He called it, the undecidable stuff, Mu.
    Basically it is a good mental trick to avoid the trap of ‘making a decision’, then being human, getting stuck with it, even though it was made in inadequate information and at a rush without thinking about it..

    ‘There is not enough information to make a sensible decision’ , therefore put it in the ‘Mu’ space. ‘I don’t, at this time agree/disagree/believe/not believe it, I need time for more information and to think about it’.

    4. Take time to think about things. Unless you are in an out of control car heading for a cliff .. then you have some time. I remember my scuba training and the first thing that was thumped into me was ‘breath and think’.

    Think things through, look or wait for more information. Talk to people, bounce ideas off them, listen to their ideas about it.

    There are many others, but these rough rules can often help making huge mistakes.

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  3. Skepticism and critical thinking and every last trace of subliminal dissent are systematically beaten out of children by America’s prison-school system. As witness in this disciplinary note accompanying a child sent home in disgrace from class for contradicting his teacher’s claim that a kilometer was larger than a mile.

    When America turned its schools into prisons, it purged the nation of the essential elements required for responsible dynamic citizenship. This was done in the name of political correctness (“Schools shouldn’t require classes that contradict kids’ religious beliefs,” and if your religious belief is that the earth is 6000 years old, well, that’s just too bad about teaching modern biology, then, isn’t it?), about which William S. Lind has spoken at length. Incidentally, Lind, a military expert, now does transportation planning. If Albert Einstein were alive and an American citizen today, he’d be doing janitorial work.

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  4. Thomas, dead true story.

    I was head of a statistical area in an organisation. We were doing a ground breaking project, like not even today had anyone done something like this.

    Anyway, the way I manage is through a ‘mission command’ style. Delegate, with clear goals, how the results are produced (within limits of course) is up to them. I expected my people to solve problems by themselves as they went. If they need anything to achieve that (tools, training, etc) I will fight tooth and nail for it.

    One of my staff came to me and said “OS (not my true name of course), you have to understand that all my life I have been taught to copy. School, university .. you succeeded by copying. You are the only one who has ever expected me to come up with my own ideas”.

    My reply, was “yes, now get on with it” (with a smile of course) and later I told him “and this is why you will never forget this project all of your life, there are whole parts of you in this and even if you never get the chance again, you can be proud of what you have done”.

    Needless to say he did a magnificent job.

    Amazing what people can achieve when “you take the fetters off of them”.

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