I’ve been enjoying an “Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy” of the upcoming U.S. edition of Mike McRae’s Tribal Science from Prometheus Books, which has once again put me in mind of something I think about often: the considerable bogusness of the conceit of “skeptics” versus “believers.” There is a social subculture that can be called “skepticism” and there is a niche of scholarly activity by the same name, but it’s a mistake to suppose that skeptics and believers are very different sorts of people. The true landscape of skepticism and belief is so complex that I can’t resist summing it up with this wonderful T-shirt slogan from Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Bulldozing the complexity of human striving for understanding into tribal “skeptic” and “believer ” piles distorts reality, and makes it harder to do the already difficult work of solving mysteries and promoting science literacy.
The truth is that self-identified skeptics are not so terribly good at critical or scientific thinking. There’s little shame in that; nobody is all that good at those things. Nor, on the other hand, are paranormal “believers” all that terribly bad. Regardless of our intellectual commitments, regardless of our investments in this or that ideology or belief, humans everywhere are pretty damn smart—and also pretty dumb.
To get at this complexity, I’d like to share this prescient 1857 description of an approach to fringe claims that we would now call “scientific skepticism.”
The power of drawing correct inferences from what we see, and even of knowing what we do really see, and what we only imagine, is vastly augmented by the rigorous training of the faculties which long habits of observing certain classes of phenomena induce; and every man of science must have met with numberless cases in which statements egregiously false have been made to him in the most perfect good faith; his informant implicitly believing that he was simply telling what he had seen with his own eyes. A person the other day assured me, that he had frequently seen hummingbirds sucking flowers in England; I did not set him down as a liar, because he was a person of indubitable honor; his acquaintance with natural history, however was small, and he had fallen into the very natural error of mistaking a moth for a bird.
It is quite proper that, when evidence is presented of certain occurrences, the admission of which would overturn what we have come to consider as fixed laws, or against which there exists a high degree of antecedent improbability—that evidence should be received with great suspicion. It should be carefully sifted; possible cause of error should be suggested; the powers of the observer to judge of the facts should be examined; the actual bounding line between sensuous perception and mental inference should be critically investigated; and confirmatory, yet independent testimony should be sought. Yet, when we have done all this, we should ever remember that truth is stranger than fiction; that our power to judge of fixed laws is itself very imperfect; and that indubitable phenomena are ever and anon brought to light, which compel us to revise our code.1
Couldn’t say it better myself! But this is not a quote from anyone that skeptics think of as one of “us,” but from one of the more infamous creation theorists of all time: Philip Henry Gosse, whose Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot proposed that the apparent geological antiquity of the Earth was built into God’s instantaneous creation as a kind of virtual past. It is a book that stands as the ultimate example of an untestable hypothesis in the history of science—”spectacular nonsense” in the words of Stephen Jay Gould.2 Moreover, the sensibly skeptical passage above is part Gosse’s defense of the great Atlantic sea serpent, a cryptid whose existence he advocated alongside a Bigfoot-like creature in Venezuela—and even unicorns!
“So what?” you may think. Even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, right? Gosse made some skeptical noises, but clearly he should be dismissed as a kook…shouldn’t he? Once again we find that it’s a bit more complicated than that. As Gould explained, Gosse was also one of great science popularizers of the English-speaking world, “the David Attenborough of his day, Britain’s finest popular narrator of nature’s fascination. He wrote a dozen books on plants and animals, lectured widely to popular audiences, and published several technical papers on marine invertebrates.”3 He was a friendly personal acquaintance of Charles Darwin, to whose theory of natural selection he gave a friendly shout-out and hefty quote earlier in the same book that promotes sea serpents.4 You may even have a part of Gosse’s scientific legacy right in your own home: he was among the first to experiment with salt water “aquariums”—a word he popularized with his books on the topic, inspiring both the continuing household hobby and the tourist industry of marine animal exhibition parks. It’s fair to look back at Gosse through many different modern lenses, as a scientist, pseudoscientist, naturalist, supernaturalist, skeptic, wild-eyed speculator, creationist, cryptozoologist, and more. Each description is as true as such retrospective judgements can be; each is also incomplete. Gosse was complicated.
As are we all. In more recent years, astronomer Carl Sagan described science and skepticism as “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.”5 He was of course correct about the value of this “exquisite balance,” and movement skeptics often quote that evocative phrase. But here’s the thing: everyone embodies that balance to a substantial degree. Every person on every side of every paranormal question believes that they are both skeptical and open-minded—and they are all both correct and incorrect. This is possible because people are people, and not cardboard cutouts. We’re verbs, and we’re complicated. Our internal equalizer bars of gullible and shrewd, foolish and wise, willful and humble are in constant flux. We all try our best. We all get the balance wrong.
Does this mean there is no value to the skeptic label? Is it an affectation, a flag for arbitrary tribal affiliation? I’ll come back to my own defense of the term in another post, but for now: I think the answer in some ways is “Yes.” I’m persuaded that there is nothing very special or different about skeptics. Certainly, we are not immune to base tribal impulses. It’s worth considering that Sagan’s “exquisite balance” passage followed immediately after these sentences of warning:
I want to say a little more about the burden of skepticism. You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. This is a potential social danger of an organization like CSICOP. We have to guard carefully against it.6
Remember as well that most skeptics are not scientists, but (at best) science enthusiasts. The social danger Sagan warned about is not merely that we may be impolite, but that we may express certainty that goes beyond the evidence, or beyond our own command of the evidence. Science-y language and the unearned pretension of scientific authority — pseudoscience, in short — may be used as a cudgel by those selling science just as easily as by those selling homeopathy.
And yet, the situation is a bit more complicated than that, too, isn’t it? Because while people are much the same, in all our flaws and glory, ideas are not. As Sagan explained, it’s not enough to have skepticism and open-mindedness in our hearts; we must also have rigorous techniques for putting these shared human values to work on the task of untangling the external complexities of the universe and the internal complexities of our biases and tribal dispositions. “Some ideas are better than others,” Sagan wrote. “The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”7
Which brings us to a further irony of our nature, which I’ll leave to Mike McRae’s Tribal Science to describe: “The universe is at once confusing, majestic, beautiful, logical and incomprehensible. And yet something in our tribal wiring makes it impossible for us to stop trying to understand it.”8
- Gosse, Philip Henry. The Romance of Natural History. (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1863.) p. 298–299. Hyperlink added.
- Gould, Stephen Jay. “Adam’s Navel.” The Flamingo’s Smile. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.) p. 100
- Gosse (1863.) p. 79–82. “I am very far, indeed, from accepting Mr. Darwin’s theory to the extent to which he pushes it, completely trampling on Revelation as it does,” wrote Gosse, “but I think there is a measure of truth in it.”
- Sagan, Carl. “The Burden of Skepticism.” Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 12.1, Fall 1987. pp. 38–46
- Ibid. Hyperlink added.
- McRae, Mike. Tribal Science. (New York: Prometheus Books, 2012.) p. 224. Quote from uncorrected advance reading copy.
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