Here is a third excerpt drawn from Part Two of my two-chapter “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF), which follows my two previous posts: first (in their original order as they appear in the larger piece) “Modern Skepticism’s Unique Mandate” and then “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption.’” Today we’ll consider an issue which has been addressed in the past by Ray Hyman, Massimo Pigliucci, and other internal critics concerned with the quality and responsibility of skeptical efforts: the dangers of speaking beyond one’s expertise.
Skeptics are Not Everythingologists
Accepting that any and all “testable claims” are in principle within the scope of scientific skepticism—and that untestable claims are, for reasons of principle (though also practicality) outside that scope—does it follow that skeptics should take the initiative to wade into mainstream scientific or academic controversies? Certainly we have often explored controversial areas beyond the paranormal, provided that those areas made testable claims. “The Skeptics also believe that science and rational skepticism can and should be applied to certain claims in the social sciences,” affirmed Michael Shermer in 1992, “including testable statements made in such fields as psychology, sociology, economics, and political science.”1
But does this broad critical exploration have practical limits? Reading a blog post about the scope of skepticism, I once happened to notice this sentiment expressed in one commenter’s response: “the skeptical movement should strive to become the Snopes of all reality.” Of all reality? This caught my eye—not only because it seems a little ambitious, but because I have often heard similar sentiments in recent years. In 2006, for example, CSICOP co-founder Paul Kurtz attempted to reposition the venerable organization as standing for “science, reason, and free inquiry in every area of human interest.”2 Not to put too fine a point on it (and of course Kurtz understood this practical issue3) but there are a lot of areas of human interest. Even assuming the “limited” scope of testable claims (a scope some newer skeptics are loathe to accept) it’s worth asking what such a sprawling mandate—essentially, the critical study of every knowable fact—looks like in practical terms.
For centuries, skeptics have regarded it as a very bad sign when otherwise smart people weigh in on expert topics outside their own areas of expertise. In 1672, Pseudodoxia Epidemica [or, Enquiries into Commonly Presumed Truths, also known as Vulgar Errors] author Thomas Browne included this among his many warnings about arguments from authority.
Again, a testimony is of small validity if deduced from men outside of their own profession; so if Lactantius affirm the figure of the Earth is plain, or Austin deny there are antipodes; though venerable Fathers of the Church, and ever to be honored, yet will not their Authorities prove sufficient to ground a belief thereon.4
Lactantius was a flat-Earth-believing Christian advisor to the Roman Emperor Constantine, singled out centuries later for a sharp rebuke by Copernicus. In 1543, Copernicus wrote that he would disregard sniping from “babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject,” and scathingly noted that “Lactantius, otherwise an illustrious writer but hardly an astronomer, speaks quite childishly about the earth’s shape, when he mocks those who declared that the earth has the form of a globe. Hence scholars need not be surprised if any such persons will likewise ridicule me. Astronomy is written for astronomers.”5
Modern skeptics are very familiar with outsider contrarianism, and with the mischief it can cause. Hardly a day goes by here at Skeptic magazine without our getting letters from non-experts who feel they have blown the lid off evolution, Relativity, or some other major scientific theory or branch of expert knowledge. In 2006, for example, we received a press release asking, “What if the next groundbreaking discovery that changes the way we view science and geology is spearheaded by someone outside the field?” The release promoted the idiosyncratic view of comic book artist Neal Adams, who believes “that the Earth was once smaller and somehow it grew. The surface, or crust, simply cracked apart, and the cracks opened up, producing new thin surface, a young surface. In this case the continents didn’t move at all. They stayed where they were and moved outward.”6 As an illustrator myself (and a comics fan) I can attest that Mr. Adams earned every bit of his luminous professional reputation—but his profession is illustration, not geology. Expertise in one field does not make us experts in other, unrelated fields. Similarly outside their fields are hydrologists who attempt to debunk evolution, actors who seek to overturn the conventional view of the 9/11 events, comedians who promote contrarian theories about alleged new side effects of vaccination, and even famous biologists who deny the existence of HIV without benefit of relevant specialization. In all such cases, the combination of contrarian opinions, high certainty, and insufficient domain specific expertise adds up to a major, screaming red flag. Paleontologist Donald Prothero has termed the phenomenon of respected scientists blundering beyond their field of knowledge “the Linus Pauling Effect”:
The great Linus Pauling may have won two Nobel Prizes, but his crazy idea that megadoses of Vitamin C would cure nearly everything seems to have died with him. William Shockley may have won a Nobel for his work on transistors, but his racist ideas about genetics (a field in which he had no expertise) should never have been taken seriously. Kary Mullis may have deserved his Nobel Prize for developing the polymerase chain reaction, but that gives him no qualifications to speak with authority on his unscientific ideas about AIDS denial and global warming and astrology….7
So where does that leave us? Are self-identified skeptics less likely to make fools of ourselves when commenting outside our personal areas of expertise—perhaps by virtue of our interest in “critical thinking”? Unfortunately, the opposite may be true. Critical thinking is not a substitute for expert knowledge, no matter how much skeptics, creationists, 9/11 Truthers, or deniers of climate science might wish that it were. Applying strong critical thinking skills to insufficient knowledge leads us to perceive patterns and problems that don’t really exist. Most pseudoscience arises from such feral critical thinking. “It would never be healthy for ‘skeptics’ to be more skeptical than the scientific community itself,” Kendrick Frazier cautioned.8 Skeptics who venture beyond the limits of our own expert knowledge are at least as vulnerable to becoming pseudoscientific cranks as anyone else. As Ray Hyman warned,
No one, especially in our times, can credibly claim to be an expert on all subjects. Whenever possible, you should consult appropriate experts. We, understandably, are highly critical of paranormal claimants who make assertions that are obviously beyond their competence. We should be just as demanding on ourselves. A critic’s worst sin is to go beyond the facts and the available evidence.9
Individually, skeptics are qualified for whatever we’re actually qualified for—and nothing more. Some individual skeptics, of course, are scientists or scholars with the expertise to offer professional contributions to the technical literature within their own fields, but most of us are mere science enthusiasts. Collectively, the skeptical community is a mixed population made up largely of scientific amateurs. For that reason (as I argued in a 2009 article, “What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?”10) the skeptical movement has essentially no ability to contribute responsibly to the mainstream scientific literature, nor to resolve expert scientific controversies. The best we can hope to contribute in areas of genuine scientific knowledge is useful description. My children’s book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be is such a descriptive project. What I aimed to do in the book was to describe what qualified scientists think. To do that, I had to seek out and describe the prevailing current of opinion, and then ask experts to check that I understood it correctly. That may not sound like much, but it took some doing. It’s important to understand that occupations which “merely” describe the goings on within “only” the empirical scope of science—such as science journalism, science education, and science communication—are themselves established fields, each with an expert literature, university degree programs, and so on. In those expert fields, most skeptics (myself included) are amateurs.
Skeptics are not everythingologists. The idea that skeptics can shed light on every area of human endeavor is a hubristic daydream. But that does not mean we can’t be experts on some things—even the best available experts. Which things, exactly?
How about, “Testable pseudoscientific and paranormal claims”?
For those interested in following these arguments in their original order, today’s piece is preceded by first “Modern Skepticism’s Unique Mandate” and then “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption.’” Together, these comprise the first three subsections from Part Two of “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF).
- Shermer, Michael. “The Scope of Skepticism.” Skeptic, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1992. pp. 10–11
- Kurtz, Paul. “New Directions for Skeptical Inquiry.” Csicop.org. December 4, 2006 http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/new_directions_for_skeptical_inquiry/ (Accessed July 28, 2011)
- Not surprisingly, Kurtz was aware of the practical limits. In 1999, he argued that while “Skeptical inquiry in principle should apply equally to economics, politics, ethics, and indeed to all fields of human interest,” in practice “we cannot possibly evaluate each and every claim to truth that arises.” Kurtz, Paul. “Should Skeptical Inquiry Be Applied to Religion?” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 23, No. 4. July/Aug 1999. pp. 24–28
- Browne, Thomas. Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or Enquiries into Commonly Presumed Truths. 1672. (Benediction Classics: Oxford, 2009.) p. 36
- Copernicus quote from the Preface of his Revolutions. http://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/year-text-Copernicus.html (Accessed Aug 2, 2011)
- Press release from SSA Public Relations dated March 1, 2006. Emailed to Skeptic, April 4, 2006. The comment I’ve quoted from the release may be a paraphrase of Mr. Adams, but I believe that it accurately describes his views. For more, see http://www.nealadams.com/nmu.html or listen to his interview on Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast episode #51 http://media.libsyn.com/media/skepticsguide/skepticast2006-07-12.mp3 (Accessed August 2, 2011)
- Prothero, Donald. “The Linus Pauling Effect.” Skepticblog.org. April 13, 2011. http://skepticblog.org/2011/04/13/the-linus-pauling-effect/ (Accessed August 2, 2011)
- Frazier. (2001) Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 25, No. 4. p. 50
- Hyman, Ray. “Proper Criticism.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 25, No. 4. July / August 2001. pp. 53–55
- Loxton, Daniel. “What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?” Skepticblog.org. Dec 22, 2009. http://skepticblog.org/2009/12/22/what-if-anything-can-skeptics-say-about-science/ (Accessed August 2, 2011)