Today I’d like to share a piece of good practical advice from philosopher Bertrand Russell—and to share some reflections that touch upon it.
To avoid the various foolish opinions to which mankind are prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.
If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetizing diet.1
This straightforward advice—try not to take people’s word for stuff, especially when we’re promoting a position in public—is a core skeptical concept. It underpins all of skeptical scholarship, for responsible skeptical outreach demands the due diligence exercise of checking everything twice. Someone says they saw something? Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. We ought to try to find out. Someone says they know something? Well, maybe they do—and maybe they don’t. If skeptical sources (for example) confidently assert that a case is solved or a paranormal topic debunked, we ought to ask ourselves, “I wonder if this topic is really understood, and how well?” —and then try to find out before repeating assertions from the sources we admire. Sometimes it turns out that the best available scholarship is preliminary, or incomplete, or even downright speculative.
As I’ve learned again and again from my own research experience, it’s not even safe to assume that apparently reputable secondary sources provide accurate quotations, let alone correct analysis. This reminds me of a saying in my family: “Everyone is just some guy.” Celebrity authors, paranormalists, scientists, skeptics—all just people feeling their way as best they can with the incomplete information they have in front of them. I’m just some guy; why take my word on anything much? Why take anybody’s?
And yet we have to. There is no practical alternative: we have to take other people’s word all the time, on all sorts of stuff. As I’ve argued, we lay skeptics have extremely little justifiable ability to dissent from the prevailing current of opinion among domain experts on any topic of mainstream science or scholarship. Without deep expertise earned through years of training, we are often unable even to understand why experts think the things they do, let alone determine whether they’re right.
Nor is the course always clear even among experts within their own fields—perhaps especially in areas relevant to skeptical research. Consider this troubling meditation from parapsychologist and skeptic Susan Blackmore, reflecting upon her Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology:
How far could I generalize these negative results? …I had to ask whether my negative results applied only to those experiments carried out by me, at those particular times, or whether they applied to the whole of parapsychology. There is no obvious answer to that question. … How could I weigh my own results against the results of other people, bearing in mind that mine tended to be negative ones while everyone else’s seemed to be positive ones? … At one extreme I could not just believe my own results and ignore everyone else’s. That would make science impossible. Science cannot operate unless people generally believe each other’s results. Science is, and has to be, a collective enterprise.
At the other extreme I could not believe everyone else’s results and ignore my own. That would be even more pointless. There would have been no point in all those years of experiments if I didn’t take my own results seriously.2
What’s the answer to these conflicting challenges to our wish for reliable knowledge? There is no answer. Or rather, there are techniques to somewhat reduce our fallibility—techniques we call “science”—but no magic window on reality. We’re stuck with uncertainty on all topics, at all times.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Bertrand Russell was quite right to observe, “When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.”3 But let’s try to set that too-easy response aside for a moment. Let’s set ourselves on the less secure footing of genuinely confronting uncertainty—of letting the problem of uncertainty resonate for a while, before turning to the standard canned answer.
Skeptics make much of our rhetoric of the virtue of doubt, but often we mean merely that we think we are right and the other guy is wrong. We may well be correct, but the belief that we are correct is small achievement—no more and no less than what everybody thinks already. We are, all of us, built for belief. “Man is a credulous animal,” Russell explained, “and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”4 Given the innate human talent for unearned certainty, I submit that it is valuable for skeptics to open ourselves to the idea that the world is very much more complicated than we currently understand.
This feeling of intellectual vertigo is easier to describe than it is to achieve—and it is effectively impossible to sustain. I’m reminded here of the title of Damien Hirst’s famous sculpture featuring a preserved shark, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Like the knowledge of our own mortality, we’re just not built to comprehend the depths of our own ignorance, nor to feel the possible truth of things we believe to be false. I mean, we can say it—”Maybe they’re right”—but moments of truly honest inward doubt are rare and vertiginous things. There’s abstract understanding that we could, in principle, for the sake of argument be wrong, and then there’s truly knowing it—and the latter decays like experimental antimatter, reverting almost instantly back to the comforting, constructed reality that served our ancestors in their search for food and shelter. Yet fleeting as that feeling is, it’s worth reaching for, experiencing, and internalizing to the greatest degree we can manage.
Maybe they’re right. I could be wrong right now.
This, after all, is the heart of both modern scientific skepticism and the older philosophical traditions that gave us the word “skeptic.” Certainty will always be suspect. The problems with knowing will always remain.
- Russell, Bertrand. Essays in Skepticism. “Intellectual Rubbish.” (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.) p 70
- Blackmore, Susan. “The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 11, Spring 1987. p. 249 – 250
- Russell, Bertrand. Essays in Skepticism. “Atheism and Agnosticism.” (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.) pp. 85–86
- Ibid. p. 65