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The Virtuous Skeptic

Feature

Massimo Pigliucci

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.2, March/April 2017

What is skepticism? And how should a good skeptic approach her commitment to the field? These are crucial questions that most of us take for granted but that—I think—are worth pause to ponder and reevaluate from time to time. Which is what I intend to do in this article, introducing readers to an approach called “virtue epistemology,” which has much to say of relevance to the conscientious skeptic.

The ethos of the modern skeptical movement, the one that traces its origins to Paul Kurtz and others in the 1970s, is perhaps best encapsulated by the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” popularized by Carl Sagan but first articulated by Marcello Truzzi as “an extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary proof.” Both versions, in turn, owe much to two illustrious antecedents: Pierre-Simon Laplace, who in 1812 wrote: “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness,” and David Hume, who said in 1748: “A wise man . . . proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Skepticism has evolved over the past several decades, expanding the circle of its concerns and therefore the type of claims it considers “extraordinary” and thus in need of proportional evidence in order to be verified. Moreover, skepticism has developed nationally and internationally as a powerful grassroots movement for the advocacy of science and critical thinking more generally. Broadly speaking, we can distinguish between those areas of inquiry that fall under “classic” skepticism—which include astrology, UFOlogy, psychics, paranormal experiences, ghosts, Bigfoot, and the like—and those additional issues that have contributed to evolve contemporary skepticism: intelligent design creationism, vaccine denialism, climate change denialism, and so forth. Some skeptics have even ventured into criticism of areas of academic research and scholarship, such as the replicability issue in psychology and the social sciences, the debate about the value of string theory in physics, and the general usefulness of philosophy.

There are important differences among the three sets of topics I have just identified insofar as our average skeptical practitioner is concerned. When it comes to the first group (astrology, UFOlogy, etc.), skeptics have developed expertise of their own, arguably superior to that of your average scientist. It is more likely that a Joe Nickell or a James Randi will identify the problem with an alleged claim of paranormal activity than a scientist who is unfamiliar with fringe literature, the methodology of tricksters, or the unconscious biases that lead perfectly honest people to convince themselves that they have had an extraordinary experience.

The second group of topics (including especially the various forms of modern “denialism”) is trickier, as it requires a significantly deeper understanding of the underlying science. Here the skeptic can, at most, play a mediation role between the technical literature and the general public, but not really contribute directly herself to the research, unless of course she happens to be a medical researcher or an atmospheric physicist, for example.

The final group of topics (issues in psychological research, fundamental physics, philosophy) is, I maintain, so far outside of the realm of expertise of the average skeptic (unless, again, she happens to be a research psychologist, a particle physicist, or a philosopher) that the proper attitude is simply not to open one’s mouth and to let the experts sort it out. This may sound harsh and unpalatable, but we need to be honest with both ourselves and the public at large: none of us is an expert on everything, and knowing one’s own limitations is the beginning of wisdom, as Socrates famously reminded us. It also does a lot to enhance our credibility.

Humility and competence, then, are virtues that ought to be cultivated by any skeptic who wishes to intelligently comment on any of the three groups of issues I’ve outlined here. That is why skepticism would benefit enormously by a dip into the field of virtue epistemology. Let me explain.

Virtue Epistemology 101

Epistemology, of course, is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge and provides the criteria for evidential warrant—it tells us when it is, in fact, rational to believe or disbelieve a given notion. Virtue epistemology is a particular approach within the field of epistemology, which takes its inspiration from virtue ethics. The latter is a general way to think about ethics that goes back to Aristotle and other ancient Greek and Roman thinkers.

Briefly, virtue ethics shifts the focus from questions such as “Is this action right/wrong?” to “Is the character of this agent virtuous or not?” The idea is that morality is a human attribute, which has the purpose of improving our lives as individuals embedded in a broader society. As such, it does not yield itself to universal analyses that take a god’s eye–view of things, but rather starts with the individual as moral agent.

Similarly with science: contrary to widespread belief (even among skeptics and scientists), science cannot aspire to a completely neutral view from nowhere, because it is by its own nature a human activity and is therefore bound by the limits (epistemic and otherwise) that characterize human intelligence and agency.

The best way to think about this is that science irreducibly depends on specific human perspectives and provides us therefore only limited access to the world-in-itself. We can observe and explore the world with increasingly sophisticated tools, but we will always have a partial view of reality and a distorted understanding of it.

That’s why both the scientist and the skeptic can benefit from a virtue epistemological way of thinking: since scientific knowledge is irreducibly human, our focus should be on the human agent and the kind of practices that make it possible for her to arrive at the best approximation to the truth that is accessible to our species.

In practice, this means that we should be cultivating epistemic virtues and strive to stay away from epistemic vices. Here is a partial list of both (another useful list can be found in a classic essay, “Proper Criticism,” by Ray Hyman, 2001):

This, of course, is much easier said than done, something that Aristotle—a good connoisseur of human psychology—understood very well. Which is why he said that virtue begins with understanding what one ought or ought not to do but becomes entrenched only with much practice and endless corrections, allowing us to internalize its precepts.

So far our discussion has been rather theoretical, but skeptics (and scientists) are pragmatic people. They work best with actual examples that they can chew on and use for future reference. So let me present you two cases of failure of virtue epistemology on the part of skeptics, so that we can appreciate what is going on and how to do things better.

Case 1: In Defense of Astrology?

Back in the 1970s, Paul Feyerabend was a very controversial philosopher of science. He most famously wrote Against Method, in which he argued that there simply isn’t any such thing as the scientific method. Scientists are pragmatic knowledge seekers; they use whatever method works and discard it as soon as it stops working. This position (which is now more or less standard in the field) means that science is not reducible to a how-to algorithm, programmable in a computer. It also led Feyerabend to advocate “methodological anarchism,” the idea that we should let anyone pursue the truth however they like, regardless of initial plausibility or of the academic credentials of the individual. The good stuff will be selected in the open marketplace of ideas; the bad stuff will go away. (Methodological anarchism traces its ancestry back to John Stuart Mill, though it is not a mainstream view in philosophy, and for good reasons, but that’s another story.)

Feyerabend—shockingly from a skeptic’s perspective—at one point wrote in defense of astrology. Not because he believed astrology has any merit, but in reaction to a famous manifesto against it that was initiated by none other than Paul Kurtz and countersigned by 186 scientists.

The anti-astrology manifesto read, in part:

We, the undersigned—astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists in other fields—wish to caution the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers. . . . In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. . . . Why do people believe in astrology? In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions.

Surprisingly, Carl Sagan himself declined to sign the manifesto, explaining:

I struggled with [the manifesto’s] wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign, not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt . . . that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from, but what is its present validity. . . . Then there was speculation on the psychological motivations of those who believe in astrology. These motivations . . . might explain why astrology is not generally given the skeptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to whether it works. . . . The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it’s unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift . . . when it was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the first quarter of the twentieth century to explain a range of puzzling data in geology and paleontology.(Sagan 1976)

Feyerabend was even harsher:

The learned gentlemen have strong convictions, they use their authority to spread these convictions (why 186 signatures if one has arguments?), they know a few phrases which sound like arguments, but they certainly do not know what they are talking about. . . . [The manifesto] shows the extent to which scientists are prepared to assert their authority even in areas in which they have no knowledge whatsoever. . . . It is interesting to see how closely both parties [i.e., astrologers and their critics] approach each other in ignorance, conceit and the wish for easy power over minds. (Feyerabend 1978)

Both Sagan’s and Feyerabend’s points were not that there is any substance to astrology—they both knew better than that—but that it matters how one approaches public criticism of pseudoscience. One must do it virtuously, by taking one’s opponents’ arguments seriously, engaging with them and deploying logic and evidence against them. One must also not simply attempt to use the weight of authority to squash a displeasing notion, because that would be intellectually unvirtuous. Although Sagan and Feyerabend did not use the language of virtue epistemology, they called for the scientists to behave better than the pseudoscientists, and rightly so.

Case 2: The Campeche UFOs

My second example concerns a famous sighting of alleged UFOs over the Mexican state of Campeche on March 5, 2004, a case investigated by Robert Sheaffer for the Skeptical Inquirer (see Sheaffer 2008). The basic facts are these: That night, a reconnaissance aircraft of the Mexican government was flying over the states of Campeche and Chiapas, looking for evidence of drug smuggling. The crew videotaped the appearance of up to eleven unidentified objects that were visible only in the infrared. However, despite initial claims to the contrary, a local radar installation could not verify the sighting.

As soon as the local press reported the incident, there was an unfortunate rush of half-baked skeptic “solutions,” all equally unfounded: according to local astronomer Jose de la Herrin, the UFOs were really meteor fragments; but for Dr. Julio Herrera of Mexico’s National Autonomous University they were electrical flares in the atmosphere; not so in the opinion of Rafael Navarro, also of the National Autonomous University, who thought it was clearly sparks of plasma energy; by contrast, the Urania Astronomical Society of Morelos declared the objects to be a group of weather balloons. The Campeche UFOs, alas, were none of those things. Actual investigation—instead of armchair skepticism—by Sheaffer revealed them to be stationary objects on the ground, over the distant horizon—specifically, flares erupting from a group of oil wells.

In this case, too, it seems, the a priori “knowledge” of some skeptics (the phenomenon couldn’t possibly be what it was purported to be) led to rather unvirtuous, completely unfounded in facts, “explanations” that had the only effect of tarnishing the reputation of the alleged skeptics themselves.

A Checklist for the Virtuous Skeptic

So what is the big deal here? The problem is that skepticism shares its core values with science, and such values include intellectual honesty, epistemic humility, and a number of other virtues. What is supposed to separate us from creationists, climate change deniers, and all the rest is not that we happen to be (mostly, often) right and they aren’t. It is that we really seek the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. This means we do the hard work of carrying out research; we don’t just sit on a collective arse and pontificate.

To make sure of this, I suggest two things: first, a push toward a peer review system within the skeptic community modeled on the one used by scientists. Peer review has its own shortcomings (ask the psychological and medical communities), but having one’s work checked by someone else is a first step toward improving the quality of what we publish. Second, here is a handy checklist for the aspiring virtuous skeptic to keep in mind whenever we are debunking the (alleged) nonsense du jour:

Virtue ethics is supposed to focus us on improving ourselves as moral agents. So, most of all, let us strive to live by Aristotle’s own words: “Humility requires us to honor truth above our friends.”



References and Further Readings

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York–Lehman College, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. His essays can be found at rationallyspeaking.org.