SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

“Never Say Anything That Isn’t Correct”

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 16 2010

In November of 2007, I heard that an alleged energy healer named Adam McLeod (“Adam Dreamhealer”) was scheduled to appear on a popular Canadian Broadcasting Corporation talk show, The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. I was familiar with the Adam Dreamhealer case, and also uncomfortably aware that media outlets usually treat miracle healers as harmless, untestable human interest stories. I was concerned about the ethical implications of promoting Adam’s claims to a national television audience. (Adam claims abilities for “energetically diagnosing illnesses,” and treating cancer “from 3000 miles away.” According to his web site, Adam is “uniquely able to influence the health and healing of large groups of individuals at his workshops by joining the auras of all in attendance.”)

I wrote to the producers of the show in advance to offer my assistance, and to remind them, “When The Hour interviews Adam, there will no doubt be thousands of viewers who are either suffering from cancer or watching a loved one suffer from cancer — all potential customers” of Adam’s lucrative books and healing workshops. (According to ABC News, then-19 year old Adam was already making over a million dollars a year in 2006.)

YouTube link

Watch the CBC interview on YouTube

This, I cautioned the producers, “places a heavy due diligence responsibility on the CBC” to cover these life-or-death medical claims “with exquisitely careful critical scrutiny.”

I never heard back from them. However, I learned later that a more insistent skeptical activist took the matter as far as the CBC Ombudsman. Upon review, the Ombudsman’s decision was that the show’s host bore a lower due diligence burden because

George Stroumboulopoulos is not a front-line, hard news interviewer; he approaches sometimes difficult subjects in a less confrontational manner than investigative journalists might.  But his task is different on what is, at base, an entertainment program.

This “entertainment” argument often shields paranormal claimants from critical scrutiny in newspaper “lifestyle” sections and “unsolved mystery” TV segments, but let’s set that aside for the moment. Today I want to dig into a different, though related matter:

Entertainment or Education?

The skeptical community has its factions and schisms. Some of these reflect the growing pains of an academic project trying to come to terms with its new life as a popular movement (what is sometimes called “skepticism 2.0″). Other disputes amount to border clashes between skepticism and parallel rationalist movements (humanism, atheism, Objectivism, and so on).

One of skepticism’s earliest splits occurred right at the birth of the pioneering Skeptical Inquirer magazine, back before it was even called by that name. The Zetetic, as it was then known, was a small journal whose first editor Marcello Truzzi left the magazine almost immediately. At issue was a question that still preoccupies skeptics today:

Is the primary job of the skeptical literature to provide a forum for debate? Or, is skepticism supposed to educate the public about science, pseudoscience, and hoaxes?

Now, this is something of a false dichotomy. Nearly all skeptics agree that the answer is “a little of both.” But skeptics do tend to split along these lines, leaning in one direction more than the other. Some prefer debate and “challenge everything” novelty, which is undoubtedly the most entertaining. Others emphasize a mandate for science literacy outreach and consumer awareness regarding fringe science claims.

I am firmly a member of this latter, more conservative group, as I laid out in the essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

In particular, we should renew our focus on the investigation and criticism of paranormal claims. Here’s why:

1. People get hurt.
2. No one else does anything about it.

In my view, consumer protection is the most foundational function of the skeptics movement: we investigate, report on, and promote awareness about products which are generally ineffective, sometimes dangerous, and occasionally deadly — and which no other watchdog group bothers to research.

Due Diligence for Skeptics

The skeptical literature sometimes presents arguments of the form, “Is consensus view X all it’s cracked up to be?” These heterodox articles (sometimes written by unqualified outsiders) offer novel food for thought, challenging widely held views on global warming, second-hand smoke, the validity of psychiatric diagnoses or animal testing, and other such material. Long-time skeptics may enjoy a little frisson when encountering these arguments for the first time: “Ooh, that’s new! I never thought to wonder about that before. Wouldn’t it be interesting if X really were a load of hooey?”

This is fun stuff, but I suggest that the skeptical literature should try to avoid this temptation. It’s not impossible for contrarian articles to be correct, but it’s all too easy for them to be wildly wrong (or badly uninformed). To the degree that contrarian arguments are out of step with the prevailing current of opinion among relevant domain experts, “wrong” is the way to bet.

In either event, such articles are typically misleading in that they give fringe positions undue weight — and lend them the credibility of the wider skeptical movement. (Paired “for and against” pieces imply that both positions are equally plausible, which is rarely true; but most contrarian articles are run without any immediate rebuttal.) This can seriously mislead readers about the actual state of the science — an inversion of the stated goals of all skeptical organizations. In my opinion, that violates a public trust I described recently in the Skeptical Inquirer:

At the core of the skeptical literature is a promise: “If you read this, you will find out what’s really true about weird claim X.” Skeptical magazines can aspire to keep this promise, to accurately deliver the best available science and scholarship, only when they’re able to identify mysteries, set experts to work solving them, and set other experts to work fact-checking the answers.

That is to say: skeptics bear a heavy due diligence burden. The more we present skepticism as “the scientific perspective,” the heavier that burden becomes. People turn to us for reliable information and science-based analysis. That is exactly what they should get.

Nor is it only skeptical magazines who bear this burden. All public skeptics — TV celebrities, podcasters, and bloggers included — have an unrelenting ethical responsibility to do their homework, stay close to their expertise, and get the facts right.

To deal with that burden, here’s the simple rule I propose: No skeptic should ever say anything that isn’t correct.

The Utility of a Preposterous Standard

Is this a reachable goal? No, of course it isn’t. It’s ridiculous. Perfect objectivity and accuracy are forever as far away as the end of the rainbow. But I would argue that there is value in the dogged, doomed pursuit of this aspiration. After all, every step we take toward that goal is a step in the right direction.

What sorts of steps? I’ll tackle that in a more substantial way in future posts, but I think we all know the general outline. I try to consider questions like these:

  • Do I have the expertise to express an opinion about this?
  • Have my facts been reviewed by anyone who knows what they’re talking about?
  • Would those I’m critiquing agree that I’ve described their position accurately?
  • Have I given undue weight to fringe positions?
  • Have I given enough weight to criticisms of my own position?
  • Have I accurately described the uncertainties and assumptions of my position?
  • Am I using arguments that science has already considered and debunked?
  • Have I sought out the primary sources?
  • Can I prove what I’m saying? (Really? Am I sure?)

…and so on. Not exactly rocket science, so to speak, but exactly the sort of good practice that rocket scientists (and all evidence-based researchers) rely upon to advance knowledge.

Dice

You wouldn't believe how many letters I got telling me I put the pips on the wrong sides of these dice I made for Junior Skeptic

Do I get things wrong in my own work? Bloody right I do, and it chews me up to know how easily that happens. (I virtually guarantee that there are mistakes in this post, even if only typos. Blogs are especially vulnerable to error: they are published almost as soon as they are written, and rarely vetted by proofers or editors.)

My own mistakes are why I recite that impossible rule to myself so often: “Never say anything that isn’t correct.” It’s a mental exercise (think of the “fear is the mind killer” bit in Dune), a way to at least partially restrain my own temptation to reach beyond the evidence — or speak beyond my expertise.

And I fail, of course. But how can we reach for anything less? Make no mistake: there is a human cost when skeptics get things wrong. It doesn’t matter if your soapbox is as large as CNN or as small as your Twitter feed: if anyone is listening to what you say, then you bear the burden of Spider-Man’s Law: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

Recommended Reading

103 Responses to ““Never Say Anything That Isn’t Correct””

  1. w_nightshade says:

    Thanks for this, Daniel. You are swiftly shaping up to be my favourite face in skepticism. Well, perhaps “favourite” is a bit loaded – what I mean is that your views (laid out thoughtfully, clearly and succinctly) most closely mirror my own. Your thoughts on skeptical matters are, to me, very sensible, balanced, and practical. Please, please, please keep up the excellent work.

  2. tmac57 says:

    Well said Daniel. It is all too easy for us, that participate in the skeptical community to sometimes ‘shoot from the hip’, and then end up with egg on our faces. I would add, that admitting a mistake is very important when we are called on it, and even to correct our own preemptively when we spot them, to maintain intellectual honesty.

  3. Somite says:

    Another excellent article by Mr. Loxton. Can we codify this as a requirement for every skeptiblog article? What am I saying? I would miss the occasional frisson.

  4. Ticktock says:

    I’ve been guilty of this in the past. It’s hard being an advocate for science without having some of the academic credentials of my peers. As the sub-genre inflates, we all need to collectively remember to edit ourselves.

    Perhaps I missed it in your article, but I feel like you didn’t give enough credit to two tactics that can account for an amateur’s increased likelihood for committing casual errors. The first, apologizing for and correcting mistakes. The second, quoting and referencing the qualified experts, instead of shooting from the hip.

    It’s unrealistic, as you mentioned, to ask amateur skeptics to be constantly correct.

    • Yes, absolutely agreed. I think admitting mistakes has always been part of skepticism’s better nature. Michael Shermer’s “Flipping Point” article comes to mind. Strange as it sounds, I doubt I’m the only skeptic to get a bit of a spine-shiver from Sagan’s list of errors in the Demon-Haunted World:

      For myself, I’ve tended in past books to recount some of the occasions when I’ve been right. Let me here mention a few of the cases where I’ve been wrong…

      You’re right as well to emphasize “quoting and referencing the qualified experts, instead of shooting from the hip.” I wrote about this recently in the post What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?

      …there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus.

      Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists. We can report the consensus, communicate findings in their proper context — and that’s it.

      • JGB says:

        As a scientist and science educator I want to discuss this idea that in certain cases skeptics are at best journalists. Depending on what you mean by that I either agree or I don’t ;)

        I see skeptics as *amateur scientists* – kind of like amateur astronomers. The biggest contribution of amateur astronomers is “fanning the fires of public interest.” Every weekend (weather permitting) thousands of amateur astronomers hold “star parties” and city dwellers drive for hours to get to them. Despite the fact that most major cities have public observatories, people flock to the amateurs with their crazy home-made contraptions and passionate descriptions of why their favorite object is worth a peek. The astronomy clubs which draw the biggest crowds are not the most educational – they’re the most *inspiring*. They provide a transformative experience which changes the visitor’s outlook – not just facts.

        I think the first BEST thing skeptics can do is carry the banner “We *can* find the answers.” Maybe, we cannot answer every question – and *I* sure don’t have the answer to every question – but there are many answers out there so we ought to look for them. Sometimes the answer is “No one knows – yet, come back later” – but that is still useful if you encounter someone claiming to have an answer. It is comforting to know that many answers are known – and if they’re not known then at least we know that!

        The second BEST thing we can do is to help instruct people *how* to find the answers (ie. with critical thinking and scrutiny of observations). Interestingly, a lay person seeking the best scientific result on a topic has to use similar tools as the scientists who did the work. They must start by getting as much data as possible (find statements by varying sources), then they evaluate the quality of the data (ditto sources), next – and this is very difficult – they have to interpret the data (really understand the statements). Only after this can anyone claim to know “what do the scientists think?”

        This isn’t like *reporting* on a scientific field it is more like writing a college research paper on it. It doesn’t need a ‘human interest angle but it has a thesis supported by explanation, commentary and evaluation (both of sources and statements). It sets a good example of what to do and how to do it.

  5. science-based humanist says:

    Daniel, I enjoy the emphasis in your writing on the ethical dimensions of skepticism. It’s this aspect of skepticism that motivates me to be active in the movement.

  6. Julie Marton says:

    Regarding accountability & responsibility of what a skeptic writes and where–I think there should be a sliding scale of discipline depending on the formality of the written piece. A magazine, journal, or popular blog requires more diligence than a Twitter feed. Writers and thinkers need a sandbox to play around in or others to bounce ideas off. Casual forums like Twitter, Usenet, comments posts can be valuable places to “get it wrong” and learn why.

    • That point is well taken. For my own part, I sometimes re-tweet news items I haven’t reviewed very closely, express personal opinions, and so on. Still, I wouldn’t completely excuse any public pronouncement from some fact-checking obligation. As well, there are factors to consider beyond apparent formality, such as audience size. (What would have greater capacity for mischief: errors in my articles in Skeptic magazine, or errors tweeted to Penn Jillette’s 1,629,756 followers?)

      • Julie Marton says:

        That’s when the reader/follower needs to use their critical thinking for themselves. I’m a big fan of James Randi and his post about global warming was dismaying, but in the end it really ignited a wonderful and vigorous debate that I think everyone who participated in or simply followed benefited from.

  7. Jim Lippard says:

    I second Ticktock’s two tactics. Apologizing for and correcting mistakes, in particular, is much rarer than it should be.

  8. Max says:

    You’re in it for public service, so everyone should have the same motive as you…

  9. Leo says:

    Aye, I think Ticktock’s two tactics coupled with Daniel’s present the best course of responsible action for skeptics to follow.

  10. SkepticTheist says:

    You say:

    It’s not impossible for contrarian articles to be correct, but it’s all too easy for them to be wildly wrong (or badly uninformed). To the degree that contrarian arguments are out of step with the prevailing current of opinion among relevant domain experts, “wrong” is the way to bet.

    Another vote on the side of worshiping at the consensus altar coming from a blogger on this site. I challenged this before, and I challenge it now. If you think we should turn our brains off and just “bet” on the side of consensus, you have stopped being a skeptic and critical thinker, and started being a lemming.

    • I think you misunderstand my position. I’m the first to agree that scientific consensus is fallible. How could it not be? It’s not magic, but merely the best information we have.

      The question is, when consensus views are wrong, how can we know this except through science?

      Or, more to the point, if you want to change the landscape of scientific knowledge, what must you do? I submit that “publish non-peer-reviewed opinion pieces in the popular skeptical press” is not the right answer.

      My answer to the contrarian skeptic who thinks global warming (or whatever) is bunk is the same as my answer to the contrarian who believes critical thinking shows that evolutionary biology is bunk: don’t tell me. Go and make your case in the formal scientific arena, and see if you can convince actual domain experts. If you succeed in changing the consensus, I will as a skeptic defend that as the best available (yet always, to some degree of confidence, tentative) description of reality.

      • SkepticTheist says:

        I’ll go ahead and challenge that too. I understand perfectly what you are saying. It is by no means the “best information we have.” It has already been challenged by the “contrarians” that you say flat out that you consider not to have the best arguments or the best information. You demand that it happen in the formal scientific arena or it is not rigorous. That is what I’m challenging. That is called “consensus” and “peer review” which is precisely where the process has BROKEN DOWN.

      • Stephanie B says:

        That’s quite an assertion, SkepticTheist. How so? Based on what evidence?

      • SkepticTheist says:

        Get a grip. Based on the evidence that there is a growing number of dissidents that use their brain, who are SKEPTICS OF THE LIKES OF YOU WHO DO NOT, who are eclecticists that aren’t ruled by your paradigm.

      • Ralph says:

        Theist, I don’t see any challenging, just whining.

      • SkepticTheist says:

        Ralph, I’ll say it again for people that didn’t seem to see all my posts previous to this. I reserve the intellectual right to be a skeptic of you and anything that you say and anything that you represent for any reason that my brain dictates. Any stinking reason whatsoever when I smell something coming from something that stinks of elitism or popularism, or any other number of isms that seek to strong arm the basic right of a skeptic to use critical thinking against anything he sees fit!

      • JGB says:

        OK. You reserve that right. With all due respect, “So what?” I reserve the right to sing and get the words wrong. that doesn’t have any implications for Broadway musicals, though because I sing in private or in front of very close (and drunk) friends.

        In the context of this thread (public statements made by skeptics, with the implication that the skeptics are non-experts in the field of interest), not challenging an existing consensus of experts has two benefits:
        1) As Daniel described: we don’t contribute to leading people astray.
        2) And as Daniel hinted: we don’t make asses of ourselves when we turn out to be wrong

        Complaining that it is elitist to not trust a layperson as much as a person with years of experience baffles me, frankly. Is it elitist for teams to start experienced players instead of fans wearing a Jersey?

      • Alan says:

        So, it is a conspiracy — AGW, that is. Afer all, if the system has “broken down” so fundamentally then all those experts in the field must be suppressing the truth. Either that or they are complete morons, but then again you’d think people would notice in that case.

        Amazing how arguments that would make most people laugh and skeptics cringe suddenly become entirely reasonable the moment they are used to defend something (the generic) you cares about.

      • SkepticTheist says:

        Who said anything about conspiracy, and I don’t remember bringing AGW into this? All I said anything about was atheism and elitism among skeptics who thing they are gods, some of which have phds. You are the one injecting AGW into this. On the other hand, Dr. Novella is the person that taught me to “question everything” on his podcast, yet even he bows the knee to the gods of consensus. Why don’t you take that up with him and show him his double standard?

        There are a great many skeptics who are DISSIDENTS to AGW, and a great many that are ADVOCATES of it. Those that are dissidents have RATIONAL REASONS for their dissent, and won’t be bullied by people that think that their fleshy gods called experts rule the earth.

      • Bob says:

        You can ‘challenge’ and ‘question’ to your little heart’s content, but it doesn’t make you right, nor does it advance the state of the art. Provide a new hypothesis, preferably backed by evidence, and set the wolves of questioning and criticism upon it. If your bright idea is still standing at the end of it, congrats! You have a winner, for the moment at least.

        Of course, that’s all a vigorous overdramatization of the peer review and consensus-reaching process that you apparently so despise. You know, the process that actually advances knowledge.

        Your arguments bring a lot of heat. Light – not so much.

      • DavrosFromSkaro says:

        @SkepticTheist

        I don’t think you have actually answered Daniel’s question:

        “when consensus views are wrong, how can we know this except through science?”

        He asserts that he believes peer review in a scientific area is the best way. Whereas you assert that this is where ‘the process’, whatever that is, has broken down.

        I’m interested to hear your alternative to Daniel’s suggestion.

      • Alan says:

        Man, do I wish that Skeptic AGW Denialists would do that. I think there is a place for questioning while still keeping in mind the scientific consensus (and remembering that an idea only becomes a consensus after a lot of peer review and struggle).

        Sadly, in my experience AGW Denialist arguments consist mostly of elaborate rationalizations of why the standards of evidence we as skeptics apply to ideas in general do not apply to them.

        The original criticism of just “worshipping at the altar of consensus” is a classic example. One, it uses a strawman by exaggerating the original point. Two, it implies that the consensus is nothing but unproven “group-think” rather than by definition an idea that has been vetted extensively. And, three, it is an attempt to shame people into agreement rather than using evidence and reason.

        In short, it is a clearly unskeptical sort of response, but one we see all the time even within the skeptical community.

        This tells me that too many people confuse skepticism with a belief system meant to confirm their preconceptions rather than a methodology for challenging preconceptions (among other things).

      • SkepticTheist says:

        If you think it is confirmation bias to disagree and have rational reasons for that disagreement, then it is you that have displayed a lack of understanding the fact that at the core of your so called methodology is what we call questioning so-called “facts” which are nothing other than preconceptions of a group of people who have made what they believe popular and called that “rigor.”

      • Alan says:

        Problem is that your argument is entirely based on a wide range of assumptions — like popular is being confused as rigor — that you have done nothing to try to prove. Instead, you just assume your view is correct and lash out at anyone who challenges it.

        You avoid using evidence and reason to turn things into a debate over supposed moral worth and showing supposed respect. And, when people in turn challenge you on this the anger and accusations just get louder and louder.

        You accuse others of bullying when that is the only tactic you are using to convince the rest of us of your claims. Ironic to say the least.

        In short, the classic response of a pseudo-science believer.

        If you wish to be taken as a serious user of science then I suggest you provide some and stop with the rants. Otherwise, you just prove the point I and others are making concerning your approach and views everytime you post.

      • Dave Hitt says:

        Go and make your case in the formal scientific arena, and see if you can convince actual domain experts.

        Yeah, good luck with that.

        Unless you’ve got a plethora of letters after your name, accompanied by extensive publication credits, you’re going to be completely ignored by those who do.

        Your position is little more than Argument by Authority. As skeptics, we should be questioning authority, including scientific authorities.

        In my case, I’ve concluded that most of the claims about second hand smoke are complete nonsense. I can discuss this all day long and bring a great deal of knowledge to the conversation, but “experts,” most of whom make a very good living conducting poorly done studies with dubious results or heading up charitable organizations, can simply point to my lack of credentials as “proof” I’m ignorant of the subject, and evade any points I, or any of the many other skeptics on the subject, are making. And it is exactly what they and their followers do.

        So what’s my alternative, to shut up? Or should I make my case, using facts and evidence, to anyone who will listen? Personally, I choose the later.

      • Unless you’ve got a plethora of letters after your name, accompanied by extensive publication credits, you’re going to be completely ignored by those who do. … So what’s my alternative, to shut up?

        Sure, there are barriers to entry to mainstream medical journals. Their standards are supposed to be high. But that is indeed the appropriate place to challenge medical science.

        Before we consider alternative routes, let me ask whether you’ve tried the standard route: Have you conducted some sort of medical research, written papers describing your findings, and then submitted your papers to the relevant journals?

        If you haven’t submitted any research, it’s definitely too early to complain that you’re being frozen out for your lack of credentials by “‘experts,’ most of whom make a very good living conducting poorly done studies with dubious results….” Research that is robust enough and presented correctly does make it past the barriers. (After all, the Journal of the American Medical Association published research conducted by an 11-year old girl.)

      • Dave Hitt says:

        Second hand smoke is not medical science, it is a political movement.

        I’ve examined studies, found and exposed fraud and error, learned basic statistics and epidemiology (and their limitations), and corresponded with experts on both sides of the issue. Yet, if I’m reading you right, you think I should just keep my mouth shut and acquiesce to the “experts,” because otherwise someone might get the wrong idea about skeptics? When James Repace claims hurricane force winds aren’t sufficient to clear smoke from a room, I should just accept his claim because he has a PHd in Physics and I don’t. Sorry, I’d rather apply a little basic knowledge, experience and common sense and declare he’s obviously wrong, even if you don’t approve.

        Using your reasoning I should never try to debunk an anti-vaxer or homeopath if they have a medical degree, because I don’t. I’d have to get the degree, conduct research, write papers and get published before speaking out against them.

        Skepticism is not simply accepting whatever the experts say, even if they’re qualified experts. At least, that’s not my definition. It appears to be yours, and that’s not only dangerous, but it sucks most of the fun out of skepticism. It is an excuse to turn off your brain and your bullshit meter.

        You’re free to do that of course, but I think I’ll pass.

      • Stephanie B says:

        You say you can bring “knowledge” into the discussion about how inhaling smoke is, apparently, not dangerous.

        K. Facts? Data? Research? Information that can withstand rigor and review?

        Or is the knowledge anecdotal?

        It makes a difference, and the caliber of the “knowledge” you claim to have makes a great deal of difference in how much credence scientist will give to it.

    • Somite says:

      You have the right to be skeptical of consensus and expertise. However, your point of view is not equal until you go through the same process of peer review that resulted in consensus.

      • SkepticTheist says:

        uh, yeah, whatever. Argument from authority and special pleading for the consensus priesthood. My point of view rules the day in my Universe because I’m the center of it on my own supermassive compact object. So go get your own big bang.

      • Alan says:

        “Argument from Authority” is only a fallacy if an idea is being pushed only because the person is question occupies a social position of “authority” and otherwise has no claim to truth. By comparison, an expert in a field speaking on that field is entirely acceptible.

        Basically, by your logic the moment an expert opens his or her mouth it is an “Argument from Authority” fallacy as an “authority” is making an “argument”. That is, of course, a gross misuse of the fallacy.

        More ironically, your arguments naturally neutralize your own ideas as they too would be coming from an “authority.” Not that you seem to notice that. Such double-standards are, in my experience, a classic sign of pseudo-science in action.

      • SkepticTheist says:

        Nice attempt at “turn around logic.” No, actually the second some person tells me that I cannot question something is the moment that person argues from authority. Because they pretend to have something that trumps my ability to question, the ultimate card that wins every argument. It is only valid among those that recognize it. I on the other hand don’t recognize it. So it is non-authoritative if there is good enough reason to question it.

        You want to talk double standards? Are you an atheist as most of you are. You question supernatural gods. You have a god called an expert, and he is your fleshy god that I defy. You bow the knee to your fleshy god and worship him without question. Therefore you are no skeptic. You are gullible to bow the knee to any intelligence but your own. And since you have a measure of gullibility, you therefore cannot think critically on your own.

      • tmac57 says:

        Alan, you are much more patient than I would be. You are being taunted by troll. I wouldn’t waste anymore bytes, but then thats just me. Good luck.

      • SkepticTheist says:

        Tmac57, you are now guilty of ad homeniem by using the term “Troll” as an insult and not addressing the substance.

        Alan, it is you that are guilty of this because you seek to establish the truth of a matter by appealing to the authority of a person or group of people. I on the other hand question all authority when necessary:

        “Argument from Authority is an informal logical fallacy, formally known as argumentum ad verecundium, where an participant argues that a belief is correct because the person making the argument is an authority. The most general structure of this argument runs something like the following:

        1. Person A claims that P
        2. Person A is a respected scientist or other authority
        3. Therefore, P is true.

        This is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of the claim is not necessarily related to the personal qualities of the claimant. (http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Argument_from_Authority)

      • Alan says:

        Since no one is saying that you “cannot question authority” your argument is baseless.

        What people are saying is that when you do question the conclusions of experts and the consensus in general you need to have strong, convincing evidence.

        Making accusations, hinting at conspiracies, belittling people for caving into “authority” and what not are all fallacies that do nothing to advance your cause. Nor does your clear misunderstanding of the proper uses of logical fallacies.

      • Stephanie B says:

        There is a difference between asking a question and making an accusation, particularly if that accusation continually boils down to you, “you’re lying.”

      • Richard says:

        Dear SkepticTheist:
        As someone striving to be a good skeptic, but unfortunately not an expert in any science, I have a few questions for you.
        First, since you say you are a skeptic, how does…”uh,yeah, whatever”…provide supporting evidence for your points? Second, how does being the center of your own “supermassive compact object” make your opinions equal to those of a man who spent his life studying a subject, and having his knowledge continually critiqued and reviewed before being accepted by his peers (which then formed that gullible concensus, I suppose)? Finally, how can I get one of those supermassive compact objects? Does it’s gravity attract pseudoscience; if so, I want one? Regards, R

      • Shahar Lubin says:

        Common misuse of logical fallacies.
        Argument from authority means that authority cannot be the only supporting evidence for an argument. Especially if the authority itself is false. For example a dentist making claims about brain cancer or an air plane pilot about ufos.

        Even then, the mistake is that like many logical fallacies, argument from authority is not, in itself, a proof that the conclusion of an argument is false, only that the argument or part of it is false. In other words, what seems to me you are trying do is use the presence of authority(and in this case non-false authority) as a “proof” that an argument is wrong. Then again the dentist or the pilot could be right. We just can’t used their opinion or view as a proof of that.

        That in essence is the difference between skepticism and contrarianism. Generally doubting the experts just because they’re the experts in not skepticism. Doubting the specific view of experts’s because you see evidence and data that contradict or challenge the consensus is skepticism.

        Telling the difference between skepticism and contrarianism was an important aspect of the article. Based on your earlier posts I do not believe you to be necessarily a contrarian. You cannot believe in the consequences of some parts of the scientific consensus, because they challenge your non rationally derived preconception, and lacking any actual scientific evidence to turn over that consensus you choose to try and attack the scientific method itself. That is an Ad Hominom attack on a grand scale, with the hominom not being human or even an entity but the full scientific community and the of past and present and the full philosophical underpinning of the science and its various methodologies.

      • tmac57 says:

        Another common misuse of logical fallacies, is to assume that every Ad Hominem attack is necessarily a fallacy. For example: if I implied that SkepticTheist is a troll, then that is an Ad Hominem attack (though a mild one),but not a fallacy since I was not using it to make an argument. Now, if I said that SkepticTheist is a conceited, simplistic, blowhard, and that is reason enough to discount SkepticTheist’s assertions, then that would be a fallacy.(not necessarly untrue however)

      • Max says:

        For the ad hominem attack to be a fallacy, it would have to be the premise, not the conclusion.

      • tmac57 says:

        Premise:”SkepticTheist is a conceited, simplistic, blowhard” = Ad Hominem attack
        Conclusion:”that is reason enough to discount SkepticTheist’s assertions” = fallacy (again, not necessarily untrue).

  11. John Greg says:

    Great article Daniel. You took the words out of my mouth, and out of several posts I’ve made at skeptic blogs in the past ;) . It is very satisfying to see an authority state what I’ve long held to be a fundamentally important part of being a public figure skeptic.

    That is to say: skeptics bear a heavy due diligence burden. The more we present skepticism as “the scientific perspective,” the heavier that burden becomes. People turn to us for reliable information and science-based analysis. That is exactly what they should get.

    Nor is it only skeptical magazines who bear this burden. All public skeptics — TV celebrities, podcasters, and bloggers included — have an unrelenting ethical responsibility to do their homework, stay close to their expertise, and get the facts right.

    Daniel, I feel that those statements represent an almost self-evident truth. Nonetheless, with much regret I stopped visiting two of my erstwhile favourite skeptic blogs precisely because host posters frequently failed to do due diligence, stubbornly refused to check their diction, their spelling, their grammar, and their facts, and whether or not their opinions were more than just ideological, personally held opinions with very little real-world fact to back them up. Overgeneralization and confirmation bias were often the theme of the day, and pointing out such was deeply frowned upon.

    To deal with that burden, here’s the simple rule I propose: No skeptic should ever say anything that isn’t correct.

    Ha, ha. I agree, I agree. At both of the erstwhile blogs, I was, when I said precisely that same thing to them, attacked with vigour by host posters throwing out ad hominems, deep insults about being too negatively pedantic, had my posts monitored with intent to censor or block, and much more. Utlimately, that is why I now no longer visit or participate in either of those very popular blogs. I hope they’ve matured a bit and will read this article and take your words to heart. Nonetheless, I think I’ll wait a year or so before I dip my toe in those whorly turbid waters.

    Thanks for this post Daniel. It very much needed to be said.

    Jim Lippard said

    Apologizing for and correcting mistakes, in particular, is much rarer than it should be.

    That is so true. In my experience the rule seems to be that when caught out in an error host posters will either ignore you, insult you, or just stop particpating in that particular thread — not always, but frequently enough to heavily discourage disagreement and criticism, constructive or not.

  12. feralboy12 says:

    I’m sorry, that error with the dice pips destroyed any credibility you once had with me.

  13. ZenMonkey says:

    Like science-based humanist, I also very much appreciate the focus on ethics in your writing about skepticism. As always, this post gives me a lot to think about.

  14. Bob says:

    I want to address a subtle related point – communicating uncertainty. I’m an engineer; the results of my analyses are often valid only within a certain set of conditions or assumptions. A simple example is saying that a feather falls just as fast as a bowling ball: in the absence of air resistance, yes; otherwise no. Communicating details such as air resistance is accurate but it weakens one’s rhetorical impact and diffuses the underlying concept one is trying to impart.

    This was brought home to me when reading “Revising Prose”, a fabulous (i.e. insightful, thin) book on writing. The more you know, the more detailed knowledge you have, and the more you understand the assumptions, uncertainties and exceptions surrounding the subject. In order to effectively communicate, you must drop the detail and speak with strength about the underlying concept, even though you know it’s not the whole story.

    Take vaccines: Vaccines are safe. The word “safe” is loaded with assumptions and conditions and exceptions. Safe, compared to the diseases vaccines are meant to ward off. Safe, compared to the risks incurred in daily life. Safe, provided you are not allergic to any of the constituents. Safe, provided you’re not immunocompromised.

    Are vaccines “perfectly safe”? No, but that’s what some people will hear (or build a strawman around) when you say “vaccines are safe.” Should we stop saying “vaccines are safe”? Not if we want to get our point across. But at what point is simplification a knowing error of omission? This is not an easy question to answer; it feels like the answer relies more heavily on intent and the sophistication of one’s audience than any objective standard. And in the context of never saying anything incorrect, how can we speak at all?

    • Max says:

      There are situations when people’s (mis)interpretation of the truth is further from truth than their interpretation of a lie.
      For example, if you post your true age on a dating site, people will assume you’re older, so to tell the truth you have to lie, which is an ethical dilemma indeed.
      Or if you say “vaccines are safe” and add the caveat “deaths are rare,” and people interpret it as “vaccines are deadly,” then the caveat only lead them astray from the truth.
      This also comes up in debates with pseudoscientists, who can win just by appearing more confident.

    • Stephanie B says:

      There’s no “right” answer if you insist on being truthful. Uncertainties are part and parcel for models and analyses, even hardware. In reality, to anyone who has a real use for the data, they need to be included (along with underlying assumptions). If I’m a space program manager evaluating risk, two potential redesign options might look equivalent if risk is estimated at 1:150; not so much if one has an uncertainty of 10% and one is an order of magnitude (which I’ve seen).

      The danger in saying everything to the layman is that those who are against what you’re saying will seize on every caveat, every uncertainty and turn it into a rationale on why the whole is garbage as a result. The problem with NOT including the caveats and uncertainties is that, if they get the actual data (and data is frequently government derived and so free to the public), he can seize on any deviations even if it’s .02% and say, “See, it’s wrong.” That it’s in the noise doesn’t matter. Trotting out the uncertainty at that point just confirms it’s a cover-up.

  15. Erik Jensen says:

    I see the role of the skeptic as debunking pseudoscience. This is different from promoting science, though that is important in its own right. To prove that creationism is not science is quite easy. One need not be a biologist to do so; any armchair skeptic can skewer it. This is different from proving evolution, which should be left to people with some relevant expertise. To prove that homeopathy is absurd is easy. Anyone knowing high school chemistry can do it. To prove what a particular medicine does can be difficult. Leave that to the experts.

  16. John Greg says:

    Bob, you raise some excellent points. I’ve often felt that authorities in any field (but perhaps especially in one so fraught with reader comprehension problems and other issues of clarity as is the skeptical field) should devote a small amount of time and study to improving their prose writing and general communication skills before they set out to inform the world.

  17. Mal Adapted says:

    SkepticTheist,

    Plato is credited with saying something like:

    “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”

    Which one are you?

    • SkepticTheist says:

      I’m one that can say I can think for myself and I assert my right to exist in spite of you, and my right to think in spite of you, and will say that you have a poor choice of cliches.

  18. Paul says:

    Where do we go from here? How about if we lighten up a bit…at least once in awhile, skeptics? The self-importance is getting more and more insufferable. Blah, blah, blah. Are we losing sight of the bigger picture? Where’s our sense of humor? Satire seems to have worked out pretty well for Colbert and Stewart as they assault the media and politics. Can’t we approach pseudoscience and irrational thinking in a similar way? Or are we simply too sophisticated, pretentious, and highfalutin? From the pen of Mark Twain: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Agreed. Let’s try it on occasion; it just might work. And it could actually add some fun and pizazz to the debate. Then again, this is only one skeptic’s opinion.

    • SkepticTheist says:

      Well, see, here’s the problem. We have a bunch of self-conceited, self important people here, that all sit on the same porcelain throne every day. Some can see that nobody is better than anybody else like me, and all skeptics have the right to question anything regardless of what GOD said it. Some question supernatural gods and claim to be atheists. Others like me question FLESHY GODS WHO SIT ON PORCELAIN THRONES, elitists that are called “experts” who dictate to lemmings that think they are more intelligent than anyone else, who are gullible enough not to question these fleshy gods, members of what is called the “Skeptical movement.” So, the difference is that some of us is that we know we can think and have no limitations. We are friends to science and recognize it as an important tool, and are not ruled by science. Some of us rule our own minds. Others are ruled by science and its priesthood of consensus. Others like Mal Adapted like to throw out insults with cliches which is not unlike ad homeneim tactics that have no real value, but merely try to tear down other people who actually do have something to say, because they wouldn’t be saying it unless it was SOMETHING TO SAY. If you think that we need to lighten up, then perhaps we do. But not until what needs to be said in all seriousness has been said. So to you Mal Adapted, there was once a wise man who wrote “fools mock, but they shall mourn.”

      • John Greg says:

        Are you saying that there is no such thing as expertise?

        Are you also saying that anyone who studies with someone who holds more knowledge is a lemming?

  19. Kilre says:

    —Another vote on the side of worshiping at the consensus altar coming from a blogger on this site.

    How is it worshipping? Where is this altar? Is this not a straw man? Why not?

    —I challenged this before, and I challenge it now. If you think we should turn our brains off and just “bet” on the side of consensus, you have stopped being a skeptic and critical thinker, and started being a lemming.

    There’s all kinds of consensus views. Which consensus do you think is more rational and evidence-based?

    —I understand perfectly what you are saying.

    In your own way?

    —It is by no means the “best information we have.”

    How so? How would we get better information, at this point in time? How would we test it?

    —It has already been challenged by the “contrarians” that you say flat out that you consider not to have the best arguments or the best information.

    What did those contrarians bring to the discussion other than dissenting views? Did they bring evidence of their claims? Could their evidence be reproduced? Are they falsifiable?

    —You demand that it happen in the formal scientific arena or it is not rigorous.

    Have you tried to submit something to a formal scientific review?

    —That is what I’m challenging. That is called “consensus” and “peer review” which is precisely where the process has BROKEN DOWN.

    How so? Can you provide examples that completely prove your claim? Are you just being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian? Where is peer review not working?

    —Based on the evidence that there is a growing number of dissidents that use their brain, who are SKEPTICS OF THE LIKES OF YOU WHO DO NOT, who are eclecticists that aren’t ruled by your paradigm.

    Are numbers of dissidents all it takes to prove a consensus false? By which definition of the word skeptic are you operating under? Are you unfairly excluding some and including others because they agree with you? What would it take for you to see another as skeptical?

    —I’ll say it again for people that didn’t seem to see all my posts previous to this. I reserve the intellectual right to be a skeptic of you and anything that you say and anything that you represent for any reason that my brain dictates.

    That clears things up! So, as long as others are skeptical of you and your claims, the same way you are of them and their claims, they’re skeptics, right?

    —Any stinking reason whatsoever when I smell something coming from something that stinks of elitism or popularism, or any other number of isms that seek to strong arm the basic right of a skeptic to use critical thinking against anything he sees fit!

    How, exactly, is a consensus view, considering this whole discussion, that has been tested and retested through peer review through the years, that is backed with evidence and is falsifiable, as all scientific theories must be, not subject to further critical dissemination?

    —All I said anything about was atheism and elitism among skeptics who thing they are gods, some of which have phds.

    Who thinks they are gods? Where did they admit this? Are you projecting unfairly?

    —On the other hand, Dr. Novella is the person that taught me to “question everything” on his podcast, yet even he bows the knee to the gods of consensus.

    Gods of consensus? Which consensus are you railing against? All of them? Why? What evidence do you hold that allows you to break free, so to speak? Is that evidence falsifiable? Is it also open to critical review, by other skeptics and the community at large?

    —Why don’t you take that up with him and show him his double standard?

    Which double standard is that? That he doesn’t have the time to fully research the evidence behind a particular consensus view? What level of research would it take to come to a conclusion on any consensus? Are the contrarians not also forming their own consensus views?

    –There are a great many skeptics who are DISSIDENTS to AGW, and a great many that are ADVOCATES of it.

    Are not both sides a form of consensus? Why, or why not?

    —Those that are dissidents have RATIONAL REASONS for their dissent, and won’t be bullied by people that think that their fleshy gods called experts rule the earth.

    And those that are not dissidents do not have rational reasons? Why would you insinuate that? Are you pleading for a special case? Are your reasons more rational than those that dissent from your views? Further, why must everything be stated in terms of humans and gods?

    —If you think it is confirmation bias to disagree and have rational reasons for that disagreement, then it is you that have displayed a lack of understanding the fact that at the core of your so called methodology is what we call questioning so-called “facts” which are nothing other than preconceptions of a group of people who have made what they believe popular and called that “rigor.”

    Have you studied human psychology and critical thinking enough to understand the frailties of the mind? Heuristics? How easily we are tricked by what we think we already know?

    —Argument from authority and special pleading for the consensus priesthood. My point of view rules the day in my Universe because I’m the center of it on my own supermassive compact object. So go get your own big bang.

    Are you being facetious? Is it really special pleading to do the same level of research as those that publish the consensus opinions, so that you can be in the same arena of knowledge? What is your fascination with equating consensus opinions with theistic worship?

    —No, actually the second some person tells me that I cannot question something is the moment that person argues from authority.

    You cannot question that 2 of some thing plus 2 of some thing equals 4 of that thing.

    —Because they pretend to have something that trumps my ability to question, the ultimate card that wins every argument. It is only valid among those that recognize it. I on the other hand don’t recognize it. So it is non-authoritative if there is good enough reason to question it.

    So, if you don’t have the same expertise as someone else, it’s okay to question their expertise? In all instances? In some instances?

    This goes back to your earlier gripes, and I’m beginning to see your point of view, the skeptical point of view, in that yes, we should question everything, and nothing must be sacred. However: is it a valid argument if you don’t know what you’re talking about? If you continue to question, yet have no deep understanding of that which you question skeptically, sure, by probability, your questioning would eventually lead to correct guesses, and through hunches, further your positive hits, but would it not be better to first gain as much an understanding as the advocates of a position, any position, consensus or not, before questioning it?

    The point I’m trying to get at, which might be taking a roundabout route to arrive, is that I agree in principle; that is the heart of skepticism. But if you do not know much, anything, or little about that which you question, you are blindly contrary, and understand little.

    —You question supernatural gods.

    That is the nature of skepticism, is it not? To question everything until there is sufficient evidence to back it up?

    —You have a god called an expert, and he is your fleshy god that I defy.

    Taking a theistic-metaphorical approach to everything seems to be a narrow way to look at the world.

    —You bow the knee to your fleshy god and worship him without question.

    Can you prove that?

    —Therefore you are no skeptic.
    Is that through your definition, which you’ve already said no one else here fits? Are you a non-skeptic to another’s definition?

    —You are gullible to bow the knee to any intelligence but your own. And since you have a measure of gullibility, you therefore cannot think critically on your own.

    And you are left without gullibility? How can you insinuate that? Are there not things you as well are gullible to, such as contrary consensus opinions? Do you hold no consensus opinions at all? What would you define as a consensus opinion?

    —[I]t is you that are guilty of this because you seek to establish the truth of a matter by appealing to the authority of a person or group of people. I on the other hand question all authority when necessary:

    Do you really? Even those that hold contrary opinions to the scientific consensus of which you rail against?

    —“Argument from Authority is an informal logical fallacy, formally known as argumentum ad verecundium, where [a] participant argues that a belief is correct because the person making the argument is an authority….This is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of the claim is not necessarily related to the personal qualities of the claimant. (http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Argument_from_Authority)

    So, if the person who you would claim is arguing from authority has evidence to back up what they say, are they still fallaciously arguing? If a person has no evidence, yet claims to know that a consensus is wrong, are they not arguing from an authority? Where does evidence come into this debate? Can a person’s claims be rendered moot if the opposing side(s) have evidence in favor of their consensus?

    —I’m one that can say I can think for myself and I assert my right to exist in spite of you, and my right to think in spite of you, and will say that you have a poor choice of cliches.

    Existence is a trifling matter, as we are all made up of matter that is trifling. Does another person’s opinion on a matter of consensus really affect your existence? Do your opinions rest upon evidential reasoning? Is there ever an end to the questioning? At what point does the evidence become greater than the questions asked?

    —We have a bunch of self-conceited, self important people here, that all sit on the same porcelain throne every day.

    We all have to, if we want to expel waste. This is the internet, of course.

    —Some can see that nobody is better than anybody else like me, and all skeptics have the right to question anything regardless of what GOD said it.

    Do gods really have anything to do with this, or are you trying to sneak in some ad hominem attacks?

    —Some question supernatural gods and claim to be atheists.

    What is your definition of atheist?

    —Others like me question FLESHY GODS WHO SIT ON PORCELAIN THRONES, elitists that are called “experts” who dictate to lemmings that think they are more intelligent than anyone else, who are gullible enough not to question these fleshy gods, members of what is called the “Skeptical movement.”

    Are experts not the ones who know enough about their fields of study to actually provide useful information and cannon-fodder for further testing? Should anyone be able to go out and study the world without prior information? If we kick everyone out of their ivory towers, or their porcelain thrones if they’re on the loo, would not experts eventually re-appear because of the accumulation of knowledge? Are you railing against experts irrationally?

    —So, the difference is that some of us is that we know we can think and have no limitations.

    I don’t think I can breathe in outer space; is that not a limitation? If that is not the limitation you meant, what is your intention?

    —We are friends to science and recognize it as an important tool, and are not ruled by science.

    Ruled by science how? Accepting the germ theory of evolution? Accepting how computers and microwaves work? Accepting that we synthesize many medicines from previously “natural” sources? Accepting how carbon dioxide and methane affect the radiation from the sun?

    —Some of us rule our own minds.

    Do we? Are we not slaves to our own desires and chemical imbalances?

    —Others are ruled by science and its priesthood of consensus.

    Evolution?

    —Others like Mal Adapted like to throw out insults with cliches which is not unlike ad homeneim tactics that have no real value, but merely try to tear down other people who actually do have something to say, because they wouldn’t be saying it unless it was SOMETHING TO SAY.

    Have you not also been weaving attacks against other posters into your comments? Browbeating them with theistic themes? Comparing them to lemmings?

    —If you think that we need to lighten up, then perhaps we do. But not until what needs to be said in all seriousness has been said. So to you Mal Adapted, there was once a wise man who wrote “fools mock, but they shall mourn.”

    You’ve only been contrary, and, unlike several others here, only asserted your correctness, at least in this particular thread. Let’s hear an example of what it would take for you to change your mind on this consensus problem.

    • tmac57 says:

      Nice deconstruction Kilre.Well done!

    • Shahar Lubin says:

      Speaking of theism SkepticTheist reminds me of the parable of The Four Brothers from the Jewish Hagadah(a religious book read at a passover meal).

      I always read it as almost a skeptic ‘manifesto”. The youngest cannot ask but has to be shown. All he can understand at this point is the physical world around him. The second one asks “why” questions. He is just coming to grip with the notion of reason beyond the literal and what’s in front of him. The third one is called “evil”, but in old hebrew the meaning is a little different. He asks question in order to try and trap his elders(the experts/SkepticTheist’s elite) and to prove them wrong. Mostly just to bring them down to his level and lower, debase them. A tendency I feel SkepticTheist has something in common with. The oldest brother seeks wisdom but question his elders as well. His purpose is not taking down the elders but rising towards them. Not by blindly disseminating their knowledge but joining them in the pursuit of wisdom.

      Who said you can’t learn anything from religion?!

      • tmac57 says:

        Interesting parable Shahar.It shows the phases of intellectual development that we must all pass through to strive toward maturity, and wisdom. It should be an ongoing process for the true skeptic I think.

      • Kilre says:

        —Who said you can’t learn anything from religion?!

        I hesitate to call the many writings associated with a religion, religion. Religion is typically the organization that springs up around the teachings, isn’t it?

        I would say that you can learn anything from the collected knowledge, written down and otherwise, of humanity passed down through the generations, no matter where or what produced the source.

      • Shahar Lubin says:

        I was going for a bit of irony. Being an atheist and all I still find value in looking in my jewish heritage for inspiration. Not that it’s better than others, but others aren’t mine. Some of those folks were wise even if they believed in mambo jumbo. Thanks non the less, you are quite correct even if I find it a bit of a semantic thing.

  20. Noah Wiles says:

    I do not have the facility to do all the research I’d love to do and to then even write on my discoveries and what I have learned. All I can do is trust in the integrity of the sources I choose to rely on when I feel they are presenting something very important. Those sources must take what Daniel Loxton says here to heart.

  21. Barry says:

    Great post! For me it emphasises the point that a skeptic does not have to take up a particular position, for example, theist or atheist. Rather, a skeptic must question his or her own thought processes always. Only then can he or she begin to ask the right questions. I. for one, remain perennially at stage one :)!

  22. frank says:

    there is a fundamental constraint that remains unspoken and unacknowledged, but i suggest provides the ‘frisson’ in general and also the tension between SkepticTheist and others.

    for an aetheist, mindless undirected evolutionary processes (and naturally ‘deep time’)must be able to account for everything – there is no other game in town. falsification of these concepts would require them to change their personal worldview – not, i suggest, a trivial consideration.

    the theist, on the other hand, can investigate the universe with less angst. whatever they discover about the wonders in the processes of natural selection (for an example) it is unlikely to diminish their appreciation of the godhead. in addition, it seems that their theology could be relatively easily adjusted to accomodate whatever age the evidence finally assigns to the origin event(s)- whether <6 picoseconds, 6 days, or 16 billion years.

    so a theist may have to change their denomination as the evidence comes in; but the aethiest would have to utterly recant on their worldview. not a pleasant prospect, i think – hence a tendency to a bunker mentality.

    – all written – and taken, i hope, in good will – and pls excuse possible typos and spelling etc.

    • DavrosFromSkaro says:

      Hi Frank,

      Your post highlights a very important point – the difference between science and religion.

      Religion, as you point out, is a worldview. Some religious people, Ken Ham for example, utterly reject the Theory of Evolution. Others – Pope John Paul II springs to mind – accepted it.

      Science, on the other hand is emphatically NOT a world view position. It is based of facts and evidence. Whilst scientists may disagree on what the facts signify, they cannot simply disregard evidence that doesn’t fit into their theories.

      This is why science is self-correcting – consensus will change with new evidence. Something I would suggest doesn’t always happen with the religious outlook.

      This leads onto your assertion that an atheist would have to change their world view. I don’t buy this at all – are you suggesting that evolution is somehow a static theory and impervious to change? This is absolutely untrue – just look up Punctuated Equilibrium to see how scientists disagree with the details of evolution. Of course, they don’t disagree with evolution itself. That’s because the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

      If you don’t believe me, read The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins to get a clearer idea about what evolution is all about. It’s also a good introduction to the Scientific Method.

      • Shahar Lubin says:

        Well, to be fair, science is a world view. A simple one, but non the less.

        “The world makes sense”.

        We start with that premise and the rest falls into place.

  23. Jeshua says:

    Wow, Frank! Does that mean you think that skeptics should now start accepting that people can walk on water, cure blindness by spitting in someone’s eyes and get bad advice from a talking snake? No thanks. I’d much rather get my wisdom from the likes of Mark Twain, Carl Sagan and Phil Plait than a book written centuries ago by anonymous bronze-age fanatics. Since none of them claim to be writing in the name of an invisible, totally imperceptible supernatural being i don’t have to bend over backwards trying to make their words fit reality.

  24. Robo Sapien says:

    All I see from SkepticTheist is a bunch of finger-pointing and name calling. You are confusing concensus with authority, they are not the same. To argue by authority would be, for example, to say that all matter exists in a spiritual soup because Deepak Chopra said so. Consensus is more like natural selection, a bunch of ideas and perspectives are lumped together in a free for all melee, in which only the strong survive.

    It seems to me that your real agenda leans more towards anti-establishment than pro-science. You are falsely branding concensus as a government of information so you can play the intellectual Paul Revere. You speak boldly of ad hominem tactics, then continue painting a picture of field experts as “fleshy gods on porcelain thrones” — likening their expertise to a bowel movement.

    I applaud the mature skeptics here who have responded with grace and tact. I, on the other hand, lack such graces and have no qualms about calling you out. You’ve brought nothing of value to the table, just a lot of unobjective douchebaggery. This kind of bullshit belongs on sites like PrisonPlanet, not here.

  25. SkepticTheist – I think you are confusing anti-intellectual populism with skepticism, and basing it on a huge straw man.

    No one here is saying that you cannot or should not think for yourself. Further, no one is advocating an argument from authority.

    But your position is premised on the notion that there are no experts, which is a position that denies knowledge (a profoundly unskeptical position). If you admit that there is knowledge, then you have to admit that some people have more knowledge than others. It therefore stands to reason (and this is backed up by evidence) that some people have extensive knowledge in a defined area, and we call these people experts.

    No one is advocating the position that experts should be believed as a priesthood – and in fact we specifically warn against that. Rather, that expertise should be understood and respected, while simultaneously recognizing that some experts are really cranks, and some areas of knowledge are not legitimate.

    But, when we have a legitimate area of expertise and a majority of relevant experts hold a certain position – it is only reasonable and properly humble to at least acknowledge that consensus. It is also reasonable to require one to have very good reasons for rejecting the consensus.

    If you reject this, then you are certainly failing to recognize the limitations of your own knowledge (unless you want to claim to be an expert in everything).

    Or perhaps you think that logic and critical thinking is sufficient. I would argue that they are necessary, but not sufficient, to understand a highly complex and data-driven discipline.

    Failure to recognize the limitations of one’s own knowledge or the limitations of logic – or the necessity of mastering fundamental skills and funds of knowledge in order to arrive at meaningful conclusion about a complex topic – those are the makings of a crank, not a skeptic.

    This is a far more nuanced position than you are giving us credit for. I suggest you seriously try to understand the position we are actually advocating before criticizing your straw man any further. You are not doing your position any justice.

    I further invite you to consider everything you wrote here, but in the context of a creationist criticizing the consensus of evolution, and I think that will provide a useful perspective.

    • Cthandhs says:

      Can you clarify if I am understanding correctly. It seems like “Argument from Authority” is great to call out when someone is saying “Dr. XXXX says it, so that’s what I believe”; but saying “An international consensus of XXXX scientists agree, so that’s what I believe” is different.

      • Max says:

        Firstly, you can always find a Dr. XXXX on either side of any argument, but an international consensus implies that there’s enough evidence to convince the majority of scientists.
        Secondly, the scientific consensus really exists in the peer-reviewed literature, it’s not just what XXXX scientists say at the moment.

      • tmac57 says:

        I like these 5 rules for determining if an appeal to authority is fallacious: (from Fallacy Files web site)
        http://www.fallacyfiles.org/authorit.html

        * Is this a matter which I can decide without appeal to expert opinion? If the answer is “yes”, then do so. If “no”, go to the next question:
        * Is this a matter upon which expert opinion is available? If not, then your opinion will be as good as anyone else’s. If so, proceed to the next question:
        * Is the authority an expert on the matter? If not, then why listen? If so, go on:
        * Is the authority biased towards one side? If so, the authority may be untrustworthy. At the very least, before accepting the authority’s word seek a second, unbiased opinion. That is, go to the last question:
        * Is the authority’s opinion representative of expert opinion? If not, then find out what the expert consensus is and rely on that. If so, then you may rationally rely upon the authority’s opinion.

        “If an argument to authority cannot pass these five tests, then it commits the fallacy of appeal to misleading authority.”

      • Max says:

        I think the formal definitions miss the key premise.
        The standard definition goes like this:

        Source A says that p is true.
        Source A is authoritative.
        Therefore, p is true.

        I say it should go like this:

        Authority A says that p is true.
        Authorities are always right.
        Therefore, p is true.

        The false premise is that authorities are always right, but I don’t think that anyone really accepts this.

  26. Daniel Keough says:

    “unobjective douchebaggery” thank you Robo Sapien!

  27. Nabarun Ghoshal says:

    Thanks Daniel. Obviously, superstition presented in the wrapper of science causes more harm than when it is outspoken. Every scientific person should be aware not to speak in favour of unscientific ideas. But there is another extreme. How can I know that I am not saying something “that isn’t correct”? If I do not speak anything that appears logical but goes against the presently accepted theories, no new ideas can come to surface. For nearly a century after Newton, nothing was accepted against his Corpuscular Theory of Light. Similar is the case nowadays with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Can’t I speak anything against this theory? There should be some relaxation for new thoughts if we want to make further progress. Otherwise, dogma prevails in the name of science.

    • Of course you’re right that current thinking must be challenged in order for progress to be made. But this is built into the ethos of science. As Sagan put it, science requires

      …an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas…

      Science is a large and heterogenous enterprise, capturing the best, and occasionally the worst, of human behavior. Alongside the deep truths that become recognized as consensus science, some incorrect ideas can also become widely accepted, even entrenched. Yet through it all, science reserves its greatest rewards for those who substantially alter the state of our knowledge, who break new ground or topple old orthodoxies. But here’s the trick: science advances not through the development of surprising hypotheses (which are necessary, yet not remotely sufficient) but through the long, long, elbow-grease process of conducting scientific research to test those hypotheses.

      In the context of this post, the questions are these: are contrarian lay skeptics likely to identify major flaws that have eluded the working scientists who spend their lives pushing forward knowledge (and reducing error) in their own fields? Are lay critics likely to do science in order to fairly test their own hypotheses? And, are lay critics likely, at the end of the day, to have the deep background knowledge and necessary technical skills to contribute robust, rigorous evidence to the scientific literature?

  28. Max says:

    The “argument from authority” fallacy stems from the false premise that the authority is always right, so crying “argument from authority!” is just a fancy way to accuse someone of assuming that the authority is always right. Of course most of us don’t assume that the scientific consensus is always right, just that it’s more likely to be right than the fringe.

  29. WScott says:

    Daniel – I agree with you (and other commenters) about the importance of acknowledging scientific consensus. But I do understand why some people find the “argument from scientific consensus” so frustrating. Most people are not scientists, after all, and many have no desire to be scientists. (Yes, even smart people.) So telling people they have nothing to contribute until/unless they’ve been published in a peer-reviewed journal is flatly telling 99% of the human race to STFU. Which may be appropriate within the context of science and research – but NOT in discussions of public policy. As in court: expert testimony carries a great deal of weight, but the final decision rests with non-expert jurors, as it should in a democracy.

    Now I’m not saying that my opinion on, say, global warming should be accorded the same weight as an expert climatologist. I’m just saying we need to do a better job of including non-scientists in the conversation. “Shut up, Sonny, the scientists are talking” is not a great slogan for bringing people into skepticism.

    • Kilre says:

      —But I do understand why some people find the “argument from scientific consensus” so frustrating.

      It’s easy to see, yes. People don’t like being talked down to from on high, either through clouds, flaming bushes, or ivory towers.

      —So telling people they have nothing to contribute until/unless they’ve been published in a peer-reviewed journal is flatly telling 99% of the human race to STFU.

      Is it really that high a percentage? Isn’t it hard to contribute to experts if you don’t really know that much about what they’re studying? What is so wrong with having people educate themselves before they put in their two cents on a specialized field of research?

      —Which may be appropriate within the context of science and research – but NOT in discussions of public policy.

      Well, yeah. Isn’t the pursuit of scientific knowledge supposed to be separate from the political machinations of governmental bodies? That is the ideal, at least.

      —As in court: expert testimony carries a great deal of weight, but the final decision rests with non-expert jurors, as it should in a democracy.

      Isn’t that expert testimony also coupled with evidence to further back up the validity of the statements? Using this example, should Joe the Plumber be responsible for science standards education if he doesn’t understand much of science? Think of the Dover, Penn. intelligent design fiasco.

      —I’m just saying we need to do a better job of including non-scientists in the conversation.

      I thought the above article was a summary position of just that: what to do if you want to further your skepticism? Those guidelines above are pretty forgiving for the lay skeptic; they don’t require expertise, but research into whatever you’re claiming skepticism, which should be a worthy goal for anyone wanting to challenge any position: research. Research shouldn’t be hard in this day and age, but people apparently don’t like to do it; thus, they wind up on the Daily Show and Colbert Report looking like fools.

      —“Shut up, Sonny, the scientists are talking” is not a great slogan for bringing people into skepticism.

      I like that slogan, but that’s just me being tired of pundits. Regardless, nothing Daniel posted was to that effect; if anything, he has provided an example of an sixth-grader making it into a scientific journal. If a child can get in, it almost begs the question why others can’t put forth the effort and do their own research.

    • tmac57 says:

      “Which may be appropriate within the context of science and research – but NOT in discussions of public policy. As in court: expert testimony carries a great deal of weight, but the final decision rests with non-expert jurors, as it should in a democracy.”
      Hmmmm…well let us hope then,that when the ‘public policy jury’ has made their final decision, with their sketchy understanding of the complicated science and nuanced issues concerning Earth’s climatic systems, that they don’t inadvertently issue an irreversible death sentence to our species.

  30. WScott writes,

    I do understand why some people find the “argument from scientific consensus” so frustrating. … “Shut up, Sonny, the scientists are talking” is not a great slogan for bringing people into skepticism.

    I agree: it is frustrating. I feel that too — or, at least, I did when I was first forced to confront the limitations of skepticism (by my kid brother, a real scientist). I may blog about that soon.

    But it is what it is. It may be frustrating to be told I can’t consider myself a qualified expert on climate science, or oncology, or chess, or stage magic, or Solzhenitsyn, but I’m just not.

    The consolation is that I can share the joy of mainstream scientific discovery without having the expertise to contribute to the formal research literature or settle expert controversies. And, even better: there are other areas where I am among the community of experts.

    Skepticism is not a license to claim expertise in other people’s fields, but it is an invitation to become expert in our own wild, wooly, and fascinating field: the history and mechanisms of hoaxes and claims in the realm of pseudoscience and the paranormal.

    • Max says:

      A creator of chess puzzles once said that the hardest puzzles require some unorthodox move that’s harder for an experienced player to see than for a beginner who doesn’t realize that it’s unorthodox.

      In a previous thread, someone told the story about the child who freed a truck that was stuck under a bridge, by deflating its tires.
      Well I’ve been in the position of the child on a number of occasions, so I know there’s some truth to that.

      James Randi has certainly shown that scientists could benefit from a stage magician’s experience in deception.

      • The Randi example really goes to my point. Scientists land in hot water when they allow themselves to believe that their scientific expertise qualifies them to detect, understand, or speak with authority about the techniques of mentalism and magic. Randi was able to demonstrate forcefully that researchers who blunder into the field of magic require the specialized knowledge of relevant domain experts — ie, magicians.

      • tmac57 says:

        Take the case of Rom Houben, and Dr. Laureys being taken in by ‘facilitated communication’ as a more recent example. I’ll bet that more than one amateur skeptic saw through that one even before the more well know skeptical bloggers were on the case.

  31. WScott says:

    Kilre

    > Isn’t the pursuit of scientific knowledge supposed to be separate from the political machinations of governmental bodies?

    Absolutely. But we’re not just talking about the pursuit of scientific knowledge; we’re also talking about making public policy based on that knowledge. The first half of that is rightly the domain of scientists; but in a democracy, all citizens have a right to be part of the second half.

    > Isn’t that expert testimony also coupled with evidence to further back up the validity of the statements?

    Sure. But in the end, expert testimony is only one of the things considered, and it’s a jury of laymen who make the final call about what should be done. Hopefully, the experts have done a good job of explaining the technical material to the jury, but my point is the experts don’t just get to say: “I’m an expert, take my word for it.”

    > I thought the above article was a summary position of just that: what to do if you want to further your skepticism?

    You’re right. I was responding more to some of the commenters than to Daniel; I should’ve been more clear.

    > they don’t require expertise, but research into whatever you’re claiming skepticism, which should be a worthy goal for anyone wanting to challenge any position: research.

    Again, I agree. But then our message should be “Here’s how to educate yourself on a position so you can make a meaningful contribution to the dialogue” rather than “The experts have spoken, STFU.”

    Daniel:

    > The consolation is that I can share the joy of mainstream scientific discovery without having the expertise to contribute to the formal research literature or settle expert controversies.

    Absolutely! I think that’s a great way of putting it.

  32. Mal Adapted says:

    SkepticTheist:

    “So to you Mal Adapted, there was once a wise man who wrote ‘fools mock, but they shall mourn.'”

    You’re citing the Book of Mormon here? Seriously? I can see you’re a theist, but how are you a skeptic?

  33. Udayan says:

    Commendable article. But I find it amusing that the two references are to pop-lit. I wonder what that says.

  34. P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

    I find the piece “NEVER SAY ANYTHING THAT ISN’T CORRECT” very interesting: In a context of generality, I too agree with the premise. But then, wait a moment: Is not the adjective word “correct” sheer relative? Relative to the person who perceives, relative to the knowledge of person who says about the ‘thing’ and matter? It is impossible even for the brightest of the brightest intellectuals to sense, perceive, conceive, analyze, adjudicate and deliver the latest in any field of knowledge, the latest objective real picture relating to any branch of study or knowledge. If that is the case, can every skeptic, rationalist, atheist and humanist who is a normal human intellectual, who is keen on what is real and objective in the physical world, be expected to say anything that isn’t correct. Yes, such a stand would be hypocrisy of the first order, never absorbable by Skeptics, the least.

    I consider the following points as worthwhile in the present context of the discussion:

    1. Admit mistakes: Be open to disagreement

    2. While dealing with scientific matters, never say it is the final word.

    3. While dealing with the so-called “psychological” issues, realize that Freudian studies of subjective, imaginative revelations have been replaced by objective physiological studies with total proof of evidence. Even the Skeptics in the West either do not know or do profess imaginary hatred to the physiological studies of Bekterov, Pavlov et al because they belonged to the erstwhile communist Regime. Throw away this passion and open up the door to study and to understand the working of the central nervous system, sensory centres, excitation, inhibition, reflexes, stimuli and environs while dealing with human thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. Throw to the dust bins all the stories of “conscious mind, sub-conscious mind, super-conscious mind” and all that imaginations from the path of rationality and skepticism.

  35. Udayan says:

    As for the Global Warming consensus thing. Take a look at IPCC’s own diagram of how their report-writing process works (http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data.htm ) – one look at which should raise any natural skeptic to raise eyebrows.

    And to anyone with a background in science (such as myself) whenever I look at the figures suggested by the IPCC report – 1.4-5.8 degree Celsius rise in temperature and 9 cm to 88 cm rise in sea level – I always have the urge to laugh uncontrollably – what ranges? Wow!

    Unfortunately, the process has become too politically motivated and charged (on both sides of the argument) to actually hear what is being said. (It is my belief that much of the scientific literature is not available for free to the common man – this is certainly the case in Computer Science, my domain; I expect the case to be similar in Climatology. This is especially true of Journal papers.)

    As a skeptic my question has always been: why hasn’t there been a push to make all of the related scientific literature$ (absolutely all of it) available to the public? Since it is such a “pressing” issue. I think that (reading that literature) would convince me sooner than anything else.

    Lastly, since the Scientific method is often discussed by skeptics. Consider for a second the notion of testability. Usually, most scientific claims can be supported not just with data, but also experimentation (to create new data). Experimentation naturally always needs to have a control.

    The domain under discussion being what it is, this is not going to be possible. So is it so wrong to ask that the next best thing (modeling, simulation) do a decent job (not even good) at predicting phenomena?

    Again, pages can be written about modeling and simulation as far as the “debate” is concerned. But I will tell you as a researcher, who works with modeling and simulation, that tomorrow if I had a model which was giving such high variability of predicted results – there should at least be fair argument among the models that I use – then I simply go back to the drawing board. A range like that, in my own work, simply wouldn’t cut it.

  36. Marty says:

    It is funny to me that there are trolls on all Intelligence levels. SkepticTheist had clearly either lost sight of reality or enjoys the attention from trolling.I will be bowing to the “flesh gods” a lot this year doing first year of university, perhaps I’ll make an alter to better channel my praying energy. haha very entertaining!

    Advice on future trolls, don’t waste time replying to them! You can tell a troll by how emotive they are being. Step back and think..” is this person just trying to make me mad?” If so move along.

  37. Mal Adapted says:

    Then there’s Udayan: “to anyone with a background in science (such as myself)…” That kind of claim immediately raises the troll flag, for me.

    • Max says:

      Reminds me of an earlier thread:
      “Why are there so many engineers on the list of scientists who doubt Darwin?”
      http://skepticblog.org/2009/09/21/the-scientific-method/

      Just replace Darwin with Global Warming.

      • Udayan says:

        The Theory of Evolution and Global Warming aren’t exactly the same thing. (Actually they are not nearly the same thing.) A great deal of the scientific literature is actually quite easily available. (What’s more I work with some evolutionary methods myself, within the realms of Computer Science.)

        Secondly, there never has been any inter-governmental panel on evolutionary theory.

        Nice link to that other article – very interesting. But that has got almost nothing to do with what I am saying. I am simply pointing out a couple of things (the IPCC’s report-writing process and their predictions) both of which, to me at least, sound suspect. This has got nothing to do with whether or not I am qualified to make a statement about climate change. I am most certainly NOT. (Notice that I have made no such claim anywhere. Reread the post if you like.)

        My question is simply why the IPCC cannot better figures/predictions. The implications of a 1.4 degree change and 5.8 degree change are enormously different.

        And a more important question is this: why does it take us (as a species) to be afraid of dying or destruction to get moving on something? Why is “fear” the key?

        There are perfectly ethical/humanitarian reasons for reducing energy consumption, pollution etc. Why is it that those are not the ones cited, and instead it is “fear” used by politicians that is being used to drive this whole thing?

        The most interesting thing for me, as an Indian, in the past two decades have been, you know what, back in the day, living economically (and naturally with a low carbon footprint) was the order of the day, and increasingly India is moving towards becoming a massive per-capita energy consumer (and garbage producer) as the developed nations. The irony is, that in 10-15 years, they will have to start doing a lot “global-warming-aware” stuff to kind-of turn-back things around.

        Example: Nobody wants to stop selling cars in India, not in the foreseeable future. Why? because it’s big business lots of money.

        Can the Government step in and take some real steps – like building rapid transit infrastructure in all the major cities? It can, but it doesn’t want to. Why? because that would be too easy – solve not only per-capita energy consumption, but also traffic congestion at the same time. What will elections be fought over?

        See: as long as you are driving a car (and not taking the bus, train, walking, biking) doesn’t really matter (in the big picture) whether you drive a hybrid or not. Often the choice for a more fuel efficient car comes down to cold facts: it’s cheaper to drive.

        Abolish motor-sports, amateur flying – when the planet is in peril – why do people keep insisting on burning fuel for “fun”?

        (Are you going to complain I make an impractical suggestion? Well, I suggest you take a walk around your average city block at 3 am at night. See how many lights are ON, and how many of those are actually necessary or essential.

        Stating the human problem in a different way: “well, you know, we got resources (money, oil, food, etc.), so we gonna waste it. Why? because we can. Could someone else use these resources? Ah, screw them! These are my hard-earned resources.)

        Do you think any of that is going to happen?

  38. Susan says:

    Great article. Along with other things going on in my life, it has me thinking about lying.

    My philosophy club discussed John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian ethics
    at the Feb 2010 meeting. Bentham’s utilitarian ethics differs from Mill’s utilitarian ethics. Mill is more of a humanitarian. His harm principle tempers the apparent callousness of Bentham’s the greatest happiness at the cost of the individual.

    Is lying always wrong? That was one of the topic questions at the philosophy club meeting. Utilitarian ethics says that the result of an action must be taken into account before answering the question of right or wrong. Mill says that you have to take into account long term consequences when you use the utilitarian ethics theory.

    At the meeting I said that “lying is always wrong”.

    Society and friendships and business relationships and politics all work better if we can rely on what people tell us. Relationships and communication work better if no one lies. IF you can rely on what people tell you, I think life is easier.

    Always telling the truth builds character. If you lie once, it’s easier to lie the next time. IF you form the habit of ALWAYS telling the truth, then your character is strengthened.

    I worry about someone that is willing to lie to make his life easier. Can you rely on his word? Is that someone with whom you’d like to do business? Is that the person you want as a close friend? Or would you prefer to have a business associate or a close friend whom you can believe?

    IF you live your life so that you NEVER need to lie, then you have built a life with the potential to be a life of which you can be proud.

    Are there exceptions in time of war? I ponder it and must conclude that if it is a moral war then the answer is yes. BUT most of us are not living in war as I’m defining it. A war is something like fighting Hitler NOT just wanting to get your way.

    I think perhaps the courts agree with me because they allow us to plead the 5th. That allows us an out. It says “I don’t want to answer that question.” And I think that’s acceptable. IF someone asks you a question and you feel like lying, just try saying “I don’t want to answer that question” or “I don’t know.” If you make a conscious effort NOT to EVER lie, you’re helping out your subconscious. Things we do by habit are easier. Build your character with GOOD building blocks.

  39. Max says:

    Read my post above about the “lie that tells the truth.”
    http://skepticblog.org/2010/02/16/due-diligence/#comment-18136

    You say, “IF someone asks you a question and you feel like lying, just try saying ‘I don’t want to answer that question’ or ‘I don’t know.'”
    Guess what, “I don’t know” is a common lie, and “I don’t want to answer” often leads people to assume something worse than what you’re trying to hide.

    “Relationships and communication work better if no one lies.”
    So when you receive a bad gift, you say you hate it and ask for the receipt?

  40. Seth Manapio says:

    Daniel, why do you think that the role of skeptics is to disseminate a ‘truth’, rather than utilize and demstrate the methods by which objective evaluation is possible? Shouldn’t we all think for ourselves?