Propagandists everywhere misappropriate words to use in manners that benefit them and their agendas. For me, looking out at the natural world in a scientific manner, the most misappropriated word is skeptic (or for those of you who prefer the Queen’s English, sceptic). I previously disliked the word, actually quite a bit, because it had a negative connotation. But I’ve embraced it over the past few years, and I now get offended when it’s misused.
The problem with the word “skeptic” is that it is used differently in different circumstances, much like the word “theory” has a different meaning in a formal scientific context than it does in common vernacular. To the average person, a skeptic is a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions. In other words, this type of skeptic just doubts everything, whether or not that doubt is backed by any type of evidence. It’s not very meaningful in terms of scientific discussion, and it it carries little weight in a debate about the scientific merits of an idea or a scientific hypothesis. In ordinary usage, this type of skepticism has one of three meanings:
- an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
- the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
- the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics.
So global warming “skeptics” use this form of the word, in that they doubt that global warming is real, without being very scientific about it. Another, more annoying, misappropriation of “skeptic” is from a group called the Real Australian Sceptics, which is merely a front organization for the Australian anti-vaccination lunatic group called the Australian Vaccine Network. In both cases, they are misusing skepticism to try to invest some scientific legitimacy to their cause. This is actually the opposite of true scientific skepticism and is often called denialism, which is a culture of denying an established fact, scientific theory, scientific law or any of evidence supporting a well-established discipline. More often than not, this denialism occurs in spite of overwhelming evidence, and is almost always associated with motives of convenience to the denier. Denialism is often subject to and powered by confirmation bias.
On the other hand, scientific skepticism is the noble pursuit and accumulation of evidence, based on the scientific method, which is used to question and doubt claims and assertions. A scientific skeptic will hold the accumulation of evidence as fundamentally critical to the examination of claims. Moreover, a true skeptic does not accept all evidence as being equal in quality, but, in fact, will give more weight to evidence which is derived from the scientific method and less weight to poorly obtained and poorly scrutinized evidence.
In the world of real scientific skepticism, evidence published as a meta-review in a peer-reviewed, high impact factor journal far outweighs evidence in the form of anecdotes or confirmation bias that cherry picks data. Moreover, reproducibility, the hallmark of a good meta-review, and empirical research are valued above all other evidence. Finally, all claims that are to be advanced must be “scrutinized, tested, tortured to see if it really holds up.”
Now, a true scientific skeptic cannot be an expert on all fields, it’s just impossible, especially as the sciences have become more specialized and more complex as we answer more questions about the universe. However, a true skeptic can accept an expert’s conclusion, as long as that expert has long subjected themselves to scrutiny and have credentials that indicate that they themselves have gone through the torture of gaining an education and authority in a particular field. These individuals need not have degrees from Harvard or may be researchers at a small state university. It’s only that their research was done scientifically and holds up to the critical analysis of others.
I often state that if a science denier, whether it’s a creationist or anti-vaccinationist, wants to dispute the current consensus of science, evolution or the safety and efficacy of vaccines, then it cannot be done with a few hours on Google. You’re going to have to do the hard work. You’re going to have to get that college degree. You’re going to have to get a Ph.D. You’re going to have to spend your life devoted to high level research. You’re going to have to put up with being “scrutinized, tested and tortured.” And you’re going to have to publish it in a highly respected journal. That’s how evidence is added scientifically, not through ad hominem attacks, like “Dr. XYZ only published that because he is bought off by Big Pharma.” That’s not adding anything to the body of evidence, that’s just making stuff up.
Skepticism sometimes does have to Appeal to Authority, but only if that authority is an expert in the field questioned and only if their authority has been heavily critiqued, usually by their peers. It is a part of skepticism to weigh the value of evidence, specifically by the quality of the research done, and sometimes that’s from an authority on the topic. It is not arrogance to accept that an authority on the topic should be given much greater weight than an internet troll who has never lifted a finger in a scientific laboratory, it is just that the authority in the field has gone through the tough critical work to be an authority, and their research has been accepted by a broad consensus of other authorities. Someone surfing the internet to use as “evidence” is not undergoing the hard work of being scrutinized. It is not arrogant to believe a F1 driver can drive faster than you around a track, because they’ve been through the training, hard work, and harsh criticism of the checkered flag, not because they Googled “how to drive an F1 racing car very fast.”
Fundamentally, skepticism is the tougher, more harsh, form of scientific thought. It demands evidence and it challenges evidence about the nature of the universe, whether it’s how the universe began 13.8 billion years ago, or how a vaccine induces the immune system to protect against disease. A true skeptic demands not only that it be shown the evidence, but how it is derived. Real science is self correcting, and so is skepticism. For example, it does not mean that a skeptic should go on believing in a “fact” while ignoring evidence, nor should it deny the possibility that the conclusion is wrong. Skepticism requires an open mind, always challenging evidence, always accepting high value evidence, and never ignoring the possibility, even a tiny one, that maybe the idea is wrong. A denier, like vaccine or evolution deniers, have closed minds. They challenge evidence, but usually with logical fallacies rather than providing contradicting evidence. They reject high value evidence for evidence that rarely meets the standards of peer-review. And finally, though a denier might claim that they are open to the fact that they might be wrong, they reject scientific consensus and the value of high quality evidence, usually with the typical list of logical fallacies.
Carl Sagan‘s famous soundbite “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is an important feature of real scientific skepticism. The safety and efficacy of vaccines is supported by mountains of extraordinary evidence, from historical records to randomized clinical trials to epidemiological studies across broad swaths of patients. For example, the pseudoscientific claim that some vaccines cause autism has been debunked by extraordinary evidence. On the other hand, those who push this vaccine-autism link have provided no evidence, save for a retracted fraudulent study and some pathetic attempts at trying to show a link but only publishing in the lowest quality journals in the sciences. It’s important to note that not only do the skeptics have be convinced that an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, but the deniers have the same responsibility. If they’re going to say evolution doesn’t exist, or GMO crops cause cancer, or vaccines are more harmful than the disease it prevents, then they have to put up the extraordinary evidence. Because the deniers are making claims that go against the basic tenets of good science, one based on decades of outstanding research. It’s a matter of “put up or shut up.”
The most ironic observation about true skepticism vs denialism is that a true skeptic accepts the burden of proof. A true denier does not.
Steven Novella, one of the great skeptical minds of this generation (there are many, I’m just choosing one), describes skepticism succinctly:
A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.
A skeptic doesn’t care about the conclusion, it just cares how that conclusion was made, avoiding logical fallacies and irrational beliefs as best as it can. It is hard work. But the rewards are tremendous.