Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Skeptics Dilemma

One of the major burdens for the skeptical mind is to remain vigilant against the ever looming shadow of biased tendencies and selective beliefs carried in some form and degree by all humanity. These are powerful and natural urges tempting one to create a form of pseudo-intellectual comfort zone or world view that provides a foundation for irrational positions and unfounded beliefs.

This almost instinctual urge seems to be an integral part of how we as humans interpret and process the world around us. Our evolutionary make up is geared towards a high level of social interaction and symbolic reference which, without constant critical inquiry, can lead even the most skeptical among us down exceedingly irrational realms of belief, perception, and interpretation.

Skeptics are not immune to the plethora of fallacious reasoning that so infects much of present day thinking. This can be a heavy burden for a skeptic as the fact is we need to acknowledge that at best, we can only strive to be the “ideal” skeptic- that is put everything to the test of skeptical analysis. Basically, one way or the other, because we are human, there will always be a level of selectivity and bias in our outlook.

That said this admission is the very saving grace of skeptical reasoning allowing it to progress, change, and grow toward reality. Being aware of these human mental limitations puts the skeptic in a better position to minimize the numbing effects of irrationality and correct errors in thinking as they are discovered. This critical methodology of self doubt and constant assessment therefore opens the door for the true nature of the world to reveal itself. This is a just reward for any aspiring inquirer.

An example of the struggle to achieve balanced skepticism can be found in the realm of modern medicine. To some extent technical science based medicines, in many cases, have not only excluded implausible therapies, but also some crucial human emotional needs that are integral to clinical practice. The classical bedside manner and the human touch seem to have been disregarded to a degree. Therefore, care must be taken not to throw away the baby with the bath water.

Without the human balance to “soften” modern medicine, we run the risk of losing much of the well deserved respect modern medicine has achieved to a chaotic realm of irrational thought (much of alternative medicine) that is now attempting to falsely claim the banner of “humanism” as uniquely theirs. The danger here is that many medical institutions seem to be over correcting by embracing inappropriate practices that have little to offer other than placebo effects and false hope. Medicine is a particularly human endeavor wrought with pitfalls and potential problems and provides a real world example of the care we as skeptics need to carry while advancing the goal of truth.

However, an even more crucial issue confronting medicine and balanced skepticism in general for that matter is the lack of critical thinking tools in today’s society, an especially egregious problem with respect to the education of our youth.

In a recent CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) newsletter, James Alcock writes: Modern western societies have neglected the importance of teaching children the tools of critical thinking, while at the same time, popular culture has encouraged them to challenge every authority while treating their own opinions, informed or otherwise, as reliable sources of knowledge.”

For the skeptic, these are profound reminders of how easy it is to fall under the sway of inconsistent skeptism and intoxicating fallacious reasoning. Rinolo and Nisbet in the Skeptical Inquirer mention three fallacies that they considers most serious for skeptical thought: conformational bias, “confirming” evidence (the file drawer effect), and belief perseverance.

  • Conformational bias: “We all look for evidence that is consistent with our beliefs….and do not seek out discrediting evidence with the same vigor that we look for supporting evidence.”

  • “Confirming” evidence: “They (we) are apt to accept “confirming” evidence at face value while subjecting “dis confirming” evidence to critical evaluation.”

  • Belief confirmation: “…studies have demonstrated that it can be difficult to change a belief even when substantial discrediting information is provided.”

These basic biases are commonly associated with uncritical thinking but also affect, at times, the best of skeptics. By taking into account these potential pitfalls and continually self-correcting, skeptical inquiry will continue to thrive as a healthy and robust enterprise giving humanity the best chance to discover and advance truth. As Rinolo and Nisbet conclude: "Self-knowledge concerning our limitations is useful in two ways: it encourages intellectual humility and honesty and it keeps the daunting task of not falling prey to our particular certainties forthrightly in view."


Alcock, J. The appeal of alternative medicine. Skeptical Briefs. March 2007 vol(17), No.1

Rinolo, T, Nisbet, L. The myth of consistent skepticism. Skeptic Inquirer May/June 2007 vol (31) No.3


Pedro Morgado said...

In my blog, I reproduce a table with seven alternatives to evidence based medicine.

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wandering primate said...

pedro morgado said "...seven alternatives to evidense based medicne."

Very funny...thanks for the "hat tip"!

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